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Vimy 2017 Day 7

Day 7 boys and girls. Yes, I’m a little more awake today, but barely. I still feel like I’ve been run over by a dump truck, but at least I got some sleep. The key is to be so comatose that you blackout the moment your head hits the pillow; I’m not sure if that is good or bad. We’ll see how tonight goes for a full scientific assessment.

Okay, we’re on the bus, heading toward Normandy. It’s another beautiful morning and it should be a relatively nice in the Calvados region. This is the point where, for the most part, we switch emphasis on the tour. So far we have been visiting sites associated with World War I, but today and tomorrow we will be focussing on World War II. We also see more of the French countryside, and Normandy is a particularly scenic place.

So after two hours of driving and a mandated 45 minute stop, we’re back on the road. We pulled into a Shell Station east of Rouen literally 5 minutes before a bunch of other buses showed up. What fortuitous timing! However, it does make you realize how many other groups are doing the same thing you are. With 260+ EF groups, I would imagine that there are quite a number doing the Beaches & Battlefields Tour; Arromanches is going to be overrun by Canadian teenagers today!

Gas station selfie, April 2017.

We’re back on the bus after a get on get off day. We rolled into Arromanches just after 1300 and made our way down to the main strip just behind the beach. Arromanches is a pretty little town, maybe a little too commercialized, but nice nonetheless. On D-Day, June 6th, 1944, it was the site of the Gold Beach, which was assaulted by the British 50th Division. Once it was secure, engineers began construction on the Mulberry, one of two artificial harbours created by the Allies to land supplies. Reminants of the concrete sections are still visible in water, but unfortunately the tide was too high for us to walk out for up close visit.

Myself and Ms. Caza wandered around to some of shops and picked up a few things for our kids. I’m sure the food and souvenir retails made a killing with all the Canadians wandering around. After just over an hour in the town, we hopped on to the bus for a short 5 minute (well, we did get lost, so it was more like 15 minutes) ride to a theatre to watch a short 360 degree movie on the Normandy Campaign. It was a well done film.

Arromanches, April 2017.

Arromanches, April 2017.

From Arromanches we drove 45 minutes to the southeast, past the city of Caen to the Bretteville-sur-Laize Canadian War Cemetery. It’s one of the two Canadian cemerties in Normandy, and contains the graves of over 2900 Canadians, mostly killed fighting in July and August 1944. We held our usual prayer service at the Cross of Sacrifice, and then proceeded to visit the graves of our assigned soldiers. We decided to have the kids visit those belonging to the Lake Superior Regiment, which was from the Lakehead. Today, it is perpetuated by the Lake Superior Scottish Regiment, which I served in during my teens.

Compared to our stop at Tyne Cot, this was a much more intimate and personal visit. Save for a couple of other people, we were the only ones there; it is certainly a sad and lonely place. However, the very act of remembrance that the students carried out brought life to the sadness, for it is through our youth that their memory lives on. The students were very moved by the cemeteries. I find the WWII cemeteries much more personal as most of the graves are identified and bear family inscriptions. They convey, in words, the immense loss and sorrow felt by the families of

 

those that fell. They cut very deep and I always get emotional, as were many of the kids. It is so unfortunate that many of the mothers, fathers, spouses and children of those interred at Bretteville were never able to mourn their loss in person.

Brettevile-sur-Laize Cemetery, April 2017.

Brettevile-sur-Laize Cemetery, April 2017.

Brettevile-sur-Laize Cemetery, April 2017.

Brettevile-sur-Laize Cemetery, April 2017.

Brettevile-sur-Laize Cemetery, April 2017.

In about 40 minutes we’ll arrive in Honfleur, our last destination of the day. It is located northeast of Caen, just up the Channel coast. It’s a small fishing town of approximately 8100 people, but apparently very picturesque. We are for sure going for a quick visit tomorrow and maybe even tonight. We’ll see how things go once we finish dinner.

Dinner tonight at our hotel in Honfleur was fantastic. They faked us out a bit first by bringing salad and some quiche; we thought that was it. However, they rolled out a full plate of roasted chicken and potatoes as a second course, which were awesome. It was by far the best meal on the trip so far. The hotel is quite interesting, more like a motel, with the doors opening out in a dual-building, two-storey configuration. We were a bit worried about how we would keep the kids contained, but they seem to be respecting the boundaries so far. We did a room check and many are already prepped for bed. They know tomorrow will be another busy day, with visits to Honfleur, Juno Beach and our transfer to Paris.

