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Pilgrims In The Shadow Of War

Pilgrims and other tour participants visit the Canadian National Vimy Memorial. [PHOTO: SHARON ADAMS]

Pilgrims and other tour participants visit the Canadian National Vimy Memorial.

At 5:20 a.m., July 16, 2009, on a rocky beach in France, a group of 30 Canadians raise a toast in a solemn, if impromptu, ceremony to a sacrifice made by their countrymen in this very place 67 years ago. The Aug. 19, 1942, Dieppe Raid was the single most costly day for Canadians in the Second World War. Almost 5,000 members of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division landed as part of Operation Jubilee. More than 3,300 became casualties, including 913 who paid with their lives. Another 1,946 Canadians became prisoners of war.

“We will remember them,” pledge members of The Royal Canadian Legion’s 2009 Youth Leaders’ Pilgrimage of Remembrance. None among them remember the horrific events of that day; too soon there will be none anywhere to bear witness to the courage and sacrifice of those dreadful hours on that God-forsaken beach. But we—WE—we will remember them, the group affirms in a pledge repeated in war cemeteries and in front of memorials dedicated to Canada’s war dead. This commitment to past, present and future is strengthened when they walk the beaches, through orchards and woods and alongside farmer’s fields where Canadians shed blood in the Second World War and in the Great War. By walking the land they have the opportunity to put history in its proper place and learn about the human cost of war. They think and often weep about people who are known and others who are Known Only Unto God. And they make some startling discoveries.

Ed Fewer of Grand Falls/Windsor, Nfld., visits the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial in France. [PHOTO: SHARON ADAMS]

Ed Fewer of Grand Falls/Windsor, Nfld., visits the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial in France.

While visiting a monument at Kitcheners’ Wood north of Ypres, Belgium, tour participants are surprised to find skull and arm bone fragments. In the same general area—at Gravenstafel Ridge—a rib and hip bone are found. These discoveries, in what was known as the Ypres Salient, are carefully marked and then reported to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission which collects and attempts to identify individuals for proper burial. No one knew for sure prior to press time, but there is the likelihood that the remains found on the ridge are those of a Canadian. It was in this area where the Germans sought to break a stalemate by introducing poison gas on April 22, 1915. The deadly chlorine clouds decimated the French forces, creating a gap in the line which Canadians fought to close. In addition, the Canadians launched a counterattack to force the enemy out of Kitcheners’ Wood. An enemy attack on April 24 included a vicious bombardment followed by a gas attack aimed at the Canadian line. Hit over and over again by shrapnel and machine-gun fire—and gasping through handkerchiefs—the Canadians held on until reinforcements arrived.

At another point during the pilgrimage, tour guide and Legionnaire John Goheen accidentally discovers what turns out to be an unexploded shell. The encounter happens on a winding track leading into a cemetery, on a battlefield that had changed hands several times during the war. “Ninety plus years and the shadow of war is all about us,” says Goheen, a school principal from Port Coquitlam, B.C., who has guided seven Legion pilgrimages to Northwest Europe.

Participants are quick to agree. They say discovering such artifacts will help them recognize the after-effects of war. It will also help them pass the torch of remembrance on to a generation never personally touched by old wars. “None of us has memories of what actually happened,” adds Goheen. Pilgrims can amass facts by reading books, watching films and listening to lectures, he says, but in experiencing surroundings first-hand they synthesize their knowledge and fix it with emotion into something he calls “informed memory.”

Tour guide John Goheen points to an unexploded shell from the First World War. [PHOTO: SHARON ADAMS]

Tour guide John Goheen points to an unexploded shell from the First World War.

The emotional experience of pilgrimages deepens respect for veterans, says tour participant Ena Newman of Trenton, Ont., who found one of the bones at Kitcheners’ Wood. “I would love to take my children [on such a pilgrimage]. For kids to be able to experience that…it will leave them with no choice but to carry on with remembrance of our veterans….”

It is a valuable tool for the Legion in the goal of perpetuating remembrance—in a world affected by sound bites, video games, twittering and nanosecond attention spans. “Through your own personal perspective on what you will see and learn…you will succeed in promoting remembrance in a way few can,” Dominion Command Vice-President Gordon Moore tells the pilgrims.

