Tour­ing the bat­tle­fields of France

At­tend­ing cer­e­mony to hon­our Tav­i­s­tock sol­dier among many mov­ing ex­pe­ri­ences

Waterloo Region Record - - Front Page - LYNN HADDRALL

“Stop the car!” We said this a lot while my hus­band and I ex­plored bat­tle­fields on the back-roads of north­ern France.

One day we drove by pop­pies grow­ing in ditches. It seemed fit­ting to stop, to re­mem­ber Cana­di­ans who died in the First and Sec­ond World Wars, such as Lt.-Col. John McCrae.

McCrae, a Guelph doc­tor, im­mor­tal­ized the poppy in his poem “In Flan­ders Fields.” He wrote it while serv­ing in Bel­gium in 1915. It sur­prised me to see pop­pies grow­ing so abun­dantly. I crouched to take pho­tos while bees buzzed nearby.

Un­scripted mo­ments such as this filled our bat­tle­field tour, con­ducted dur­ing two vis­its to France. We saw well-known sites such as Vimy Ridge, Juno Beach and Ar­ras. We stopped at ob­scure sites, such as a me­mo­rial to com­mem­o­rate rare mo­ments when sol­diers re­fused to fight.

Rent­ing a car from an agency near our ho­tel on the north­ern out­skirts of Paris, we drove wher­ever we wanted and stopped of­ten.

The Cana­dian Na­tional Vimy Me­mo­rial is 90 min­utes from Paris. The cen­tre­piece is a ma­jes­tic mon­u­ment carved from mar­ble and built on the high­est point of the bat­tle­field where 3,598 Cana­di­ans died for vic­tory in 1917. Vimy Ridge dom­i­nates the coun­try­side; it’s easy to see why it held mil­i­tary sig­nif­i­cance in the First World War.

Cana­dian Wal­ter Sey­mour All­ward de­signed the me­mo­rial. It took more than a decade to com­plete. He searched widely be­fore set­tling on lime­stone from Croa­tia. He chose well. The me­mo­rial is lu­mi­nous, equally im­pres­sive un­der clouds or sun­light.

You might know All­ward for cre­at­ing a mov­ing me­mo­rial much closer to home. He de­signed the ceno­taph in Strat­ford, Ont.

Sculp­tures at Vimy, such as the fe­male fig­ure known as Canada Bereft, are uni­ver­sal and per­sonal in the emo­tions they evoke. Rev­er­ence sur­rounds the mon­u­ment. Vis­i­tors leave heart­warm­ing me­men­toes to fallen sol­diers, their names etched in stone. On the day we vis­ited, a young man strummed his gui­tar, softly singing a song he wrote. An­other fam­ily touched their hands to a name etched on the mon­u­ment.

It’s a pas­toral set­ting; sheep graze to con­tain the lawn and keep the site neat and nat­u­ral. But a cen­tury af­ter the bat­tle, the crater-filled land­scape at­tests to the car­nage.

The vis­i­tor cen­tre has in­ter­ac­tive dis­plays. Out­side, you can tour tun­nels with an English- or French­s­peak­ing guide on a first-come, first­served ba­sis. You can walk the trenches and get a sense of how in­cred­i­bly close the Ger­man and Cana­dian lines were.

The city of Ar­ras is about 10 kilo­me­tres south of the Vimy me­mo­rial. It was on the front line in the First World War and was heav­ily dam­aged. Three-quar­ters of the city had to be re­built. Civic lead­ers in­vested money and at­ten­tion to recre­ate the his­toric town square in its orig­i­nal Flem­ishBaroque style.

The belfry on City Hall is worth the climb, a short el­e­va­tor ride and 40 steps to the top. On mar­ket day, you can see all the ac­tiv­ity be­low in Place des Héros. Bells play dif­fer­ent tunes ev­ery quar­ter hour. If you don’t like loud noises, time your climb care­fully.

Af­ter the climb, de­scend into Les Boves, old tun­nels ac­cessed through City Hall. The un­der­ground pas­sages were built to con­nect cel­lars but were re­pur­posed dur­ing both wars as bunkers to pro­tect peo­ple and pos­ses­sions. The de­scent is dark and slip­pery, per­haps not suited for any­one who doesn’t like cold, damp, small spa­ces.

