This post was first published on November 6th of last year upon returning from Europe. My wife and I spent time exploring the Normandy Beaches in France and the Vimy Ridge memorial. This was a profound experience for us and has made Remembrance Day that much more important. Never forget this ultimate sacrifice our soldiers made.
November 11th is an important day to observe as it marks the anniversary of the official ending of World War I. That war ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month thus explaining why Remembrance day is November 11th. In Canada Remembrance Day is a national holiday and all Commonwealth Nations observe this day as a day to remember the members of their armed forces who have died in the line of duty. For those that don’t know, the Commonwealth is an organization of 53 member states that were mostly territories of the former British Empire, which includes the United Kingdom. The United States has a day of remembrance called Veterans Day, which is an official federal holiday that is observed annually on November 11. Its purpose is to honor people who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces, that is, its veterans. Armistice Day remains the name of…
It astonishes me the number of beautiful places this planet has to offer for us humans to appreciate. I consider myself blessed because my wife and I have seen a handful of them. When I look at websites advocating must see places to visit in the world, I am surprised at how many I have seen. These sites often mention places such as Santorini in Greece, Venice in Italy, Paris in France, Rome in Italy, Stonehenge at Amesbury, England, Glacier National Park in Montana, USA all of which I have visited. With the exception of Glacier Park, these places all involve flights over oceans but we don’t have to travel across oceans to see beautiful places. There are so many places right here in our own country. The Internet has many lists of must see places on it and many of these lists include places in the Canadian Rocky Mountains; places like Banff National Park, Lake Louise, Jasper National Park, and Maligne Lake in Jasper National Park.
The Canadian Rockies are an assemblage of mountains that extend to parts of British Columbia and Alberta. They were formed about 55 to 80 million years ago in what is called the Cretaceous era. These mountains are made up of layered sedimentary rocks and when you take the time to look you can see the layers. Their peaks are sharp and pointy because of glaciers on it.
There are five national parks that are part of the Canadian Rockies; these are Yoho, Jasper, Kootenay, Banff and Waterton. Banff National Park was the first to be formed. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is made up of four Canadian Rocky Mountain national parks and has a total protected area of over 20,000 square kilometres. If you are lucky enough you might see animals such as grizzly or black bears, deer, elk, moose, cougars and bighorn sheep. My wife and I caught a glimpse of a black bear and numerous bighorn sheep. We also saw some moose. The Canadian Rockies have been likened to the African Serengeti in terms of the abundance of wildlife. When you drive in Banff National Park you’ll notice places where wildlife can cross the Trans-Canada Highway on specially built over and under passes, designed to reduce collisions with the animals.
My wife and I just recently spent a week in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. We visited three of the five national parks; Banff, Jasper and Kootenay. Even though I’ve been to the Rockies many times, I still find the beauty of these majestic mountains to be breathtaking. When I’m among these gigantic, unique pieces of rock I feel a closeness to our creator God especially when we are walking on one of the numerous beautiful hiking trails. My wife and I spent three days in Jasper National Park where we went to Maligne Lake for the first time. It was truly one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.
Another thing that always amazes me, or both of us really, is the number of people from all over the world you meet or the variety of languages you hear. We heard languages in French, German, Chinese, Japanese and some we didn’t recognize. We met people from France, China, United States, and Germany. It truly is a global village. All of these people were doing the same thing as we were. They were taking in the beauty of the Canadian Rockies.
It astounds me the number of people I know who live in the province of Alberta, Canada, that have never been to the Canadian Rockies. We live on the east side of the province of Alberta, probably one of the farthest points from the Rockies yet both my wife and I have been there too many times to count. It takes us six hours to drive to the Jasper town site. Yet, so many people who live even closer to the west side of the province where the Rockies are located have never taken the time to visit those majestic sites.
There are so many wonderful places to see in our world, many of them in our own back yard. Life is too short to procrastinate seeing them. Now I know it is human nature to make excuses for not doing it; excuses like it costs too much, not enough time or work is just too important to miss. I just think it is sad that people don’t take the time to see such wonderful formations of nature. It is so important to spend time seeing what nature has created and just being in nature. It doesn’t have to be the Rocky Mountains although if you haven’t seen them you definitely should. There are so many benefits to being in nature. According to the article, Get Outside! 7 Scientifically-Backed Health Benefits of Being in Nature, spending time in nature improves attention spans, boosts serotonin (the feel good neurotransmitter) levels and shows increased activity in the parts of the brain responsible for empathy, emotional stability, and love. Some research suggests urban environments do the same for fear and anxiety. Being in nature is good for your health. Take the time to experience a bit of heaven on earth. It is worth the effort. Or as the French author, Jules Renard says, On earth there is no heaven, but there are pieces of it.
One week ago on Tuesday, March 22, 2016, three coordinated bombings occurred in Brussels, Belgium’s capital. Two attacks occurred in the Brussels airport, and one at its metro station. During these attacks, 31 innocent victims were killed along with three suicide bombers. Even more disturbing is the 300 innocent people who were injured.