Moore and his wife Kathryn of Elmira, Ont., lead the group which includes sponsored pilgrims from each provincial command. Among them are teachers and cadet leaders. There are also 16 others who joined for the experience. Selected by their respective commands, but sponsored by Dominion Command are Stephen Lemarec of British Columbia/ Yukon; Stephanie Farrer of Alberta-Northwest Territories; Brenda Fredrickson of Saskatchewan; Myles Penny of Manitoba-Northwestern Ontario; Mary Van Ruyven of Ontario; Daniel Demers of Quebec; Brian Vessey of New Brunswick; David Andrews of Nova Scotia/Nunavut and Jeffrey Noye of Prince Edward Island. The Newfoundland and Labrador representative, Leslie Forward, was forced to drop out due to a death in the family.

The first part of the July 11-25 tour focuses on the Second World War, and it is during this time that Dieppe is brought into focus.

Jacob Durocher visits a relative’s grave at Bretteville-sur-Laize Canadian War Cemetery in Normandy. [PHOTO: SHARON ADAMS]

Jacob Durocher visits a relative’s grave at Bretteville-sur-Laize Canadian War Cemetery in Normandy.

Indeed, grief rolls over the group like a wave, drowning them together in emotion. Retired airman Richard Thomas, 78, weeps as he walks on the beach where his father’s best friend was captured, later to die in a German prison camp. “A piece of my heart stays with Dieppe and the ghosts of Dieppe will travel with me forever,” adds Fredrickson of Elrose, Sask. Like the other pilgrims, the former teacher had read background material, consulted the maps and listened to lectures detailing the attack plans. They knew plans had gone awry, secrecy and cover of darkness blown, back-up firepower whittled away; and with them, all chance of success.

Standing outside a German pillbox perched high on the cliffs overlooking the ancient city, the pilgrims finally understand just how visible—how vulnerable—the Allied troops and tanks were even before they got to the beach. They also stumble along the narrow, treacherous shore below the cliffs at Puys, where the Royal Regiment of Canada suffered 96 per cent casualties, most in just a few minutes after landing, and understand how difficult it must have been to find cover or move while carrying a heavy pack and rifle, under merciless fire from the cliffs. The tour participants can see how easily the stones would have turned lethal when hit by shells. Seeing the pounding surf, they understand how wounded men could drown in the fury of such a breaking tide.

“My uncle said the bodies at Dieppe were piled like cordwood,” says Van Ruyven, a teacher in Port Colborne, Ont., recalling words of survivor John Whitehead who served with the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry. “The water was red with blood,” and broke in pink froth.

Visiting the graves of relatives or family is high on the agenda for many of the participants, including retired airman Gary Newman and his wife Ena, a serving member of the Navy, and family friend Perry Holland, all of Trenton, Ont. It is important also to 16-year-old Jacob Durocher and his grandfather Robert Peters, both of Salaberry de Valleyfield, Que., and his great-uncle Stuart Peters of Morrisburg, Ont. Also included in the larger group are Annetta Lozo of Medicine Hat, Alta.; Ed Fewer of Grand Falls/Windsor, Nfld.; Richard Thomas of London, Ont., and his son, James of Lucan; Ken Plourde of Athabasca, Alta.; Sam Newman of London; Nova Scotia/Nunavut Command Treasurer Jack Hatcher and his wife Cornelia of Lower Sackville, N.S.; as well as family members of sponsored pilgrims, including Mary’s and Daniel’s spouses, Josef Van Ruyven and Marie-Christine Monty; and Donnalee Noye, Jeffrey’s mother.

Sergeant-at-Arms Brian Vessey salutes at Holten Canadian War Cemetery in the Netherlands. [PHOTO: SHARON ADAMS]

Sergeant-at-Arms Brian Vessey salutes at Holten Canadian War Cemetery in the Netherlands.

After the tour moves past Dieppe and through other Second World War battlefields and cemeteries, it traces the geography through the great battles of the First World War—Ypres, the Somme and Vimy Ridge—before flashing forward to the liberation of Belgium and the Netherlands. Along the way the pilgrims travel highways, byways and mucky tracks through farmers’ fields to take part in 15 memorial ceremonies and visit dozens of well-tended cemeteries and battle sites. They place hundreds of Canadian flags on gravesites; often this simple act brings them to unexpected tears.

