The Canadian Battlefields Foundation (CBF) is an educational organization with the community mandate to remember Canada’s role in wars and military operations since the beginning of the twentieth century. To this end, the CBF has created a bursary fund so that young men and women from Canada can visit and learn – on the actual battlefields – what other Canadians have contributed to their freedom. The bursary fund, a truly living memorial, has allowed the Foundation to partially finance twelve university students, every year, from across Canada to study in Europe.
I was very fortunate to have been granted a spot on the 2013 CBF study tour. Alongside eleven other exceptional students from across Canada and our professors/tour guides Dr. Andrew Iarocci and Dr. Graham Broad, I spent over two weeks journeying through France and Belgium. We covered a lot of ground, visiting most of the major (and minor) battlefields, memorials, and cemeteries of both the First and Second World Wars. We literally walked in the footsteps of the fallen, tracing their journeys across windswept fields, through overgrown trenches, and atop hills they once thought impossible to climb. We visited memorials and monuments that stagger the imagination – some whose size and grandeur are only eclipsed by the sheer number of names that adorn their walls, others whose simplicity speaks more of loss and remembrance than words alone ever could.
Our visits to the cemeteries had an especially profound impact upon our entire group. Row upon row of grave markers dot the landscape in this part of the world, reflecting words of love from family and friends or acknowledging the service of someone whose name we’ll never know. Whether large or small, these cemeteries are everywhere, they are full, and they are often overwhelming.
I would say that most of our strongest reactions to this entire experience were often felt in these cemeteries, regardless of the nationality of the soldiers buried there. Plenty of tears were shed, but I also think that our intense grief was at least matched in part by a sense of pride – in the individuals who gave their lives to serve their respective countries, and also in the communities that these individuals formed and those subsequently preserved by their actions. Walking among these graves really brought home for me the fact that remembrance is about more than just recognizing those connected to us through family, friends, or patriotism. We are all a part of a larger human community, one in which sacrifice is both mourned and celebrated in equal measure, regardless of which side you take up arms for.
The last two days of our journey were spent in ceremonies commemorating the sixty-ninth anniversary of D-Day and subsequent push to gain a foothold in France. We had the honour of participating in these ceremonies, laying wreaths at a number of different memorials and meeting those veterans who are still with us and able to make the long return journey to those distant shores. To have an opportunity to shake the hand of these veterans, to speak with them, was a humbling experience for us all. I will never be able to adequately describe what it was like to stand on Juno Beach, on the anniversary of D-Day, beside veterans who were responsible for storming its shores sixty-nine years ago.
I know our CBF group was further humbled by the fact that we shared this experience with another Canadian veteran, of a more recent war, but a Canadian hero none-the-less. Our tour-mate Bruce Moncur served with the Canadian Forces on two tours in Afghanistan, returning from the last severely wounded. Alongside our veterans who stormed the beaches in Normandy, Bruce was honoured in a speech given by former CDS General Rick Hillier at this year’s Juno Beach anniversary ceremony. This speech reminded us all that we must continue to remember and celebrate our veterans – those who fought for our freedom in the World Wars, but also those who have made and continue to make sacrifices in conflicts around the world. Remembrance should not end with the last total war. And it should not be overlooked or impeded because of personal political views regarding the validity of any one conflict.
In France and Belgium, at least, remembrance has not ceased to hold a meaningful role in everyday life. Everywhere we went – at every single memorial, monument, and cemetery – fresh flowers or wreaths could be found. At every single one. Every day. Last post ceremonies are also held on a regular basis – daily at the Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium.
We also had local residents coming up to our group in the streets telling stories of the Canadians they remember liberating their village or town. One gentleman came out of his home upon seeing our group in the ‘Place des 37 Canadiens’ – a square in the village of Authie, France where the SS killed 37 Canadian soldiers – to share his memories of being a nine year old boy (in the same home, incidentally) and witnessing this event first hand. In this corner of the world, remembrance is a feature of everyday life. It never ceases. It really puts into perspective the remembrance ceremonies held once a year here in Canada…
I would also like to recognize the important role that my 2013 CBF cohort played in making this journey more than just educational. While visiting the battlefields, memorials, and cemeteries certainly formed the foundation of our excursion, our shared experience is what truly made this journey exceptional. For a group of strangers who knew nothing of one another less than two weeks ago, we became remarkably close. We are all proud Canadians who share a common love of history and a special affinity for the World War period in particular, but we are nothing if not a diverse group. However, despite our differences in age and varied backgrounds we managed to find a lot of surprisingly common ground. We became a family for the few short weeks we travelled together, and I know that the genuine, honest, and heartfelt openness shown by my tour-mates during this journey was what truly made this experience profound.
As a student of military history, especially one who recently completed her candidacy exams and feels she has read a ridiculous amount of books on the World Wars and the Canadian military in particular, I thought I knew exactly what to expect from this trip. It would be moving, I was sure, and I would have an opportunity to see places I have only ever read about, but the experience would be simply supplementary to my educational journey thus far. I had no idea what a profound impact this experience would ultimately have. I can honestly say that I have returned to Canada a changed person. I want to sincerely thank the Canadian Battlefields Foundation for allowing me to participate in the 2013 study tour and for continuing to make it possible for Canadian students to set foot on the ground that so many Canadian and Allied soldiers fought and valiantly gave their lives for. I strongly encourage all students – of history or otherwise – to apply for this amazing program in the future. I promise it will be an experience you will never forget.
P.S. to hear about this journey in my tour-mates words, see the CBF study tour blog here. After reading some of these posts, I promise you will understand why I call my experience with these folks profound.