by Mac Johnston
Standing at the Vimy Memorial in France, the youth leaders are: (front, from left): Marcus Munro of Elkford, B.C., Keith Raike of Deer Lake, Nfld., Louise Chapdelaine of Waterloo, Que., Lester Davison of Kensington, P.E.I., Mark Christiansen of Thunder Bay, Ont., Andréa Villeneuve of Timmins, Ont., (rear) Terry Brideau of Val-Comeau, N.B., Marina Clayton-Theriault of Windsor, N.S., Kathleen Salt of Slave Lake, Alta., and Leo Twerdin of Iqaluit, Nunavut.
In its continuing quest to spread the concept of remembrance to generations untouched by war, The Royal Canadian Legion has over the years developed some valuable tools that generate personal involvement in remembrance.The most prominent is the poppy, symbol of both remembrance and the annual poppy campaign that strikes a chord with the Canadian public and raises funds in support of veterans and others who have served. Another useful tool is the annual literary and poster contest in schools nationwide.
But, for an intense level of personal involvement, nothing tops the Legion’s Youth Leaders Pilgrimage of Remembrance to World War I and II battle sites, memorials and war cemeteries in England, France, Belgium and the Netherlands.
The 2001 pilgrimage from July 5-19 was led by Dominion Vice-President Clarence King, chairman of the Leadership, Development and Youth Committee. The 10 pilgrims were all adults age 40 or younger who have some involvement with youth. Each was selected by his/her command and is expected to prepare a presentation and speak to various groups.
“If you’re going to be one of the preachers of remembrance, you have to experience some of it and this is what we’re doing with the pilgrims,” King explained. “They are here to learn and hopefully communicate their experiences…to the people back home and further our program of remembrance…. As time goes, as we go farther down the road, we need this walk down history lane where things took place so that we can preach the gospel of remembrance….
“At Dominion Command we’ve invested a fair price in remembrance,” King added. “The pilgrimage program is budgeted at $40,000 a year.” The pilgrimage occurs every second year and is evaluated by the committee so that it evolves as improvements are made. This time, for example, he said, “we cut down on the number of hotel stops, which not only gives you more time to travel in a given area but is also easier on the pilgrims themselves.”
Tour guide John Goheen, 35, of Port Coquitlam, B.C., was the Pacific Command pilgrim in 1995 and the tour guide in ’97 and ’99. A middle school teacher whose passion has been history since he was a small child, Goheen once spent “a solid month, no days off, seven days a week, from dawn to dusk,” in Europe researching Canada’s military history. He has developed a personal library of about 1,000 history books and said: “Having seen three pilgrimages, there’s always a high interest…. I think generally, just talking to the pilgrims, most of them do seem to have read and have a pretty good background compared to the general population, so I think their interest is there and I think this will only pique it.”
Designing a trip like this presents many challenges for there’s almost no end of places to go and things to see, but Goheen achieved the difficult task of developing a balanced itinerary. The pilgrimage did a great job of getting off the main highways and onto the byways of history, particularly in northern France for WW I and Normandy for WW II. At each major site, Goheen provided an orientation for the pilgrims.
Take our visit to Verrières Ridge in Normandy, France, scene of a major battle in July 1944. Goheen said, in part: “The high ground in this area was the Canadian 2nd Division’s objective in General (Bernard) Montgomery’s overall plan to break out towards Falaise and, if possible, divert German attention and resources from the American breakout to the west.
“Operation Spring was the name for the initial phase of the breakout and this ridge was to be taken on the first night. Part of the plan called for St-Martin, St-Andre and May sur Orne to be secured and a start line determined for the attack on the ridge proper by the Black Watch.
“With reports that these villages are cleared, the Black Watch move towards their start positions on the night of July 24 but find that the Germans are still very much around. Unknown to the Canadians, the ridge and surrounding villages, like St-Andre, where the Black Watch are to start, are honeycombed with underground tunnels from the many iron mining operations in the area. The Germans use these tunnels and are able to infiltrate small groups behind and into Canadian positions.
“On the night of the 24th, the Black Watch lose their commanding officer and their most senior company commander when they enter St-Martin and come under enemy fire. The Black Watch had received reports the village had been cleared of Germans when they in fact had simply hidden in the tunnels….