No one is prepared for the impact of the cumulative experience. Andrews, of Stewiacke, N.S., is overcome by emotion on Juno Beach. His great-uncle Corporal Kenneth G. Andrews of the North Nova Scotia Highlanders landed on June 6, 1944, and died three days later in the fierce fight to liberate Carpiquet Airport and the surrounding area. “I stood on Juno Beach and John (Goheen) said, ‘This is where your uncle landed.’ I stood at Hell’s Corner, and John said, ‘This is where your uncle died.’ I stood in the cemetery and I said, ‘This is where my uncle rests.’”

At Beny-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery, Andrews places a wreath at the monument and a flag and family picture on his great-uncle’s grave. Here and in other war cemeteries he places Canadian flags on graves of those listed on the town cenotaph in Stewiacke.

Retired army engineer Vessey set himself the task of learning the stories behind the names on Oromocto’s cenotaph. “On a previous trip I was struck by an epitaph that said, ‘I’m not scared to die, I’m scared you would forget me.’” He makes eight gravestone rubbings to use in talks to students and cadets and to give to surviving family members. Those, plus stones from Dieppe, will enliven his presentations. “A little bit of a life story makes it real [to young people]. Make it personal…that will get to them, open their eyes. Over here, children can see the reminders [battlefields, monuments, museums] but our children can’t.”

“Something I learned long ago with kids,” adds Goheen, “is you can’t go droning on about facts. There’s no context. Children particularly don’t have a sense of time, so distant events don’t have the significance they would to someone older. But they can certainly feel things.” He’s learned if he can communicate his emotions around historical events and places “that make me have a shiver and a tear,” kids connect to the material. Now, knowing pilgrims can use the same technique, he links their personal interests to the experiences of individual soldiers, sailors and airmen and weaves them into orientations at historic sites.

Ceremonies at Groesbeek Canadian War Cemetery in the Netherlands. [PHOTO: SHARON ADAMS]

Ceremonies at Groesbeek Canadian War Cemetery in the Netherlands.

One of these stories will be making its way through Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., this year, where William Van Ruyven, son of Mary and Josef, won the Reg Barker Memorial Award. Barker, who played football for Queen’s University and the Canadian Football League, was captured in post-D-Day fighting. He was among 40 Canadian prisoners murdered in a field just off the Caen-Fontenay-le-Pesnil road. While being transferred, the column of prisoners was intercepted by an SS officer, who shouted out angry orders. A few minutes later, a convoy pulled up and guards’ rifles were exchanged for automatic weapons.

Like Barker, Mary’s son is a football player. “It’s almost as if there was a calling for me to be here, to witness the circumstances of Reg’s death, to know that Reg Barker, even in death, continues to be a leader to young men,” she says. She contacted the Barker family and talked to his niece. “She said Reg…told the others if the Germans start firing, make a run for it.” Five made it to freedom; Barker was not among them.

David Andrews places a provincial flag on the grave of a fellow Nova Scotian at Beny-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery in Normandy. [PHOTO: SHARON ADAMS]

David Andrews places a provincial flag on the grave of a fellow Nova Scotian at Beny-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery in Normandy.

Evening meals provide counterpoint to the sombre emotions felt during the day. After introducing themselves over dinner the first night in Caen, pilgrims hear the first of Sam Newman’s entertaining ‘And Now for the Rest of the Story’ tales. Ranging over military trivia, fascinating historical facts and anecdotes, they are a nightly treat, often followed by homemade entertainment featuring group singing orchestrated and accompanied by the voice of Fredrickson, with the occasional solo by Noye or comical performance of Stephen Lemarec. Later, pilgrims gather in a nearby park to rehearse for upcoming ceremonies. Throughout the trip, uniformed Legion comrades take turns placing wreaths, reciting the Act of Remembrance and carrying the colours. Pilgrims not in uniform also take part in ceremonies, solemnly adding their poppies to wreaths.