I feel great sadness when I hear of a terrorist attack especially when it occurs in Europe because just six months ago my wife and I were in Europe. In October of 2015, my wife and I visited Belgium. While Brussels was not one of the places we visited, we did visit several of the World War One sites in Flanders’ Fields. We also visited Paris, France on our trip so when the Paris attacks happened it deeply affected us both, as did the Brussels attack.
As I stated in my November 27, 2015 post about the Paris attacks, terrorism is something I cannot understand. I’ve tried to put myself into the shoes of a terrorist in order to comprehend how someone can cause harm and death to innocent people like the bloodshed that happened in Brussels. The news media repeatedly tells us that the people who carry out such acts of violence have been radicalized. Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a radical as “advocating extreme measures to retain or restore a political state of affairs”. So as I understand it, radicals are people who carrying out acts of murder for political gain. This is what I can’t wrap my head around. In my mind killing innocent people for political gain, or any reason, is wrong!
How can someone with any kind of conscience murder innocent people? As I mentioned in the November post, the only thing I can come up with is that these people have been brainwashed. It is the only explanation that makes sense.
What disturbs me the most is when a terrorist attack happens on our planet panic sets in. Panic is a symptom of fear. The school that I taught in is taking a group of students to Germany this month. The Brussels event set off a wave of panic among the parents. These parents were fearful because their children were off to Europe, where terrorist attacks occur. Now I’m a parent, so I understand the need to protect your children. But when we cave in to fear, the terrorists succeed.
Perhaps it’s time to look at the issue of terrorism from a different perspective. According to many spiritual writers today, all behaviours and emotions can be put into two categories – love and fear. These writers tell us fear is the opposite of love. So what is fear? Fear results in a feeling of not being protected or feeling secure. So when it comes to terrorism, fear sets in because we feel insecure and vulnerable. In fact, that is what terrorism is all about, instilling fear. Terrorists want us to be fearful. They want to cause terror. In fact, ‘terror’ is the root word of ‘terrorist’ or ‘terrorism’.
Fear limits our minds. People who live in fear will do harmful things. They lash out at those whom they perceive to be the cause of their pain. The same could be argued for animals. When do animals attack? It is when they fear for their survival.
Now most people would argue that the opposite of love is hate but when you think about it, hate is really stemming from fear. A person might “hate” someone who has abandoned or disrespected him. Abandonment makes more sense in terms of the fear. When a person feels abandoned, their emotions are stemming from fear of being alone. Disrespect is when a person feels scorned or disregarded, so it stems from the fear a person has when they are not honoured or regarded.
In a CNN report, Republican front-runner Donald Trump is quoted as saying,
“It’s going to get worse and worse. In my opinion, this is just the beginning. It will get worse and worse because we are lax and we are foolish — we can’t allow these people, at this point we cannot allow these people to come into our country. I’m sorry…”
His remarks clearly come from fear. His and others like him lack love and compassion. Banishing others does not stem from love. It stems from fear which indicates that there is no love.
Love on the other hand doesn’t hurt. If it hurts it is fear. Love is a core emotion from which many other emotions are created. Emotions such as happiness, kindness, charity, faith, empathy, fairness and compassion all come from loving intentions. This type of love is what the Greeks called agape love. This love is selfless, sacrificial, unconditional love. It is the highest form of love there is. With this type of love there is no exclusiveness.
Fear is the opposite of love because fear is the base emotion from which hate, prejudice, greed, stress, paranoia, and many other negative emotions are based.
1 John 4:18 of the Christian scriptures tells us, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.” It is also interesting that scripture scholars tell us the phrases “do not fear” and “do not be afraid” appears 365 times in the Christian Bible. I don’t think that is coincidence. Perhaps a basic message in the scriptures is, do not have fear because when you are fearful, you do not possess love.
The CNN report referred to above quotes Pascale Rouhier, a 38-year-old resident of Brussels, as saying, “I’m not going to change my way of living because Brussels is my city.”
The article also reports that 2,000 people gathered in front of the Brussels stock exchange, with Belgium Prime Minister Charles Michel and other leaders who laid wreaths at Maelbeek metro station.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said, “Our strength lies in our unity, and our free societies will prove to be stronger than terrorism.” (see article)
These are all examples of people whereby fear has not taken hold. Their reactions and comments stem from love. Love unifies while fear divides.
Perhaps former Beatle John Lennon sums it up best when he said,
“There are two basic motivating forces: fear and love. When we are afraid, we pull back from life. When we are in love, we open to all that life has to offer with passion, excitement, and acceptance. We need to learn to love ourselves first, in all our glory and our imperfections. If we cannot love ourselves, we cannot fully open to our ability to love others or our potential to create. Evolution and all hopes for a better world rest in the fearlessness and open-hearted vision of people who embrace life.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt, the 32nd President of the United States was right when he said during his inaugural address on March 4, 1933, “Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself.” If terrorists succeed in their mission to instil fear into the world then they will create a culture of fear; a culture where there is no love; a world full of hate, prejudice, greed, stress, and paranoia. But, if we don’t allow fear to take hold then we will have a culture filled with happiness, kindness, charity, empathy, fairness and compassion; a culture where there is love. The choice is ours.
