As I said in my last post, Normandy was amazing but our Remembrance Day was just overwhelmingly beautiful, I had to give it its own post.
We checked out of our lovely hotel and left Bayeux in mid-morning. We expected to have a bit of time on our hands and to take things slowly. The Remembrance ceremony wasn’t until 1500h at Juno Beach.
We headed to Bény-sur-Mer, where the Canadian war cemetery is. There are many Canadian war cemeteries across Europe, but this is one of the biggest and the one associated with D-Day.
Unlike the American cemetery, we could walk these rows. We spent an hour or so here, reading the names and the epitaphs on the stones.
It meant so much to be here today, and to be able to reflect. I’m sure it would also feel just as heavy on June 6. I know it is somber on any day of the year, but I’m just saying that today felt different.
One thing in particular that was sad to see, for us, was the number of graves that had no adornment- no flowers and nothing left from visitors. I suppose we can’t expect them all to, but it felt sort of empty.
As we were leaving, I saw a family come in. They had a bouquet with them and were wearing Canadian poppies. I saw them head to a specific grave. They had their quiet moment and laid the flowers. Then they were taking photos of them with it. They were clearly a Canadian family who had travelled to be here and to see this grave. So I headed over to offer to take a photo of all 4 of them together with the grave. It turns out they were from BC and it was the man’s uncle’s grave. They were planning to head to Juno Beach later on as well. We were happy to have met another Canadian family doing their remembering.
Next, we headed on to the Juno Beach Centre. We planned to tour the museum for a while and have a picnic lunch before the ceremony.
The centre is beautiful, with so much information and history included. If you have a loved one who was a part of a Canadian regiment in WWII, especially in Normandy, then I highly recommend you check it out sometime.
As I’ve mentioned (many times), my grandfather was in the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion (1CPB) and fought in Normandy. Knowing this, I of course gravitated to learning all I could about this elite unit.
(My paternal grandfather was also in WWII, an RCAF aerial photographer. However, I never had the pleasure of meeting him and forging a bond. Also, he was never stationed in Normandy. Though there was a small section about our military in Italy, where he was, and I found it fascinating).
There was one great interactive computer exhibit that I was playing with. It was a large touch-screen wherein you could select any Canadian regiment that was in Normandy and then be lead through a slideshow of their movements through the area after landing. I selected the 1CPB and it started with them helping liberate Pegasus Bridge and fend off the Nazis for many days to keep it. With my knowledge of my grandfather’s battle history and when he entered Normandy, it was at about slide 8 or 9 of about 25. The unit had a week off starting 17 June 1944 and got reinforcements (that’s my Papa!). Throughout this slideshow, there are a few photos and snapshots, not many- mostly of the men in repose or relaxing. About halfway through, this large close-up photo pops up:
It looked somewhat familiar. I read the caption. And then I burst into tears. My Papa spent our whole lives telling us about Andy. Andy was his best friend. They went through training together and then entered battle together.
Andy died in Operation Varsity in the Battle of the Bulge on March 24, 1945.
Papa never forgot. He never let us forget, either. Every year when Papa attended a Remembrance Day ceremony, we knew he was thinking of Andy.
And here Andy was staring up at me at our nation’s WWII memorial museum in France.
I couldn’t help but feel Papa with me. I know how pleased he would be to know that of all the 1CPB soldiers’ photos to be had, Juno Beach Centre shows Andy’s. He will not be forgotten.
After I dried my tears from that moment, we continued on. Then I came across another 1CPB exhibit talking about who they were and what they did and there was a uniform jacket in it. I glanced to the side and saw it was the jacket of one Sid Pass, an old buddy of my Papa’s. They were in the war together then lived in the same city and were friends for many years until Sid died just a few years before Papa. His granddaughter contacted me when Papa died and expressed her condolences. I just feel it’s such a small world sometimes. It certainly was a small 1CPB!
After we toured the museum and had our picnic lunch, it was time to get ready for the ceremony. Easy enough for Sophie and me… A lot more work for Eric. He is supposed to be in full dress uniform for these ceremonies, even just as an attendee.