Well, it’s time to turn in. We are not leaving as early as we have been the last few days, but I’d to get up well before the kids so I can shave. My hair is starting to look a little hippyish. The wifi here in Honfleur is decent, so I’m hoping it’s just as good in Paris, so I should be back tomorrow with more news and photos. Until then…

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Posted by on April 11, 2017 in History, Travel

 

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Europe 2014 Day 7

Day 7 is calm and very foggy. Daylight gives us a much better impression of the chateau and its grounds…stunning! I would definitely come back here if given the opportunity. Before breakfast I had a chance to walk around a bit and it was very beautiful with the fog, trees and the small waterfall. I’m interested to see what it is like when the fog lifts. We are really in the heart of Normandy and it is so pretty and idilic here.

So we are about to leave for the Beny-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery, which is literally five minutes away. We are so close to the beaches it is amazing. This should be a great day of remembering, exploring and discovery.

We’re back on the bus now, making our way past Arromanches toward the American cemetery behind Omaha beach. Beny was probably the most touching yet, mostly because we had a lot of time to look around. The cemetery holds the remains of over of 2000 Canadians who were killed on or in the weeks after D-Day. It also has the unfortunately distinction of having the most number of brothers buried in any Commonwealth cemetery at 9 (but I counted 11).

For the soldier visits, I gave our students all the sets of brothers to research. Jessica, Brenna and I had the 3 Westlake brothers of Toronto, who were killed serving with the Queen’s Own Rifles and the North Nova Scotia Highlanders. Thomas and Alfred, who were with the Queen’s Own, are buried side by side in the cemetery.

Rflm A. Westlake, March 2014.

Rflm. A. Westlake, March 2014.

Rflm. T. Westlake, March 2014.

Rflm. T. Westlake, March 2014.

Pte. G. Westlake, March 2014.

Pte. G. Westlake, March 2014.

I spent the rest of the time wandering around, reading the headstones and inscriptions. The morning fog provided a surreal atmosphere in the cemetery. As a Canadian I am filled with with pride and honour at the sacrifice of our young men all those years ago. This visit really hit me hard, and as a parent it ripped my heart out to read the inscriptions from mothers and fathers to their children. I cannot even fathom losing one of my boys.

The American cemetery at Omaha beach was an interesting visit. There are over 9,000 US fallen at this site overlooking the beach and is quite massive. I’d never been to an American cemetery before and it has a totally different atmosphere and feel. Even the headstones are very different, though I think that the inscriptions at Commonwealth cemeteries add more of a personal touch.

Omaha Beach Cemetery, March 2014.

Omaha Beach Cemetery, March 2014.

So we’re heading back east now, on our way to Arromanches. This was where Gold Beach was located, along with the British part of the Mulberry Harbour. There is a big museum there with many static outdoor displays of military equipment. This vistas from the cliffs are quite beautiful!

Well, so much for the vistas in Arromanches! The fog is just beginning to lift, so it was hard to see much on the beach. The tide was much farther out than when we were here in 2012, so I was able to walk right down to the Mulberry pieces lying in the sand. It was very neat to be that close.

Mulberry Harbour remains, March 2014.

Mulberry Harbour remains, March 2014.

Lunch was good, though painfully slow. I had waffles with chocolate, white chocolate and whipped cream, while Jo-Anne had crepes. Too bad it took an hour and a half of the two hours we had in the town. I would have liked a little more time to look around and take pictures. Anyway, we’re back on the bus headed toward the Juno Beach Centre.

The visit to the Juno Beach Centre was great, even though I had been there before. Afterwards, we had a little time to look around the on beach, which is officially know as Mike Red Sector, Juno Beach. We then hopped on the bus for the short ride east to Bernieres-sur-Mer. At this location, Nan White Sector, Toronto’s Queen’s Own Rifles landed on June 6. In a matter of 10 minutes the battalion suffered nearly 50% casualties in the dash across the beach. There is a German bunker preserved there and it really gives the students an idea of how far the soldiers had to run to get off the beach.

German bunker at Nan White Sector, Juno Beach, March 2014.

German bunker at Nan White Sector, Juno Beach, March 2014.

We are now on our way back to the chateau; if it wasn’t for the fog it would have been a fantastic day. It was so warm with very little wind and the tides were very low. Dinner will be at 7, so that will give us a little bit of time to look around the grounds and explore the area. I’m not sure what is on the menu for dinner, but I guess I’ll find out soon enough.

Well I’m just about out of energy and I think it’s time for bed. Even though we didn’t do a lot of walking, it was certainly a long day and we saw a lot of things. Dinner at the chateau was great and we got a chance to look around the area and get a real sense of what it is like. Tomorrow we have an early morning; a visit to the nearby village of Creuly and then off to mass before we depart for Paris. We probably won’t be checking into the hotel until very late, so it will be another long day.

Chateau du Baffy, March 2014.

Chateau du Baffy, March 2014.

