Following in veterans’ footsteps
HUNDREDS TO FOLLOW BATTLE ROUTE OF CANADIAN WARRIORS
Like so many of Canada’s veterans who served in Europe during the Second World War, Edward Parsons didn’t talk much about that fight after he returned home.
“Part of it, I think, is that he thought nobody would understand — nobody experienced what he did,” said granddaughter Sarah Parsons. The Leamington history buff was only eight when her grandfather died in 2001, but there was one particular story she recalls him telling his family on more than one occasion.
“He would talk to them about a bridge — Nijmegen. Part of his regiment’s duty was to hold that bridge,” said Parsons.
The strategic Dutch bridge over the Waal river, scene of heavy and bloody fighting and the subject of an iconic painting by Canadian wartime artist Alex Colville, is well-known to those who study this country’s wartime history. Edward Parsons, who lied about his age to recruiters so he could join the war effort at only 16, was still barely an adult when his 6th Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, part of the II Canadian Corps, was ordered to hold that vital link over several days.
Parsons, her brother and her father will be among about 200 participants visiting the bridge 75 years later, during Dutch liberation commemorations in May, as part of a pilgrimage called In Our Fathers’ Footsteps. The event is designed to put descendants of Canadian soldiers who helped free the Netherlands along the routes taken by the country’s liberators.
The three Parsons are joining the Dutch pilgrimage that includes a 60-kilometre hike and visits to Canadian military cemeteries where many of the almost 8,000 Canadians who died in the Netherlands between September 1944 and May 1945 lie buried.
“I never expected this outpouring of interest,” said Karen Hunter, a business consultant in Guelph who began organizing the pilgrimage for herself but then expanded the plans after word of her efforts began to spread.
“What I’m discovering is there’s this pent-up demand for remembrance ... and about ancestry and heritage and the things that have shaped their lives,” she said. “For me, this event is about experiencing remembrance and about embracing remembrance.”
Participants are now drawn from across Canada. Hunter said the response has been “intense” and that “the words are always the same — ‘my father never spoke about the war.’ ”
Those descendants want to find out more. In Our Fathers’ Footsteps, she said, offers participants an opportunity to learn more about what a family member once volunteered to do.
Hunter said her own father, Gilbert Hunter, like many other Canadian veterans, seldom spoke about his wartime experiences, and when he did “it was always happy stories, about sailing and parties after the liberation.” After returning from the Netherlands in 1995 after participating in 50th anniversary commemorations of Europe’s liberation, however, he secretly wrote a more revealing personal memoir which he gave to his family on his 80th birthday in 1999.
Hunter said she started doing her own research and making discoveries about what Canada’s soldiers experienced, and that’s when her pilgrimage planning got underway.
Participants, among them “quite a few grandchildren,” will march along routes taken by Canada’s soldiers in the fight to liberate the Netherlands after years of Nazi occupation. Battlefield tours and Canadian military cemeteries in Groesbeek and Holten are on the itinerary, as well as candlelight vigils, a sunset march and a flower ceremony. Professional tour guides will lead the platoon-sized groups who will enjoy “military-themed” picnic lunches — “not rations,” said Hunter — and there will be a meeting with Princess Margriet, the Ottawa-born member of the Dutch royal family that spent the war in exile.
Hunter said the Dutch response to her pilgrimage plans has been a big surprise. After word got out that the Canadians would be hosting a “liberation party” for the village of Almen — scene of heavy Canadian fighting — during their stay at a local hotel used as a wartime hospital, the village responded with a breakfast invitation of its own for the next day.
The 60 kilometres of footsteps end in Apeldoorn and its 75th anniversary liberation festival. May 4 is a solemn day of remembrance for the Dutch, said Hunter, but May 5 is “all about celebration.”
Parsons said her grandfather never returned to the Netherlands after the war: “The scars, I think, were a little too deep for him.” Edward Parsons was still a teen when he met his future wife at a dance while training in England, and they would marry during a leave from the mainland battlefront. He would later become a salesman, travelling across Ontario and raising two sons, one of whom settled in Windsor.
Parsons said it’s her hope that, “by walking, we’ll understand a little bit more of what he experienced.”