Nearly 10 years ago my friend James and I went travelling through Europe. We set up a home base in Glasgow with our friend Jon in a tiny, one room apartment with a “kitchen” in a closet and barely enough floor space for us to sleep on.
From there, we were able to branch out and visit a number of beautiful places such as Edinburgh, London, Rome, Venice, and Paris. We also didn’t bother using Planes, Trains and Automobiles as primary modes of transportation either. We actually bought a pair of bikes at a Carrefour in Mestre (Outside Venice) and used them to get around Italy, France and England. We put a lot of kilometers on those poor things.
We did and saw a lot of amazing things while we were in Europe, and as easy as it would be to launch into a long-winded chronicle of our journey, that’s not what I’m here to do today. I wanted to talk about two places in particular that we visited – two places that changed the way we looked at Canada, and what it means to be Canadian.
The first is Vimy Ridge. For those who aren’t aware, the Battle of Vimy Ridge took place in April of 1917, during the First World War. It was the first time the four divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force fought together as one unit, and their resounding victory over the Germans became a symbol of pride and accomplishment for our young nation. That battle is considered one of the main turning points in the war.
When I arrived at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial, just north of Arras, I didn’t know what to expect. I knew the history of the battle, and I knew I wanted to see the memorial, but that was it. I had no other expectations.
That day I learned that there is a difference between knowing what happened, and really understanding what happened. Being there made it more real. The ground is bent and beaten. Massive craters litter the landscape, caused by powerful bombs that were detonated in underground tunnels. There are signs along the side of the road warning that there may still be live shells hiding in the grass, and to please stay out. There is a network of well-preserved trenches and tunnels as well. In one tunnel, a maple leaf is carved into a wall by an unknown soldier, reflecting the status of the maple leaf as a symbol of Canada long before the flag was changed in 1965.
Then we saw the monument.
It is beautiful, awe-inspiring, and emotional. Everything about it is simply majestic. The twin towers of limestone aren’t even the centerpiece of the monument; that belongs to a solitary figure, a cloaked woman looking down upon a tomb. She is Canada, a young nation mourning her dead. It is enough to make you weep.
After leaving Arras, we travelled to Normandy to visit the fantastic Juno Beach Centre in Courseulles-sur-Mer. There were 5 beaches targeted during the D-Day Landings of June 6, 1944. Sword, Juno, Gold, Utah and Omaha. The taking of Juno Beach was tasked to the Canadian contingent and by the end of the day they were able to secure the beach and push further inland than any other Allied force.
While we were riding near Caen, a french man rode up beside us to share the story of how his family was hiding in a farmhouse during the war, and how they were rescued by Canadian troops. “Merci,” he said. Thank you.
That night, James and I stood on the beach, trying to imagine what it was like for those soldiers on D-Day. What they fought through, the courage it would have taken, boggles the mind. As I looked out over that beach, I was inspired. An idea began to form and, with the help of James, it became a poem. I will share it at the bottom of this post. Dedicated to all of the Canadians who fought for us over the years. And remember to have a moment of silence today to reflect upon their sacrifices.
In closing, I’d like to say this: To any Canadian who travels in Europe – Do yourself a favour and visit one or both of these places. You won’t regret it. It will change you.
Ode to Junos Unknown
I journey through the channel’s night,
I’ve had no rest, there’s none in sight.
I instead see dawn reveal the coast,
With it, the waiting enemy host.
Fire echoes in the sky,
Then the first men fall, and lie.
Bombs rain down just as we land,
Mines throw up their gouts of sand.
I clutch my gun as I do my life,
I wish instead I could hold my wife.
But I’m climbing over the walls of hate,
Bravely climbing toward my fate…
The sand his fated blood would stain,
For all to see, the whole world’s pain.
A bruise there lay, upon the land,
In a pool of blood, by a lifeless hand.
But time, it seems is memory’s bleach,
It’s washed the sand of Juno Beach.
How can we, this debt we owe, repay,
Of vested valour; deeds done that day.
For honour spent and honour gained,
Upon his heart those memories stained.
To us, his charge we undertake,
For the past, for the future’s sake,
We remember and evermore shall teach.
For the water has since washed it clean,
It’s washed the sand of Juno Beach.