Since returning from our trip abroad, my wife and I have been asked numerous times what we found different in Europe compared to our first time over there which was 26 years ago. Our gut response is always to say, “It pretty much looks the same as it did last time we were there.” Now that is the truth. It still looks pretty much as it did in the 1980s. Most of the buildings still look very old and the majority of the streets are still very narrow. However, if there is one thing that was noticeably different was the amount of English around.
When I taught Social Studies, we used to discuss the question, Is English becoming a universal language? when teaching about how globalization is changing the world. For me, it was interesting to see if what I taught was indeed truth. According to the article, 10 Reasons why English is the World’s Language, some of the reasons why English is considered by some to be, or at least on its way to being, a universal language are:
English is the language of business & finance
Hollywood is the capital of film-making and many foreign actors have had to learn to speak English to work in Hollywood.
If you want to make in the international music arena, you must be able to sing in English.
English is the language of travel. English is the language used when the local hotel, restaurant or retail staff members communicate with foreigners and visitors.
English is the unofficial language of the internet. There are billions upon billions of websites on the Internet nowadays, and it’s estimated that more than half of the entire online material is published in English.
The influence of the United States and the United Kingdom, two very influential English-speaking world players.
Now this all makes sense to me, but I know when I was teaching this stuff I wondered if it really was that way. Well I can tell you after returning from Europe, I have to say that I believe there is truth in these arguments. Allow me to share some of my observations. When we were in the airports and train stations I noticed the signage would have the language of the country we were in written first, with English written underneath. We were in airports in Athens (Greece), Rome (Italy), Paris (France) Istanbul (Turkey) and Warsaw (Poland). This was the case in every one of those airports. I don’t recall that being the case 26 years ago. Announcements in the airports were also in both the language of the country and in English. This was also the case for most train stations and we were in many, many train stations throughout Italy and France.
Before leaving for Europe, we prepared by downloading a translator app, and then we inputted and saved numerous phrases that we thought would be necessary when over in Italy, France and Greece. We did not need to use this app once when talking to people. Almost everyone we talked to in France, Italy, the Turkish airport, the Polish airport and in Greece spoke fluent English, although with an accent. We were most surprised when we found an English speaking waitress in the Warsaw airport.The only time we used the translator app was when looking at ingredients in a supermarket.
As for the restaurants, no matter what country we were in, most of the staff spoke English. Not only that, almost every restaurant we ate at had menus in English. Often they would have the Greek or Italian or French first with the English written underneath.
My wife and I drove in northern France. One day we decided to see what was on the radio, so we turned on the radio only to be pleasantly surprised to hear a song we recognized; a pop song in English. As soon as the song was finished, we were astonished to hear the disk jockey speak in French. It struck me as odd; as “out of sink”; as not fitting. This certainly does suggest that much of the world’s popular music is indeed sung in English.
Another noticeable difference from the 1980s was the number of signs you see in English. In all three of the countries we visited; France, Italy and Greece, you would see store or company signage in both the language of the country we were in and in English. Often it would be Greek (or Italian or French) on some businesses and English on others. Many of the directions for toilets, exits, or tourist sites would also have English on them.
Another topic I often discussed with my students was; Was the world becoming more homogenized (more the same) because of globalization? I certainly saw evidence of this as well. The youth in Europe for the most part wore blue jeans just as the youth in North America do. This was not only true of the youth. The hair styles of the youth were the same styles you would see on North American youth. Then there is the cell phones. Everyone appears to have one and be on it just like in North America. Whether we were on the Metro, on a bus, in a museum or walking down a street, you would see people texting or talking on their cell phones.This certainly suggests homogenization to me.
It was not unusual to see stores or products from the same corporations in European cities that you would see in North American cities. I noticed many MacDonald’s restaurants, Burger King, Shell gas stations, Esso gas stations, and clothing stores such as Abercrombie & Fitch and the Gap. I also noticed Apple Stores, Starbucks coffee, and Disneyland Paris. There were Coca Cola and/or Pepsi signs every where. I’m sure I missed a few companies that operate in the European Union. This also advocates for the homogenization argument. We went into one store in Greece only to discover that much of clothing they sold had American cities written on them or some saying written in English.
I have mixed feelings about these changes that I’ve observed. Regarding English as perhaps a universal language, that is great for those of us that English is our first language, or in my case the only language. I guess I should be grateful that the language I was born into is being spoken in most parts of the world. After all, it makes travelling much less stressful. What bothers me is the possibility that the world is becoming more and more the same culturally. This saddens me because the point of travel for me at least is to experience the cultural diversity in the world. I fear that as globalization continues to take hold, diversity will be lost. The fact that youth in Europe and North America dress the same is evidence of this. The truth that you see many of the same companies in the European Union as you do in North America suggests the world is indeed becoming more and more alike. Like anything else there are always pros and cons. I do hope that the various cultures of the world will be able to resist globalization enough so that they will continue to exist as a unique culture of the world. Variety makes the world more interesting. If all countries of the world become more and more alike, then won’t that make for a boring world?