Away from the city cen­tre is the un­der­ground ex­pe­ri­ence at the Car­rière Welling­ton mu­seum. The Al­lies used an ex­ten­sive net­work of tun­nels in the first war. Me­dieval quar­ries orig­i­nally pro­vided chalk for con­struc­tion. Skilled mil­i­tary min­ers built con­nect­ing tun­nels in war to house and move troops.

You must don a wartime hel­met be­fore de­scend­ing by el­e­va­tor into the chilly, dank caves where the tem­per­a­ture never changes. A guide ex­plains the spar­tan con­di­tions for sol­diers who lived there for up to eight days be­fore the Ar­ras of­fen­sive on April 9, 1917. They had light­ing, la­trines, kitchens, med­i­cal sta­tions and even a rail sys­tem.

Head­sets aug­ment the tour as you pass haunting im­ages sketched on walls and stand where sol­diers held an Easter Ser­vice be­fore go­ing off to die. In the Sec­ond World War, the tun­nels served as bomb shel­ters.

If you don’t want to climb or de­scend, take a self-guided walk­ing tour of Ar­ras. Get a map at City Hall and fol­low mark­ers em­bed­ded in the side­walks. Each sil­ver cir­cle leads the way to sig­nif­i­cant his­tor­i­cal points.

For a hand­crafted sou­venir that’s uniquely French, stop by the Au Bleu d’Ar­ras shop in Héros square to see how the dis­tinc­tive porce­lain is cre­ated. You can watch Chris­telle Per­rier use her work­shop to cre­ate ev­ery­thing from jewelry pen­dants to tea cups and plates, all dec­o­rated in beau­ti­ful Ar­ras Blue.

We re­turned to the back-roads to head to­ward Dieppe, closer to the D-Day land­ing beaches of the Sec­ond World War. Pass­ing through the vil­lage of Le Boisle, we stopped for a baguette and dis­cov­ered an un­usual painted me­mo­rial topped by a blue­suited French sol­dier from the first war.

The French called an or­di­nary sol­dier le poilu, which lit­er­ally means hairy one. Whiskers were a sign of courage and man­li­ness.

On a coun­try road, we found an out­door dis­play ded­i­cated to rare mo­ments of frat­er­niza­tion, when sol­diers from the first war laid down their arms to greet each other. Three com­mu­ni­ties near Ar­ras worked to­gether to high­light when “en­emy sol­diers dared to be­have as broth­ers.”

A plaque ex­plains: “When ex­cep­tional cir­cum­stances arose, like Christ­mas Eve 1914 or the floods of win­ter 1915, British, French and Ger­man sol­diers put down their weapons and came to­gether to share a few short hours of peace.”

It goes on to quote from eye­wit­ness ac­counts. Colour­ful plas­tic sil­hou­ettes dot the land­scape to il­lus­trate the events.

We stopped to pay our re­spects at the Dieppe Cana­dian War Ceme­tery, near the English Chan­nel. On a sunny day, groundskeep­ers from the Com­mon­wealth War Graves Com­mis­sion tended to the im­mac­u­late ceme­tery.

The ceme­tery was first built by the Ger­mans in the sec­ond war to bury Al­lied dead af­ter the dis­as­trous raid on Nazi-oc­cu­pied Dieppe in Au­gust 1942. The failed raid killed 916 Cana­di­ans. No­tably, the ceme­tery has been left in the Ger­man tra­di­tion, head­stones back to back in long dou­ble rows.

The Dieppe mu­seum is housed in an old the­atre, sorely in need of re­pair in the city’s con­gested down­town. It has ar­ti­facts, ex­hibits and a film that fea­tures poignant ac­counts of the failed Dieppe raid. We were glad to visit but the crum­bling sur­round­ings don’t mea­sure up to the sac­ri­fice.

It was jar­ring to leave that past be­hind and walk along Dieppe’s lively beaches. Life moves on and fam­i­lies frolic to­day on sites that were un­kind to Cana­dian troops.

