Remembrance Day or Armistice Day will always be a special day to me and my family. It doesn’t matter that I’ve never been in service to my country, only that I am grateful to those who have given up so much. Without them, the lives and freedom of others in Canada and in other countries around the world wouldn’t exist. Each year on November 11, I chose to attend services to honour their sacrifices and to teach my children the value of their freedom.
A Trip to Remember
In May 2013, our family had the opportunity to visit France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. The most important destination of our journey was a visit to the Canadian War Cemetery at Bergen Op Zoom in the Netherlands. On the way, we followed the footsteps of my grandfather and great uncle Leo as they fought their way through Europe. 70 years later I was standing on the exact spot my grandfather Alec said his final good bye to his brother, Leo. It was a feeling I will never forget and such an honour to be standing among the graves of these brave men. There was an overwhelming feeling of grief, pride, and a sense of the devastation that war causes.
A Walk Among the Fallen
We took the time to walk through the tidy rows and read the names of real people who died so young, some at 17, 18, and 19 years of age. So many of the dates of death were the same, marking the effects of large battles fought for the control of the Dutch canals. Though heartbreaking, I was thankful for the Dutch people who honour the sacrifice of our Canadian soldiers by maintaining such a beautiful cemetery.
The Black Watch
Before our trip, I knew only the basic history of the two brothers during WWII. I knew great uncle Leo was part of the Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada and that he had died overseas. Piecing together history is never easy but there are amazing records of battles and advancements online. Through them, I was able to figure out that he was among the many who lost their lives during the liberation of Flanders, including the cities of Furnes, La Panne, Nieuport, Ostend, Knocke-Heist, Bruges, Eecloo and the northern suburbs of Antwerp.
A Final Farewell
After basic training, the two brothers Alec and Leo were separated into different Regiments as was the custom during WWII. This policy was meant to decrease the chance of families losing multiple sons during high casualty battles. This photo was taken during the last days the brothers would ever together at a base camp in the UK.
My Grandparents During WWII
My grandfather was not a proud man. He did not share any war stories, nor take part in any official ceremonies including Remembrance Day. Though in the end, he was given a special service for his funeral as is befitting to every veteran. He was one of the ‘lucky’ who landed on the shores of Courseulles-sur-mer at Juno beach during the third wave of the D-Day Invasion, June 6, 1944. The first two landings saw heavy casualties but also wore down enemy forces. I’m sure ‘Lucky’ is not really the word he would have used to describe his experience that day but had he been a part of the first two waves, he most likely would not have come back home to my grandma.
Meanwhile, Back in Canada
For her part during WWII, my grandma left small town life and traveled east with her sister to Toronto. They shared a bed in a lodging house and caught the street car to the Massey Harris plant every morning. At the plant, grandma became what was known as a ‘Bomb Girl’. Her job was to weld nose cones for artillery shells. It wasn’t easy work, and her arms bore the aches and scars of her war effort for her entire life. After their shift was over, they were eager to catch up on the latest news from overseas.
Life After WWII
I don’t fault my grandfather for not speaking about his D-Day experience. I know that it had a huge effect on his post war life and he buried his experiences deep within. Back in those days they called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder ‘shell shock’. It wasn’t ever dealt with but was considered something to bear most privately. Though they were married before the war started grandma always said the war changed them, both physically and mentally. They hardly recognized each other when they were reunited.
Standing on the beach in Normandy at Courseulles-sur-mer was amazing beyond words. It was the trip of a lifetime. I only wish I could have shared these photos and memories with my grandparents.
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.
-For the Fallen; Laurence Binyon