D-Day has the kind of reverberations for present- day Canadians that Vimy Ridge once had for earlier generations. On June 6, 1944, a Canadian infantry division and an armoured brigade swept ashore on one of the five beaches designated for the Allied landing. For most of the next three months, Canadians shared fully and brutally in a series of battles that culminated, like Vimy, in a military victory. Two Nazi armies were demol- ished in the Falaise Pocket. Canadians had fought as gal- lantly and sacrificially to close the Pocket as our soldiers had on the beaches in front of Courseulles, Bernières and St-Aubin. Like Vimy in 1917, Canadian victories had changed history. This time, we told ourselves, victory would be ours to keep.
As with many other Canadians, D-Day has a family meaning for me. My father and his regiment, the Fort Garry Horse, came ashore at St-Aubin on June 6, a fact that was quite meaningless for me as a child until I discovered the letter he had written to the son he had last seen in 1941. On the eve of what he expected to be his death, he had filled a blue aerogramme with all the advice he could offer to a boy he remembered as a toddler and who might soon be an orphan. In the event, we were both spared. Though he was blown out of a couple of tanks and earned the Distinguished Service Order, he came home as intact as any veteran, with only his hearing impaired. He seldom spoke of his experiences except to recall one hot afternoon, He was guiding his tank down a narrow farm lane when an unwary German popped out of a hedgerow. He recalled grabbing his .30 cal- ibre machine gun, but he couldn’t shoot. As the terrified men pelted down the road, his helmet had fallen off and his red hair was flopping about. Who could shoot a man with red hair? Who could shoot a fellow human being?
My dad remembered his regimental comrades and he adored history, but he preferred centuries before his own. We visited France once as a family, but he had no desire to re-visit Normandy and we drove rapidly south to the Loire valley where he had friends. I went to Normandy only in 1991, a full generation after he died. At the time, it was a somewhat dispiriting experience for a Canadian. Caen’s new Mémorial, a museum of peace, had just opened, but the only Canadian artifact was an anachronistic piece of uniform. A few weather-beaten signs near the beaches sug- gested a route for a Canadian to tour, but too many of the signs had vanished. I recall a single monument from the Régiment de la Chaudière. Perhaps there were others, and there was a pair of cemeteries, superbly maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Otherwise, you might conclude, like Hollywood does, that D-Day had fea- tured only the Americans, the British and, of course, the French.
I was not alone in my dismay: things began to change. Marcel Masse, Brian Mulroney’s minister of heritage, launched a task force on military muse- ums headed by Hamilton Southam and Dénis Vaugeois. Despite inevitable cyn- icism, this task force worked. Our splendid new Canadian War Museum in Ottawa is one of its outcomes; so was a boost to Canadian military heritage at home and abroad. Just as decisive was the influence of Second World War veterans, suddenly retired from suc- cessful postwar careers, with energy, resources and connections to celebrate the most important years of their lives. A succession of post-war generals helped create what is now the Canadian Battlefields Foundation, which was devoted to sending young Canadians to France, Belgium and Italy to see where their ancestors had served. Garth Webb, a wartime artillery officer, became the combative creator of the celebrated Juno Beach Centre at Courseulles.
Meanwhile, the 50th and the 60 anniversaries of D-Day in 1994 and 2004 sum- moned world leaders, masses of tourists and endless rhetoric. Each cel- ebration inspired scores of books, mag- azines and guidebooks, some of them excellent but almost all of them reflecting the combative chauvinism and retroactive reputation-busting that so often characterizes military his- tory.
No single Canadian historian has done more for our current memory of Normandy than Professor Terry Copp. A Montrealer who graduated from Concordia and taught there and at McGill in the 1970s, Terry spent most of his career at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo. He was labour and social his- torian, and we collaborated on the first full-length history of Canadian trade unions. His inclinations soon took him in other directions. Copp’s 1990 book on battle exhaustion and Canadian wartime psychiatry made its mark in military his- tory. So did Maple Leaf Route, a series of heavily illustrated books he wrote with the late Robert Vogel, which recorded the Canadian campaign of 1944-45 in North-West Europe. Above all, there was Copp’s remarkable teaching style and his ability to transform his students from merely studying to writing and publish- ing history. While many shared in the project of helping young Canadians to visit overseas battlefields, it was Copp who shaped and developed the program and made it happen. Annually, a couple of dozen university students visit Canadian battlefields and cemeteries of France and, more recently, of Italy. They learn for themselves how far battles are shaped by ground and weapons and, above all, by uncertainty. They come home, many of them, bound for gradu- ate or professional schools with a special understanding of their country’s history.
