Return to Vimy “Our Stories”

At Hill 70 Left to Right Sgt Terry Sleep, CWO M Louvelle, HCol J. Irving, Bdr Hovey, Bdr O’Dell, Bdr Caines, MBdr Lavigne, WO Hayes, MCpl Flanagan, Sgt Smith, Bdr Hanrahan, Bdr Brooker, Lt Guthrie, MWO Grant and Capt Watters

WO Ken Hayes

I was honoured to be selected to attend the Fields of Fire Battlefield Tour, as I am an avid reader of military history.  I was looking forward to being able to visit and explore the battlefields that I have extensively read about.  I was especially looking forward to visit Juno Beach, where my grandfather Gunner William Everett Hayes a member of the 19th Canadian Field Artillery (CFA) Regiment (Regt), Royal Canadian Artillery (RCA), Self-Propelled, (SP) came ashore on the 6th of June 1944 as part of Operation Overlord.

The Visit to the Canadian, Commonwealth, French and German War Cemeteries showed me what a great loss was incurred by the youth of a generation.  The visit to Beny-sur-Mer Cemetery where we visited and placed Artillery flags on the fallen Artillery Soldiers that were buried there.  Two soldiers were from the 19th CFA Regt who were killed on D-Day. The visit to the French National War Cemetery at Notre-Dame-de-Lorette – Ablain-Saint-Nazaire, which has 40,000 soldiers buried there, almost 20,000 unknown soldiers that were buried in eight mass graves.

Walking the Dieppe Beaches and headlands of Dieppe demonstrated that huge efforts of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division encumbered.  As I walked the beach, it required hard effort walking amongst the stone which showed that vehicles would be at a disadvantage to moving over the beach.  Later in the day, we climbed the north Headland and noticed two fortification which had command of the beaches.  Admiring the view of the town of Dieppe and the Beaches, it was a Forward Observation Officer’s dream to create a killing zone on the Dieppe beaches.

Although Newfoundland was not a member of Canada until 1949, the visit to Beaumont Hamel struck as great fiasco to the Royal Newfoundland Regiment who had lost over 80% of the battalion in about 30 minutes, while advancing from the secondary trenches to the front trenches to start the battle.  While looking from the German Trench line you could see how the advancing Newfoundlanders would have been silhouetted, and become obvious targets for the German machine gunners and soldiers.

The Parade at Menin Gate was inspiring to know that the ceremony has been carried out nightly since the First World War by volunteers.  The memorial is honour all those of commonwealth soldiers that were missing.  It was an honour to parade as an Artillery Contingent and having one of our own (Bdr O’Dell) to lay a wreath with the Col Selbie (Col Cmdt) on behalf of the Royal Canadian Artillery.

The visit to the Vimy was awe inspiring, seeing the sheer number of combat boots for each soldier that was killed in the Battle for Vimy Ridge.  The Vimy memorial was itself was very inspiring due to its sheer size and colour.  It could be seen for miles as we drove toward Vimy.  The ceremony showed individual hardships that soldier at Vimy endured.  It also gave credit to the “can do” attitude to the Cdn Corps on creating and implementing the historic victory during the four-day battle for the ridge, which other armies failed to achieve.

Not only were the pictures that we have taken during the tour, but new relationships were formed.  We must never forget those that came before us, because they gave everything to allows us to have the luxury of freedom today.  It has also shown that the sheer number of people that had perished in the first world war.  The biggest take away is that Freedom has always had a price attached to it, usually in the lives of our young.

 MWO Bethany Grant

Paying homage to our fallen soldiers while traveling abroad was not only a huge honour but humbling experience. Whether it was placing Artillery flags at the headstones of gunners at  Beny-Sur-Mer Cemetery, standing at the base of Brooding Soldier,  taking in the view from the German trenches at Beaumont-Hamel, listening to our tour guides recite the battle at Hill 70, or standing at the Vimy Ridge Memorial; all of it really brought home to me how much Canadians sacrificed during World War One. There were wonderful moments during the tour too such as chatting with George Skipper, a D-Day vet who landed in Normandy. There was the lunch in the town of Givenchy-en-Gohelle-what a sight it was to see all those Canadian flags! I was really beaming with pride when we paraded at Menin Gate and Thélus. Every town was so welcoming and our soldiers put on their very best. I have to say though my favorite part was meeting a hero of mine, Gen (Ret) Romeo Dallaire at the Gunners Dinner. He was so gracious allowing lots of photo opportunities for the soldiers and helped us in a sing along of “Screw Guns” and “Bonhomme “.

