With a sigh that seemed to come up from the soles of the feet, he rose…”P.G. Wodehouse, Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves
I’ve made the executive decision to divide my rather long and emotional tale of my trip to the beaches of Normandy into several different posts. I do this not only in consideration of your time, dear reader, but also your mental health – especially as we are still in the midst of a global pandemic. I have a feeling this series will run to 3 or 4 posts and I hope you will join me for all of them.
On the morning of November 6th, 2015, I rolled out of bed – I never “leap” out of bed, I’m no morning person after all – with a curious mixture of excitement and dread. I was looking forward to the explorations of the day but knew that much of my time would probably be spent alternately crying and pondering the injustice of warfare in morose silence. If the rest of our visits to war-related sites so far were any indication, this was going to be a tough day.
The day’s travels started out, rather unexpectedly, with a part of the D-Day story that neither Dad nor I had ever heard of. There are just too many memorials everywhere over in France, where the action really took place, it’s impossible to either see or list every single one of them.
We were driving through a tiny little town, as the GPS had us do often since we’ve asked her to avoid toll roads, when Dad noticed a Canadian flag. It was a curious thing to see the maple leaf in the middle of rural France. It didn’t so much make us feel at home as it made us wary of the tragic Canadian-related story we were likely to encounter.
I should have known that by the end of the day we would be completely used to seeing our national flag all over Normandy and in most places it would indeed be used to mark a tragic loss of life.
However, in this case, when we pulled over to see what it was about, we found a sign designating the space as the local Place du Canada with a plaque in stone nestled between both the Canadian and French flags. The plaque, as it turns out, was dedicated to the Regina regiment who liberated the small village just after the D-Day landings. While I’m sure many lives were lost in the process, this commemoration seemed more celebratory than sad – a rare occurrence when talking about War Memorials (unless we are speaking of the American ones – more on that later).
It was truly incredible to see this monument still so well tended to all these years later. The people in the area really did still remember – they were still grateful for what our boys did for them more than half a century ago, and at the cost of so many lives. It was heartwarming and heartbreaking at the same time but was merely a small hint of what was to come.
We spent a few minutes remembering our brave countrymen, and women as the nurses followed them on their path of liberation, and then hopped back in the car to head to our main itinerary for the day: The Beaches.
Before getting there, however, we just happened to come across the second of two major Canadian cemeteries containing our war-dead. It’s almost as if this GPS lady knew why we were there…
Though we knew we had a lot to so, and most of it depressingly tragic, we didn’t think twice about stopping even though it was pouring rain. This graveyard was no easier to handle than the last one we had visited, despite the fact that it was much smaller.
I think what hit me the hardest, and immediately, was the plaque we found at the very beginning of the graveyard, within the already too familiar large stone gates that marked the entrance of the resting place.
Its scope being national, the graveyard contained the remains of men from most of the main Canadian regiments. What we found just inside the gates, however, was a special dedication which shook me to my core. I took a picture of what it said so that I would never forget but I don’t think that’s even possible. The words remain forever burned into my soul:
I’m not naïve. I knew implicitly that if all of Canada sent its young men to the slaughter, there was no way Ottawa would have been spared. But seeing my hometown explicitly mentioned at the gateway to a place where so many were laid to their final rest – it was almost more than I could take.
random Historical Fact #20
In doing a bit more digging on the Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa, I discovered that not only were they the only Ottawa unit to land at Juno beach on D-Day, but that following the landing, their 1st Battalion took part in almost every single subsequent battle in the northwestern Europe campaign. Despite this important role in the fight against the Nazi war machine, the unit never actually got to fight entirely together after the beaches because they were divided up to support other companies. I imagine this must mean they were fierce fighters if it was looked upon as a worthwhile exercise to spread their power across as many units as possible. I can’t help but wonder, though, how it must have felt for these men to be divided up after their successful taking of Juno beach – unsure if any of them would ever meet again in this life. If you’re from Ottawa, you know how small this city is even now and it must have been even smaller then. These men must have known each other, likely found some small comfort at being able to fight side-by-side with neighbours and friends. To be forced to say goodbye without any promise of another hello…it just breaks my heart.
Despite the rain, I made a point to walk through every row and look at each and every name – both to pay my respects and to find all of the Ottawa men who lay there. There were just so many of them.
Near the end of my search, I found one young man from Ottawa who happened to be the same age as I was at the time. That’s where I chose to leave the maple leaf pendant that a dear friend had given me years earlier. I had been wearing it around my neck every single day since it was gifted to me, and I didn’t actually plan on taking it off as it meant so much to me, but I just wanted to leave something for him so badly. There were no adornments on his grave, no poppies or crosses, no flowers or photos, like some of the other graves had. I wasn’t sure if this young man’s grave had ever been visited, or if he even had any family left. I didn’t know him and I don’t even remember his name. But he was my age, from my hometown, and had died a horrible, violent death far from home fighting for the freedom of a country that was not his own. I felt the need to thank him with something important to me. A small personal sacrifice to recognize his supreme one.
Dad spent a while in the graveyard but had long ago returned to the car to wait until I was finished. To his credit, he didn’t rush me at all – something I appreciated more than I could express. As I knelt in the mud in front of the final grave, the collective grief that hung so heavy in the air in that place made it feel almost impossible to stand again. But rise I did, as Wodehouse so poignantly put it, with a sigh that seemed to come up from the soles of my feet. I rose to leave the way I’m sure all these men wish they could have, the way I wish they could have.
By the time I got back to the car, I was emotionally drained and completely soaked through but it was worth it.
I had thanked them all, each and every one.
Phew, I’m sorry to say it gets even darker from here on out.
I like to imagine, however, that the brave men and women who laid down their lives for us in this and other conflicts would want us to celebrate and appreciate something that was taken from them far too soon: Life.
Because life is beautiful.