Since my wife and I had just been in Paris, France a month ago, I was filled with great sadness when I heard about the terrorist attacks that occurred in Paris on Friday, November 13, 2015. Terrorism is something I have a difficult time wrapping my head around. I cannot for the life of me understand how someone can cause harm and death to innocent people such as the carnage we saw in Paris. The news media has repeatedly said that the people who carry out such acts of violence have been radicalized, that is, have become more radical. Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a radical as “advocating extreme measures to retain or restore a political state of affairs”. I guess for radicals that means carrying out acts of murder. This is what I can’t get my head around. How can someone with any kind of conscience murder innocent people? The only explanation I can come up with is these people have been brainwashed. The MacMillan Dictionary defines brainwash as “to force someone to accept a particular set of beliefs by repeating the same idea many times so that the person cannot think in an independent way”. How exactly terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda or ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) are able to do this using the internet is a mystery to me, but this must be what is happening.
What concerns me the most is that many people are becoming fearful. On November 23rd, the American Government issued a world wide travel alert cautioning Americans to possible risks of travel due to increased terrorist threats. This obviously means that Americans are becoming fearful. Don’t get me wrong, caution when traveling is always a good thing. Travellers should always use caution when travelling outside of their country whether terrorism threats are around or not. That is just common sense. Moreover, we are beginning to see a rise in Islamophobia (or anti-Muslim sentiment). That is when there is prejudice against, hatred towards, or fear of the religion of Islam or Muslims. U. S. Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump and Ben Carson have been advocating for more surveillance of Muslims. (see Muslim-Americans fear ‘ugly rhetoric’) Mr. Trump says, “we’re being foolish, we’re kidding ourselves” if law enforcement doesn’t keep close surveillance on mosques, and he expressed support for the idea of a database for tracking Muslims in the United States. Some have even resorted to using religion to justify Islamophobia or fear of Muslims. During a November 15 sermon at First Baptist Church in Dallas, pastor Robert Jeffress told his congregation that the Paris terrorists were “acting according to the teaching of Islam,” and said “it is time” to call out Islam as “a false religion … inspired by Satan himself”. (see Theological Studies Director calls out) This is wrong, pure and simple. It simply is not fair to put all adherents to Islam in the same category. In fact, the majority of Muslims around the world have condemned the Paris attacks and other acts of terrorism carried out by Muslim extremists. Even more, most if not all non-extremist Muslims categorically say that these extremists are not true Muslims. (see Muslims Around World Speak Out) The bottom line is we must not let the terrorists achieve their goal. The root word of terrorism is terror which Dictionary.com defines as “aninstanceorcauseofintensefearoranxiety”. The very goal of terrorism is to instil fear in society so that our leaders cave into their demands.
This fear, caused by the Paris terrorists and other terror attacks, has changed the debate over refugees. Since returning home from Europe a few weeks ago I have been asked many times if we were affected by the refugees that had been dominating the news media before the Paris incident. Of course we were not. My wife and I even had a conversation with another couple recently at an airport where this couple expressed real concern over Canada accepting refugees from Syria. They told us that they heard one of the Paris extremists was a refugee. Once again their concerns were stemming from fear.
There seems to be two camps in this debate; Do we allow the Syrian refugees into our country or do we keep them out as there might be an extremist among them? Canada’s new prime minister, Justin Trudeau has promised to bring 25 000 Syrian refugees to Canada. (see Trudeau…) The debate in Canada and United States over the refugees is heated. Several of Canada’s premiers have spoken out on the issue, both for and against. Petitions against bringing in the Syrian refugees have been popping up online. (see Should Canada stop). Quebec’s premier Philip Couillard said it well when he said, “We must keep our arms open to refugees. They have fled their villages, they have seen their parents murdered and sometimes in front of their eyes. They come here in search of peace and freedom. Always remember that the Syrian refugees that will come to Quebec are themselves the first victims of terror.” (see We must keep our arms open) The Free Dictionary defines a refugee as “onewhoflees,especially to anothercountry,seekingrefugefromwar,politicaloppression,religiouspersecution, or a naturaldisaster”. These people fear for their lives. They have witnessed horrible things. As Mr. Couillard stated, they are victims themselves. Alberta’s new premier, Rachel Notley said it even better when she delivered an impassioned speech on the need to keep our doors open to Syrian refugees in the wake of the Paris attack, to not treat them as if they are terrorists about to launch a jihad in Edmonton or Calgary. (see Graham Thomson) Here are some of Premier Notley’s words from Monday, November 16 speech; “…The refugees are themselves fleeing exactly the kind of terror that we were all shocked to observe and watch unfold this weekend. And that’s why we need to be reaching out to them…” The Premier later told reporters: “We cannot have our decisions being driven by fear.” The premiers of Quebec and Alberta are right! We must not be driven by fear. My fear is that my country is buying into a culture of fear and as a result becoming less compassionate. I have always believed and been proud of the fact that Canadians are a compassionate people. Now is the time to show compassion for the Syrian refugees and NOT fear them. Now is the time to show the extremists that we will NOT be dictated by fear, that we will continue to travel abroad, and that we will NOT live our lives in fear. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the 32nd president of the United State said in his 1933 Inaugural Address, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. Roosevelt is right! My fear is that fear will take hold in our free society thereby making us prisoners of fear.
