In exactly one month from today I will be heading back to Canada’s First World War battlefields in France and Belgium, this time as a chaperone leading a group of twenty high school students for the Vimy Foundation’s Vimy Pilgrimage Award Tour. I am honoured to have been selected to teach these young Canadians about the history of our country with this incredible experiential learning opportunity!
Check back soon for more posts on how my preparations for the tour are going!
Home again, Home again, That’s the song we love to sing, Gather round, gather round, Come let your voices ring, we’ll sing the old time melodies, the songs that bring back memories, Home again, Home again, That’s the song of the world to me. ~“Home Again” (1917)
After a few delays and a long flight, I finally made it home! Although I was sad to leave, I am excited to share my experiences with family and friends who have been following my travels over the past few weeks. I have over 3,000 photos, lots of souvenirs, and countless stories!
I am so grateful to have been selected to be part of the Canadian Battlefields Foundation study tour this year. The tour exceeded my expectations in every way – our guides were so knowledgeable and made the tour fun and engaging, I made lasting friendships with some amazing fellow students of history, and saw so many sites of Canadian history that I have been learning about for years. The memories I have of this trip will last a lifetime!
We spent the final day of our trip with some free time in Paris. It was a busy, whirlwind day as we tried to fit in as many sights as possible. The weather was beautiful but super hot, especially as we walked around and waited in lines.
Our first stop was Notre Dame Cathedral. The last time I was there it was Palm Sunday so this visit was much less busy and we had access to the entire cathedral. We didn’t make it to the outdoor observation floors of the cathedral so I would like to do that next time. We decided to stop at a restaurant across the street from Notre Dame for a quick break and something to eat – I had the best gelato and fries of the trip!
Next we went to the famous Shakespeare and Company bookstore. It was bustling with activity, especially for such a tiny place, with people reading in little nooks and a book discussion group meeting. I found a small, abridged version of Les Miserables (a fitting book to buy in Paris!) and a copy of Goodbye to All That (a fitting book to buy on a battlefield tour!). They even stamped the books inside with the Shakespeare and Company logo!
We wanted to make our way to the Eiffel Tower but had a bit of a mix-up with the metro so we had to take a bus instead. However, we ended up doing a tour around the whole city as a result of the stop we got on the bus from. But it turned out to be a good mistake because we drove by many of the famous sites of the city – the Louvre, the Arc du Triomphe, and Hotel des Invalides.
We finally made it to the Eiffel Tower, where we met up with other students from our group (some by sheer luck!) We looked like typical tourists trying to take a group selfie while fitting everyone in the picture as well as the Eiffel Tower. Luckily, there was a fellow Canadian tourist who offered to take a picture for us! We all went for one last dinner together as a group, and headed back to the hotel to get some rest before flying out in the morning. It was a fun but bittersweet day, knowing it was our last of the trip…
Today was our final day of the “battlefield” part of our tour. We discussed the final days of the Normandy Campaign, including the role the Canadians played in closing the Falaise gap. In Falaise, we visited their local museum that considers the civilian experience of war in the city. The impact of the war on civilians in France is not something emphasized enough within the Canadian narrative of the war, so it was interesting to read about it from the perspective of the French. The displays portrayed the message that even though the French, and people of Falaise in particular, were grateful to the Allies for liberating them from the Nazis, it was at the expense of many civilian deaths by devastating Allied bombings.
While we were in Falaise we also had the opportunity to visit William the Conqueror’s castle. Upon entry we received an iPad that, when activated in each room of the castle, showed a 360 degree view of what the room may have looked like. We saw the dining room, a few bedrooms, and the cellar. There was a look out at the very top of the castle with a beautiful view of Falaise and the countryside.
As we neared the end of the day, we took part in one of the CBF tour traditions with a photo op at St. Lambert-sur-Dives. There is a photo of Major David Currie accepting the surrender of German troops at St. Lambert-sur-Dives on 19 August 1944 (see below). We recreated this photo by positioning ourselves as those in the photo were almost 75 years ago, and stood in front of the same buildings that appear in the photograph at the time. We were standing in the middle of the road, holding baguettes instead of weapons, and had to have someone on the look out in case a car came by. One of our tour leaders was a student on the very first CBF tour and reenacted the photo as the same individual he portrayed as a student. I don’t have our version of the photo yet, but will post it once it’s shared with the group.
After a busy last day in Normandy, we all dressed up for a final dinner in Bayeux!
Today we visited the final Canadian War Cemetery of the tour at Bretteville-sur-Laize. After paying our respects to the Canadian soldiers buried there by placing flags at their graves and listening to a presentation on a soldier by one of the other students in our group, I decided to do a rubbing of one of the headstones. I used a crayon (rather than charcoal) to take a print of the maple leaf featured on all of the Canadian headstones. I found two Canadians in particular whose wartime experiences I would like to learn more about, so I did a rubbing of the inscriptions on their headstones.
The first soldier, Flying Officer Hong, was a Chinese-Canadian who was killed on 23 May 1944 at the age of 21. His epitaph reads, “Union of a Chinese heart with a Canadian spirit.” I thought this was a unique inscription that draws attention to the diversity of Canadians who fought during the Second World War.
