June 4th 2014 – Pourville and day two of Dieppe
Today was the second day during which we discussed Operation ‘Jubilee,’ the failed raid on Dieppe. We had spent the previous day at Puys walking the shores of ‘Blue’ beach where we experienced first hand the difficult terrain encountered by the Black Watch and the Royal Regiment of Canada who landed there on August 19th, 1942. Upon examining the ground it quickly became apparent that any advance upon such rough terrain covered in fist-sized pebbles would be slow and perilous at best. Furthermore, the beach itself was narrow and hedged in on all sides by concrete and the seawall making any advance upon it in the finest conditions challenging given the tactical advantage afforded to those set to defend it. We concluded our visit to ‘Blue’ beach with a presentation on the Royal Regiment of Canada’s by Alison Weiber knowing full well its tragic outcome.
From Puits we moved into Dieppe in order to analyze the vulnerability of the Canadian forces who managed to land at ‘White’ and ‘Red’ Beaches on similar terrain and who were likewise completely surrounded by the enemy. Here Maryse and Marlee provided us with two excellent presentations that helped situate the role of the Fusilier Mont Royal and the Calgary Tank’s during the failed raid on Dieppe. Experiencing first hand the geography of this region made it easier to appreciate how precarious the situation was for the soldiers who landed there both on foot and in tank.
The last beach we were to examine, ‘Green’ beach, was today’s destination and was to be followed by a visit to the Dieppe Canadian Cemetery just outside the town. The Beach at Pourville was where the South Saskatchewan Regiment and Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders landed. It was on this beach that I gave my presentation on the withdrawal from Dieppe. Having now seen all the beaches from the perspective of the high ground held by the German defenders I began to grasp the difficult task facing those who had hoped to escape these shores. The task of those involved in the withdrawal operations was onerous to say the least, yet against all odds these men bore the burden it as best they could.
Most remarkable among the stories of the evacuation was that of Padre John Foote. While high command scrambled to save as many souls as possible from the shores of Dieppe Padre John Foote took matters into his own hands ferrying several injured men from the beach to the evacuating landing craft on his back while wading through waist-deep waters up. Once his task was complete and he was offered a spot on the withdrawing landing craft he refused it outright electing to stay instead. Foote insisted that his role was better served alongside those of his comrades who needed him most, those who could not make it off the beaches. That Padre Foote chose to remain on these calamitous shores of his own free will based on the belief that he could help shepherd his comrades who were soon to be prisoners of war is nothing short of an astonishing story, one that reveals how even in war altruism and compassion can prevail. Padre John Foote never faltered in his resolve to make the world a better place. That anyone could be rescued from these beaches was a remarkable story.
As we departed Pourville and made our way to the Dieppe Canadian Cemetery I felt a rush of anxious excitement come over me, for it was here that I was about to meet Pvt. Lionel Cohen, the Canadian fallen on whom I was to present. Before locating Lionel’s final resting place I wandered through the rows of tombstones and found myself captivated by the young ages of many of the men who were buried here, noticing that had circumstances been different these names could just as easily have been those of my friends, family, and tour-mates. Compounding these mixed emotions were the stories of sorrow strewn across the cemetery grounds in the emotional epitaphs selected by their families and friends. In a mixed surge of pride, sadness, and excitement I carried myself forward to find Lionel’s Grave knowing full well that this was to be a very emotional visit.
My presentation on Lionel was the first of two soldier presentations that day and it was set to mark the culmination of a series of conversations that I had been having with Lionel since I first opened his war service file at random in April. Our conversations quickly deepened as I began digging through genealogical records, obituaries, and letters in an effort to better understand Lionel. Furthermore, it was in these conversations that I found the making of a man I may have known begin to take shape. Despite this it was only here at his grave in Dieppe that I truly began to realize a sense of his family’s sadness and the collective grief felt by the many communities following his death. As I went over Lionel’s carefully scripted story I came to apprehend that behind each stone was a story as rich as Lionel’s. Each lose of life was felt by a number of communities, individuals, and families. It was under this swell of perplexing emotions that I lost my composure thinking of the many lives that Lionel left behind.
As I wound up my tribute to Lionel I began to find solace in the exercise of remembering. My words became more than a cathartic act, they became a gateway into the past and a way of honouring those who are often known only to their families. After all, this was the reason I had chosen Lionel in the first place. Furthermore, it reminded me of the importance of historical inquiry and of history as a discipline by properly situating individual stories of loss within a broader national narrative of pride, sacrifice, and duty, one that privileges bravery without forgetting the sorrow and suffering often experienced most harshly at an individual level. In short, the opportunity to unearth Lionel’s story helped add a humanistic dimension to the work we were doing on the tour, and, for the rest of my journey I never felt as if I walked alone.