As I’ve mentioned in my first Remembrance Day post, November 11th is an important day to observe as it marks the anniversary of the official ending of World War I. That war ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month thus explaining why Remembrance day is November 11th. When in France recently, my wife and I visited the Normandy D-Day beaches. In case you don’t know the significance of those beaches, here is a history lesson.
On D-Day, June 6, 1944, “Operation Overlord”, the allied invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe started at 06:30. The target was an 80 kilometre (50-mile) stretch of the Normandy coast, which was divided into five sectors: Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword Beach. The Utah and Omaha sectors would be assaulted by the American Army, Gold and Sword beaches by the British troops and Juno beach by the Canadians. We visited the British, Canadian and American beaches. The success of Operation Overlord was a turning point in World War II and led to the liberation of Europe and the defeat of Nazi Germany.
In regards to the Canadian mission, fourteen thousand young Canadians stormed Juno Beach on D-Day. The landings initially encountered heavy resistance from the German Division as well as Canadian soldiers faced mined beach obstacles. They also discovered upon their landing on the beach that the preliminary bombardment proved less effective than had been hoped, and rough weather forced the first wave to be delayed until 07:35. The Canadians took heavy casualties in the opening minutes of the first wave. Since they had strength of numbers, as well as fire support from artillery and armoured squadrons, the Canadian forces cleared most of the coastal defenses within two hours of landing.
The fighting they endured was fierce and frightening. The price the Canadians paid was high. The battles to take control of the beachhead cost 340 lives and another 574 wounded. John Keegan, distinguished British historian who wrote Six Armies in Normandy, stated the following concerning the Canadian 3rd Division on D-Day: “The opposition the Canadians faced was stronger than that of any other beach save Omaha. That was an accomplishment in which the whole nation could take considerable pride.”
It was very surreal to stand on Juno beach, knowing what happened on that beach 71 years ago. I knelt on the sand, ran the sand through my fingers as I thought about the D-Day invasion and what our troops endured that day. I toured the Nazi bunkers that are still there and envisioned how the Nazis would have operated. One of the most emotional moments at Juno Beach was during the video the museum showed at the end; a video titled, “They walk with us”. It consisted of newsreel footage of the D-Day assault and ends with a father and mother walking down present day Juno beach discussing what happened there with their two children. I’ll say no more other than it affected both my wife and I deeply.
My wife and I also visited Pointe du Hoc located in between the two American beaches of Utah and Omaha. To understand the significance of this place, here is a history lesson.
Pointe du Hoc lies 6.4 kilometres (4 miles) west of the center of Omaha Beach. As part of the Atlantic Wall fortifications, the prominent cliff top location was the most fortified part of the beaches by the Germans.
The American assault force was carried in ten landing craft with another two carrying supplies. One landing craft carrying troops sank and all but one of its occupants drowned, another was swamped. One supply craft sank and the other put the stores overboard to stay afloat. Once within 1.6 kilometres (a mile) of the shore, German mortars and machine guns fired on the craft. These initial setbacks resulted in a 40-minute delay in landing at the base of the cliffs, but British landing craft carrying the Rangers finally reached the base of the cliffs at 7:10 am with approximately half the force it started out with. The landing craft were fitted with rocket launchers to fire grapnels (a device with hooks) so ladders and ropes could be attached to the cliffs. The cliffs proved to be higher than the ladders could reach. As the Rangers (a U.S. WWII soldier specially trained for making surprise raids and attacks in small groups) scaled the cliffs, the Allied destroyers provided them with fire support and ensured that the German defenders above could not fire down on the assaulting troops.
The Rangers successfully scaled the 30 metre (100 foot) cliff only to find that their radios were ineffective. Those Rangers that reached the fortifications learned for the first time that the main objective of the assault, the artillery battery, had been removed. The Rangers regrouped at the top of the cliffs, and a small patrol went off in search of the guns. Two different patrols found five of the six guns nearby (the sixth was being fixed elsewhere) and destroyed their firing mechanisms. At the end of the two-day action, the initial Ranger landing force of over 225 was reduced to about 90 fighting men.
As it was in Juno beach, it was very surreal to be there, knowing what happened on that point 71 years ago. There are still some bunkers intact but the most noticeable markings of the event were the numerous craters caused by the air and naval bombardments. Some of the bunkers were in pieces. Some of the circular gun pits, which housed the 155mm guns, are still there. As we walked about the site I tried to envision what the American Rangers had to endure to succeed at their mission.
We also made a brief stop at Arromanches, located on the British Gold beach, where one of the two portable temporary Mulberry harbours is located that were built and operational within three days of the invasion. Mulberry A was for the Americans at Omaha Beach and Mulberry B was serving the British and Canadians at Arromanches. A heavy storm destroyed the American harbor on June 19, but Mulberry B remained in use for eight months. Block ships were sunk off the Normandy coast to create protection from the open sea. These ships are still there and my wife and I marveled at the ingenuity of the Allied planners. In the first 100 days following D-Day, the harbor landed over 2.5 million men, 500,000 vehicles and 4 million tons of supplies for the Battle of Normandy; successfully contributing to the liberation of Europe and the defeat of Nazi Germany.