The second soldier, Private Paff, was killed on 12 August 1944. A laminated display of photographs had been laid in front of his headstone, presumably by family members, with a note to Private Paff. There are photographs of his daughter whom he never had a chance to meet, as well as his grandchildren. It was nice to see that there were family members who had visited him and that he was still in their thoughts.
Today we took a bit of a break from the Battlefields and travelled back much earlier in time while visiting Mont Sainte Michel and Saint-Malo. I will let the photographs speak for themselves because it’s difficult to describe the landscapes. Mont Sainte Michel is a medieval monastery that continues to be a place of pilgrimage today. It was built in a location that could be accessed by foot during low tide. The population of the village is only 44, so most of the people we saw there were tourists. We walked around to take in the medieval architecture and the view through the windows. When we were there the tide was low so we walked the beach in front of the stone walls and picked up a few seashells. We even had a picnic while we were walking the old streets, seated in a little alcove making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches! As people walked by they smiled and said “Bon appetite!”
We continued further west to Saint-Malo, a walled port city that was once famous for privateering (pirates approved by the king). This is also the location where Jacques Cartier began his travels to “discover” Canada. It was a neat connection to Canadian history to see his grave inside the cathedral in the main city square. There was also a castle to walk out to since the tide was low at that point. From there you could see for miles along the beach in both directions.
I also remembered that a book I recently read called All the Light we Cannot See was about a young girl from Paris who flees with her father following the Nazi occupation of Paris to live in Saint-Malo with her extended family. I always like having the opportunity to see the places I’ve read about in books!
Today was a moving and emotional day of ceremonies hosted by the Canadian Battlefields Foundation in the city of Caen. We took part in three ceremonies in different locations around the city, each with its own theme: education, commemoration, and remembrance. In the time since these ceremonies I have taken the opportunity to reflect on how these themes emerged not only today but throughout the trip as a whole.
We began the day at the Memorial de Caen where the first ceremony would be held following lunch. We had some time to visit the museum’s exhibits which were on the whole very well designed, and we watched a powerful short film documenting the D-Day landings. It has been interesting to consider some of the differences in the topics emphasized by various countries according to national experiences, common narratives, and myths. One important observation we made was that there was a lack of Canadian content in the exhibits we visited. Our group leaders explained to us that a Canadian Memorial Garden was created at the museum to recognize the Canadian role in the Battle of Caen. This was the location of our first ceremony.
The Canadian Memorial Garden features a reflecting pool with a Latin phrase inscribed on it, meaning “No day will erase you from the memory of time.” The theme of education was prevalent during this ceremony because there was an emphasis on the importance of younger generations continuing to pass on the stories of those who experienced the war. The museum grounds were a very suitable location for this theme as well because museums are one way that knowledge of the past is transmitted. There are some fellow students on the tour who wish to work in museums in the future in order to share their passion for history with a public audience of all ages. On a personal note, my experiences on this tour have greatly influenced my professional development as a teacher. I look forward to passing on the knowledge and stories I have gathered during the tour, and hope to one day return to the battlefields leading a student tour of my own.
The second ceremony took place at a Canadian memorial in the streets of Caen. The theme was commemoration, which I found very fitting because the ceremony demonstrated the collective nature of commemoration. As we all gathered on the sidewalk and onto the street, citizens of Caen began to come out onto their balconies to watch the ceremony. There were people of all ages – some who may have remembered the liberation and young children who are being brought up within a strong culture of remembrance. I was honoured to have the opportunity to lay a wreath with the Honourary Ambassador of the Regiment de la Chaudiere in France during the ceremony to commemorate the Canadians who helped liberate Caen. One aspect of all of the ceremonies we took part in that surprised me was that the French people know the words to O Canada. As our national anthem began to play, a chorus of singing filled the streets, reflecting the harmony in these French and Canadian commemorative efforts.
The final ceremony of the day, and the most sombre was at the Abbaye D’Ardenne where we gathered in memory of the 20 Canadian soldiers murdered by the 12th SS Panzer Division. This ceremony focused on remembrance, honouring the soldiers individually as each of the students on the tour laid a maple leaf brought from Canada. Throughout our tour we have highlighted the stories of individual soldiers who gave their lives during both world wars. This has allowed us to consider the personal elements of war. I was overcome with emotion during the moment of silence as I heard birds in song flying between the trees of the Abbaye’s garden, creating a feeling of peacefulness to contrast with the horrors these Canadian men endured. I also glanced over at the banner of their pictures and names throughout the moment of silence and the singing of O Canada. They are among those we must remember.
Today we commemorated the D-Day landings with a series of ceremonies. We began the day at 8am (the time of the landings) at Canada House on Juno Beach, a house that stood in the same location on 6 June 1944 as it does today. The weather was much like it had been 73 years ago, windy, rainy, and cold. As we stood huddled together in a group we thought about the Canadian boys who withstood much worse conditions that day than we did. The ceremony at Canada House involved locals and Canadian Battlefields Foundation members, and a few veterans were introduced to the group. Following the ceremony we had the opportunity to speak with two veterans, one British and the other from British Columbia. They were overwhelmed by emotions and so happy to hear that young Canadians were here to learn about the wars and honour those who were lost.
