Belinda Wilson Remembers Being the Ontario Delegate on the Royal Canadian Legion Pilgrimage of Remembrance.
November 8, 2022
Belinda Wilson on the Royal Canadian Legion Pilgrimage
In 1936, the Royal Canadian Legion organized a Pilgrimage, giving veterans of the Great War the chance to return to Europe and visit the sites where their friends had fallen two decades before. It was a chance for veterans to once again be together, and Marion Henderson, a nurse from Fenelon Falls, made the journey to witness King Edward VIII unveil the Canada’s War Memorial at Vimy Ridge.
As the years passed, and after a second and even more ghastly world war followed the first, the Legion continued to organize pilgrimages. As ever fewer veterans were able to make the journey, it became an occasion to learn about the experiences of Canada’s veterans in the world wars. In 2013, Fenelon Falls’ Belinda Wilson was chosen as the Ontario Delegate for the Royal Canadian Legion’s biennial Pilgrimage of Remembrance.
“The first time I heard “In Flanders Fields” I knew it was important, but I didn’t understand why. Eventually that led me to join the Legion.” Though she had no military background, making the pilgrimage “was important to me to gain perspective, having been involved in the Legion for many years, but not having any military experience.”
Being the Ontario Delegate meant that as Belinda was exploring the historic sites in Europe, she was learning a story that she could share with others back home. Having the trip fully funded by the Legion meant that someone like Belinda could make the journey of a lifetime, that she otherwise could not have afforded, learning valuable lessons along the way. As they flew out from Toronto, she became fast friends with other Legion members from across the country—they were partners in learning and sharing the experiences of Canada’s veterans—a reflection of the journeys that the first soldiers had made a century before.
Once they landed in Paris, they immediately got on the bus and headed for Caen, the site of battles between the British-Canadian forces and the Germans in the immediate aftermath of the Allied landing in Normandy on D-Day. In front of the hotel there, there was a statue, still riddled with bullet holes, and it became apparent that the Second World War was still very much a living memory in France.
Guided by John Goheen, a principal and historian from Port Coquitlam, British Columbia, they journeyed to Juno Beach, where the Canadian soldiers had emerged from landing craft on the morning of June 6, 1944, as the Allies prepared to liberate northern France. “The first thing I did was take off my shoes, roll up my pant legs and stand in the water. As I looked back towards the beach, from the vantage of the soldiers who landed that morning, it was almost as if I could feel their presence—the fear they were embracing as they were jumping from the landing craft to make their way ashore. I could imagine their blood in the water. As I was standing there, the title of the presentation I would create came to me, In the Footsteps of Heroes. It was literally what we were there to do, walk in the footsteps of heroes. … Standing in the same sand, right there where everything took place, I felt like I should just be able to stand there forever.”
Though Juno Beach has been preserved as a site of pilgrimage, it is at the same time much changed since the 1940s, with many more beach houses overlooking the English Channel and pleasure craft lined up along its piers. Yet the tour walked the same pathway that the Canadian soldiers had followed as they exited the beaches, pushing towards the Pegasus Bridge over Caen canal. Today there are many museums and monuments in the area, the Old Pegasus Bridge has been preserved, while a near replica carries traffic today.
Early on the morning of June 6, 1944, British airborne troops landed in wooden Horsa gliders near the Pegasus bridge, so they could capture it and hold it until they were relieved by the troops landing at the beach. This would slow German counterattacks and ease the Anglo-Canadian advance from the beaches. The Horsa gliders could carry 30 soldiers, but one of the six deployed crashed killing the crew. “We visited the glider as it stood under a big glass roof, like a Quonset hut. As I peered through the shattered remains of the glider, with the way the sunlight hit the building, the people at the far end looked almost like the ghosts of the soldiers. It was eerie and striking.”
The German army had a gun emplacement at Bernieres-sur-Mer that commanded the beaches where the Queen’s Own Rifles had waded ashore. While it once provided an ideal vantage for the Germans to gun down the Canadian soldiers, today it displays a bronze plaque, showing how the battle progressed, so visitors can see where the Canadians advanced as they fought to gain a foothold in Normandy.