We also visited two of WWII cemeteries; the Canadian cemetery and the German cemetery. Again we were in admiration at how well-kept these cemeteries were, regardless of nationality. We were also saddened when looking at the various head stones when we learned many, many of these soldiers who died ranged between ages of 17 to 23. It was especially heart retching for my wife and I since our son is presently aged 21. Another very stirring moment for us was when we read the sign at the entrance of the German cemetery. The sign read, “Until 1947, this was an American cemetery. The remains were exhumed and shipped to the United States. It has been German since 1948, and contains over 21 000 graves. With its melancholy rigour, it is a graveyard for soldiers not all who had chosen either the cause or the fight. They too have found rest in our soil of France.” As I’ve stated before, this speaks of the nature of the French nation. They have a great respect for the dignity of all fallen soldiers. The French value and honor all soldiers, no matter what side of the war they fought for.
As we did for the WWI soldiers, my wife and I now have a whole new appreciation for the WWII soldiers and the sacrifice they made to liberate France and other European countries from Nazi oppression. I will attend the Remembrance Day ceremonies this year with much more gratitude and appreciation of all soldiers, especially knowing what the soldiers of WWII had to sacrifice to achieve their assigned goals.
November 11th is an important day to observe as it marks the anniversary of the official ending of World War I. That war ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month thus explaining why Remembrance day is November 11th. In Canada Remembrance Day is a national holiday and all Commonwealth Nations observe this day as a day to remember the members of their armed forces who have died in the line of duty. For those that don’t know, the Commonwealth is an organization of 53 member states that were mostly territories of the former British Empire, which includes the United Kingdom. The United States has a day of remembrance called Veterans Day, which is an official federal holiday that is observed annually on November 11. Its purpose is to honor people who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces, that is, its veterans. Armistice Day remains the name of the holiday in France and Belgium.
Now I’ve always felt that Remembrance Day was an important day to remember our fallen soldiers and I have often attended ceremonies, but since visiting the World War I and II sites in France, I have a whole new appreciation for this day. In this post, I will share my experiences visiting the WWI sites and cemeteries in France and Belgium. Experiences of my visits to WWII sites will be in another post.
The first site I visited was the Canadian National Vimy Memorial which has always been on my “bucket list” to visit. The memorial towers over the scene of Canada’s most recognizable First World War engagement, the Battle of Vimy Ridge, fought on April 9 to 12, 1917. In 1922 the French Government granted land on the crest of the ridge to the Canadian nation and this piece of land is now a Canadian National Park. To help you understand the importance of this site, here is a history lesson.
The Battle of Vimy Ridge was a military operation fought primarily as part of the Battle of Arras during the First World War. The main combatants were the Canadian Corps, of four divisions, against three divisions of the German Sixth Army.
The Canadian Corps was ordered to seize the heavily German fortified Vimy Ridge in April 1917. Situated in northern France, this seven-kilometre (4 mile) ridge which held a commanding view over the Allied lines. In May 1915, the French army attempted to seize the ridge but failed with 150 000 casualties. In February 1916, the British Army attempted to take control of the ridge but the Germans were able to push them away from the ridge.
Attacking together for the first time, the four Canadian divisions stormed the ridge at 5:30am on 9 April 1917. More than 15,000 Canadian infantry overran the Germans all along the front. Canadians single-handedly charged machine-gun nests or forced the surrender of Germans in protective dugouts. Hill 145, the highest and most important feature of the Ridge, and where the Vimy monument now stands, was captured in a frontal bayonet charge against machine-gun positions. It was the first time all four Canadian divisions attacked together and men from all regions of Canada were present at the battle. Brigadier-General A.E. Ross declared after the war, “in those few minutes I witnessed the birth of a nation.”
For me, visiting Vimy Ridge was an “eye opening” experience even though I’ve taught about the Battle of Vimy Ridge for many years. The first thing you notice are the craters left behind from the three-week bombardment that preluded the attack that occurred on the 9th of April. They were everywhere you looked. Large areas are fenced off with electric fences with signs stating that there are still unexploded devices in these areas. In fact, the attendant in the information told us that recently someone brought in a what they thought was a rock only to find out it was an undetonated grenade from 98 years ago.
When visiting the preserved trenches, I was struck by how close the Allied and German trenches were to each other. We were told that the trenches were 25 metres apart in places. In the area between the opposing trenches, known as “no man’s land” are several huge craters. We were told that these craters were from Allied soldiers tunneling under “no man’s land” and detonating explosives. My wife and I learned about the conditions of the trenches. Soldiers would spend months in these trenches often standing in ankle to knee-deep mud and water which caused many soldiers to acquire infections in their feet known as “trench foot”. The soldiers also had to contend with rats and head lice in epidemic proportions. The food was usually canned food and not much variety either. Many soldiers perished not because of battle but because of the horrific conditions of the trenches.
The park also does a tour of the tunnels. The tunnels at Vimy Ridge were part of a 20 kilometre (12 mile) network of tunnels stemming from the city of Arras. The soldiers would exit these tunnels to go onto the battle field. While soldiers were in the tunnels awaiting battle, they had to be perfectly quiet as they could be heard in the nearby German tunnels. The lighting in the tunnels was minimal so when our guide demonstrated what it would be like in there in 1917, it was almost pitch black. The temperature in the tunnels is a constant 10 degree Celsius (50 degrees Fahrenheit).