This May, I finally had the opportu- nity to participate in a Copp tour. Thanks to Michel Fortmann, a political scientist at the Université de Montréal, a carefully-selected class of nine stu- dents sat down for the Université de Montréal’s first-ever course in military history. His colleagues in that universi- ty’s excellent history department were not interested: ”œOn n’aime pas la guerre,” they told him. That allowed me an opportunity to lecture on the Somme and Vimy Ridge and, more nervously, on the rank structures, organizations and weapons of the two world wars. Alexandre Carette, a veter- an of an earlier Copp Normandy tour, was graduate assistant for the course and, with his wit, good sense and expe- rience, acted as a highly humane ser- geant-major to the group. Last May 18, our nine students " five men and four women " met a comparable group from Wilfrid Laurier University at Charles de Gaulle Airport outside Paris. Despite flight delays that cost us a visit to the splendid French museum at Peronne, we set off in rented vans for Beaumont Hamel, Courcelette and other battlefields of the Somme campaign of 1915. Next morning, slightly recovered from jet-lag, we headed to Vimy Ridge, where Canada’s iconic monu- ment is undergoing a badly needed renovation for its 90th anniversary in 2007.
By the afternoon, we hurried on our way to Dieppe and the once-murderous beach at Puys. Next morning, in a roar- ing Channel gale, we walked the main beach and reflected on Copp’s reminder of how dif- ficult it was for the men respon- sible for the raid to change their minds, even as conditions vital for its success systematically vanished. Some of us collected a few of the over-sized pebbles that stalled all but one of the Canadian tanks on August 17, 1942. Finally, we paused at the Canadian cemetery behind Dieppe, where the students were reminded that the elder Paul Martin had conceived of the then- radical notion of Canadian citizenship. Looking at the gravestones reminded us, as it did him, that ”œCanadian” had to be a better label than ”œBritish sub- ject” for his heroic, ethnically diverse and deceased Windsor constituents.
Visits to war cemeteries play a major part in Copp’s battlefield tours. Students confront a central issue in his teaching: how nations construct histo- ry when they commemorate their dead. Consider the contrasting sym- bolism in the huge anonymous ossuary in the French cemetery at Notre-Dame de Lorette, and the care- fully individualized monuments in the British (and Canadian) graveyards, most with a few words requested by surviving families. How does that com- pare with the rigidly egalitarian crosses or the soaring idealism of the sculpture in the big American cemetery above Omaha Beach in Normandy? Nearby, the crowded German cemetery, with its clumps of brown crosses, insisted explicitly on the futility of war.
One of the assignments for our stu- dents was to select someone buried somewhere along our itinerary and to find out all they could about the man’s background and death. Many chose someone known to their own parents or grandparents. In other cases, they had picked someone as well known as Andy Mynarski, the Victoria Cross winning RCAF air gunner who is buried in Normandy, or someone apparently for- gotten by all but the Veterans Affairs Web site. The presentations humanized the war. The fact that most of the dead were even younger than our students was always a poignant reminder of futures foregone and dreams dissolved. Sometimes powerful emotions came to the surface.
Most of our students paid their own fare across the Atlantic, but their support in Europe is largely dependent on benev- olent supporters. John Cleghorn, former chairman and CEO of the Royal Bank, has been a generous benefactor of Wilfrid Laurier battlefield tours; the Université de Montréal is still too much a newcomer to have mobilized such sup- port. One result was a budgetary impera- tive that hurried us on to Normandy. There, Copp and his colleagues have cul- tivated an arrangement with a generous- spirited British couple who own the Moulin Morin in the Bayeux suburb of Vaucelles. A beautiful water mill, com- plete with resident ducks and a soccer field, provided double rooms for the stu- dents and a little more privacy for the older guides. The seven women students occupied a house of their own, while the men spread into two other houses, each with its own cooking and washing facil- ities. Trips to nearby supermarkets in Bayeux allowed everyone to stretch a 10 euro per diem to cover three meals a day.
