On Monday, July 10 we left Toronto for Paris. The next day we boarded a river cruise ship, the “Avalon Creativity”, and our journey along the Seine began. We traveled through Normandy, toward the D-Day landing beaches. The theme of the cruise was World War II History.
Along the way we heard stories and explored the places where those stories were first told. We walked with Monet, Van Gogh, Richard Lionheart, Joan of Arc, Samuel de Champlain, and Kings Louis the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth. In each location stories of France, during and after the War were told. An historian came along on the cruise and gave two excellent lectures. (After the first talk, an American passenger was heard to say, “I thought D-Day was just an American landing. I didn’t know there were others.”)
Midway in the cruise we boarded buses that would take us to the coast. It happened to be Bastille Day, France’s national holiday. The Americans and their guide went in one direction. Canadians, Brits, Aussies, and Kiwis took another road. We Canadians were few, but it was definitely our day. After touring the countryside and visiting a small Commonwealth Cemetery, we headed for the coast. On the way we stopped at the site of what the British called “Pegasus Bridge”. There’s an excellent museum there, a replica of a RAF glider, and a section of the actual bridge. A larger copy of the bridge is in place now, carrying 21st Century traffic. The capture of the bridge in the early hours of June 6, 1944 is my favourite scene in the movie, “The Longest Day”. Our local guide was able to tell us all the liberties the filmmakers took with the story. The facts are even more interesting than the film.
Then we went to Arromanches, where the remains of the temporary harbour the British built can still be seen. The town was decorated for Bastille Day, but with flags of both the wartime Allies and the former enemy, all over the town square. One street along the beach is called “Rue du Canada”.
Next stop was Juno Beach, site of the Canadian landing on D-Day, and now a popular holiday destination. A charitable foundation has built and maintains a beautiful visitors’ centre. Young adults from all over Canada serve as docents and tour guides. We were greeted by a young woman from Bridgewater, NS. The Juno Beach Centre is an important place for Canadians.
In the 1990s I served as Protestant Chaplain to the First Hussars, an army reserve regiment based on London and Sarnia, ON. The First Hussars have a distinguished history of service, which begins before Confederation. When Canada has been called to war, the First Hussars have always been among the first to mobilize. Their tanks were in the midst and the vanguard of the landing on D-Day. One company lost 90% of its men on “Black Sunday”, June 11, miles into German-held territory.
I looked for First Hussars graves in both cemeteries we visited. I took time to find markers bearing the June 11 date. I left a poppy and some regimental insignia at several of the graves at Beny sur mer, the terribly beautiful, beautifully terrible Canadian cemetery.
As a Nova Scotian I also sought out graves of men of the North Nova Scotia Highlanders. They were not hard to find. The North Novies were among the most distinguished fighters in both World Wars.
At the Juno Beach Centre I found memorials to both regiments, and a whole display dedicated to one member of the First Hussars.
I was surprised, when I stood on Juno Beach, to find it easy to imagine that morning in 1944. My imagination is shaped by movies I’ve seen: “The Longest Day”, “Saving Private Ryan”. But I could see faces I knew from stories and pictures preserved by the regiment, some I had just seen in the Juno Beach Centre.
I’m not writing this to glorify war. War, in itself, is always wrong. Evil. Even when we can convince ourselves there is a just cause. Most of the men who died, and those who survived D-Day would not have thought of themselves as heroes. A clear-eyed reading of history teaches us that, for every decision that was taken in the interest of saving lives, at least one mistake was made that cost lives. When war ends the battle continues. Lands and people don’t recover instantly, as if truces and treaties work magic.
As a Christian in the Reformed tradition I’m painfully aware that even the best human efforts are shadowed by human sin. We cannot have absolute certainty in this life. That means we act, as we are able, to do good as we understand the good. It also means we don’t shrink away in the presence of what we can only call evil. We do our best to discern God’s will, as far as we can understand it. But we must still act, and risk, taking responsibility for our own actions. We can do no better. Only God’s grace can save us.
In an old-fashioned way I saw those soldiers’ graves as markers of gifts given in response to God’s grace. Many soldiers, sailors, and flyers prayed on D-Day, and after. I doubt many took time for theological reflection. But they were willing—maybe not fully prepared, but willing—to give whatever it might take to fulfill their mission. That included God’s great, free gift of life.
Remembering war, in both victory and defeat, is an awful necessity of life. It can remind us of both the weakness and fallibility, and the strength and capacity for nobility of all human beings.
On Juno Beach we met a young couple from Calgary. They were delighted to be there. They told us they were honeymooning in London. They looked at a map and realized they could rent a car and be at Juno Beach in a few hours. The next day, they could go to Vimy Ridge. So they changed their honeymoon plans to fulfill two of their dreams. They were proud Canadians, in love with their country’s story. I’ll remember that the next time I’m tempted to say “no one” cares about the past today!
This year, Normandy. Vimy, next year?
Oh yes! There’s an old saying, “See Paris and die.” I can understand the sentiment! Paris is amazing. But don’t wait till just before you die to see it. You’ll want to return!