In the nearby city of Arras, my wife and I visited the Wellington Quarry (la Carrière Wellington) a museum that opened in 2008. The museum is a section of the many kilometres of tunnels dug by the British Army in WWI. Here is another history lesson.
From the Middle Ages through to the 19th century, the chalk beds underneath Arras were extensively quarried to supply stone for the town’s buildings. In 1916, during the First World War, the British forces decided to re-use the underground quarries to aid in a planned offensive against the Germans. The quarries were to be linked up so that they could be used both as shelters from the continual German shelling and as a means of conveying troops to the front in secrecy and safety, so 500 miners from the New Zealand Tunnelling Company, were brought in to dig 20 kilometres (12 miles) of tunnels. They worked alongside the British coal miners. Many were soldiers of below average height who had been rejected from regular units because they did not meet the height requirements.
The tunnel system could accommodate up to 20,000 men and these tunnels were outfitted with running water, electric lights, kitchens, latrines, a light rail system and a fully equipped hospital. Thousands of soldiers were billeted in the tunnels for eight days prior to the start of the Arras offensive on 9 April 1917. At 05:30 that morning, exits were dynamited to enable the troops to storm the German trenches. The Germans were taken by surprise and were pushed back 11 km (6.8 miles). However, the offensive soon bogged down and it was eventually called off after casualties reached 4,000 a day.
When you visit the quarry which lies 20 metres (65 feet) below the surface you are immediately struck by the numerous tunnels down there. A guide takes you through showing the many bottles, cans, shoes, and other WWI artifacts that are still there. You are also shown the graffiti on the walls left by the soldiers as well as one of the exits that led to the battlefield. It was truly one of the most moving and spiritual experiences I have ever had.
My wife and I also visited the many, many WWI military cemeteries in the area. We were actually overwhelmed by the sheer number of them. We visited three or four commonwealth cemeteries, which lay many Canadians. We visited a German cemetery and a French cemetery. What was astonishing to us was the number of unknown soldiers in these cemeteries. One of the cemeteries we visited had over half of the graves as unknown soldiers. Another surprising observation we made was how well-kept these cemeteries were. There were flowers growing between every headstone, the grass was always well-groomed and monuments were found in every cemetery. I think this speaks of the character of the French people and nation. It says they have great respect for the dignity of all fallen soldiers. The French value and honor all soldiers, no matter what side of the war they fought for. I was also struck by the sense of peace in these cemeteries. It was truly a humbling and touching experience to visit these resting places of WWI soldiers.
Notre Dame de Lorette is the world’s largest French military cemetery. Beside this cemetery is the Remembrance Ring (Anneau de la Mémoire) officially known as Mémorial International Notre-Dame-de-Lorette. This new memorial was inaugurated on November 11, 2014 and takes the form of a 328-metre ring of concrete with 500 sheets of bronzed stainless steel inside listing 579,606 German, French and British names. Now that is a lot of fallen soldiers and that does not include the many unknown soldiers whose names are not part of this memorial. What was so unusual to me was the fact that the French Government collected as many names as they could obtain of soldiers who perished in WWI regardless of their nationality; regardless of which side of the war they fought on. Once again this speaks of the character of the French nation. My wife and I wandered around in awe of this memorial finding our family names. It is very powerful and humbling experience to stare at 113 people with the same surname as me who fought with the Germans, the enemy of the day. As you might have gathered, my ancestry is German.
My wife and I now have a whole new appreciation for all soldiers and the sacrifice they made to maintain freedoms. Even though WWI was such an unnecessary war and a world war caused by the big egos of the leaders of the day, it was still necessary for soldiers to keep France and Belgium from being occupied and controlled by a foreign empire. I will attend the Remembrance Day ceremonies this year with much more gratitude and appreciation of all soldiers, especially knowing what the soldiers of WWI had to endure.
On our flight over to Europe, I watched the recently released movie called Spy whereby the main character, Susan Cooper, played by Melissa McCarthy. is a desk bound CIA analyst who volunteers to go undercover to infiltrate the world of a deadly arms dealer, and prevent a global disaster. The movie has a very funny driving scene where an Italian agent named Bradley Fine, played by Jude Law, picks Cooper up and drives her to her hotel. During that scene the Italian agent, driving a sporty convertible speeds through the narrow streets of Rome, paying more attention to the girls he is passing by than to his driving. The scene is very funny and typifies the way Europeans drive. Anytime I’ve watched scenes like this, I’ve always thought that the movies must be majorly exaggerating drivers in Europe. After returning home, I no longer think that.
Based on our experiences in Europe, it would seem that the stereotype, perpetrated by Hollywood movies, that European drivers are crazy is true. Have you ever seen an intersection packed with cars at all different angles, none of them moving, many of them tooting angrily like it will possibly help? Well, we did in Paris when our shuttle driver entered the very large round about that encircles the Arc of Triumph (Arc de Triomphe). There were no clear lanes and cars were everywhere and numerous horns were tooting. This is just one of the many driving experiences my wife and I, along with our friends, experienced when we visited Continental Europe. Even though I was aware of the stereotype, I was still “shell shocked when witnessing it”.
