We Remember

In honour of Remembrance Day, THN reposts the previously published 'The Canadian War Memorial In France'
10-15-2013  By: Lindsay Kyte
The Canadian War Memorial Experience In France

I wasn't sure what to expect when I was to be one of 10 travel professionals on the Remembrance Roads FAM trip from Sept. 18 to 24, 2013.

This FAM, sponsored by Atout France, Northern France and Normandy Regional Tourism Boards, Air France and Rail Europe, was to take us through all the major sites in Northern France and Normandy where Canadian soldiers left their mark during the two Great Wars.

The Canadian War Memorial Experience In France
In preparing, I realized that while I knew the basic sketches of what happened in the wars, details or any sort of personal resonance were not part of my reality. I wondered who I would be after seeing these sites – would I be changed? Would these events become more real for me? I decided to let the experience itself be my guide.

The flights on Air France were a great introduction to the French "joie de vivre" - great food, wine, cognac for digestion and pillows and blankets for a cozy flight. This sort of luxury was to be the norm throughout the trip.

!!!The Canadian War Memorial Experience In France
Our accommodations included Hôtel Novotel Lille Centre Grand Place (excellent food and a view of rooftops reminiscent of Mary Poppins), Hôtel Mercure Atria Arras Centre (close to fantastic shopping), Hôtel de l’Europe in Dieppe (I threw open my window to gaze at a stunning sunset right on the seashore), Thalazur Riva Bella Hotel in Ouistreham (incredibly luxurious, situated right on the beach and with such amazing hospitality that the room service lady was aghast that I only wanted white wine with my meal and insisted I have red as well, as I was having cheese), and Hôtel Novotel Rouen Sud (surrounded by forest and with a restaurant featuring a lovely array of aged Calvados, an apple brandy sure to warm up the body and the soul).

As for food, I quickly got used to the French way of dining - eat, talk, drink and three to five hours later, brush the crumbs from your lap and have a digestif.

Some of the dining highlights included Jour de Pêche restaurant in Lille, where the fish melted in your mouth and a "strawberry soup" featuring different types of sweet fruit made me toast the chef, the shrimp at Au Grand Duquesne in Dieppe (this East Coaster learned to crack them open like little lobsters) and a simple yet comforting dish made with Dijon mustard, gingerbread, beer and slow-cooked beef called "Carbonade Flamande" at L'Estaminet de Lorette restaurant.

The best part of every meal?

Before I left Canada, someone told me that the flour in France is different than that used in North America and the gluten intolerant can eat the bread in Europe. Being recently diagnosed with this condition and my favourite vegetable having always been bagels, I decided to test this theory out…and it proved to be true! I ate my bread, the person on my right's bread and the person on my left's bread at every meal. I don't regret it. Vive la bread of France!
 
But while this trip was to celebrate the joy of living, it was also for remembering lives lost so we Canadians could someday enjoy the delights I was lucky enough to now be experiencing.

Fromelles Australian Memorial Park
Our first day included visits to Fromelles Australian Memorial Park, Neuve-Chapelle Indian Memorial, Richebourg Portuguese Military Cemetery and Le Touret Military Cemetery and Memorial (Richebourg). When the van pulled up to the first memorial, something happened to me. I have seen veterans wipe away tears with white gloves every Remembrance Day when poems are read about "between the crosses, row on row."

But actually being there, standing in front of stark white crosses and gravestones, so silent, while the sun shines in the sky and the birds sing, is something entirely different.

All of a sudden, you realize the enormity of what happened - the sheer number of men and boys of many different countries, including Canada, buried right there, so far from home, with only a stone and words of love from their families to bid them goodbye.

I shook and shook with emotions I didn't know what to do with for each site we visited.

On the second day, we visited Wellington Quarry, the memorial of the Battle of Arras, and toured underground tunnels where over 20,000 men lived in preparation for a surprise attack, the tunnels featuring arrows indicating kitchens, latrines, etc. A visit to the German War Cemetery of La Maison Blanche brought surprise when we saw graves of Jewish causalities amidst the German crosses.

