Written – 11 November 1997
November has always been a special month to me. Not only because it is my birth month or the month I got my second chance at life, but because it is the month we thank our Veterans who fought for Canada and remember those who died for our country.
It has now become an even more special because of what I experienced these past 4 days in Belgium and France.
6 Nov 97
On the evening of 6 Nov 97, as I waited to board CF 3264, I never imagined the emotional events that awaited me overseas.
All was calm as the sun set and we became airborne. 6 hours with people who were also travelling to a foreign country with one common goal; lay to rest our Canadian heroes with pride and thanks.
7 Nov 97
Our first of the 4-day journey led us to Vimy Ridge. As we stepped off the bus at our destination, all eyes fixed on the very visible red signs that dotted the uneven landscape in front of us; “DANGER: NO ENTRY – UNDETINATED EXPLOSIVES”. Reality had just slapped us in the face. I was standing on the very ground where so many, too many, of our young men died in battle for our freedom.
As we turned around, there it was. The enormous monument was breathtaking. The skies were an eerie grey where the white structure touched the heavens and a haunting silence fell over the troops. There was nothing more to say. We all knew what each other was thinking – I could see it in everyone’s eyes. There was almost a feeling of guilt among us because even though we all wear the uniform proudly bearing the name of Canada, anything we were sent here to do for these men now paled in comparison to what they did for us then.
The perimeter of the Ridge looked like landscape from Egypt with gigantic slagheaps resembling the great pyramids. Our guide explained that one of the main reasons for the Germans wanting to keep the ridge was because of the abundance of coal and in that era, that was a very valuable commodity. We walked up the path to the trenches and tunnels …..between the fields bearing those red signs. There it was explained to us that for 3 years, many troops had tried and failed to take the ridge. With the combined efforts of all 4 Divisions of the Canadian Corps ……..the Canadians succeeded.
We should all be proud of our Canadians whose carefully planned actions liberated so many people. I’m sure if all could see the horrible conditions they had to endure, all would be as proud as I was at that very moment. As we went underground to our “history lesson”, the guilt crept up on me yet again. We were all complaining of our lack of uninterrupted sleep over the past 24 hours selfishly forgetting the men that were here not so long ago who could have taught us a thing or two about real exhaustion and stress. Our complaints were petty.
I can’t imagine not wanting to give up under the stresses of war. The Veterans explained that you never really kept friends in these conditions. Every one of them had somebody close to them perish. And I can’t begin to imagine how painful it must have been for them to relive the trauma of that loss with every man who was carried off motionless.
Early in my career as military personnel, I was told to be strong and that there was no room for emotion in this profession but even the toughest of character cannot follow this rule while standing on the soils of Vimy Ridge, Beaumont-Hamel or Garaardsbergen. I witnessed the “crustiest” Army man I know shed tears without shame or embarrassment.
To experience the tunnels and trenches is to experience raw emotion.
8 Nov 97
At Beaumont-Hamel, my pride grew as the Veterans and spouses, relatives and residents shook our hands and thanked us. We don’t deserve the thanks. We only serve as a reminder of the real heroes. The Veterans. And even though there was a language barrier, we all understood each other perfectly. No words needed to be spoken.
This was the place to pay tribute to the Newfoundland Regiment for their efforts in war and a victory paid for with their lives.
9 Nov 97
We were back. Looking sharp and also looking very small formed up at the base of the towering white monument of sorrowful figures and etched names of our missing men.
I had the honour of accompanying Sgt “Smokey” Smith up the stairs to lay a wreath. Now 84 and a little unsteady on his feet, I’m told this colourful Veteran and VC recipient was a real tiger in his day. He is truly my personal hero.
The French military joined us in celebrating this event. We all marched together to the top of the ridge after the ceremonies to an unveiling of a commemorative plaque to the Moroccan War dead. This was a day I would never forget. Exhausted, emotionally and physically, we accepted an invitation to the French Army Mess for dinner and interaction among the troops. The topic of conversation?? Why we would voluntarily join the military. At 17 (under certain guidelines) they must enlist for a period of at least 10 months……maybe that’s not such a bad idea.
That evening, we gathered to honour the Veterans and families and listen to the heart-breaking stories and memories of war. My eyes shed a tear with every word spoken.
10 Nov 97
Up at 5:00 am, uniforms ready. This is the day we all must come together to become one. The burial, remembrance and thanks to 3 airmen; Pilot Wilbur Bentz and gunners Fred Roach and Jack Summerhayes. This was also our chance to give the families and friends closure with full military honours after 53 years. It was the least we could do for them and still didn’t seem to be nearly enough. The crew of 8 were shot down on the night of 12 May 1944. Of the 8 crewmembers 5 were buried by German troops the day after being shot down. The remaining 3 were not recovered because the plane sank into a bog. Amongst personal mementos of the men, a watch which was recovered at the site had stopped at 12:45 am. The precise time the plane plunged to its watery grave.
The day was grey as we dressed the narrow caskets with the Canadian flag, sword, headdress and medals. We waited for the cue and with the solitary, eerie beat of the drum we followed the near empty caskets to where their families stood and felt the spirits of these men we had searched for all those years. The sun peeked through the clouds and I knew they were near.
We praised and honoured them in speech and slow-marched their remains to their final resting place. I was professional, proud and composed…..well, up until the Missing Man formation flew overhead. It all became very personal to me. Even though it well was before my time, I felt that I was burying family. The silence was deafening.
We grieved with and for the families and presented them with all that was left of their loved ones – medals resting on a carefully folded Canadian flag.
When it was all over we boarded our buses – all of us speechless. It was a very quiet 2 hour ride back to the airport in Lille, France. We silently reflected on what we had just participated in and two words we heard repeatedly on this journey came back – Never Again!
We passed through the airport gates and past the rifle-toting guards and finally boarded the aircraft. All of us were exhausted but anxious to return to the wonderful country the men we had just honoured had fought and died for.
We thank you for your sacrifice…….and mourn Canada’s loss. The world is not the same without you.
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
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