Normandy: Take Your Children There

The media this week contained lot of bittersweet reaction to the images of old Canadian soldiers in wheelchairs revisiting Juno beach, where they had once arrived 80 years ago. It was pretty obvious that for most it would be the last time. They’re all around 100 years old. One potential visitor died just before he was supposed to be leaving Canada.

One observation made by many of the commentators really rang a bell with me. They mentioned how important it was for the young people to visit the site, especially now that the real-life contact with survivors will be gone.

Linda and I were travelling with our sons, Jonathan (13 years old) and Matthew (11) in France in March 1994. They knew that both their grandfathers had fought in the war, but that was all. It was not a subject that was discussed in the family.  So, we visited Normandy, and it was a real eye-opener for all of us.

Juno Beach

There’s not much to see, actually. The sand is now deeper, covering anything that might have been left behind. Only a few unrecognizable blocks  of the temporary harbour remain. It’s much more effective as seen from the ocean point of view, imagining those simple houses that line the shore being full of machine guns.

Pointe du Hoc

This spot is renowned as the site where a company of US Rangers scaled the cliff to take out an important gun emplacement. But that’s not the reason to go there. Allied propagandists always make a big deal of the odds the attackers faced. But if you want to get a look at the effects of war, Pointe du Hoc, as a dangerous emplacement, was subjected to a hail of bombardment from naval cannons before the attackers arrived.

It must have been an impressive site to start with. Huge guns were embedded in blockhouses with reinforced concrete walls two metres thick. However, only one of those survived intact. All the other emplacements are blown to smithereens. Notable is the one pictured, where the heavy metal plate in front of the gunner to protect his head was pierced by a six-inch round. His chances of survival would have been nil.

The whole surface of the peninsula is pocked by huge bomb craters; there’s not a square metre of level ground left. It’s all covered with neatly mown grass now, but you can imagine what it must have looked like on June 6 long ago.

While we were sitting in the car absorbing this, a Mercedes with German plates pulled up nearby. We all sat staring out, each enrapt in our own imagination.

Bény-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery

I have been to this solemn site a few times, and it is always the same experience. People tend to spread out and walk the rows of headstones alone, reading the names and ages. The Memorial Museum in Bayeux makes a big deal of the Germans having 17-year-olds in their lines. It is amazing how many 17-year-old allied soldiers lost their lives on Juno Beach. Either there were a lot of them in our ranks, or the youngsters made more mistakes.

The epitaphs that moved me the most read, “A Canadian Soldier, Known Unto God.” You can imagine why so little information was available. Some family back in Canada will never know what happened to their son.

But the most memorable incident of that day was when Matthew came back, a thoughtful look on his face, and commented that all these men would have been grandfathers, now. Combined with the profound effect the site had on me, this helped me understand the power of walking the ground where events took place. Experiencing even a touch of the reality of war with actual places and real names leaves a lasting impression on anyone’s mind.

The Bottom Line

Don’t let your children learn about the world only from their media sources. Take them to real-world sites and let them make up their own minds.

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