So the next you’ll hear from me I’ll be in Paris and we’ll be on the final leg of the trip. I have to be up at 6:00, so I’m out for now. Until then…

 
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Posted by on March 12, 2014 in History, Travel, Writing

 

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Vimy Day Eight

Well, we’ve started the journey home. I am sitting here at Charles de Gaulle airport waiting for our flight to Toronto listening to some classic rock. Our wake up call was at 4:00 today…thank God this is the last early morning we have. That obviously means though that our trip is over. The past 7 days have been a whirlwind of events, but it was such an awesome experience.

The streets of Paris were amazing, filled with great European culture and architecture. I wish there was more time to explore and take pictures. Two days are not enough in such a great city, but we were on a schedule. I never did see the inside of the Notre Dame Basilica, but the cathedral in Rouen was very impressive as well. I must get back someday, maybe with the family.

Having this time before our flight gives me some time to reflect on the past week, especially on our visits to the battlefields. I think that this was tremendous trip for the students that they won’t soon forget. I am glad that I decided to lead this journey/pilgrimage to France. It took me away from my family for a week, so I too had to sacrifice. However what I gave up pales in comparison to the blood several generations of young Canadians spilled for their country.

We’re in the air now; in the beauty above the clouds my reflection continues. It’s funny how you always think of things after the fact, like how I am right now remembering a few things that occurred yesterday that did not make it into my blog. The one I want to mention was probably the most poignant, which took place during our silent march from Givenchy to Vimy. As our group passed by the Vimy Memorial, we were jolted by a sudden gust of wind from our right. It was almost as if some force was trying to direct our attention to the left, towards the memorial. I’m not sure if everyone else was struck by this occurrence, but it certainly had me looking to the heavens. Someone wanted us to remember.

Now my thoughts drift to our first visit to a Canadian war cemetery, the one at Dieppe. Since the bodies were originally buried by the Germans, the headstones are laid out in German style, back to back and close together. Probably because of the close internment of the dead and because it was our first, the visit was so moving. We had a lot more time to spend there, so you really had a chance to read the names and inscriptions. I won’t soon forget how overcome I was.

After some lunch and a much-needed nap, I am a bit more refreshed. While I was dozing, I thought of our visit to Juno Beach. It was another occasion that needed way more time to fully absorb and explore, but we did our best. I was glad that we got to Bernieres sur Mer where the Queen’s Own Rifles landed at Nan White Sector. Seeing that bunker that I’d taught my students about so many times and walking those blood stained beaches was amazing. The bag of sand I brought home is not some sand from a French beach; it is a piece of Canadian history, purchased with the blood of our youth.

On the last leg now after a hectic connection stop in Toronto. It will feel good to be at home; I know my wife and boys will be waiting for me at the airport. I am excited to see them as this is the longest I’ve ever been away from them. Maybe my homecoming is part of this journey. We get to go home while there are those who never got that opportunity. I should mention this to the kids, that our ability to go back to our families and loved ones is part of their sacrifice. We definitely take our freedom for granted.

Well, I need to wrap things up as I’ve been awake for the better part of 24 hours. I need to get some sleep as I am back to work tomorrow…with a new perspective on what I teach. I will definitely have some great stories for the kids. I know I will enjoy relating my experiences to them and hopefully this has made me a better teacher. And hopefully it will teach them the importance of remembrance. I will end today with one of my favourite poems from the war, written by A.E. Housman. I will be back in a week after a much needed break. Until then…

HERE DEAD WE LIE

Cross of Sacrifice, Bretteville sur Laize Canadian Cemetery.

Here dead we lie
Because we did not choose
To live and shame the land
From which we sprung.

Life, to be sure,
Is nothing much to lose,
 

But young men think it is,
And we were young.


 
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Posted by on April 10, 2012 in Miscellaneous, Travel, Writing

 

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Vimy Day Five

7:53, on the bus and ready to roll.

I didn’t think I could any more tired, but I am! I had some girls from another school in the room beside me playing music past 12:30 this morning. I was up at 6:00, so my eyes are rather heavy. I’m sure I’ll perk up at Juno Beach and the cemeteries we visit; should be another amazing and emotional day.

The graves of the Branton brothers.

Our first stop today was the Canadian War Cemetery at Beny sur Mer. There are over 2000 Canadians buried there and it was a very emotional experience again. I find it interesting that Beny, like Dieppe, is tucked away in a very quiet location. It is probably better that way. Unlike Dieppe, I did have a mission today, which was to find the graves of Gordon and Ronald Branton. Brothers from Lethbridge, Alberta, they are just one of several sets of brothers buried in Beny. Their inscription reads, “We left with a jest our home in the west. Now here with the best we lie at rest.”