The moment that struck me stock-still was the sudden view of the Vimy Monument off in the distance as we drove by on our way to Lens. It was so unexpected that the entire bus was silenced. I was completely taken aback by the scene that my thoughts immediately were of my Grammie. You see, she lost her older brother George in WW1 and every year on Remembrance Day she would have a private little ceremony where she would pull out a recycled chocolate box full of memories of her brother. She would layout his medals, recite the telegram sent to her mother detailing when he died, she would study the pictures of him in his uniform and a picture of his headstone, then end with a little prayer.  My Grammie lived to be 93 and she did this ritual every year for 87 years. My Grammie may have been only 6 years old when George left for the war. Up to that point he was her world. There’s a family picture of my grammie (as a little girl) sitting on George’s shoulder, both are smiling but she is looking at him as if there’s no one else better in this world. I can only imagine what his loss did to her and my great-grand parents.

Up to this point on the tour I was telling myself I was searching for George’s headstone to honour his memory and service to country. But it was that moment on the bus with Vimy monument on the horizon when I realized that I was doing this in honour of my Grammie too, the sacrifices that family make on the home front, and the life long dedication to the memory of our lost soldiers.

What better honour was there than to be in Vimy for her and for George.

…Ubique….Lest we Forget.

MWO Bethany Grant.

19 April 2017

 

 Bdr O’Dell

When I first heard about the trip being held for the 100th year of Vimy I thought to myself I have to be a part of this because seeing pictures vs seeing the actual battle grounds are two different things. What I was looking to get out of the trip was an experience that I would remember for a lifetime and being able to walk on different beaches and battlefields which our own fought on many years ago. The experience was an absolute honour because we participated in many different ceremonies that brought pride to not only the local population but to us as soldiers. I really enjoyed being able to explore the different battlefields and cities and also seeing different culture from what i am used to in Canada. Being able to see the vast number of cemeteries was a really emotional experience knowing that each and every one of those soldiers never returned home to their families, and a lot of the soldiers were my age or younger which made me think from different perspectives. What I took away from this trip was a lot of history about the events that occurred in France and memories with fellow comrades I will never forget, I am very grateful to have been given the opportunity to visit. – Bdr O’Dell

MCpl Michelle Flanagan

When I first heard about the Return to Vimy Tour I thought what a great opportunity that would be, never guessing I would be one of the eleven chosen to participate. My initial thoughts were centered on the sacrifice of so many on foreign soil. You read stories and watch movies but nothing can actually prepare you for seeing firsthand the battlefields.

Yes, the blood of the fallen, the charred landscape and the deafening noise of the war no longer remain, but the memories, the ghosts of the past do. You stand on Juno Beach, Red Beach, Vimy Ridge, wander through Beaumont Hamel, see the terrain, the lack of cover and think could I have done that? Could I have run to my death?

Participating in the Last Post Ceremony on Menin Gate, in the rededication Ceremony of the Artillery Monument in Thelus, seeing all the Canadian flags greeting us from peoples businesses and homes in Givenchy-en-Gohelle help to appreciate how much Canadians are remembered and appreciated for our part in this war.

Then, as we walked through countless cemeteries, the ghosts are peering over your shoulder as you read the names on the panels and the crosses, on the tombs which read “known only to God.” I prepared myself for Canadian gravesites, knowing before I left the vast number of Canadians we would find buried. I did not really think much of other nations or the names we would find inscribed on the memorials and the monuments. It is staggering to see the rows and rows of crosses. The feeling of loss is indescribable. You read names of entire regiments lost. As you keep reading and it sinks in that the majority of the fallen were young, under the age of 20, that weight on your heart becomes that much heavier.

Although the whole trip will remain a part of me, the one thing that pulled at my heart the most was walking through Neuville-St.-Vaast, a German cemetery located approximately 3 km from Vimy Ridge. An enemy graveyard in a small town in France, near Arras. It was not defaced. It was not vandalized. It was well maintained and pristine. This is when I realized, we as humans are more respectful in death then in life. As quote by Albert Schweitzer, Nobel Prize Laureate “the soldiers graves are the greatest preachers of peace.”

Ubique.

Bdr Caines

First off, I was very happy to have been selected for this opportunity to take part as a spectator at the 100th anniversary of Vimy Ridge. What I had hoped to have experienced on that trip was physical and topographical understanding of what was being fought over and how the attacks were conducted. Over the week my understanding of the battles and the cost of such a war had on many countries grew. Being able to see a battle field, hear the stories, and walk through the grave yards expanded my outlook on all-out war.

What I was able to take away from this trip was that the cost from the world wars was so great. It was almost overwhelming walking row upon row of crosses of Canadians, but as a tour group, we visited other nations graves as well. Seeing the names of all the people who had given their lives was shocking.