Before the ceremony, everyone was milling about in the lobby. This also became a bit of a meet and greet. The people present were a mix of French locals and Canadians. Of course with Eric in uniform, it opened a lot of conversations. Some other Canadians came and said hi, and a few French wanted to hi too. One little old lady (and I mean little!) came and told Eric that her father fought with the French Resistance and was awarded a Commander of the French Legion of Honour. Eric told her (as this conversation was all in French) that my grandfather was a Knight of the Legion of Honour because he was a Canadian who fought in Normandy. Oh! She got so excited! She started showing me the papers that showed who her father was and his medal (a photo of it). I showed her photos of my Papa with his medal and him in the war. She cried. She insisted on a photo together (as I had my phone out showing her photos, she told me to take a photo now!).
We hugged and kissed and she even gave me her address! Haha. I’ll send her a nice card. She was so sweet.
Then it was time to start the ceremony. There was a large turnout, including the local mayor and Senator, Chief of Police, and other important locals. They all had wreaths to lay before the ceremony could start inside. Inside there was a local band and bagpiper, too.
The ceremony was beautiful, though I only understood half of it. That’s ok, I got the jist.
Eric was asked to read the Act of Remembrance in English. He did, rather well.
During the ceremony, a woman from Ottawa had a small presentation explaining a project she’s been working on called ‘Flags2Bény’. She explained that on her first trip to Juno Beach, she was so touched by everything that she wanted to find a way to spread the word more at home in Canada. One thing she did was get a bridge near the airport in Ottawa renamed Juno Bridge. She also got schoolchildren to sign messages of thanks on over 2000 Canadian flags and brought them here to Juno today. She asked us to each take some flags and go to the Canadian war cemetery after the ceremony and put them on a few graves.
Well, we went to her after and snagged the last few flags she had! She was worried people wouldn’t participate but instead more people wanted to help than she had flags!! This was French locals and the Canadians alike all wanting to help and honour our dead.
We also then met an amazing, sweet woman who said she was a local girl in the area when the Canadians landed on D-Day and liberated the town. She said she was 11 years old and remembers being friends with the soldiers. Amazing! Eric pointed out that our daughter is 11 now, the same age this woman was on D-Day. We got a photo with her.
I love that 75 years later, she still comes to the Canadian Armistice Day ceremonies to say thanks. (And wanted to plant some flags at the cemetery, as well!).
After the ceremony, they did something so very dignified, so very French- they served delicate pastries and sparkling cider (the cider the region is known for).
Then we went outside to pay our own, private respects. We were asked if we wanted to lay a wreath but I explained that no, thank you, we had different plans.
You see, when my Papa died in March, there was a beautiful flower arrangement atop his casket with a few red poppies in it. The poppies were artificial because the florist couldn’t exactly get real poppies in March in Canada. Family kept those poppies. I have two, and plans to take them to the places I promised Papa we’d go when I last spoke to him.
Today I had one of those poppies and we were laying it at the Juno Beach memorial instead of a wreath. We didn’t want to lay it at the big wreath laying ceremony because it was too important, and people wouldn’t understand the significance of this tiny, fake poppy that looked a little worse for wear after travelling about a 13,000km trip (Brantford to Victoria to Bristol to Normandy).
But it got here, and we laid it in Papa’s memory.
Then we took a few other photos. Eric was here for Remembrance Day in 2006 so we took a photo so we could compare, haha.
Thirteen years ago, that uniform was barely broken in!
Then because there were a few new things since 2006, including a Naval memorial, more photos:
However, do you think we managed to get a photo of the 3 of us while he was in uniform, or during this special day? I thought of it while I was waiting for him to change into his civi clothes. Sigh. And there were so many people around that we ‘knew’ by then that we could ask, too. But we just never thought of it, and forgot. Oh well, my hair was a disaster from the gale outside so I probably wouldn’t have liked any photo we got anyway.
Then we went back to the war cemetery to fulfill our promise to plant the flags on the graves. When we had gone earlier in the day, we were the only car in the parking lot. This time when we pulled up, there were a dozen cars or so! Wonderful!
When we got to the cemetery, we saw that plenty of people had already been and had and were still planting their flags. One older man in a retiree’s Legion uniform made sure to stand up and salute with every single flag he placed, it was touching.
Flags-2-Bény was a success! The cemetery looked much more loved afterwards and more importantly, the graves were each individually respected.
They were still planting a few flags by the time we left but we had to hit the road.
It’s been the most amazing day of reflection, introduction, pride, and enlightenment. We all loved our day and will never forget it.
Thank you for letting me share it with you.