A very short drive later we arrived at the Juno Beach Centre, which was built almost 10 years ago as a museum not only for D-Day, but for all of Canada’s WWII involvement. The Centre was interesting to see, but I really wanted to get to the beaches. The part of Juno Beach in front of the Centre was known as Mike Red sector, and it was where the Winnipeg Rifles came ashore. There was an observation post located just behind the beach, but our Tour Director Hugo was going to take us farther east where there was more to see.

It was very fitting that today was cold, misty and windy, much like it was on June 6, 1944.

German bunker, Nan White Sector, Juno Beach.

Our next destination was Bernieres-sur-Mer, where the  Queen’s Own Rifles came ashore at sector Nan White. The first house they captured is called Canada House and just down the beach is a preserved bunker adorned with the QOR logo. The Queen’s Own suffered the highest casualties of all the assault units, and looking from the bunker tells you why. Designed to enfilade the beach, it and others killed and wounded half of the QOR in minutes. I made a point of picking up some sand and rocks…almost like I’m taking pieces of Canadian history.


We spent our lunch in the town of Arromaches, which is in the Gold Beach area. After eating a baguette with jambon and frites, I wandered the immediate area for a while. There is a museum there, along with several vehicle and artillery displays. In the sea off Arromaches you can see the remains of the Mulberry artifical harbour system. I think the kids were more excited about the gift shops that sold WWII relics, like shrapnel and shell casings.

On our way back to Rouen, we made a detour to the Canadian cemetery at Bretteville sur Laize. It was quite the adventure getting there, driving all the back roads from Arromaches to Cintheaux. At one point we had to cross a two bridges right by each other with a wicked curve in the middle. Our driver had to get out and size things up; he figured we could make it. After a few tense moments, some skillful driving and a little scrape, we made it through. It earned him a well-deserved round of applause. 

The cemetery at Bretteville has almost 2800 burials and is absolutely huge. It was too bad we were pressed for time as the 30 minutes we had was way to short, but I really wanted to visit this cemetery and was glad that we made it. Our first order of business was to hold a short service in honour of those who gave their lives for Canada. Kudos goes out to our friends at St. Ignatius for organizing these little ceremonies…I think it makes it that much more significant for the students. 

Grave of Major Griffin, Black Watch.

For many years I have taught my Gr. 10 students about the fighting in Normandy, and in particular the Battle of Verrières Ridge . This battle was part of a larger, unsuccessful series of attacks called Operation Spring. More than 800 Canadians were killed in Spring, and they are all buried at Bretteville. In particular, I teach them about what happened to the Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment of Canada) at Verrieres and how the entire regiment was wiped out. The commander of the Black Watch (who was an acting commander after everyone above him became casualties), Major Phil Griffin, was blamed for the failure of the attack; I wanted to pay my respects to him.I think that it will mean more to me now that I’ve visited his grave and saw the area that was fought over.


There was one more thing I had to do before we left. Prior to becoming a teacher, my career goal was to attend military college and enter the army. When I was 17 I

Grave of Major Styffe, Lake Superior Regiment.

joined the local infantry reserve unit, the Lake Superior Scottish Regiment. The LSSR perpetuates the Lake Superior Regiment, which fought in Normandy as part of the 4th Armoured Division. Forty-two members of the LSR are buried at Bretteville and I thought it was my duty to try and honour them. However due to our time constraints, I was only able to visit the grave of Major Edward Styffe, who was killed in action August 14, 1944. I did pledge to myself that I would return some day and do the fallen members of the Regiment proud.


On our return to Rouen we went to dinner, which was an okay meal of pasta with chicken in a sort of Alfredo sauce. We did take some time to celebrate the birthdays of Matt J. and Cassie who were both turning 16 during the trip. After dinner we had a bit of free time, so the kids could relax, look around the square a bit and unwind. Tomorrow is Easter, so we are heading off to mass at 9:30; I’ve never been to church in another country so I am looking forward to the experience. I’ll finish this off after we return.

The church was locked, so I guess there wasn’t mass. Can you cancel church?

Tonight I had the chance to speak to my wife Jo-Anne and the boys for a bit. Although I am enjoying myself immensely, I do miss them very much. I really want to take my boys here one day to see this for themselves…I think it is something that all Canadians should do. It really makes you thankful for the life we enjoy. After to speaking to my boys tonight and experiencing all the history over the last few days I wanted to leave you with this. I thought it would be a fitting way to end given the purpose of this trip. It was pointed out to me by my colleague Sara at Bretteville. Please click on the photo and read the inscription at the bottom; I became so choked up I had trouble taking the picture. Until then…

Grave of Rifleman Janson, Regina Rifles.

 
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Posted by on April 7, 2012 in Miscellaneous, Travel, Writing

 

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