My experience on the trip was extremely positive. The people who were apart of the Gunners tour group, and the activities we took part in, such as parading at Menin Gate, made the tour really positive. Many laughs were had and I hope to see those people throughout my career. The trip was an experience of a life time.

Lt Guthrie, JA

I had travelled to France with the expectation that I would also be travelling back in time; that I would be seeing the battlefields that our soldiers in the Great War saw and experienced.  In some regards this did happen, but for the most part time has erased the scars of war.  I got to travel through the same beautiful, French countryside that our soldiers would have travelled through.  I got to eat baguettes and brie, and drink French wine.  At Beaumont-Hamel and Vimy Ridge I was able to see the remains of the trenches and shell holes, but I’ll never know what those battles felt like to be there: the stench of decomposing bodies, the rats and lice, the machine gun fire, and the continuous, thundering roll of artillery fire.  In the end, France was rebuilt, and who can blame them for wanting to move on, and put the reminders of that war in the past.  I think that the skate parks, beach resorts and wheat fields, on the same ground where our soldiers died, are the greatest testament to the sacrifice that they made.

The greatest impression that this experience had on me was the sheer number of the graves, the number of names on the memorials, and the idea that so many of our soldiers simply disappeared into the ground of France.

I could have spent a year touring northern France, and still not see everything.  Dieppe was fought over in the 100 Year War, the Somme River was crossed during the Battle of Crecy, the French Revolution, the Napoleonic War, the tunnels under Vimy Ridge, the Battle of Normandy.  The area is steeped in history, and I feel honored to have been given the opportunity to see it.

 Bdr Matthew Hanrahan

I had no idea what to expect with this trip, this was my first time on trip like this. I knew I would get to see some of the places Canadians had fought, but I didn’t know what these places would look like.

I experienced more history in those 10 days than I did in four years of high school. It seemed like no matter where we were something had happened there even just in farmers fields there is tons of history. You can go into almost any field there and within 10 minutes poking in the dirt you can come across relicts from the past over 100 years old casings, bits of shrapnel, or even old cannister shot. It’s a humbling experience standing somewhere and knowing 100 years ago a battle from the First World War had been fought.

We attended a number a museums some run by Parks Canada, some by the French government, and even one that was a private collection belonging to a very nice man. But the curators and guides all shared a passion of the history, and stories for the battles fought. These people do this because they are genuinely interested in what happened there, and they are proud to do what the do.

Last but not least were the cemeteries. They were the really humbling experience of the trip. They were immaculately maintained, as close to perfect as possible, but the crazy thing was the gravestones only told half the story the men whose bodies were identified. There were wall upon wall of names of those whose bodies could be found or were to damaged to be identified. Another thing was the German cemetery we visited I was very surprised the shape in which it was maintained (by volunteers and donations nonetheless). Although not on the level as the commonwealth graves they were still in remarkable upkeep for being the invader, and it is a testament to the French, and Belgian people for allowing these graves to remain.

I took with me a humble understanding of what both sides went through seeing the artifacts in the museums, the places the battles took place, and the graves of those not lucky enough to return home. It’s one thing to hear about these things or see pictures, but it’s a different thing altogether to see these things in person. I am extremely grateful to had been chosen for this trip.

Bdr Olivia Hovey

What I was looking to get out of the trip was the greatest adventure of a life time and not knowing what to expect to see like how beautiful the places we’ve been to are plus learning the history of each spot but Juno Beach, Ypres and Vimy Ridge touched me the most both sad and amazing places to explore that I would definitely recommend to my friends and family.

One of the places the group visited was a place called the D-Day Academy, it’s a huge storage building full of equipment, vehicles, aircraft, weapons, motorcycles, artillery guns including mortars that was in the service when the war broke out. These men collect the items and materials then show them to the public and few of the men are veterans.

It’s a great educational experience and I never thought I would be able to see parts of an aircraft, artillery gun and many others that was used on D-Day.

            The second day I went to Juno beach before visiting the museum, we got to explore more on the beach and a few people including me were collecting sand and seashells and put them in bottle to take home with us, when I look at the beach and the water I think about how much blood was splattered all over by so many men and the men shooting the machine guns from the trenches. I got to walk in and look inside trenches it’s like I traveled back in time, seeing two spring beds and crawling in a small tunnel to where a solider placed his weapon on top of the hole and fired towards the beach.

During the whole trip visiting many the cemeteries, it made me wonder if any of my ancestors have fought in the war and what their experiences are truly like but what made me sad and sorry about is seeing how many unknown soldier gravestones there are in every cemetery and how many that were never uncovered including non-Canadian men. These men volunteered to off hoping for an amazing adventure and thinking that they will come back home to their loved ones but there was no way of knowing what’s going to happen until they were given a rifle and be sent to the war thinking they are not going to die but every one of them including officers had no idea what they were getting themselves into until they’ve been shot or killed and/or witness a few good men, best friends, brothers even fathers be killed with their own eyes. That thought right there is what I always think about and feel, there are a few times that I want to cry for them.

