In September 2013, I was invited by ATOUT France on a memorial FAM to Northern France and Normandy. To tell you the truth, I thought the trip might not be my cup of tea. Upon getting the assignment, I realized I knew only the basic sketches of the two wars from studies in high school. As well, I had no personal connection to either war.
My first instinct was to do some research so I would have an informed perspective. But then, I stopped. I realized, in my current state of ignorance, I represented not only a lot of my own generation but those generations after me for whom the war might often be nothing but a bunch of dates we once memorized for a Friday quiz. Those happenings are so far removed from our reality they seem almost fictional.
I then decided to do something unconventional for someone in my field – I decided that my ignorance was my greatest advantage in this situation, from a storytelling point of view. What would happen when I got there? Would I be moved at all? The confusion, loss of life, bravery, comradery, terror - would it somehow sink in merely by standing on those grounds? I decided this was the story I wanted to tell – one I hoped would be my journey from “ignorance” to “awareness.”
It was also my first time in France and I had just discovered that for some reason even the gluten-intolerant (like me) can eat the bread there. So at first, I was gleefully sipping French wine and eating all the bread from not only my table but from the other tables around me. Then we went to the first memorials – those of the Allied soldiers in Lille. Something started there, a feeling that grew throughout my trip. You know how in a movie, the camera zooms in on one single thing and then zooms out, making you realize it is one of thousands and thousands? That was what happened at these memorials. The sheer number of crosses astounded me. I also couldn’t get over the stark silence pervading the rows of immaculate white stones. It felt like the grounds were holding their breath after the screams and noise of so much pain, resulting in a silence so sacred and so sad I could barely breathe myself.
The next day, all of us were a little more silent ourselves. What I was experiencing hit home even a little more when we stopped at the Cabaret Rouge Military Cemetery in Souchez. I was wandering slowly through the gravestones, trying to pinpoint exactly what I felt being in these quiet pockets of remembrance amidst everyday life. Then Bryen Dunn of Active Journeys pointed something out to me: “If you look at the graves here, you can tell the Canadians by the maple leaf engraved on the top.” Sure enough, there lay before me rows upon rows of maple leaves carved in stone, marking boys and men of my own buried so far from home. From then on, I looked for maple leaves everywhere we visited. In one cemetery later on, I dropped to my knees and started to read the inscriptions. “Sleep well, Love Mom and Dad” was the message of love from across the ocean engraved on one stone. This one broke me down. I pictured a boy, a teenager, seeing the sky for the last time in this foreign land and back home in Canada, a kitchen table with two sad parents gazing at a chair that would never be filled again. As I wept, Eric Moe of Victours leaned down and comforted me by pointing out the maple trees up above, providing shelter and gently raining leaves softly down on Canadian graves. It was reassuring to know there was a little piece of home there with those who would never see it again.
Vimy Ridge rose up majestically as we drove up the hill, taller and starker against the grey sky than I had ever imagined. The statue of Mother Canada wept over the fields below. It was imposing and again, so silent that I almost felt I had to whisper even though we were outside. It gave me the sense that the events that had taken place there were enormous and had changed our world forever. Yet I still craved more of the personalization I had started to feel when weeping over the graves of individual Canadian soldiers.
That personalization was to arrive when we pulled up to the grounds of Beaumont-Hamel, the Newfoundland War Memorial. I am originally from the East Coast (Cape Breton), yet hadn’t heard of this place before. As we walked on the grounds, which were green and alive with plants, trees and flowers, my eyes started to water. A Canadian student tour guide emerged and told us that all the trees and flowers on the ground had been shipped in from Newfoundland. I was smelling “home,” the East Coast of Canada, all the way here in France and my body knew it before my mind did. A bronze caribou statue oversaw these trenches alive with trees and flowers, its identical mate overseeing the people and shops of St. John’s, Newfoundland, 2,500 miles away. It was a powerful memorial, a tribute to lives lived instead of lives lost and it was easy to picture Newfoundland men and boys not only fighting here but also singing, laughing and dreaming of the rocky shores back home.
