Several years ago, Dan, Mark’s brother, learned that their Great Grandfather had fought and died in The Great War on Vimy Ridge. Dan spent years researching his contributions to the war, gathered and read more than 250 letters he had sent home from the front lines, and spent countless hours reviewing war diaries. After all of his years researching, Dan finally made his way to France in hopes of visiting memorials, battle sites, cemeteries and museums. We were fortunate enough to join Dan in his journey through history, and experienced some of the most emotional and moving moments of our trip. I could never do justice to them in writing, but I will attempt to capture our experiences.
We started off on the beaches of Normandy and Dieppe Beach. We learned about the Second World War and met an amazing artist David Sopha, who was painting in the Juno Beach Museum. He shared his spectacular piece of work, ‘Portraits of Honour’ with us, and spent a great deal of time talking to us about his experiences. His painting includes the portraits of the 158 men and woman that had given their lives in Afghanistan. The painting was beautiful and David had met some incredible people in his travels including Prince William and Kate, Harper, and many other dignitaries. The most moving was his experiences with the families of the soldiers he painted. As the boys were chatting with David, I went over to speak to his wife. She shared with me a story of a widow that came to see the painting for the first time with her two young children. One was just a baby in her arms and the other, small enough to need help up the stairs. When they reached the top, she leaned over to her child and said, “Now go find Daddy”. Another of the women had written letters to each member of her family the night before she was killed in battle and laid them on her bed, somehow she had known she would not be returning. These stories had an immediate impact on me and I walked back towards David and my family with an entirely different appreciation of his work. The poppy petals in the background of the painting represent the number of soldiers, which had given their lives in battle (over 80 000). He was keeping track of the numbers of petals he had painted, on his palette, and had approximately thirty thousand more to add. As we watched he painted a petal to represent our Great Grandfather.
The war cemeteries are another vivid image I take away with me. Beautiful white crosses and headstones standing proudly, in immaculately maintained gardens. We visited the American cemetery at Omaha Beach, Essex Farm where Flanders Fields was written, and cemeteries where Hillfield’s fallen were laid to rest. What struck me was the number of places marked ‘known unto God’. I knelt down at one and removed a snail that was making its way up towards the Canadian maple leaf. I wondered who this soldier was. Was he married? Did he leave behind children? I thought about his mother who would never know where her son had found his final resting place. A tear slid down my cheek as I looked at the headstones to the right and left. Spreading out in both directions were graves marked, ‘known unto God’.
Omaha Beach Cemetery
Then there is the Menin Gate in Belgium, which holds a service every evening where the last post is played. The spectacular monument was created to honour the more than fifty thousand soldiers who went missing in action. The names are etched in beautiful white stone, and crosses and poppies dot the expanse, where a visitor has left a token in tribute. Many of these names belong to the headstones marked, ‘known unto God’. It is here where crowds gather from far and wide to participate in a moving ceremony to recognize and remember those individuals lost at war. On our second visit a young piper accompanied the bugles.
After almost two weeks with Dan, the day had come for our visit to Vimy Ridge and the cemetery where Great Grandfather Mitchell was laid to rest. I could tell Dan was a little more excited this morning, as were the rest of us. We walked through the trenches where Dan figured Great Grandfather had walked, we imagined the distances he travelled for respite, and ventured to the villages in the area where Dan believed he had been and written some of his letters. The Vimy Ridge memorial was something words cannot explain. Its white limestone rose up to an enormous beauty against the blue sky. We were lucky to be there on a day when there were very few visitors. We enjoyed her magnificence all on our own and paid tribute to Great Grandfather and the many soldiers that had given their lives for us. We were in awe of the memorial and proud of the way that the Canadian contributions are portrayed in Vimy.
From the Vimy memorial, Dan led us to La Chaudière Cemetery. After years of research, interest, and re-tracing of battles, Dan was finally at the resting place of his Great Grandfather. We waited at the gates as Dan entered and walked directly to Private William Mitchell’s headstone. He knelt down and cleared the dried leaves away from his resting place, beneath a maple tree. Dan had brought pictures to reunite his family. One was of his four children which he never had the opportunity to see grow up and his beautiful wife, who he also left behind. We then joined Dan, as Mark played the bagpipes to celebrate his Great Grandfather’s life. He played the song Maple Leaf Forever, which seemed fitting as the autumn leaves softly drifted to the ground around us. He also played Danny Boy, a tribute to Dan and his journey, as I silently wished the rest of our family were here to witness this moment.
Tomorrow we head to Paris to visit those iconic places I was so looking forward to visiting in France. Somehow I don’t think their impact will compare to our experiences here, with Dan…..Thank you.