Tuesday, March 13, 2012

In the Footsteps of War

One of the best parts of our trip along the Normandie coast was visiting the various historic sites of WWI and WWII. It is amazing how history can come alive as you see the places where soldiers fought for freedom. We could have spent weeks visiting all the different sites and museums, but unfortunately we only had a couple of days. We started our trek at Juno Beach were the Canadians landed on D-day. The centre there is a grade ten history text book come to life and starts with a cinematic recreation of what it would have been like to be in a landing craft heading towards the beach on June 6, 1944.

This is the centre itself. I would love to bring a group of high school students here one day.

The nearby Canadian cemetery provides an extremely intimate look at some of the soldiers who died during the invasion.  As we wondered around reading the epitaphs, we all could not overlook the fact that grand majority of the soldiers who lay here had lost their lives when they were only 19 or 20 years old.

We also went to the American war cemetery near Omaha beach. The museum part of the cemetery was fantastic at providing specific details about the many different factors that contributed to the planning and success of the D-day landings.

After picking up Keith from the train station in Caen. We headed to our B and B near Vimy. Aside from the excellent conversation and wonderful hospitality, they also had some ponies and geese in the back yard, which were quite entertaining.

I never thought that visiting Vimy Ridge would be such a visceral experience, but this visit has continued to affect me over the past couple of months.

We timed our visit so that we would be at the memorial for their Remembrance Day Ceremony and the overcast skies and cold wind really added to the solemnity of the occasion.

The monument itself is larger than life and I can't believe the Canadian government let it fall into disrepair, but the thing that touched me the most about this experience was landscape of Vimy. Driving towards the memorial you are surrounded by farmland that is as flat as Saskatchewan with a small town or crop of trees breaking up the country side, but the area around Vimy Ridge has been preserved as it was during WWI. Instead of flat fields, you encounter an almost moonscape which has literally been scarred by war. The craters which line the road between the visitors centre and the monument demonstrate just how devastating the explosions and mining were on the land.
We were able to take a tour of the trenches and tunnels that the Canadians fought from and walking where soldiers lived, waited for orders and died has given me new insight into this war which in much of our popular culture has been forgotten or eclipsed by WWII. I had no idea that the tunnelling under enemy lines was so strategic and it never occured to me that men waiting to emerge from these tunnels would have to wait in complete silence for hours before emerging en mass to cross no man's land. This and so many other realizations hit you as you look out over the edge of the top of  the trenches towards the German trenches which have also been preserved. The two lines are so close at some points that you would be able to see colour of the eyes of the person facing you.

I have been surpised that since our visit the rembrances of this day have come back to me with astounding impact. Even watching the brief glimpses of WWI footage in Downton Abbey made me recoil. It has surprised me that this place continues to have such an affect on me.