So Much To Learn: 2011 RCL Youth Leaders’ Pilgrimage Of Remembrance

November 7, 2011 by Tom MacGregor
The pilgrims form up at the Dieppe Canadian War Cemetery. [PHOTO: TOM MacGREGOR]

The pilgrims form up at the Dieppe Canadian War Cemetery.

Guns fired in the distance as the 26 members of The Royal Canadian Legion’s Youth Leaders’ Pilgrimage of Remembrance stepped off the coach amid endless rows of potatoes and other vegetables in Belgium. These were not the guns of long past battles, but merely the propane gas guns that randomly fire to scare away birds from the maturing crops that rise from the First World War battlefields.

Still, the sounds of battle were in the pilgrims’ minds as tour guide John Goheen stood under an unassuming sign commemorating the events of Kitcheners Wood during the First World War.

When the Germans used gas for the first time in the war, it was aimed at French and colonial troops who were unable to hold their line. A six-kilometre gap opened in the Allies’ line protecting the city of Ypres whose tower on the ancient Cloth Hall could be seen in the distance.

With this gap, the Germans were able to move into Kitcheners Wood, named not for the military leader, but because French troops had kept their kitchens there. It was here, on April 22, 1915, where the Canadians were called upon to close the gap. In a nighttime attack they ran into hedges interlaced with wire which they had to break through with their rifle butts. The surprise was lost and the enemy opened fire. Still, the Canadians charged forward, taking the position.

“It was amazing that they even reached the Germans and then fought them in hand-to-hand combat,” said Goheen. They withstood two counterattacks the next day.

Not far away, on April 24, the Germans again used poison gas—this time targeting the Canadian line. Again the Canadians held their position, but casualties were in the thousands. “The Canadians saved Ypres. If it had not been for the Canadians on those few days in April 1915, it would have been a very different war, indeed,” explained Goheen.

That same day the pilgrims would visit the remarkable St. Julien Memorial at Vancouver Corner, where the Canadians withstood the gas attack. Its striking granite shaft rises 11 metres in the air with the top featuring the figure of a brooding soldier with head bowed and hands folded, resting on arms reversed.

The group would also visit Essex Farm Cemetery where an exhausted, saddened soldier-surgeon named John McCrae wrote In Flanders Fields after the death of his friend, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer of the Canadian Field Artillery.

Joining VAC’s Arlene King at the Beaumont Hamel Memorial are Newfoundlanders (from left) Silas and Jacqueline Thompson and Ed Fewer. [PHOTO: TOM MacGREGOR]

Joining VAC’s Arlene King at the Beaumont Hamel Memorial are Newfoundlanders (from left) Silas and Jacqueline Thompson and Ed Fewer.

This was the Ypres Salient, defended by the allies throughout the war. Although the Germans got within a couple of kilometres of the town of Ypres, it was never taken. However, by war’s end, it was in ruins from constant bombardment.

Throughout the area, the land is flat, so even the smallest ridge was fiercely defended for its advantage over any attacker. “It’s flat like Saskatchewan,” said farmer Joe Wilson of Carlyle, Sask. “It’s the only province where you can watch your daughter run away from home for two weeks.”

Wilson’s comment was a bit of levity shared by the participants of the July 9-23 pilgrimage.

Led by Dominion Vice-President Tom Eagles of Plaster Rock, N.B., who was a pilgrim himself in 1992 and is now chairman of the Dominion Command Poppy and Remembrance Committee, the group consisted of 10 representatives, one from each of the commands, along with spouses and other paying guests travelling by coach from Paris to Oosterbeek, on the outside of Arnhem in the Netherlands. Throughout the journey the group would stop at farmers’ fields, country roads, memorials and Commonwealth war cemeteries to grapple with the events of two world wars which brought so many young Canadians to this part of the world.

The group flew from Toronto to Paris and then was driven to Caen. During supper, Eagles and tour co-ordinator Bill Maxwell of Dominion Command introduced the group. Eagles set the tone by talking of his own first experiences seeing such sights in Europe. He then performed a short duty on behalf of Governor General David Johnston.