•••

We stayed in Courseulles-surMer to ex­plore Juno Beach, where Cana­di­ans in­vaded Nazioc­cu­pied Nor­mandy on June 6, 1944. Cap­tur­ing the beach­head that day killed 359 Cana­di­ans. Cana­di­ans staff the Juno Beach Cen­tre, which has in­ter­ac­tive el­e­ments. It’s perched be­side the sandy beach, where you can ex­plore bat­tle rem­nants such as tanks and old bunkers.

In Nor­mandy we were re­minded about how old Eu­rope is. On our way to visit nearby Bayeux, we were star­tled to dis­cover a mile post from the Ro­man Em­pire. It was a replica, re­plac­ing the orig­i­nal post in­stalled be­side the road al­most 2,000 years ago and re­dis­cov­ered in 1819.

Bayeux is a charm­ing city with an im­pres­sive his­toric core and a grand cathe­dral. It’s the orig­i­nal home to the Bayeux Ta­pes­try, a cher­ished 70-me­tre-long work of art from the 11th cen­tury. Water­loo res­i­dent Ray Du­gan hand­stitched a replica that was used in the Hol­ly­wood movie “The Mon­u­ments Men,” star­ring Ge­orge Clooney and Matt Da­mon.

In the court­yard of the Bayeux Cathe­dral stands a mag­nif­i­cent nat­u­ral mon­u­ment: a tree that has re­mark­ably thrived since it was planted dur­ing the French Rev­o­lu­tion. The Lib­erty Tree is stun­ning in day­light; sev­eral times a week in the sum­mer it is il­lu­mi­nated at night in a 360de­gree light and sound show.

A day trip from Bayeux to his­toric Mont Saint-Michel pro­vides a chance to see a Ger­man mil­i­tary ceme­tery near Huisnes-surMer. It holds the re­mains of 11,956 war dead, many with­out names.

Na­tions con­fig­ure their war memo­ri­als dif­fer­ently. The Ger­man mau­soleum is cir­cu­lar with two lev­els of crypts, very dif­fer­ent from a Com­mon­wealth ceme­tery. It is no less solemn.

Mont Saint-Michel can be viewed from the Ger­man ceme­tery. The me­dieval monastery has a unique is­land set­ting. It’s a UN­ESCO World Her­itage site that has long at­tracted pil­grims and has also been a mil­i­tary for­ti­fi­ca­tion. You can take a shut­tle to the monastery and there are free one­hour tours with an English-speak­ing guide.

The sun was set­ting on the Cana­dian War Ceme­tery in Bény­sur-Mer when we vis­ited near the D-Day beaches. We went to pay our re­spects to Cpl. Fran­cis Roy Weitzel, 23. He served with Water­loo, On­tario’s High­land Light In­fantry of Canada in the Sec­ond World War.

Weitzel grew up in Tav­i­s­tock and en­listed in 1940. He was killed July 8, 1944, in the bat­tle known as “Bloody Buron,” fight­ing fierce SS and Hitler Youth troops. That bat­tle killed 71 sol­diers of the On­tario reg­i­ment, which never had a blood­ier day.

Ap­proach­ing his grave, we no­ticed stones, loonies and toonies placed on tomb­stones by friends and fam­ily. We chat­ted with French peo­ple vis­it­ing the ceme­tery and shared Weitzel’s story with them.

“Merci, merci,” one man said qui­etly. He’s been vis­it­ing the ceme­tery since he was a child. “Cana­di­ans are very im­por­tant to us.”

He shook our hands and wept, ex­plain­ing that Cana­di­ans lib­er­ated his late mother in 1944 when she was a teenager. Their strange French baf­fled her. They came from Que­bec and she never for­got their kind­ness. Her son vis­its the ceme­tery of­ten to pay his re­spects.

Weitzel’s sac­ri­fice was com­mem­o­rated in May by his rel­a­tives and by sol­diers from Water­loo Re­gion. They trav­elled to France to tour bat­tle­fields and at­tend a cer­e­mony for Weitzel in Buron, the vil­lage he died to lib­er­ate.

