Last summer when we visited France, one of the highlights was seeing the D-day beaches in Normandy. Andrew has always been interested in World War II, and my oldest daughter had just studied it in history, so we knew it would be a great experience.
Being Canadian, we spent the most time at Juno Beach, where the Canadian forces landed. We toured the beach itself then spent time in the museum. It was a moving experience, and I’ll write about that in another post.
But this month I’m writing about serendipitous moments, and that experience came at the Canadian cemetery in Beny-sur-Mer. The day we left Bayeux, the plan was to detour through this small village, pay our tributes briefly at the cemetery, then continue on our way to the coast.
We knew this visit would be a little different than planned, however, when we pulled into the parking lot and found it nearly full. One of the vehicles was a van from the Canadian embassy. We wondered if there was a private event going on, but we hoped to at least get a quick look at the cemetery.
When we walked through the entrance area, we were stunned to see a group of about forty people starting to gather around a cenotaph. They were well-dressed, and we glumly regarded our shorts and T-shirts. As much as we wanted to pay respect to the Canadian forces, we worried that we might appear disrespectful.
Just as we huddled considering our next steps, we were approached by another visitor. Thanks to our high-school French, we understood they were hosting a ceremony to honour Canadians who had given their lives to liberate France. And when he heard that we were thinking of leaving because we weren’t dressed appropriately, he was horrified. “You’re Canadians!” he said (in French). “Today you are our guests of honour!”
We joined the half-circle awaiting the service. Within a few minutes a procession wound its way through the cemetery to the front of our group. A series of local dignitaries lay wreaths at the cenotaph, with veterans at their sides. Several small children in the crowd waved Canadian and French flags. We all sang the Canadian national anthem, the whole group singing with gusto. After a reading, the audience said, in English and in French, “We will not forget”.
After the ceremony concluded, we walked quietly among the markers. Row after row commemorated soldiers who fell on June 6, 1944, and again in early July during the Battle for Caen. Many of the soldiers were 18 and 19 years old, and the majority of the rest were scarcely older. Their sacrifice in the fight against evil is unimaginable. But as long as the good people of France remember – and as long as we Canadians hold them in our hearts – they will not be forgotten.