Often those placing wreaths or reading the Act of Remembrance have some personal reason for doing so at a particular site. “It was the proudest day of my life,” says Moore, “when I placed the wreath at Menin Gate in Ypres on behalf of The Royal Canadian Legion.” At Menin Gate, a memorial to Commonwealth soldiers with no known grave, traffic stops at 8 p.m. for a nightly Last Post ceremony during which firefighters perform the Last Post and Reveille on their bugles. Moore’s most emotional tour day comes later when he places the wreath during the ceremony at Bergen-op-Zoom Canadian War Cemetery in the Netherlands. It is here where he visits the grave of his great-uncle W.E.C. Stewart of the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry, killed at age 29 on Oct. 17, 1944. Stewart never lived to see his son Ken who was born six months after he’d left for Europe.

For Ena Newman and Ed Fewer, taking part in the ceremony at the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial is particularly poignant. Both fight back tears during the ceremony which takes place under the great bronze caribou, before the tablets inscribed with the names of more than 800 Newfoundlanders who died in the First World War and have no known grave. Military tradition runs deep on the Rock, and both Newman and Fewer come from families with a strong tradition. Newman had an uncle who was a gunner on a destroyer during the Second World War. He was seriously injured and spent 18 months in a burn unit. The lives of several of Fewer’s relatives ended in the bloody Battle of the Somme in 1916, which cost Canada 24,029 casualties. He placed a wreath for his great-uncle Laurence Fewer, who died on July 1, 1916—the opening day of the Battle of the Somme.

Sam Newman (left) and Dominion Vice-President Gordon Moore, seconds after placing a wreath at the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres, Belgium. [PHOTO: SHARON ADAMS]

Sam Newman (left) and Dominion Vice-President Gordon Moore, seconds after placing a wreath at the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres, Belgium.

During the First World War, Newfoundland was not yet part of Canada and “King and Country meant everything,” says Fewer. This is his second trip to the memorial. The first “messed me up big time. I couldn’t make sense of it, why these things had to happen. So many people gone…. I came here looking for answers.” Fresh grief, he figures, is a good preventive against future fighting. “Who can get emotional about the War of 1812?” he asks. “To come here, to see your name, someone of your own family, your own blood….you get very emotional.” No matter how much time has passed.

This is also true for those who benefited from Canadian sacrifices. “We met a number of great people in France, Belgium and Holland who work tirelessly every day of the year to keep the memories of our fallen…alive,” says Moore, “and will talk to anyone who will take time to listen.”

Among these torch-passers are Jean Gosselin, 86, on his annual personal commemoration of the Canadians in the Dieppe Raid, one of the local civilians ordered to collect the Canadian dead. Gérard Livry-Level, owner of Château d’Audrieu, conducts tours of the grounds where 26 Canadian soldiers were murdered in Normandy, and his sister Monique Corblet de Fallerans talks about witnessing Germans marching Canadian prisoners away to be shot in June of 1944. Those soldiers were among the 156 Canadian prisoners dispatched in the Normandy countryside in the weeks following D-Day by the “Murder Division”—the French nickname of the 12th Panzer (Hitler Youth) Division.

Gary Newman and Brenda Fredrickson at Bretteville-sur-Laize Canadian War Cemetery. [PHOTO: SHARON ADAMS]

Gary Newman and Brenda Fredrickson at Bretteville-sur-Laize Canadian War Cemetery.

Ben Zonnenberg, the driving force behind founding the RCL Liberation of the Netherlands Branch in Apeldoorn, Holland, works tirelessly promoting remembrance of the liberation. Pilgrims honour him by singing several hastily learned Dutch tunes. And then there is Iris de Pover, who works to keep the memories alive with schoolchildren by helping them collect maple leaves from trees at the Adegem Canadian War Cemetery for use in greeting cards.

In the weeks following the tour, pilgrims exchange e-mails, offering tips, adding information to what was learned in Europe. They also ask for advice on preparing presentations, the first of which were scheduled for September. “Our kids don’t get this history, because when the vets came back from the war, they didn’t want to talk about it,” says Josef. “We can’t make the same mistake. We’re responsible to propagate this lesson.”

With informed memory, it’s an easier responsibility.

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