I wrote this piece several years ago; I hadn’t thought about it for some time, but the recent loss of two Canadian soldiers in Ottawa and in Saint-Jean-Sur-Richelieu changed that.
Today is Remembrance Day. The eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month. Please take two short minutes out of your day to remember and to offer a silent thank you to all who were willing to take up arms in the service of Canada.
It’s low tide, and I have trekked out about 200 metres from the shore. It’s about as far as I can go without getting wet, and as I have no desire to make the drive back to Paris with some of the English Channel sloshing around in my shoes, I decide to stop where I am and take a moment to survey the surroundings.
A bright sun is shining down on Normandy today; there is a cool breeze, but you can see the heat shimmering off the sand dunes that line the shore. The air carries with it the tang of the sea, and I stand quietly, knowing full well that I am on sacred ground, and at the same time not quite sure of my worthiness to be here. I have waited years to come to this place, and despite my efforts at stoicism I feel the waves of emotion and history crash over me.
I am standing on Juno Beach.
For reasons that I don’t completely understand, I have always felt the need to come here and see the beach with my own eyes. I suppose part of it is personal, as both my parents were veterans of WWII, although neither served here. Another aspect is probably simple Canadian patriotism. Regardless of the reasons, a trip to France has given my family and me the opportunity experience Juno Beach.
Standing here, I am horribly conflicted. War is hell; I have never believed anything else. Yet it’s hard to come to this place, understand what was accomplished here and not feel some degree of pride.
Out on the tidal flat, I am standing where the soldiers of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles started disembarking from their landing craft. The small town of Courseulles-sur-Mer is just off to the east, nestled behind the river Seulles. To the west is a small sailing school, but no one is sailing today – despite the sunshine and the breeze the beach is relatively deserted. I try to imagine the sights that greeted these young men as they emerged from their landing craft – barbed wire, mines and obstacles strewn across the beach; smoke from the bombardment clinging to the shoreline; bright orange flashes from pillboxes and gun emplacements embedded in amongst the dunes; the thunder of the shells exploding on the beach; landing craft burning; the whine of bullets. And bodies of course; carnage and death everywhere.
A scene such as this is completely beyond my comprehension. It is so far removed from any reality that I have known that I can only stand in stunned silence and try to absorb the enormity of what happened here, of what these men accomplished and of what it cost.
I feel very exposed this far out from the shore, almost like a target in a shooting gallery. It makes me want to hurry back, but my daughter feels no such compulsion. Living in Toronto we don’t often see the ocean, and this is a treat that can’t be passed up. We take our time – she explores for seashells while I collect some sand. We can linger on the beach as we have the luxury of time, something that the young men from Winnipeg did not have. The gulls screech over our heads as we follow an erratic path back to the shore.
It was shells that were screeching overhead on D-Day. I have spoken to a soldier who was here on that day, who left his landing craft with ten men and reached the beach with only two. I still try to do the math, but I can’t. How does one make sense of an equation such as that?
I have tried to explain to my son and daughter what happened on Juno Beach, but it’s difficult to reconcile the horrors of 1944 with the beauty and serenity of today. Men fought and died here. On top of the shattered remains of a gun emplacement we look across the beach, and I ask them try to imagine what it have been like to be on the beach that day. To me it looks like a killing field – I know that these gun emplacements where virtually untouched by the naval bombardment and that they were ready and waiting for the Royal Winnipeg Rifles when they landed. I visualize the overlapping fields of fire from these guns, and wonder how anyone made it off the beach alive that day.
We leave the beach and spend a couple of hours exploring the Juno Beach Centre. My daughter wants to hear the stories of the participants and is determined to investigate every audio/video presentation in the Centre. My wife, a teacher, is as interested in how the information is presented as much as the information itself. My son is most interested in the weapons that are displayed, as I would have been at his age, but there is surprisingly few of them. As for me, I am not disappointed. The information in the Centre is both accurate and realistic, it makes me proud to be a Canadian and even prouder of the men who fought here.
We finish our tour of the Centre, and head back to our car, but before we make our way back to Paris there is one more place we need to visit. It’s just a short drive from the beach.
In a few short minutes we are standing next to an oasis of greenery in the midst of a farmer’s fields on small hill overlooking the town and the beach. Hedges and large trees line its perimeter, providing shade and acting as a buffer against the outside world. Standing out above the trees is a large Canadian flag, and beneath the flag are the graves of more than 2,000 Canadians.
The wind is rustling the leaves of the trees at Benys-sur-Mer; birds are singing as we wander about. Every now and then I catch the fragrance of the many roses growing around the graves. It is a serene and peaceful place, the tranquility belying the violent end faced by these men. The inscriptions on the gravestones brings the human cost of war into focus with painful clarity, none more so than this – “remembrance is the better part of love … sadly missed by wife and infant son”. The soldier was just 24 years old. I look at my son, not all that far away from that age, and I shiver.
The beauty of the cemetery is a surprise, but as I walk around I can’t shake the feeling of melancholy that has come over me. This is a place so beautiful, but yet so sad. They were all so young. They were sons of farmers, sons of miners, sons of bankers. Sons of mothers; and they’ve been gone over 70 years. The stone of remembrance at the entrance to the cemetery carries a simple inscription – “Their Name Liveth For Evermore”. I can’t help but feel that as the memory of WWII fades that their names, and their sacrifice, will also fade.
We place our own flags in front of the stone, the red of the maple leaf in stark contrast to the brilliant white of the memorial.
Then it suddenly it strikes me precisely why I needed to come. It is the simple need to bear witness to what happened here and to make sure it is not forgotten. What happened on Juno Beach all those years ago mattered then and it still matters today. I need to let my children see with their own eyes and hear with their own ears what happened here so that they can better appreciate the sacrifice that was made. They need to remember this place; Juno Beach needs to be more than a fact in a textbook; it needs to be a truth they can hold in their hearts.
Canadians owe a debt to the men who rest in the cemetery at Benys-Sur-Mer, as well as all the other men and women who fought in WWII and in other conflicts. It is a debt that can never be repaid, but it is a debt that needs to be acknowledged. Perhaps the best acknowledgement is simple remembrance.
As we walk back to our car, I look out past the cemetery and the town and see the English Channel. It shimmers in the sunlight, a brilliant band of blue separating the shore and the horizon. I close my eyes and try to burn the image of this place into my memory. Tomorrow my family and I will cross the Channel to England to finish our vacation. The likelihood that we will ever return this way is slim.
But we will always remember.