With an incredible journey covering the monuments, cemeteries, and battlefields of the First World War behind us, our group of 21 looked forward to walking in the footsteps of the Canadians who served during the Second World War.
Our first stop on the second leg of our tour was the coastal city of Dieppe. True to the Dieppe Raid’s controversial place within the historiography of the Canadian contribution to Second World War, merely being at the site elicited a very visceral and emotional reaction from everyone in the group. In hindsight, the emotionally charged hours we spent in Dieppe set the tone for the rest of the trip. We were no longer passive observers of remote events, but proud Canadians, struggling to come to terms with the loss of life and devastation which Canadians endured during the Second World War. Indeed, a tearful and heartfelt family connection on Puys beach at Dieppe helped us all to realize that although there are many decades separating us from the horrors of 1942, some scars never truly heal.
Hannah Burnett at the grave of her Great Uncle in the Dieppe War Cemetery
As we moved into the Normandy region, a palpable sense of pride permeated the group. Never was this more noticeable than on the day we walked Juno Beach. With the tide out, and the entirety of Juno Beach exposed, the group travelled the water’s edge, which was several hundred meters from the high-water mark and the first bits of cover for those who were part of the first assault parties some 67 years ago. It was impossible not to marvel at the bravery and tenacity of the men who fought their way up the flat and coverless tidal plains of the Normandy beaches. A brief jog from the water’s edge back to the shore gave us a small measure of insight as to what the Canadians must have experienced so many years ago.
Our stop at the Queen’s Own Rifles House, one of the first houses in Europe liberated by the Allies, was just as moving. Mr. Hoffer, whose family owned the house during the Second World War, saw our group milling about outside and without a moment’s hesitation invited us in. His hospitality was made all the more sincere by the fact that he and his family had left their lunch half-eaten in order to show us about their home.
In the following days, our group trekked inland, slowly making progress, much like the Canadian soldiers did so many years ago. We quickly gained an appreciation for just how difficult the going was for the Canadians, for the vagaries of war had conspired to array the most powerful German divisions (including the most combat worthy of the German Panzer, or tank divisions) directly on the axis along which the Canadians advanced. A series of excellent stands by our Professors, Sarty and Farrugia, were capped off by the presentations of Matt Symes, who guided us along the path taken inland by the nearly forgotten New Brunswick North Shore Regiment.
From a strategic and tactical standpoint, the culmination of our tour lay around Falaise. However, from an emotional standpoint, the climax of our tour was surely the presentation at the Abbaye d’Ardenne, where the 12th SS Panzer Division murdered Canadian prisoners of war. In what was perhaps the most involved discussion of the entire tour, every member of the group weighed in on a subject which hit surprisingly close to home. You could not help but feel upset, or even angry, when confronted with the topic of the cold-blooded murder of our fellow countrymen.
On a more personal note, our side trip to the small town of Arromanches, situated on the coast and within the boundaries of Gold Beach, helped to add a personal touch to the tour for me. Having given a presentation on the artificial ports known as the Mulberries, it was an incredible experience for me to see them in person. Despite having a good idea of the scale and layout of the surviving Mulberry B at Arromanches, I could not help but stare in open admiration at the colossal remains of the breakwater units which are visible at low tide. Having given my presentations at the very end of the tour, I belatedly understood how all of my classmates undoubtedly felt when confronted with the battlefields, monuments, and grave sites which they so brilliantly discussed during their presentations.
Rob Cook takes a moment to marvel at what is left of the Mulberries in Arromanches
Although we all began the tour with an academic understanding of the trials and tribulations of the two World Wars, we finished the tour with a new perspective on war and how we commemorate the fallen. To me, this was particularly evident in the Second World War military cemeteries. In the previous week we were all dismayed by the sheer size of the Great War military cemeteries. By the second half of the tour, though, our focus shifted subtly, away from the cemeteries as a whole, and increasingly onto the headstones and their personalized messages of anger, loss, love, and pride. I firmly believe that by experiencing this gamut of emotions we began to understand, in some small way, the experiences endured by Canadians who lived through the two World Wars.