While the costs of fuelling the vans and French highway tolls have soared, food in France is as cheap and excellent as ever. Although cost was a governing fac- tor, it is hard to imagine a more congen- ial base for our 12 days in Normandy.
Inevitably and appropriately, French- and English-speaking students were paired. Without exception, the francophones spoke good English but only one anglophone tried out his per- fectly adequate French. Living together worked better than I had expected. Even some committed sovereignists among the Université de Montréal students confessed that the English had not lived up to their image and really were des bons gars.
The Normandy phase of the tour began, conventionally enough, with a day at Juno Beach, another at Omaha Beach and the Point du Hoc, and another at Pegasus Bridge, where the Canadian Parachute Battalion had landed and where a restored Horsa glider recalled an amazing British feat of airmanship before dawn on June 6. Routine visits to battle sites and the crumbling Atlantic Wall were inter- spersed with another Copp innovation borrowed from his COTC memories: ”œtactical exercises without troops,” or TEWTS. Students were provided with photocopies of original operation orders, 1944 maps, air photos and orders of battle, plus an ample supply of the kind of hints and warnings that any officer-veteran can probably remember. Small groups or syndicates worked out their plans and then drove off to the actual ground to see how they might have revised their troop deployments for the Royal Winnipeg Rifles at Putot en Bessin or the North Novas at Authie. Doing TEWTS was surprisingly popular, even when most syndicates routinely repeated deploy- ments that contributed to near-disaster in 1944. The purpose, Copp insists, is not to make students into colonels but to make them understand how much easier it is to be an historian after the fact than a commander on the day. Perhaps surprising to some, there was no very obvious gender gap in the gen- eral enthusiasm for the game. Students, after all, are often avid video-gamers.
There were more obvious gaps. Thanks to course work and Ontario’s school curriculum, the Wilfrid Laurier students knew more about Canada’s military past than did most of the Montrealers. A majority of them found their dead soldier close to their own family and community. The Montrealers were more likely to have to look beyond their direct experience. One even represented Lieutenant General Lesley McNair, the architect of US Army mobilization, who died in Normandy and lies in the American cemetery. The breadth of their presenta- tions made the tour more interesting. It also underlined how little French Canada’s heroic contribution to the Canadian war effort is known or recognized in Quebec’s history curriculum. Unlike the Ontarians, the Montrealers could talk easily to the local people. One reported in horror that his encounter with a local lady in a restau- rant had been transformed when she insisted that France had been liberated by Charles de Gaulle. Moreover, she assured him, the Americans had suc- ceeded at Point du Hoc and Omaha Beach only because their lead troops had been recruited from convicts and gangsters. How, he demanded, could anyone believe such nonsense! All of us, I assured him, absorb much nonsense before we die.
Reconciling historical differences is not a problem that an outsider can resolve, nor can it be done quickly or thoughtlessly. What can happen is more of the sharing of experiences I observed last May. In the short run, sustaining the Université de Montréal venture in military history could benefit from benefactors able to help university students from Montreal (and from Université du Québec à Montréal, Université de Sherbrooke and Université Laval as well) to re-live the experience our nine pioneers shared. Even better, it should be possible to see even more. At Ypres, for example, French Canadians of the 14th Royal Montreal Regiment shared the First Contingent’s bloody baptism of fire. At the Walcheren Causeway in the Netherlands, the Régiment de Maisonneuve got across through bit- ter German resistance, when no one else could.
These are memories to make any community proud, and they were shared with Canadians from all parts of our country. No doubt, there are other, more bitter memories to share, and last May convinced me that our history is best learned when both French and English are listening and trying to understand together. After all, as soldiers have discovered in two world wars, we generally like each other better when we are overseas.