After reading an introduction from the Governor General, Eagles presented the Commander-in-Chief Unit Commendation to British Columbia/Yukon Command representative Aaron Bedard. “From January to August 2006, the 1st Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry Battle Group was engaged in almost continuous combat with a well prepared and determined insurgent force in Afghanistan,” Eagles read. “During 29 major operations, the flexibility and remarkable cohesion shown by members of the battle group enabled them to overcome many hardships to suppress Taliban activity, to secure coalition forces’ freedom of movement and to deliver humanitarian assistance throughout Kandahar province.”

At the Vimy Memorial are (from left) Jacqueline Thompson, Joyce Phillips, Patricia Duffy, Scott Briand, Jean-Pierre Asselin, Dominion Vice-President Tom Eagles, Bill Maxwell, George DeRabbie, Dorothy Butler, Connie Wilson, Sheila Donner and Aaron Bedard. [PHOTO: TOM MacGREGOR]

At the Vimy Memorial are (from left) Jacqueline Thompson, Joyce Phillips, Patricia Duffy, Scott Briand, Jean-Pierre Asselin, Dominion Vice-President Tom Eagles, Bill Maxwell, George DeRabbie, Dorothy Butler, Connie Wilson, Sheila Donner and Aaron Bedard.

Bedard has since left the military with a spinal injury, but spends much of his time speaking to youth about his experiences serving as a combat engineer with the PPCLI.

Also among the pilgrims were Sheila Donner of Medicine Hat, representing Alberta-Northwest Territories Command, Connie Wilson of Tisdale, Sask.; Dorothy Butler of Winnipeg; George DeRabbie of Acton, Ont.; Jean-Pierre Asselin of Chicoutimi, Que.; Patricia Duffy of Bathurst, N.B.; Joyce Phillips of Breadalbane, P.E.I.; Scott Briand of Lower Sackville, N.S.; and Jacqueline Thompson of Grand Falls-Windsor, Nfld.

Among the paying guests were Clayton and Cindy Saunders, respectively the president and secretary of New Brunswick Command; Wayne Donner, Sheila’s husband and the first vice of Alberta-N.W.T. Command; and Jack Wilson, Connie’s father. Joyce Philips was accompanied by her husband, Gord Phillips; and George and Estelle Dalton who are all involved in the Lest We Forget Committee on Prince Edward Island which brings veterans and students together. Alice DeRabbie and Silas Thompson were joining their spouses. Ed Fewer of Grand Falls-Windsor, Nfld., was on his third Legion pilgrimage.

The first days centred on triumphant themes as the group toured north of Caen to Juno Beach where approximately 14,500 Canadians came ashore on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Although they succeeded on establishing a beachhead, the Canadians suffered 1,074 casualties that day. Of those, 359 were fatal.

The pilgrims walked beaches near Bernières-sur-Mer where they viewed the distinctive house which had served as a landmark for troops coming ashore. Today, it commemorates the valour of the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada.

At Courseulles-sur-Mer the group visited the Juno Beach Centre which helps tell the story of Canada’s involvement throughout the Second World War.

Scott Briand reads the Naval Prayer at Dieppe. [PHOTO: TOM MacGREGOR]

Scott Briand reads the Naval Prayer at Dieppe.

The mood grew more sombre that afternoon at the Abbaye d’Ardenne where a memorial in the garden pays tribute to the 20 members of the North Nova Scotia Highlanders, 27th Canadian Armoured Regiment and the Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders who were captured, interrogated and then executed by the Germans just after D-Day.

It was here that the group performed its first remembrance ceremony. The night before, it had gone through the rules for the 13 ceremonies it would perform. Everyone would have the opportunity to participate in all of the ceremonial roles. There would be a sergeant-at-arms and a colour party carrying the Maple Leaf, the Red Ensign, Union Jack, United Nations, North Atlantic Treaty Organization and Legion flags. At least one wreath would be placed at each service. A recording of O Canada, Last Post, the silence, the lament and Reveille would be played and someone would recite the Act of Remembrance.

The group then turned its attention to the disaster at Dieppe in 1942. The pilgrimage left Caen and went directly to Pourville and Puys, the two flanking beaches intended to be taken early on the morning of Aug. 19 to neutralize the German defences before the assault on the main beach at Dieppe. Unfortunately, the defences were not neutralized, making the slaughter of those going ashore inevitable.

One has only to walk along the stony beach of Dieppe and study the towering cliffs where vestiges of reinforced concrete bunkers can be seen to visualize how the guns would have rained down on those coming ashore. Bedard noted, “With the crossfire from three different angles, it would be a perfect kill zone.”