“…Command of the Black Watch falls to 26-year-old Major Phil Griffin whose orders are to take the ridge the morning of the 25th. As H Hour approaches, Griffin’s start line is still under enemy fire from behind in St-Andre and St-Martin; the tanks which are to support his men are nowhere to be found….
“…The entire battalion, about 330 men, emerges from the wheat and moves forward up the ridge. Despite fierce fire from machine-guns, tanks and artillery, few Black Watch go for cover. The advance moves forward but the cost is becoming heavy…. Griffin and his men keep moving. By the time they reach the crest, he and about 60 men are all that are left. They are seen going over the crest of the ridge and then run into a German strongpoint and are wiped out….”
Also powerful was the presence of two WW II veterans among the small number of paying customers. Charles McArthur, 84, of Cambridge, Ont., and Raymond Hughson, 83, of Manitowaning, Ont., each lost a brother in that conflict and each was returning to pay his respects. Their presence helped to personalize war for the youth leaders.
McArthur served mainly in the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals, including overseas service in the coding section at Canadian Military Headquarters in London. At war’s end he was an acting sergeant. Supported by his son Brian, a senior Royal Bank executive who flew over from Toronto for three days, Charles McArthur placed a wreath during the Legion service at Bény-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery. “It was sure something to have him here,” he confided later. “I don’t think I could have made it alone…. This man is a tough man in business and here he stood beside me and cried. I’ve never seen the boy cry as a man. I never could have read it (the act of remembrance).”
The son and the father then visited the grave of his brother, Private Ken McArthur of the Highland Light Infantry of Canada, killed in action on July 8, 1944, at age 20. “My feelings were enormous, the quietness, the solitude, looking at the tremendous amount of stones there, you get a sense of the enormous price that was paid for the freedom that we have,” Charles said. “But it seems good. Listen to the birds. I’ve never heard so many birds…. And if there is a God in heaven, I’m sure he made them sing for us.”
Raymond Hughson, assisted by his son Lynn, placed a wreath at Bretteville-sur-Laize Canadian War Cemetery and visited the grave of his younger brother Pte. Eric Hughson: “Very, very touching. I managed to hold my tears back,” he said later.
His brother was the baby of the family and Raymond joined up to protect him. “They called me Mark I and him Mark II,” he said. The two were privates in the same platoon in the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry, but Raymond was on another task when Eric was killed by machine-gun fire on Aug. 12, 1944, at age 19.
The trip left an indelible impression on the pilgrims, who commented individually on their personal reactions.
Kathleen Salt, 26, is a member of Slave Lake, Alta., Branch. A teacher who brings her grandmother to her classroom each November with her grandad’s medals, beret and letters home, she said: “It’s much more than I imagined. The history is unbelievable and the guide has done such a good job of making it so much more real. It’s going to be so much easier to relay it to other people based on what I’ve seen…. It’s an excellent program. I think more people should be able to take advantage of it than just the people that are here. I understand that it’s costly, but definitely worth the cost.”
Terry Brideau, 40, of Tracadie, N.B., Branch, was in the regular force. Now a vending technician, he is commanding officer of a cadet squadron. He said: “…I’ve learned so many things in the past two weeks and it’s been exhausting, not in a physical way, but in an emotional way. One of the things I’ve been impressed with is the remembrance that has been passed on to the youth in Europe. It’s amazing how much the parents will bring their youth and explain to them what happened…and this is going on from generation to generation…. It’s definitely a good program as long as the pilgrims are keeping it alive…. The Legion is doing its share, the Dominion is doing its share, but us pilgrims we have to do our share afterwards and keep this program alive.”
Mark Christiansen, 32, of Port Arthur Branch in Thunder Bay, Ont., works with the local police alternate response centre. A military collector and advocate for veterans, he said: “…It’s been very moving. For example, at the Menin Gate in Ypres it was really touching to see that these people gather every day, 365 days a year, to remember those who gave their lives. Seeing places like Dieppe, the many cemeteries, the many names and also how over here they’ve preserved the traditions, the memories, the sacrifices of so many that were made so many years ago. And they still continue to and I think that we as Canadians could learn a lot and I think also we could show our youth back home….”
