After a breakfast baguette or two, and a very rich and delicious Double Express À Emporter, we loaded up the car and began our trek to visit the beaches of Normandy.
Our visit was not to lounge in the sun to catch some rays while enjoying the waves of the Atlantic ocean. It was to visit the Centre Juno Beach war memorial to better understand what Canadian soldiers experienced 72 years ago when they worked with British and American allies to take back Normandy from German occupation and turn the tide of WWII.
As we wound our way towards Juno Beach from Trouville-sur-Mer, I couldn’t help but notice the Canadian, American, and British flags that proudly marked every tiny community we drove through; a simple memorial to the sacrifice made by so many soldiers so long ago. For those of us who never experienced the realities of WWII and often forget the sacrifices that our family members at home and abroad made in the name of freedom, the flags stood not only as a reminder of what was lost at the beaches of Normandy but also of what was gained.
The sense of loss mixed with victory permeated almost every part of our visit. As I walked through the museum I read much about the time leading up to the war, about Canada’s involvement, about the thousands and thousands of volunteers who gave up their lives to battle the Nazi threat, the weather conditions that helped or hindered Allied soldiers, the different strategies used, the technologies developed, the economic impacts, the atrocities and horrors, and eventually the massive and war-changing assault on the German controlled coast of northern France.
And while it all provided me a sense of what happened June 6, 1944, nothing hit me quite as much as Sergeant George Richard La Croix‘s helmet. I almost missed it as my eyes were looking directly ahead busy reading facts about the paratroopers involved in the war effort. It wasn’t until I happened to look down that I noticed it. A simple helmet, army green, seemingly in good condition save for a bullet hole that had ripped through part of it. A sense of relief passed over me as I incorrectly surmised that the bullet had grazed Sergeant La Croix’s helmet. A twinge of guilt hit me when I thought how lucky this man had been and then read that he died the night that the Allies stormed the beaches. He was 26, and he died trying to make the world a better place.
As we toured the German bunkers and walked the sands of Juno Beach, I found myself looking out at the ocean and wondering about the war, the soldiers who died and those who survived. I wondered what they thought on the night that they approached the beaches from the cold Atlantic waters, and how they could ever find the courage to do what they did in the face of such incredible odds and firepower. I wondered how I might have responded.
Before we returned to our apartment in Trouville-sur-Mer, we stopped at the Canadian War Cemetery in Beny-sur-Mer. The grounds were impeccably kept, with beautiful flowers decorating each and every white tombstone. The cemetery seemed impossibly serene, a stark contrast and perhaps on some level a small justice for the horrific end these soldiers must have faced thousands of miles from home and separated from loved ones. I stood staring at the graves for a while as the breeze gently shared the fragrance of the thousands of flowers that shared the space. Several birds chirped and fluttered about in the nearby maple trees that were planted to honour the fallen Canadian soldiers.
Having read the stories at Centre Juno Beach, I’m not sure how I expected to respond when I saw the 32 rows of 64 tombstones. Perhaps I naively thought that I was prepared because I had simply read the stories and toured the bunkers and walked the beaches.
Thirty-two rows of 64 tombstones. Two thousand forty-eight graves. Most with names and companies served, many with age-at-death listed. Various insignia adorned the tombstones to indicated how the buried soldiers were involved in the war. Tombstones adorned with a Cross or a Star Of David, many with coins to indicate perhaps how surviving soldiers knew their fallen brothers. Row after row of mostly 18 and 19-year-old kids, and 20-somethings no older than most of my students. Row after row of 30-somethings; family men with years worth of experiences growing older with their loved ones and children cut short. I found only one soldier over the age of 40; he died 2 years my senior. I was struck by their age. I was struck by the number of lives that were represented by the tombstones. I was struck by their sacrifice.
Thank you to those who fought for my freedom.
Lest we forget.
For The Fallen – Laurence Binyon
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.