Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Lest We Forget

One of the reasons we chose to stay at the Gite Moulin was its close-ish proximity to Normandy.  About two hours from our little house (it took us over three) lay the graveyards of the thousands of British, Canadian, America (the list goes on) men who lost their lives after the D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944. 

I have always been incredibly emotional when it comes to anything World War II-related so it was no question I would find one of these cemeteries a tear-jerker.

Beny-Sur-Mer lies about a fifteen-minute drive from Juno beach.  In fact you can see the water & beach that over 65 years ago, thousands of soldiers stormed thus liberating France and winning the war.  One of those men was my great-uncle on my father’s side. My grandfather’s brother.

He is buried at Beny-Sur-Mer.

Perhaps my connection to WW2 lays in the fact a family member died fighting in it.  It’s not like I ever knew him.  To me, Douglas Groundwater is a faded black and white picture.  The older brother with his hand solemnly on my grandfather’s shoulder for a family portrait.  I’ve seen pictures of him smiling in his uniform, playing the bagpipes for the Nova Scotia Regiment before leaving for England.  His eyes shine.  I always find these sort of photos eerily fascinating.  These men who were so proud, even excited about where they were going, captured in one moment forever before they so gallantly sacrificed their lives.

But that’s all he was.  A name and a picture.

I didn’t write down the number of his grave from the Canadian government website because I stupidly assumed you could look it up when you get there.  You can’t.  So the Engineer and I split up, walking down the rows and rows of the nearly 2000 Canadian men (and I use that term loosely as most were 19).  Already I was an emotional wreck.  The tombstones are in order of death.  So most of the rows are from June 6, 1944. 

Families were given the opportunity to inscribe their loved-ones tombstones.  These last messages are what got me.

“No one loves like a mother” aged 19 – I burst out into tears.  This was someone’s little baby.

"I only have your memory dear husband to remember my whole life through.”   This soldier was only 21.  His young wife was probably only married to him for a few short months.  What happened to her?  Did she remarry?  Have a family?  Did she tell them about her first husband?  Could she always remember how he smelled?

“We will miss you.  Your wife and son” the soldier again being only 21.  Did his son ever meet him?

And then the worst:

“Known only to God” Someone’s son, brother, husband, lover, best friend lay under this French soil.  Unknown.  There were too many of these.

I got more and more frustrated, walking faster and faster desperate to find his grave first.  Tears streaming down my cheeks, runny nose.  I was a mess.  Then suddenly, my search was over as I let out a little ‘yelp’.  There it was in cold writing:

W.D. Groundwater 
Killed July 18, 1944
Love always from Mother, dad, May and Alistair

It hadn’t occurred to me to bring anything but I was so grateful to the Acme school in Alberta who had placed several Canadian flags on his grave.  This is the small town near our farm in Alberta.  Every year, they do a school trip to France.  Because my uncle was one of the only soldiers from our area (most, like my grandfather, stayed to farm for the war effort), the students learn about him and then visit his grave when they come to these cemeteries.  I think it’s a great program.  The further we are away from WW2 to more likely we are to forget.  For the modern teen, WW2 is just photos and a war.  But once you put a face, a family and their personal story in context, the war becomes real again.

I went to pick some daffodils, which I placed, on his grave.  Next time I come, I will make sure to bring some Alberta wheat.

I am not sure exactly how to describe the way I felt.  

 Firstly, seeing a grave made it so real.  This picture was a living, breathing man.  He was 35 when he volunteered for war.  An old man in comparison to other soldiers.  The younger men usually looked up to men my uncle’s age – I think for comfort as their own fathers were so far away.

The names on the tombstone made me cry.  All of those people:  Mother, Dad, May and Alistair (my grandfather) were also gone.  There was no one left on this earth that remembered what colour eyes Douglas had, or how his laugh sounded, or what he wanted out of life.

I know that he first volunteered and was sent to Edmonton.  Then he was transferred to the Nova Scotia regiment.  Maybe because he was a piper?  He wasn’t married, a confirmed bachelor.  Did he love a girl at home?  Was he planning on coming back to Canada and marrying her? 

He lived on the farm and worked with his father and my grandfather.  Therefore I was comforted by the landscape around the cemetery – fields of wheat, barley and canola.  He’s resting in a place that looked like home.

The cemetery was so peaceful.  Not a cloud in the sky, birds singing softly.  It was so hard to imagine what it must have been like in those first few months after D-Day.  The landscape destroyed, gunfire, bombs, and too much death to fathom.

D-Day was obviously successful.  But it took awhile.  The Allies were able to liberate many of the villages near the beaches.  Caen held off until July 18th.  The Germans were strong there and it took a great battle on the 18th to liberate it.  That was the day Douglas was hit when he was carrying a stretcher.  He served as a stretcher-bearer  - which makes me even sadder.  He was carrying another fallen man, maybe a friend, when he was struck. 

Again, so many questions:  did he suffer?  Did the other soldier die?  Was it a direct hit?  Who found him?  What was his last thought? 

My grandfather is long gone and I can’t ask him.  I only know that it was a terrible day when the farm got a call from the Acme post office.  Although the post office couldn’t tell my grandfather what it said, he knew what a telegram meant.  My dad says all he knows from his father was that that was a long drive. 

Douglas was seven years older than Alistair.  I wonder what their relationship was like.  I assume they were close.  Alistair probably looked up to him.  What about their mother?  How did she react? All these questions I now have and it’s too late to get an answer. 

I stood there thinking about those names on the tombstone, hoping they were all together again.  Somewhere around me. 

All of these faceless names.  They all have stories like mine.  Somewhere out there, they all have great-nieces, grandsons, widows or sisters that still think of them.  These thousands of boys who never had a chance.

We went to the Juno beach museum that was built by the Canadian veterans.  The Engineer and I tried to imagine this beach on June 6.  It’s impossible.

I think it is important to remember this war because it really meant something.  I know our generation is anti-war and we live in a time when there is what seems to be a senseless war in Iraq. 

My other grandfather was in the British Navy.  He couldn’t wait to sign up to go to war.  I once asked him if he had been scared.  His answer was no nonsense and trite:  Well Sarah, it was either fight or be German. 

WW2 had an actual cause.  There was an actual imminent threat.  When it says ‘he sacrificed his life for his friends’ the tomb isn’t lying.  If Hitler had gotten the UK, Canada would have been left open.  Our soldiers really did fight for us. 

Again, it’s hard to understand the mentality.  The bravo of these men.

Seeing Douglas’s grave made me proud to be linked to him.  There have only even been two Groundwater’s in France, and one of us gets to go home. 

Beny-Sur-Mer is humbling.  It’s emotional even without a family connection.  I’m happy it’s so well tended and loved.  There were many people visiting, and they weren’t even Canadian.  Which makes me think we will truly never forget.