Leaving’s the hardest part
Our last true day on the battlefields tour happened today and instead of detailing every single thing we saw, I’m going to share what happened as we visited the Canadian Cemetery at Brettville-sur-Laise. This cemetery contains some of the many Canadians who perished during the push through Normandy.
At this cemetery, I couldn’t contain myself and truly sobbed. I think it was a product of being emotionally exhausted and truly realizing everything we have experienced in the past few weeks.
At the cemetery, we stopped at three graves for our last three soldier presentations.
Lilia went first and told us about a local Ottawa boy. He was a 23-year-old air gunner whose plane was shot down, killing him. His elder brother went missing in action in Normandy and is commemorated at another cemetery nearby. His family continued to remember him but had never visited the grave so Lilia was honouring him for them.
Then we heard from Shelagh who told the story of one of the Canadians murdered as a POW at l’Abbaye d’Ardennes. He was young when he was murdered and had only married a short bit before the war began. He initially went Missing In Action and his mother and wife wrote letters to try and find his whereabouts to no avail. Eventually, his body was found with a bullet hole in the back of his skull and he became a part of the trial of Kurt Meyer. At this point, his grieving mother had to relive the horror of her son’s last moments. He waited in a basement cellar as he heard his friends getting murdered, then he suffered the same fate. By this point, none of us had dry eyes. We all imagined the horror of not knowing what happened to a loved one, then the even worse horror of discovering this truth.
Finally, came the last presentation, and to me at least, the most moving one. Emilio stood in front of the grave of his Great-Grandfather and began by describing Valentine to us. They share the same nose and build. We had all heard snippets about Valentine throughout the tour, so this moment was all the more real for us. Last night, I even had the chance to read some of the letters and files, and get to know Valentine through his own words. Today though, standing in front of his grave, Emilio told us about the great-grandfather he never met, and the soldier he was when he died. He had volunteered with a wife and kids at home, and died July 20, 1944 probably when the armoured vehicle he was in exploded.
Hearing about the end of this man’a life brought me to tears. The overwhelming sense of sadness continued as I walked through row upon row of graves. I reflected on the fact that this is where thousands of loved ones rest forever, so far away from those they held dear. They can be visited but they will never return home, and we must always leave them. This sense of loss was made even more real as I glanced down at a passing stone and saw, “We love you always, Mum and Little Alex.” This is what sent me over the edge. I truly thought about all the graves we’ve seen and stories we’ve heard and I sobbed. The loss on all sides in both wars was incredible, almost unfathomable.
We are 70, 100, years past the events of these global tragedies and these two weeks have made me feel as if they happened last week. We have had the opportunity to learn and remember all these people. We heard the stories of 11 soldiers in both wars and got to know them just a little. But there are so many more resting here in France and our work is far from done. I will take from this experience a deeper understanding of these wars and the people who lived them, as well as all those left behind. I will also continue to want to learn more about these terrible events, perhaps in the hopes that they are never repeated.
In closing, I listened to a song that really fit the mood at the time. It’s “Go Solo” by Tom Rosenthal and it’s a song about making one’s way home. It gave me hope that although these men never found their way home, their memories might.
For your love I will go far
I wanna be wherever you are
I know I’m coming back for you
And I’m happy, nothing’s going to stop me
I’m making my way home
I’m making my way
And as sad as I felt, and as exhausted as I continue to feel, this has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I have become so close with those who shared it with me and we now share a cross-Canada bond, like many of our soldiers. I will also make it my goal to bring these soldiers’ memories home with me.