This year we have heard a lot and read about anniversaries of wars gone by, but for all Canadians, June 6 was a special day.
This June, a local group of 34, led by Martin and Helen Boomsma from Georgetown, visited European fields of battle.
We started our tour in England and after some sightseeing, I met with three granddaughters who were touring Europe. On the fourth day we crossed the English Channel by ferry to Dieppe. We traveled to Normandy and on to Vimy Ridge, through Belgium to Holland.
At Juno Beach we waited a long time for the dignitaries to arrive while we watched thousands of visitors arrive, many youth and veterans.
We waived our “Keeping The Memory Alive” banner.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper thanked Shelburne high school students for their contribution, as they have honoured more veterans than any other school in Canada and raised more than $30,000 for the Juno Beach Centre.
I met teacher Neil Orford and his students at a Canadian cemetery. Here we also met Doug Kirkwood, member of Erin Legion.
At this cemetery I found the grave of an Erin soldier, Allan Perryman. Our group, including three veterans, held a ceremony by the big cross and other visitors joined us. After saying a prayer I laid a wreath in name of the Erin Legion on Perryman’s grave. I added some Canada flags on the grave, an Erin town pin and a thank you medal from the Dutch government on the wreath.
We visited several cemeteries along the beaches surrounded by trees, joined the Veteran Affairs Canada official ceremony and were invited to join another Canadian group of visitors in their ceremony. We saw many young people from Guelph searching for graves to write stories.
Most people in our group came to find graves and names of relatives. One from Owen Sound brought sand and placed it on her uncle’s grave – the sand came from the farm where her uncle lived. It was an emotional and educational experience.
So many WWI graves … in and around Ieper, Belgium alone there are 120 war cemeteries! One is named Adanac (Canada spelled backwards); I read on one grave, “He did his duty nobly and in silence we remember him”; and on another, “Known only to God.”
Everywhere we proudly carried Canada flags, placing them on Canadian graves, and we also handed out Canada lapel pins.
European people were still thanking us for their freedom. At Menin Gate in Ieper we attended the Last Post ceremony, which is held every evening and our three veterans laid a wreath here. On this gate, there are 55,000 names from WWI.
Here I met a man from Scotland looking for a name of a distant relative, and still thanking me for his freedom! I gave him a Canada pin and he could not hold back his tears.
Martin Boomsma led us through the battle fields at Vimy Ridge and with his expansive knowledge it often felt as if we were in the middle of war; he knows in what field or orchard the soldiers fought or stayed in.
At Vimy Ridge he took us through the trenches, which are now lined with cement stones. I bought a little clicker, a replica of what soldiers used to warn each other by one or two clicks. Here we were told that we are on Canadian soil (France granted Canada “freely and for all time” the use of 100 hectares of land on Vimy Ridge, in recognition of Canada’s war effort); 3,590 Canadians died here.
Beautiful grounds and monuments greet visitors. Each tree planted represents a fallen soldier and sheep keep the grounds mowed.
From Ieper we also visited Essex Farms Cemetery where John McCrae wrote his famous poem In Flanders Fields after his friend Alex Helmer died.
We went to Langemarck, German cemetery where the Kindermoord occurred, untrained students were mowed down by British.
Poison gas was used as a weapon here; it would enter the lungs, which would fill with fluid so the victim could not breath and died a horrible death. When it came to the Canadians, they were told to urinate on their handkerchief and breath in it, as that would partly stop the penetration.
At Vancouver Corner we saw a nice monument and trees shaped like bullets and shrubs like explosions.
Everywhere in France we saw Canadian flags and monuments, some in the roundabouts. At McDonald’s workers wore red shirts with Canadian logos. I use to get excited when I saw something Dutch in Canada – in France it was nice to see something Canadian!
We saw war planes fly by, parachutes dropping, local ceremonies held, “Keep Them Rolling” war vehicles from Holland, heard many inspiring speeches, and at Juno Beach Centre we admired a large memorial made in Georgetown.
Here we also noticed people wanting signatures of our veterans, we met young twins wearing the medals of their grandfather, who died recently and whose ashes they brought to Juno Beach.
At a German cemetery we were told Hitler had visited here. We were also told Napoleon wore a red jacket so the blood would not show – and that was the reason Hitler wore brown pants.
From France the soldiers bore through to the Scheld in Holland, where there were 6,000 casualties and in September 1944 the Canadians reached to free us.
In May of 1945, after the hunger winter, the rest of Holland was liberated by mostly Canadians soldiers.
We plan to go there next May to help celebrate.
Let’s all remember, reminisce, give thanks, hope and pray that we will never have to endure a world war again.