In the afternoon, we went to the Juno Beach Centre to take part in their ceremony. Another student (also named Sarah) and I laid a wreath together on behalf of the Canadian Battlefield Foundation. Due to the weather, we had to quickly lay the wreaths then proceed inside to a meeting room for the rest of the ceremony. Unfortunately there was limited space so most of our group was unable to see the ceremony. The Canadian veteran we met in the morning shared his story with the group which was very moving. He talked about his experiences on D-Day and making his way through to western Germany. He said that many German people felt as if they had been liberated by the Canadians as well because they were living in oppression under the rule of Hitler and the Nazis. The ceremony continued with the playing of the Marseillaise, God Save the Queen, and O Canada by a brass band. The music was stirring as we were in a small space, and it was great to hear the anthems played live.
Sarah and I introduced ourselves to many of the people involved with the ceremony, including the Canadian Ambassador to France and the owners of Canada House. It was a bit funny to watch their faces as one of us would introduce ourselves in French and the other would say “my name is Sara(h) too!” It certainly made things easier to remember!
Following the Juno Beach Centre ceremony we proceeded to the Beny-sur-Mer cemetery for the final one of the day. More students from our group placed wreaths and many of the same individuals involved with the other two ceremonies were there as well. We also heard from the same brass band as before, this time outdoors.
Overall, it was a very nice day of ceremonies in honour of those who fought on D-Day. We will remember them.
The most difficult part of today was our visit to the Abbaye D’Ardenne. This was the site of the murder of 11 Canadian Prisoners of War on 7 June 1944 during the Normandy Campaign. The Canadian soldiers had been captured by the Germans, and taken to the regimental headquarters of SS commander Kurt Meyer at the Abbaye. Upon the soldiers’ refusal to give up any information other than their name, rank, and number, they were forced outside and shot in the head. A few of the bodies were later discovered to have sustained serious beatings prior to being shot. There are accounts that the Canadian men shook hands with their fellow comrades before being led into the garden, knowing what was to come.
These Canadian men were denied a proper burial at the hands of the Nazis and placed in an unmarked mass grave. The bodies were later discovered by the inhabitants of the Abbaye and laid to rest in the local Commonwealth cemeteries, with the exception of one soldier whose body has not been located. Kurt Meyer was later convicted of war crimes under the Geneva Convention which prohibited the killing of Prisoners of War, but his sentence was commuted from the death penalty to life imprisonment and he was allowed free in 1954.
It was chilling to stand in the garden in the exact place these Canadian soldiers were murdered. There is a permanent banner that hangs along the wall of the Abbaye with the photos and names of each of the 11 men murdered on 7 June as well as those Canadian POWs later shot by the Germans in the same location. This allowed me to associate the atrocities with actual people, and reading of their individual stories was heartbreaking.
I would like to end by listing the names of each of the Canadian soldiers. We will remember them.
North Nova Scotia Highlanders:
Private Ivan Crowe
Private Charles Doucette
Corporal Joseph MacIntyre
Private Reginald Keeping
Private James Moss
27th Armoured Regiment:
Trooper James Bolt
Trooper George Gill
Trooper Thomas Henry
Trooper Roger Lockheed
Trooper Harold Philip
Lieutenant Thomas Windsor
With D-Day drawing near, the streets of Normandy are filled with reenactors driving around in Jeeps and on motorcycles while dressed in period clothing. I have seen soldiers and sailors, a few medics, and women dressed as Rosie the Riviter and in wartime civilian clothing. It makes the area come alive and it’s easier to imagine what these towns looked like during the war…until the people break out their barbecues for hotdogs and fries!
The highlight of the day for me was our lunchtime stop in Sainte-Mere-Eglise, one of the first towns liberated on D-Day. The square was alive with music, reenactors, and shops. We went into the church in the main city square – which is associated with a great wartime story. Private John Steele, an American Paratrooper, was part of the airborne units dropped as part of the D-Day invasion. He was unable to make his target area and landed at the top of the church steeple. He hung from that spot for several hours until he was rescued. To commemorate this story, the town has placed a mannequin paratrooper hanging from the church as Private Steele did on D-Day. As we were approaching, one of our group leaders tried to trick us and said “Ahh, it looks like they’ll be switching out that poor lad soon for him to break for lunch.” Some of us did a quick double take before realizing the joke!
We also had an opportunity to sit on one of the many tanks and other vehicles displayed around the town. The French men were just about to finish up their tank “tours” for the day when we asked if we could sit up on a tank for a picture. At first they were going to say that they were done for the day but when we said we were Canadian they said they’d allow us just because we are Canadian! I have found myself feeling very proud to be a Canadian throughout his trip, and it’s amazing to see how grateful the people of France still are to their liberators 73 years later!