MBdr Michael B Lavigne

We recently embarked on a tremendous journey to France, the goal was to visit several different sights, memorials, cemeteries, and beaches. It was to allow us to see and experience things that for many of us our own families would have been involved in at some point, either during the First World War or the second.

This trip, for me, was an opportunity to be able to see and learn about the tremendous courage and sacrifices that Canadians and other countries had made although facing certain death at times. I was looking forward to getting to experience the feelings that seeing all of these sights came with, and learning about the amount of planning and requirements that were needed by everyone to ensure that the different tasks were completed even though the resources were very scarce. I got to experience the joy and sadness of reliving the events that happened through the tours and the stories that were told by our tour guide. I also got to experience the comradeship of being a Canadian soldier by meeting new soldiers from all across Canada. We also got the tremendous feeling of gratitude for what our forefathers had done over there whenever citizens would come up and be thankful and excited just to see a Canadian in their country.

I got to take away the knowledge and memories of being where our soldiers had fought and died for our freedom and rights. I will have everlasting memories of the places and memorials I got to visit and learn about. The feeling of standing in areas where tremendous acts of courage and valour took place is one that I will never forget as it was truly and eye opening experience, a feeling that could never simply be talked, one that you actually have to be there to experience.

I am truly grateful for the opportunity that was given to me. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity being able to take part in the different ceremonies and actually be on Vimy during the day of the 100th anniversary. Being able to be there for the remembrance of what our forefathers had done, to truly give Canadians their independence as a nation that will not stand down even in the most dangerous situations is something that gave me true esprit du corps and made me even more proud to be a Canadian soldier.

 Sgt (ret) Terry Sleep

What I had hoped to gain during this trip was a greater understanding of the first and second world war battles that occurred in France.  I also wanted to walk on some of the same ground as my Uncle Alvin did after D Day & to visit him in his final resting place in Beny-sur-Mer Cemetery. I believe that that goal was accomplished.

When I first saw my Uncle Alvin’s grave marker, I was surprised at how pristine it looked. I was told that the markers are replaced every twenty five years by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.  While standing at Alvin’s grave, I found it to be more emotional than I thought it would be, thinking of what he had gone through during D Day and the month after, fighting toward Caen until he was killed after taking Carpiquet. It was an experience I will remember for the rest of my life.

While standing on Juno Beach, it was easy to imagine the area covered with thousands of solders.  It was hard to imagine the horror of the noise, confusion and chaos of moving up the beach towards the buildings while your comrades are dying around you.

While visiting Abbey d’Ardenne and reading the plaque commemorating the 27 Canadians who were taken out in back of the Abbey and murdered, I felt an almost evil presence even though this heinous act has taken place 73 years ago.

As I stood near a trench at Beaumont-Hamel, looking across no mans land towards “Danger Tree” , I  thought about how frightening it would be to know that shortly the order would be given and I would have to force myself to follow my comrades “over the top”.

As we visited some of the many cemeteries and I saw the thousands of markers, I got some small sense of the enormity of the loss of life during both wars. I was extremely surprised at the number of markers that do not have a name on them.  These soldiers made the extreme sacrifice and yet are not identified, being only “Known unto God”.

The fact that millions of tons of ammunition were used during The Great War is verified by the fact that after one hundred years, one can still find metal projectile fragments during a ten minute search of a farmers field.

I was impressed by the appreciation expressed by the people of France even after all the years that have passed.  They put great effort into educating each new generation so that the sacrifices of all soldiers will not be forgotten.

It has been a great experience to not only attend the Vimy 100 ceremony, but to visit the many  cemeteries, museums, memorials and battle sites. I am very grateful to have had the opportunity and I now have a much better understanding of the wars in France. I picked up isolated bits of information over the years, but this trip certainly helped to put everything into perspective.

Captain Tom Watters

My trip to Vimy for me was what I like to call a life moment, one of those life changing events that stay with you forever, standing at the Vimy memorial on April 9th 2017 marking the 100th anniversary became one of those moments.  During the ceremony I could not help but think of all of those who fought and died so far from home. Who lived under such horrific conditions but still persevered, what courage! I have served for now 41 years in Canada and Europe and I am fortunate to never have had to fire a shot in anger . How so very lucky am I! . Standing in that place of honour  I could not help but feel their presence all around me and I hope that they take great comfort in the knowledge that I have not forgotten them but remember them always for their courage and sacrifice for us all.

We stand on the shoulders of giants, god bless them all, Ubique!