At Juno Beach, Belinda had the chance to follow in the soldiers’ footsteps at the site of one of the proudest victories in Canadian military history. But the mood noticeably changed as they approached Dieppe, a port further east on the English Channel. The community was situated on cliffs overlooking the pebbly beach, and in 1942 was occupied by a German Naval Headquarters. The British plan included a daring Commando raid, which Ian Fleming (who subsequently created the character James Bond) hoped would secure important naval intelligence.
“But when you stand there on the beach, and look up at the cliffs, your heart just sinks. The other two landing beaches, Puys and Pourville, consist of round, slippery pebbles that roll under your feet as you walk on them. The soldiers were trying to get across these beaches with 80 pounds of gear on their backs, their feet sliding as the Germans shelled them from above. And even if they got up the slope, there were the cliffs above. To be there is to understand the futility.” Military historians might say that Dieppe was an exercise in what not to do in planning an amphibious invasion—lessons learned at the cost of over 5,000 Canadian casualties. To this day, many of their families wonder why they were ever ordered ashore in such circumstances. In contrast to the memorials at Juno Beach, there is no official Canadian commemoration there at all—just one small beach monument, saying that the Prime Minister visited. But when the locals saw the pilgrims there with the Canadian flag, they came over to express their gratitude—they couldn’t say thank you enough, even at this site of a national military fiasco. “It was humbling to be the recipient on behalf of your country of that kind of gratitude.”
Not far from Juno Beach, the pilgrims visited the Abbaye d’Ardenne. As they pulled up to the 12th century Abbey they had no idea what had taken place there. “I was told I was going to be carrying a flag in the Remembrance Ceremony. As I walked into the walled garden, I felt like something was choking me, and sense that something horrible had happened there. We entered the courtyard, following the steps of the Canadians POWs who were brought in, marched past the church and into the courtyard…. After being ordered through a doorway and up a set of steps into the garden, the Canadian soldiers were shot in the back of the head or bludgeoned; the Germans made a feeble attempt at burying them.” The massacre took place at the headquarters of Kurt Meyer, commander of the 12th SS Panzer Division (Hitler Youth). The Pilgrimage contingent also visited two other sites where POWs were murdered.
Visiting the Abbaye d’Ardenne was an eye-opening experience for Belinda. Popular historical memory so often focuses on the battles won and lost, and “people assume that when someone didn’t come home, it was because of battlefield deaths. We often don’t think about the atrocities.”
The Pilgrimage allowed Belinda to appreciate the scope of war. “Here in Canada we are very detached from war because we haven’t had one on our soil since the War of 1812 (aside from the Rebellions). We have never been in that position where we have been overrun—where the men were dying in front of us and the women were doing what they could to keep their families together and safe. There is no way to grasp what it was like for the people who lived through that until you have the chance to talk to their descendants.” In Europe, the War is a much more tangible part of their history than it is in North America.
It is often said that at Vimy Ridge, Canada became a nation, and it is site of the Canadian War Memorial commemorating the Canadian victory in 1917, where they took an escarpment north of Arras, after many previous Allied failures. “When you get that first glimpse of the Vimy Memorial you weep. Off in the distance it appeared tiny; when I stepped off the bus my heart was in my mouth, the tears just rolled down my cheeks”. Nearly eighty years after Marion Henderson had stood there to see it unveiled, it has become the visual symbol of the Canadian sacrifices in the Great War. Approaching the memorial, the various figures of the monument come into view, but the “front” of the monument is designed to be viewed from the other side, down the escarpment, with the figure named “Mother Canada” towering high above. Belinda took the time to find the names of local boys inscribed among the 10,000 soldiers commemorated there.
Vimy Ridge sits on chalk, which made tunnelling easy, and both sides were hard at work underground. The subways allowed soldiers to safely advance to the front, securely and unseen, but also included hospitals, reservoirs, ammunition stores and command posts. “They lived like moles, but at least they lived. All their kit is still down there and as you are down there you feel that cold and damp air, and realize it was like that all the time for the soldiers, as they prepared to attack.” When CBC News Anchor Peter Mansbridge visited Vimy Ridge in 2017, to mark the 100th anniversary of the battle, he said “I never felt as Canadian as I did then [when I was down in that subway]”.