Arriving in Dieppe, in need of a little relief, we enjoyed some seafood and danced joyfully in the streets to the bands celebrating life on the cobblestones. The next day, at the memorial for Operation Jubilee, we were greeted by a true storyteller – our guide Daniel Jaspart, who told us his job was to give us the “little history in the big history.” Daniel’s stories, as well as the video depicting some of the horrors, miracles and coincidences that led to life, death and love during the war made most of us weep uncontrollably. Already tear-sodden from my time at Beaumont-Hamel, I now fully gave into sobbing. I then snuck outside the building and tried to record what it meant to me to have these events finally sink in right there on the streets where I had danced the night before. You can hear this short audio recording here.
By day five, my eyes were permanently red from my heart breaking open to let in events that caused so much pain to those who came before me. Though we had now been privy to all sorts of memorials to commemorate the wars in different ways, I was about to see one more that felt somehow more fitting than all the rest. In the Canadian War Cemetery in Beny-sur-Mer, I heard the familiar sound of a beer can popping open. I looked over to see David Temple of Temple and Temple and Terry Sullivan of Aldershot Travel Services grinning naughtily as they executed their own tribute in true Canadian style - each of them held in his hand a can of Molson Canadian beer. “Look,” said David, “I smuggled them over in my suitcase because I thought our boys would like a little taste of back home, being so far away.” I smiled and thought about how the idea of a pint in their local pub back home would probably have been the most comforting of all to these Canadian lads. We all had a cheers to them, our boys, right there in the graveyard. It felt absolutely right and one year later after this trip, it still strikes me as one of the best moments I experienced while in France.
I thought my story ended with my flight back into Canada, but it didn’t. I flew from France into St. John’s, Newfoundland, where I was attending a music and theatre conference. I was staying with a local actor, Erin Winsor, and her family. When I arrived, her father Derek opened the door and offered me a glass of wine. After coming from France, drinking wine was what I did best. We chatted for a bit and he finally shyly asked me, “Not to pry, but why are you wearing a poppy on your lapel? It’s September.” I regaled him with tales of my travels and especially focused on how much my time at Beaumont-Hamel moved me. As I was speaking, Derek’s eyes started to well up. “What is it?” I said. “You don’t understand,” he replied. “I’m a travel agent and my lifelong dream has been to send 801 Newfoundlanders over to Beaumont-Hamel so on July 1, 2016, there will be one there for every Newfoundlander killed, each bearing the name of one solider on a card. But I never knew quite who to talk to about it or how to get it started.” “Oh my God,” I replied. “The lady who pinned this poppy on my lapel is the person you need to talk to.” “I know,” said Derek with a smile. This trip, called the Beaumont- Hamel Freedom 100 Tour, is now happening through Derek’s company, E & B Travel (www.derekwinsor.com). Later on in this music and theatre conference, singer/songwriter Lizzy Hoyt, who spent a year in France to research for her songs, would take the stage to sing her song about Vimy Ridge. I tried to interview her. It didn’t work. We both cried too hard to make much sense to anyone but it felt good for both of us to talk to someone who could relate – someone who had walked those grounds and who had felt something change forever when she did.
Given how this trip impacted me both when I was there and when I came back home, it seems these memorials have done their duty in relaying a sense of the horrors of these events to those so far removed that war seems unthinkable. Eric Moe, who hosts student tours of these memorials, says mothers often call him to say their children are changed after standing on those grounds in France – more mature, more informed and taking less for granted. One year later, what I saw in France still has a profound effect on me. I was glad for the opportunity to go and glad to be a conduit for Derek’s tribute tour to come in 2016. Back here in Canada, this Remembrance Day is different for me, just as it was last year. Though I’ll stand with those who fall silent at 11:00, when we find our voices again, I know just how I’ll pay tribute – just like we all did once upon a time in a graveyard in France - by raising a brew to our boys.