In the spring of 2008, I visited France and Belgium with my sister. Among our many stops were the D-Day beaches at Normandy and several World War I battlefields and memorials, including Vimy Ridge and Beaumont-Hamel, although in truth most of northern France seems like one never ending memorial. The place is heavy with history.
I published this article in The Newfoundland Quarterly later that year. In honour of Remembrance Day, I’m posting it here.
“It was a magnificent display of trained and disciplined valour, and its assault only failed of success because dead men can advance no further.”
– Major-General Sir Beauvoir de Lisle, Commander British 29th Division
The case arrived by courier one day in April, all the way from Ottawa. The General Manager called me into his office to open it.
Inside were the medals of Tommy Rickett’s, on loan from the Canadian War Museum. They were nestled inside on the foam padding: The Victory Medal and the British War Medal, the “Mutt and Jeff” of First World War military medals. The French Croix de Guerre with star, and one other.
The Victoria Cross looked small in the case. If you didn’t know that it had a story to tell, it could almost be insignificant, just a piece of bronze and crimson ribbon.
Two weeks later I was driving from Normandy to Belgium, roughly following the route of the Canadian Third Infantry Division in as they moved across Europe towards Germany in 1944-45. One look out the window and you know this is tank country, rolling fields divided by roads and hedgerows.
Suddenly in the distance were the pylons of the Pont de Normandie, big inverted Y’s reaching up from the ground to carry the A29 Autoroute over the great River Seine. It looked mystical in the mist, the biggest bridge I had ever seen.
I was traveling with my sister, and she had the same reaction. ‘Do we get to cross that?’ she asked. After the next turn, the next crest of the hill, the river came into better view.
Yes, we do.
The speed limit on the autoroutes is 130 kilometres an hour, and we were across the two kilometre bridge in less than a minute. The big Y pylons soared above us, while below us the Seine moved lazily towards the English Channel and sea.
This trip was a succession of bodies of water to be crossed: the Atlantic, the English Channel, the Seine River. We had taken the ferry from Portsmouth to Ouistreham and the Normandy landing beaches, Juno Beach and Pointe du Hoc and later Mont St. Michel where the Couesnon River empties on the salt flats.
But those were all behind us now. Ahead of us lay Belgium, french fries and good beer. But we weren’t leaving the battlegrounds of France just yet.