Keith Raike, 34, of Deer Lake Branch, served five years in the regular force and is now a Newfoundland highway enforcement inspector. The president of the local Navy League, he said: “I’m finding the trip very emotional. The biggest emotions for me were at Beaumont Hamel (the Newfoundland memorial)…. It was a place I’ve wanted to visit for years and to place a wreath there was an honour I’ll never forget…. I’ve also gained a lot more knowledge, a lot more understanding of the areas that were fought in, plus more of what the soldiers went through…. I want to share it with the cadets. A lot of our Legionnaires are getting so they can’t get around to the schools any longer and more people are needed to do this.”
Andréa Villeneuve, 40, is second vice-president of Timmins, Ont., Branch and Zone K-3 commander. She has served in the regular force and the militia. Now a team leader for a disability unit at the Canada Pension Plan, she’s involved with air cadets and is a group leader in the Duke of Edinburgh Youth Awards program. She said: “…You hear about what happened in WW I and WW II, but…to know that you’re walking where they’ve walked, walking where they fought, it really is an unforgettable experience…. The other thing I found is that it’s so nice to know that the resting places are so peaceful, so serene. I think that’s what touched me the most and how everything is so well taken care of.”
Lester Davison, 26, is an executive member of Lieutenant-Colonel E.W. Johnstone Branch in Kensington, P.E.I., and deputy zone commander. A lobster fisherman, he’s on the poppy and youth committees and visits area schools. He said: “When you come and see these gravesites and actually see that these men have died for the pleasures we have today…it’s been very emotional for me…. Standing on the cliff at Dieppe, it was hard to look down at the beach…. It’s given me more enthusiasm to promote the Legion and Remembrance Day to our kids back at home because they just don’t understand it. I didn’t fully understand until I got here.”
Leo Twerdin, 23, of Frobisher Branch in Iqaluit, Nunavut, is training officer of the branch-sponsored air cadet corps. The assistant airport manager is named after his grandfather who fought with the First Canadian Parachute Battalion in WW II. He said: “It’s a lot more than I expected. I felt a lot of emotion going into the cemeteries and being part of the memorial services with the colours and the parade. I don’t think I’ve ever really felt this before. Just being here means a whole lot to me…. I’m the first representative from Nunavut. I was honoured when I was given this opportunity and I’m certainly going to pass on all the experience I’ve accumulated.”
Marina Clayton-Theriault, 28, of Hants County Branch in Windsor, N.S., is commanding officer of a sea cadet corps that her branch sponsors. She said: “It’s brought reality to all the things that I’ve learned since I was a small child and the things that I’ve been told over the years by my family…. There’s going to be a time when there’s not going to be any vets left, so bringing people like us over here helps keep the history going….”
Louise Chapdelaine, 40, is secretary of Shefford Branch in Waterloo, Que. The marketing coordinator of Ski-Doo snowmobiles for Bombardier Inc., who is involved with the Navy League and sea cadets, said: “They don’t teach history in the schools anymore so that people can understand where they are today. I think youth who understand history are more involved in current events and they become better citizens.” She describes the challenge as one of combining history with a sense of duty, of civic responsibility” because “if you want the world around you to be a good one, you have to work at it….
“…I’ll certainly try to impart some of the awe I felt here and also the extreme sadness. It comes at you in waves. Hopefully, I’ll be able to pass that on–the courage that they had for freedom. They were doing it for a cause greater than themselves and that’s the thing that I hope I’ll be able to impart to the younger ones.”
Marcus Munro, 32, is a resident of Elkford, B.C., and a member of Fernie Branch. A cadet instructor and organizer of youth sports clinics, he was in the regular force and is now a coal miner. He said: “It’s a great experience, something I think that most people if they have the opportunity to do it they should go for it. If it means paying their way to come over and do this pilgrimage, then do it…. It increases your awareness of the sacrifice that took place and the willingness of these men, some young, some old, that believed enough in the cause to come over and put their life on the line and a lot of them left it there….
“We went to Passchendaele and heard the story of how many lives were laid down in that area. We visited Tyne Cot cemetery and saw the names on the wall. Looking back over the fields, I contemplated that those guys are buried out there someplace. You start to realize that war just isn’t faces without names. It’s somebody’s father, somebody’s son, somebody’s husband. We need to realize that war just doesn’t affect somebody else, it affects us all.”
Munro believes that the challenge now is “to relate this message to somebody who has become accustomed to seeing war on TV and thinks nothing of it because it doesn’t really affect us. It’s no different than a video game lots