Cabaret Rouge Military Cemetery
Cabaret Rouge Military Cemetery
Cabaret Rouge Military Cemetery, we learned to look for maple leaves on the gravestones to indicate that this was a Canadian soldier. This is also the site from which the remains of an unknown Canadian soldier were exhumed in 2000 and laid to rest at the National War Memorial in Confederation Square, Ottawa. The next stop at the French National War Cemetery at Notre-Dame-de-Lorette took my breath away with its regal beauty.

It was then off to Vimy Ridge National Historic Site of Canada. As we drove up, this memorial rose up majestically, taking our breath away. Its sheer size, the impact of the statue of "Mother Canada" weeping over the fields below and the silence encompassing it were a true testament to the numbers of Canadian soldiers who bravely fought so we could stand there and try to contemplate, but never fully understand, generations later.

For a downhome Canadian touch, David Temple, co-president at Temple and Temple, brought Molson Canadian beer from Canada for toasting "our boys."  Though we weren't allowed to open them on the sites, we raised them in remembrance and later drank down these pints for our own who sacrificed for our freedom. The day ended with a visit to Louvre-Lens, a secondary site of the Louvre Museum, featuring one of the most famous paintings in France, "Liberty Leading the People."

Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial Park
Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial Park
Day Three turned into a very poignant one for me. When we arrived at Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial Park, I immediately teared up. I was soon to discover why, as this memorial is adorned with trees and flowers shipped in from Newfoundland. All I could think was, "It smells like home here."

This memorial became a highlight for many of us, as with these trees and flowers planted among the trenches where such tragedies took place, the grounds were alive and green. It felt like a tribute to lives lived rather than lives lost. We next visited the Thiepval Memorial, a magnificent memorial honouring all the missing of the Battle of the Somme.

I cried the most on Day Four in Dieppe at the Canadian Memorial dedicated to the Jubilee Operation of 1942. Here our guide, Daniel Jaspart, a passionate storyteller himself, showed us a video of veterans telling their stories that made the horrors experienced on the grounds upon which we were standing so real that I had to excuse myself to go outside and sob.

We again toasted our boys with some good old Canadian beer at the Dieppe Canadian War Cemetery. Some gravestones here included inscriptions that made me well up again, especially ones that ended with "Love Mom and Dad." All of a sudden, I was standing in front of a brother, cousin, son, husband, father.

We also toured the Mémorial de Caen museum. At one point in the day, I stood on the shores of Dieppe and just kept asking the sky, "Why?" I wondered why I was the lucky one who got to live in peace and enjoy lovely wine and cheese while those before me had to experience such pain and terror. Such realizations made me appreciate each breath I took and I decided then and there to celebrate each wonderful moment I had on this life-changing trip.

Canadian War Cemetery
Canadian War Cemetery
Our last day brought us to Beny-sur-Mer to visit the Canadian War Cemetery, where the fall leaves of Canadian maple trees gently fell on the silent stones of our men and boys.

We next toured the Juno Beach Centre, where a video that ended with a shot of a current day Canadian family walking Juno Beach with the spirits of hundreds of soldiers walking behind them left most of us sobbing.

Our last stop was at the Montormel Memorial Museum, site of the last battle of Normandy, where we saw horrific pictures of the "Corridor of Death," a small passage where thousands of soldiers died.

In the van later, we stopped at a picturesque bridge with flowers and butterflies. Our guide then said, "This is the Corridor of Death." It was shocking. There I saw one of the most beautiful sunsets of my life. It was such a contrast to the images of the gut-wrenching tragedies that took place on that soil decades ago.

Experiencing these sites was a journey from ignorance to awareness for me and I'm glad my heart and mind have been opened up to what my own sacrificed so I could live in peace. I've started wearing my poppy in September this year. And this year, after Nov. 11, it's still going to be on my lapel.

For more information on the Canadian War Memorial sites, visit atout-france.fr.

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