Our first taxi ride was on the island of Santorini, one of the Greek islands. After a nice dinner at our hotel, we decided to visit the nearby village of Kamair, so we had the hotel call a taxi for us. When the taxi arrived, My wife and our friends got in the back seat, and I got into the front with the driver. No word of a lie, the driver put the “petal to the metal” and the car accelerated quickly. Now in Greece, there are no side walks so pedestrians walk on the narrow roads. There was a group walking down the road as the taxi driver sped toward them, showing no signs of slowing down. The pedestrians scattered very quickly, as you might imagine. The village was two kilometres from our hotel. and our taxi driver speeded the entire way there. Thank God, we made it to the village alive. We all were so shocked that all we could do was laugh. I would label this taxi driver as one of those stereotypical crazy European drivers.
Like the driver in Santorini, the taxi driver who took us to the airport in Athens “floored it” at every opportunity. At one point he narrowly missed a car door that was opening. What made the situation even more humorous was the fact that just before the taxi arrived, a huge thundercloud moved over the city and a torrential rainstorm occurred as we were driving off. Now as in many cities, Athens does not have the infrastructure to handle torrential downpours, so needless to say the streets of Athens were semi flooding, or in some case fully flooded. That didn’t slow down our taxi driver. He just sped through the water sending water everywhere. Now we were nervous to say the least and I suspect our driver must have sensed that since he put in a CD of Greek music and “cranked” it up. It worked, as we did relax and started swaying to the music. This driver fit the stereotype.
Being a pedestrian in Europe is truly an adventure. Really you take your own life into your hands every time you step out onto the street as there was no other choice since sidewalks are rare in Europe. There were many, many times when our friends and us would be walking in what we assumed was a pedestrian zone only to be shocked when a vehicle would drive through scattering all the pedestrians. That happened in Florence and Sorrento in Italy, Mykonos town in Greece, and Bayeux in France, to name some places we experienced this. In fact, at our vacation rental in Sorrento, the gate opened right onto the road, and I’m not kidding when I say the vehicles did not slow down on that road. Numerous times we literally ran to cross the road for fear of getting hit by a car. It was most entertaining when you watched some else doing so.
In places like Rome, Paris and Athens it is common to see the narrow streets jammed with unruly drivers, streetcars, buses, mopeds, and double-parked trucks. It is also common in these cities to see massive horn-honking traffic jams. The mopeds and motorbikes were plentiful on the streets and would weave in and out of the vehicles, and often would drive between two vehicles to get ahead. There didn’t seem to be any sense of abiding by rules and such.
Then there is the parking. In Rome and Paris, for example, you would see vehicles parked in every which direction. There would be trucks parked in lanes with their flashers on. We saw this often in Paris on the shuttle. Vehicles would be parked up on sidewalks, if there was one, and it was not uncommon to see cars double parked. Vehicles would just park beside other parked vehicles and turn on their flashers. It just seemed liked chaos to me.
Now I realize that the reason drivers are so aggressive in Europe and why people park in any available space they can find in cities is because Europe does not have the space that North America has. Most of the cities in Europe are ancient. To give you some perspective, parts of Rome are truly ancient. If you look at the famous Roman Colosseum and inquire when it was built you would learn that it was commissioned around A.D. (CE) 70-72 by Emperor Vespasian. Paris existed long before Notre Dame Cathedral was built and the cathedral began its construction in 1163 AD (CE). The site of Athens has been inhabited since before 3000 BC (BCE). The earliest buildings date from the late Bronze Age, about 1200 BC (BCE), when part of the town spread to the south of the citadel on the Acropolis. The Acropolis is an ancient citadel (fortress) located on a high rocky outcrop above the city of Athens and contains the remains of several ancient Greek Temples. So as you can see, these cities are truly ancient thus explaining why the city streets are narrow. They were built in times before vehicles were around. These cities were never intended to have modern vehicles on them. In fact, many of these streets are still cobblestone. Space is at a premium over in Europe.
Then there is the population factor. Italy, for example, has 60,808,000 inhabitants and is 33 times smaller than Canada and the United States. Canada’s population is about 35 million and the population of the United States is approximately 319 million. Now that doesn’t mean much until you compare the number of people to the land area, otherwise known as their population density. According to the World Bank Data Website Italy has a population density of 209 people per sq. kilometre (km) of land area. Canada, on the other hand, has a density of 4 people per sq. km of land area and the United States has 35 people per sq. km of land area. So as you can see, Italy is much more densely populated than either Canada or the United States. In light of these statistics, it is easy to understand that Italy has much less space to handle its vehicles and pedestrians.
After returning home, I have come to appreciate the amount of space we have in North America. Our wide streets, our sidewalks for pedestrians our large, straight highways, our open space in rural areas are so refreshing after being in Europe. All the while we were in Europe we heard about the refugee crisis. It was on the news. It was in their news papers. We even witnessed a demonstration in support of the Syrian refugees in Athens. North America has so much more space and fewer people when compared to the European nations, therefore we should not be afraid to take in more of the Syrian refugees, especially in light of the fact that Europe is experiencing a refuge crisis right now. North America can easily encompass more inhabitants. We have the space!