We joined them for a day in Nor­mandy. It was emo­tional and uplift­ing for Weitzel’s rel­a­tives and for the Royal High­land Fusiliers of Canada, the name of his reg­i­ment to­day.

Cpl. Alexan­der Klaus­nitzer of Kitch­ener played his bag­pipes many times dur­ing the tour. “Amaz­ing Grace” was the choice at a home near Buron that was used by Cana­dian of­fi­cers dur­ing the war.

“I’ve done a lot of re­search, es­pe­cially for this trip, on bag­pipes in the mil­i­tary and Cana­dian Forces, so to come here and go through Buron and find out the tunes that were played by for­mer pre­de­ces­sors in reg­i­ments, it’s quite mov­ing,” Klaus­nitzer said.

Warrant Of­fi­cer Dar­ryl Casselman

sang a beau­ti­ful high­land tune at a gar­den re­cep­tion spon­sored by the lo­cal French his­tor­i­cal so­ci­ety. It was a thank-you from the reg­i­ment to the es­tate owner and lo­cal of­fi­cials. His un­ac­com­pa­nied voice mes­mer­ized all who gath­ered at a château used by Canada as a bat­tle­field head­quar­ters in 1944.

Ken Weitzel, a re­tired Tav­i­s­tock dairy farmer and nephew of the sol­dier, found the bat­tle­field tour a mov­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. “It was re­ally great trav­el­ling with the reg­i­ment. We were just like fam­ily.”

He’s im­pressed by the es­teem in which French res­i­dents hold their Cana­dian lib­er­a­tors. A walk­way at Buron has been named Al­lée Cor­po­ral Fran­cis Roy Weitzel and the com­mu­nity is­sued a spe­cial postage stamp.

“I’m re­ally im­pressed with what they’ve done with the street. It’s only about one kilo­me­tre long, but it con­nects the com­mu­ni­ties of Buron and Sain­tCon­test, and you can see that they’ve done a lot of work on it.”

French res­i­dents were hon­oured to have the Cana­dian reg­i­ment par­tic­i­pate in a spe­cial cer­e­mony in Buron’s vil­lage square, named Place des Cana­di­ens.

“We knew how much the peo­ple of Buron wanted to re­con­nect with the reg­i­ment it­self. The peo­ple were just thrilled to have us all there. They just did ev­ery­thing su­perla­tively with the Sec­ond World War ve­hi­cles. Ken got to ride in a jeep,” said Sharon Weitzel, his wife.

French his­to­rian Do­minique Barbé and re­searcher Amy Wells pre­pared a book­let for vis­it­ing Cana­di­ans, with his­toric pho­tos, maps and in­for­ma­tion about the lo­cal bat­tles.

Barbé, 65, thinks Weitzel de­serves the Vic­to­ria Cross for his hero­ism in lib­er­at­ing Barbé’s home­town. Weitzel’s com­rades felt the same. That hon­our was not be­stowed on him, so Barbé is do­ing his best to com­mem­o­rate Weitzel’s sac­ri­fice.

Hav­ing walked where Cana­di­ans fought and died, we re­turned home with re­newed ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the sac­ri­fices they made, the con­di­tions un­der which they toiled, and the re­gard in which they are still held.

PHO­TOS BY LYNN HADDRALL

Wild pop­pies grow abun­dantly along ru­ral roads in north­ern France, not far from fields where Cana­dian sol­diers made the ul­ti­mate sac­ri­fice.

Cana­dian sculp­tor and de­signer Wal­ter Sey­mour All­ward de­signed the ma­jes­tic Vimy Me­mo­rial. It took more than a decade to com­plete.

Jeff Out­hit (above, cen­tre) qui­etly re­flects on the toll war takes as he reads the names at the Dieppe Cana­dian War Ceme­tery in north­ern France.

DE­CLAN OUT­HIT

Bag­piper Cpl. Alexan­der Klaus­nitzer leads mem­bers of the Royal High­land Fusiliers of Canada and de­scen­dants of Cpl. Fran­cis Roy Weitzel as they walk the bat­tle­field.

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