A few months ago the last Canadian veteran from the First World War passed away and this will soon be the case with all the veterans from the Second World War. As these living testaments to the war effort continue to disappear it is growing more important to investigate the ways in which we memorialize the sacrifices of all those who fought for freedom. I have seen how the Canadian war effort is memorialized in Canada, where almost every small town has a monument dedicated to those who did not come back from their time in the war. What I had no idea about is how these soldiers are remember in the place where they died fighting for their country. As such have been travelling for the last month from memorial site to memorial site and documenting how these young men are remembered overseas.
Throughout this trip I have been finding the graves of each of the 120 men from my hometown who served in the Army during WWII and who died in the war. I have also been leaving a small poppy, which is a symbol of remembrance in Canada, at the grave of each of these men. This has been an intense journey so far and I have been to over 20 different memorial locations. In this location I have not only found over 100 of the men from my hometown who died but saw over 50,000 graves and memorials to those who fell in the war. It would be impossible to recount everything that I have experienced but here are a few snapshots from my trip so far.
Groesbeek Canadian War Cemetery
Well today was the worst day of the trip so far, until the last 3 hours, which have made it the best day so far, or at least countered all the bad to bring it back to a neutral day.
So I began the day in Bielefeld, and took 3 trains to get to Arnhem. The second and longest train I had to stand the entire way because there was no other spot for me.Okay, standing for an hour and a half with 45 pounds on my back sounds awful, but it was only mildly uncomfortable due to the epic awesomeness that is my back pack. So then the train from Arnhem to Nijmegen is cancelled for the next few weeks so I have to take a bus. A bus that takes 2 hours to go the 20 km to Nijmegen. Okay I can deal with that I have some nice scenery to look at.
But then I get to Nijmegen and there is some sort of convention going on, and so every hotel is booked. Believe me, I checked, which means walking for an hour and a half all over town (with my backpack) to talk to every hotel, even bed in breakfasts.
So I resign myself to just visiting the memorial location and then taking a train to another city to stay the night. After getting information from the tourist information booth, I get on another bus, for another hour, as it winds it way through small towns and eventually dumps me near a museum. So I take a guess based on my impeccable sense of direction, which has served me remarkably well so far, and start walking. Nearly 10 minutes later, I find my first sign. Aha! I guessed right. Well then I continue walking and it turns out this sign deals with distances a car would be experiencing. Half an hour later, and I am still walking. Keep in mind this is the fifth or sixth hour with my backpack on and kilometer 15 or 20 that I have walked, and the charm is starting to wear off.
And now for the good part. I arrive at Groesbeek and this is the largest and nicest memorial I have been to thus far. All of a sudden I remembered the reason I was here. It wasn’t to get angry at trains or hotels, it was to visit these sites and see how the soldiers from my hometown are remembered.
This war cemetery has over 2000 graves and is home to 16 fallen soldiers from my hometown. At first I had the impression that there was a lot of graves, but I didn’t really get a sense of it before I began walking around and finding each individual. There are an incredible amount of graves, and even walking amongst them doesn’t give you the sense of scale. It isn’t until you start going through and trying to find certain people that you realize just how many grave you are walking past. For each person that I found, I was walking past over a hundred other graves. The sheer number of graves was astounding, and I know that this isn’t the largest commonwealth grave location nor is it the only. Saying the words “there are 2000 people in this cemetery” doesn’t really convey how many people that is.
As I was leaving, an older man with two children asked me what I was placing on the graves. I explained what the poppy symbolizes to the people of Canada, and gave a poppy to him and each of his daughters. We got to talking about what I was doing (his English was very limited but we eventually got it figured out) and he was so impressed he offered me a ride back to town rather than take the bus. I took it a while and while we were driving we talked about why he came to the memorial and why he brought his daughters each year. He ended up even offering me a place to stay for the night, which I declined, but it meant a lot to me to see just how much it meant to this Dutch man what I was doing. He spoke about how grateful everyone in the town still was and the celebrations they have at the beginning of May to commemorate the end of the war and the sacrifices made.
I then got on a train and arrived in ‘s-Hertogenbosch( I have no idea how to say that) and found the only hotel in the entire town. It was a bit expensive, but it was the last room in town, and there is an incredible jazz festival going on here all night long. Did I mention it was named the best hotel in Europe in 2000. That’s pretty amazing for the price I got.
I learned an important lesson today: know when to plan ahead. I went into this with the idea that I would just wing it and find places to sleep and things to do right then and there. But I know realize that there is a time and place to plan ahead, particularly weekends, but that you still shouldn’t block out each timeslot of the entire trip. If I had planned everything to a T, I never would be here listening to dueling saxophones while drinking cappuchino and a ball of whipped cream, and chocolate.
Juno Beach D-Day Remembrance CeremonyThe Juno Center is a private museum that is run independent of the Canadian government, but it is the only monument to Juno beach. The building itself is spectacular. It is designed in a very modern style and really stands out against the rest of the scenery without being garish or awkward looking. The exhibits and museum itself are also incredible. Even though I have spent a while studying WWII history, and from a Canadian perspective too, I learned a ton by visiting this museum. I suppose one of the greatest benefits of the museum forming so recently is it has a very modern take on the war and its effects. Yes there are the original documents, uniform and pictures on display, but a major part of the museum is describing how the war impacted the Canada we live in today, and even a large section to teach non-Canadians(and even some Canadians, I’m looking at you Toronto People) what Canada is like today.
One surprising part of the ceremony was how few veterans there were present. Only 3 or 4 veterans from Canada and maybe 10 veterans from France were in attendance. Now I know that it is a long way to come just for a ceremony, but I would have thought that more would be here. Still, though we honor them, the important part is that the current generation remembers the sacrifice they made, and in terms of that this ceremony was a huge success, with maybe 200 or more “young people” in attendance.
The highlight of today was being in attendance for the 61st anniversary of the D-Day landings. There were moving speeches and the laying of wreaths in remembrance, but the most important part of the whole ceremony was the fact that we were standing right on the beach where 1200 soldiers lost their lives on this day, and that was only on this one beachhead. Until this point I had only been to memorial locations which commemorated those who lost their lives, not to the actual location they lost their lives. Most people have seen Hollywood depictions of D-Day or have read historical accounts of what happened here, but it is entirely different actually being in the place where these men lost their lives. It is one this to hear “The water was read with blood” and visualize it but is an entirely different experience to walk in that water and on the beach that these men gave their lives to take.