In July of 2009, I finally took the trip I'd spent over a decade yearning for. As a teacher with a background in Canadian history, I longed to visit the Canadian battlefields in France and Belgium from both World Wars. Having studied battles like Vimy Ridge, Dieppe and Normandy, there was nothing that could satisfy me more than to actually stand there. At last, my time had come!
In July of 2009, I finally took the trip I’d spent over a decade yearning for. As a teacher with a background in Canadian history, I longed to visit the Canadian battlefields in France and Belgium from both World Wars. Having studied battles like Vimy Ridge, Dieppe and Normandy, there was nothing that could satisfy me more than to actually stand there. At last, my time had come!
The first leg of my battlefield pilgrimage began in north eastern France where many cemeteries from the Great War dot the French countryside. It’s strange, actually. You’d be driving through rolling farmland and in the midst of it all would be neatly plotted headstones, all with the same shape, perfectly aligned – many bearing that consummate symbol of Canada, the maple leaf. My nephew, Shawn, and I stopped at many along the way, noting how carefully tended to they were. The first stop was at Vimy Ridge, the crown jewel of the trip for me. It was here that Canada fought one of it’s greatest battles ever, securing an objective that the might French and British were unable to do in years prior. The Vimy Memorial is simply breathtaking, adorned with 11,258 names of those whose final resting place is unknown. Among those names is my great, great grandfather, Pte. Robert Mepham. We explored the tunnels below the battlefield and observed the various carvings left behind by our soldiers 93 years ago; walked the restored trench lines; and visited the cemeteries surrounding the park.
Our next stop took us to Ypres (Ieper today), Belgium – an area known for the first gas attack in 1915. It was here that John McRae composed his immortal poem, “In Flanders Fields”. While we observe Remembrance Day every November 11th, the townspeople of Ypres remember the fallen every night at 8pm at the Menin Gate with the Last Post. This elaborate archway is adorned with the names of those who paid the supreme sacrifice in defending the town; among them are several Canadians. For approximately 40 minutes, traffic is stopped and locals and tourists alike gather to pay tribute to ordinary men and women who did extraordinary things in the face of danger. It was incredibly moving, and the crowd, I’m told, is always huge regardless of time of year. To the northeast, we visited Passchendaele, site of the muddy conflict in 1917 and the largest Commonwealth cemetery in the world: Tyne Cot. You truly get a feeling of the cost of war when you stare at almost 12,000 headstones and another 35,000 names on the walls surrounding the site. The most heart-wrenching aspect of these cemeteries is that well over half of the graves hold the remains of unknown soldiers.
Shawn and I then made the ambitious 8-hour trek across northern France en route to Normandy. We stopped briefly in Dieppe to pay respects at the cemetery there, of which 909 Canadians lie. It was hard to believe that this beautiful coastal town was a bloodbath in August of 1942. A shining moment for me, however, came at a parking meter. An elderly French woman was ahead of me and didn’t seem to understand how much money to put in the machine. She asked me something in French but all I could muster was “Je suis Canadien”. Instantly she smiled, took my hand and in some way or other expressed to me her appreciation for Canada and its soldiers. Without a doubt, it was the proudest “Canadian moment” in my entire life.
Before long, we reached the sandy shores of Normandy and wasted little time visiting the Juno Beach Centre. This is an exceptional museum that truly honours those who fought there in June of 1944. Just beyond the centre is an inukshuk that faces west (toward Canada) and has at least one stone from every province and territory in Canada. Closer to the beach are hollow bunkers once used by the Nazis, one of which we were able to enter and get a feel for the intensity of battle on D-Day. The weather always seemed to be changing but rain nor wind could stop me from taking a silent moment at the foot of the water to remember and thank the fallen.
I’ve always considered myself a true, patriotic Canadian and I came away from my trip with an even greater sense of national pride. To stand on the same soil where so many men fought in the name of the freedom we enjoy today was humbling. I took time after my trip to create a slideshow of remembrance showcasing before and after photos from both world wars, which can be viewed on the “Canada Remembers” Facebook page. Lest we forget.