Touring the battlefields of France
Attending ceremony to honour Tavistock soldier among many moving experiences
“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.
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.
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.