Many soldiers from the Victoria Regiment, including Fenelon Falls’ Mark Fell, served near Ypres in Belgium, the site of the some of the most intense fighting in the war, including the first use of poison gas, and many fallen soldiers were never found. In 1927 the Imperial War Graves Commission constructed the Menin Gate at the eastern exit of the walled city. Since then, “The Last Post” has been played there each evening, except during the German occupation from 1940-44.
Ypres is an ancient city in Flanders, and most visitors today would not realize that all the buildings in the city square except the Cloth Hall were destroyed in the barrages. But all the other buildings were rebuilt to replicate what had been there before. The square is surrounded by cafes, but each evening at 8 pm volunteers from the fire department play “The Last Post”, and everybody gets up to observe the ceremony which takes place on the roadway through the Menin Gate—traffic respectfully stops until the ceremony is over. One of the names recorded there is Robert Carew, one of thousands of soldiers whose final resting place is not known. His brother, Sam Carew, returned home after the war, and became the first president of the Fenelon Falls Legion.
Tyne Cot Cemetery is nearby, situated on a hill that was the site of German pillboxes that figured prominently in the Battle of Passchendaele. It is the largest commonwealth military cemetery in the world, with 11,965 graves, most of them unidentified. Another 33,783 soldiers whose remains were never found are commemorated on the wall around the cemetery. The cemeteries were “all spotless, the grass was neatly cut, there were no weeds and there were even roses. Everything was picture perfect.”
While Belinda was at Tyne Cot Cemetery, workers were busy restoring the gravestones. She thanked one for the work he was doing to look after the boys. “He took my hand and in his broken English he thanked me, thanked Canada, for sending our boys over to liberate his country, thanked me for the sacrifices they had made. That encounter brought into clarity what it must have felt like for these people to be at the mercy of others from across the ocean who, for no reason other than honour and duty, came to liberate one foreign country from another. That handshake was so tangible. I could feel in that exchange the gratitude that those people feel for those who made that sacrifice.”
Over the course of the 2013 Pilgrimage, they visited 23 cemeteries. Some of them were small and out of the way, often the site of a field hospital where the wounded were treated, the dead were buried and then they moved on. Many are now simply part of a farm property – the owners assume the responsibility to maintain the cemetery, and this duty is gladly accepted on through the generations.
At the large cemeteries, “you can’t even begin to wrap your head around what it all means. But, if you know the story of one soldier, you can apply that story to all those 10,000 stones, otherwise it is just a sea of white stones. In a smaller cemetery it was easier to understand the melancholy and sadness—those 90 stones in the middle of nowhere. Being so small and sad, it puts the loss associated with war in a clearer perspective, it tugs at your heart strings much more.”
Today, as most of the last veterans of the Second World War have passed, that personal connection and their memories have been lost. Programs such as the Home Hardware-sponsored Memory Project were able to provide veterans the chance to tell their stories, and to preserve them for posterity. After the Great War, some soldiers ended up living in hospitals with shell shock—today we would call it PTSD, and many others who were engaged in society were not talking about their experiences. The Legion was an important place, where “veterans could talk about what they went through, with people who would understand.”
Our veterans shared a unique and invaluable experience, knowing first hand that war is hell on earth. They were there when mines detonated, burying what remained of the soldiers who stood above. Today Pilgrims can visit these huge craters, knowing that they conceal many dead bodies, but there is an entirely different conviction that comes from being there, and seeing the blast. For close to a century, our community had many veterans who could say from their lived reality, “Never Again.”
As the veterans of the world wars have now passed, “we are already forgetting…. As Canadians, most people know in their heart that war is bad and that you should do what you can to avoid conflict. Yet there are parts of the world that are in constant conflict, and there are still people driven to be all powerful, who want to be part of something mighty. The more I know about war and what it does, the more I wonder how any sane human being can sanction putting another generation through that turmoil, death and destruction. That’s why I keep making these presentations, but it often seems like preaching to the converted. The people who need to learn the lessons are not receptive to them, and that is a difficult thing to change.” In the unsettled times that we face today, the lessons of the World Wars are more important than ever.
Lest We Forget.