It was in Dieppe that the pilgrims paid tribute to those lost at sea. An informal ceremony on the pier offered a clear view of the beach and the headlands. Butler, who had served in the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service after the war, tossed a wreath into the sea during the service. The other pilgrims then tossed small wooden crosses—made and painted by students at the Aurora Charter School in Edmonton—onto the choppy water. As the wreath bobbed and at first drifted toward shore, a few of the crosses seemed caught into the pull of the wreath and formed a circle around it before wreath and crosses drifted out into the English Channel.

Pilgrims walk along Juno Beach. [PHOTO: TOM MacGREGOR]

Pilgrims walk along Juno Beach.

Early the next morning, Goheen met some members on the beach and—at 5:20 a.m.—toasted the Canadians who came ashore at that time in 1942. As the light appeared in the east, the group raised a glass of spirits and said, “To the men of Dieppe.”

Leaving Dieppe, the group’s thoughts turned to the First World War and the Battle of the Somme which occurred 95 years ago.

Nowhere is the tragedy of the Somme remembered more solemnly than at Beaumont Hamel. On July 1, 1916, the first day of the battle, the Newfoundland Regiment was ordered over the top in a futile daylight charge against a well entrenched enemy. Of the 801 who went over the top, only 68 could answer roll call the next day. Most had died or been wounded within 15 minutes.

That battleground is now a Canadian national park. Although lush and green, the landscape has been left as it was, pockmarked with the trenches and shell holes. On a mound above it all is a bronze caribou, the symbol of the regiment.

The pilgrims were joined in their remembrance service by Arlene King, VAC’s program adviser for European Operations, and a Canadian guide. The colour party, which was augmented for this one occasion by the Newfoundland flag carried by Bedard, moved along the preserved trench to the base of the caribou monument. After the Act of Remembrance was read, the pilgrims were taken by surprise as King and the guide began singing Ode To Newfoundland. “That added something special to the service,” said Silas Thompson.

The group would spend the next several days touring sights on the Somme, culminating with a ceremony and an extensive tour of the Canadian National Vimy Memorial Park. There, beneath the towering white stone monument, the group held a formal ceremony. On the monument are 11,285 names of Canadians who fought and died in France with no known graves.

The pilgrims later met up with the Canadian Forces contingent for the Nijmegen Marches. Each year, the Legion’s Dominion Command provides a grant to the CF so that Canadians can go to the memorial and place a wreath. The marchers were eager to have their photo taken with the pilgrims.

The landmark house on Juno Beach pays tribute to the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada. [PHOTO: TOM MacGREGOR]

The landmark house on Juno Beach pays tribute to the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada.

In Ypres, the group held a ceremony beneath the Menin Gate commemorating the nearly 55,000 dead of the armies of the British Commonwealth who fell in Belgium and have no known graves. Of those, 6,940 are Canadians. Every night at sunset, all traffic through the busy gateway is halted while buglers from the fire department come forward and play the Last Post and their own version of a rouse. On this occasion several thousand spectators gathered, mostly groups of British schoolchildren.

The Legion colour party and the rest of the delegation marched into the centre of the square and took their positions. The buglers played and then Eagles came forward and read the Act of Remembrance, its solemn words resounding through the great arches. The Legion placed the first wreath, followed by waves of students bringing forth wreaths on behalf of their schools.

The group poses with a Sherman tank at Oosterbeek. [PHOTO: TOM MacGREGOR]

The group poses with a Sherman tank at Oosterbeek.

The pilgrims again picked up the story of the Second World War as they moved into the Netherlands with ceremonies at Bergen-op-Zoom, Holten and Groesbeek war cemeteries. At Holten Canadian War Cemetery, Eagles and his wife, Cheryl, made a rubbing of the headstone for Samuel Glazier Porter of the Carleton and York Regiment. “He was Cheryl’s uncle and it was a very emotional experience for her—something she will never forget,” said Tom. Porter died on April 15, 1945, just a few weeks before the war in Europe ended.

During a farewell dinner in Paris, Ed Fewer said, “I know how I felt on my first pilgrimage. You go home and one day, a few days later, you just shake yourself and ask, ‘What have I just been through?’ You have learned so much and yet there is so much more to learn.”

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