WEEK 7: Normandy History, Legacy, and the Hallowed Sands of Juno Beach
By Jon Montgomery
8/20/2014 9:23:07 AM
With the knowledge that we were travelling to Normandy for the seventh leg of the Race, I felt impassioned and eager to visit a place with such historical significance. Leaving my home province of Manitoba and journeying to France, I couldnít help but wonder what mustíve been running through the troopsí minds making this trip over 70 years ago.
During the First and Second World Wars, our troops were involved in some of the pivotal moments and battles. From the tragic Flanders Fields in neighbouring Belgium, to the catastrophic events of Dieppe, to the landings on D-Day in Normandy, Canadian soldiers paid the ultimate sacrifice and I wanted to honour this at each and every step. I was keen to also see how Canadian soldiersí legacy remains in these communities. I understand that, to this day, the residents of regional villages and towns still pay tribute to Canadians for liberating them from Nazi occupation.
Itís roughly 250 kilometres from Paris to Normandy, and once outside the metropolitan area the landscape suddenly transforms into the famed idyllic French countryside. Itís truly magical. The first thing I noticed is how much older the buildings are here, compared to those at home in Canada. The small towns, churches and farmlands are so well preserved. Itís a history buffís dream.
(A picturesque shot of Bayeux)
Normandy is a very large region of France; it covers roughly five percent of the country. This area is chock-full of history dating back over a thousand years to the Vikings who conquered this part of France. The Normans (which apparently means ďNorthmenĒ) as they would become known, were a pretty fierce and progressive bunch, equally famous for their military spirit and their culture.
A good example of Norman history can be found in the Bayeux Museum where one can find The Bayeux Tapestry, a mesmerizing 229-foot long, 19-inch high embroidery that depicts the conquest of England by William the Conqueror, from 1064 to the outcome of the Battle of Hastings in 1066. This conquest made William the Conqueror the first Norman king of England. It was created with mind-blowing detail, and is over 900 years old.
(Standing in front of The Bayeux Tapestry)
Upper Normandy is situated on the English Channel, where epic battles and clashes have occurred for hundreds of years, culminating in the most recent Ė and biggest single-day assault ever launched Ė the D-Day landings on June 6, 1944. More on that laterÖ
We sat down for a meal at one of the
in the neat little seaside town where we stayed in Normandy. In one of my more risquť moments, I and a few of my companions ordered the seafood platter, thinking it would be a bounty of local seafood treasures caught that dayÖhowever, it was more a heaping plate full of mixed odd, slimy, unseasoned, ice cold snails and alien-looking crustaceans. Iím an adventurous eater, but this cuisine was out of my league. I did finish it, Iím proud to say, but just a warning for anyone travelling to that part of the world, beware of les bulots. Thatís all Iím gonna say on the subject.
One of our stops was the Calvados Boulard distillery, a beautiful place that produces perhaps the finest example of this distinctly local libation. Itís an apple brandy, made from distilled cider, and it would have been disrespectful for me to not sample several varieties of this famous regional beverage, that they have been making here since 1825.
(I couldn't visit the Calvados Boulard without sampling some delicious apple brandy...)
The Percheron horses were a marvel to behold, what magnificent animals. And it couldnít have been a more picturesque location, a working farm in the middle of the rolling French countryside, magnifique!
I can confirm that the reports are true; the people who live in this area of France are big fans of Canadians. Everywhere you look in these small towns are tributes to Canada. Nowhere is this more expressed than at ďCanada HouseĒ, the first home liberated by The Queenís Own Rifles on D-Day. The current owners maintain it as a museum, where locals and tourists can see relics and artifacts. Thereís a famous photo of Canadian troops landing on D-Day with this very house in the background. The owners pointed out a really neat page in the guestbook, where Ernie Kells, a Canadian veteran on a recent trip wrote, ďSorry about throwing grenades in your cellar.Ē Now thatís amazing. So proud to be a Canadian, that after almost 70 years this guy still has a sense of humour. To think what he mustíve been through on that day and the days that followed.
As the culmination of our trip we made our way to Bťny-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery, the resting place of fallen Canadian soldiers. I was doing my best to prepare emotionally, it is a great responsibility to make sure we do these men justice, as a great many Canadians have a connection to the First or Second World War. As a matter of fact my grandfather James Gilmour was a navigator during the Second World War. He stayed in Manitoba to teach after graduating second in his class, while his identical twin brother Wes enlisted and was killed in a plane crash while training in Manitoba. As we approached the cemetery, I thought of how this war affected all the wives, mothers, fathers, families and communities back home in Canada.
(Reflecting at the Bťny-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery...)
I took a little time to let it all sink in at the cemetery, looking at the headstones, how young these men were, and saw just how many graves there are Ė and this is just one of several cemeteries across the region Ė itís staggering and extremely powerful. You canít help but put yourself there, imagining what it must have been like, whether parachuting in on a pre-dawn raid, or navigating heavy arms fire landing on the beach, as comrades fell and died beside you.
In a lifetime of unforgettable moments, this will stand as one that is without equal. I hope to bring my family here one day to experience the admiration for their sacrifice . It is something I feel every Canadian should see. And I feel so grateful. It is a feeling I will carry with me for the rest of my days.
(Walking along Juno Beach)
A huge thanks to the Juno Beach Centre, and Jim Parks, who we were very lucky to spend some time with. The stories and memories he shared were extraordinary. And at 89 years old Jim remembers everything as though it were yesterday. Jim landed on Juno Beach with the Royal Winnipeg Rifles on June 6, 1944, almost instantly watching 24 of his buddies fall.
(With Canadian War Veteran Jim Parks at Juno Beach)
Their legacy will never be forgotten, and it is something the people of Normandy hold dear to their hearts. Canadians were among thousands of Allied troops to land that day and to help liberate France. There is nothing more a human being can do than sacrificing their own life for others. This has never been more clear to me, standing on the sands of Juno Beach.
read and see the pics here: http://www.ctv.ca/TheAmazingRaceCanada/Articles/Jonsblog/Week7.aspx