Pinning a scarlet-red poppy to my lapel in early November is a ritual that began in grade school.
Remembrance Day observances at my school -- Leslie Street Public -- took the form of essay-writing on war-related topics, a general assembly with speeches by students, recitations of In Flanders Fields, sombre prayers and stirring military hymns. This was followed by a holiday on Nov. 11, when schools, banks and government offices closed so people could participate in the many parades, services and ceremonies held around the city to honour Canada's war dead and veterans.
Two of my uncles had joined the navy in the 1950s but neither they -- nor any of my immediate family -- had been involved in armed conflict. So my early impressions of war were shaped not by first-hand accounts but by those school activities, books such as The Diary of Anne Frank and films like The Great Escape.
Through my teens, conflicts around the world seemed to have an unreal quality that made them seem far removed from safe Toronto -- until the past few years. September 11 and its aftermath, images of young Canadian soldiers killed and wounded in Afghanistan, ordinary Canadians lining the Highway of Heroes in silent tribute to today's war dead, numerous conflicts -- in Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere -- and recent visits to World War II museums in Normandy have made war a lot more real.
The 20th century was largely shaped by the First and Second World Wars and Europe is dotted with monuments, museums and cemeteries relating to these conflicts. On an 80-km stretch of Normandy coast alone there are more than 25 sites connected to D-Day -- June 6, 1944 -- the beginning of the Allied invasion of German-occupied Europe. For Canadians visiting France, three museums I visited recently -- the Juno Beach Centre, the Dieppe Museum and the Caen Memorial -- will likely resonate the most.
JUNO BEACH CENTRE
Clad in a bright-red windbreaker, guide Louis Lebel-Bouchard greets our small group of Canadian journalists in the foyer of the Juno Beach Centre at Courseulles-sur-Mer, the only museum on the D-Day landing beaches dedicated solely to Canada's efforts during World War II.
Lebel-Bouchard is one of a dozen Canadian university students selected to work at the centre for a few months each year, welcoming visitors and leading tours of Juno Park, the beach where Canadian troops came ashore on D-Day and a German bunker that was part of the Nazi's almost-impenetrable Atlantic Wall defence system.
Lebel-Bouchard has a friendly engaging manner but I wonder what the tall young political science student from Carp, Ont., can really know about war?
A lot, as it turns out. To qualify for placement at Juno Beach, applicants must be bilingual and well versed in Canadian and World War II history. At 19, Lebel-Bouchard is the youngest guide at the centre and, despite working for two years as a guide at Ottawa's Diefenbunker, admits to being a bit intimidated at first.
En route to the bunker, Lebel-Bouchard tells us Juno was one of five Normandy beaches invaded by the Allies on D-Day, and it was heavily fortified. In addition to the difficult to penetrate bunkers, Canadian forces met beach obstacles, mines and machine-gun nests, but were still able to liberate the towns of Courseulles-sur-Mer, Bernieres, Grey-sur-Mer and Saint-Aubin, and penetrate further inland than any of th Allies. Their success was not without a price, however, and of the 14,000 Canadians who came ashore that day, 359 perished.
Lebel-Bouchard says working at the centre has provided an invaluable education, of which the most poignant and rewarding part has been having veterans on his tours.
"Some veterans are very emotional and sometimes want to tell you (battle stories) which can be difficult to listen to ... others just want to have a conversation or quietly remember fallen friends," he says, adding that either way, it's "an honour to meet them."
Lebel-Bouchard and the other student guides are there because "that's what veterans wanted," says Nathalie Worthington, director of the Juno Beach Centre.
Who better to tell their stories, they reasoned, than young men and women who are the same ages as the soldiers who landed and fought at Juno Beach, she says.
Veterans also wanted the centre to be a place "of interpretation, not just a museum," to tell the "larger story" of World War II, conditions leading up to war, and life in Canada both then and now. This is done through a series of galleries that "try to humanize and personalize as much as possible," Worthington says.
Documents, artefacts, photographs, and audio-visual accounts make exhibits come to life. And there is a children's circuit with quizzes and interactive displays. Particularly touching is the Some Came Back, Others Did Not display, which projects the names of the 45,000 Canadians killed during World War II.
To "read the names from A to Z would take 13 and three-quarter hours," Worthington says.
Since opening nine years ago, the centre has seen visitor numbers increase steadily to about 60,000 in 2011. About 30% of visitors are Canadian, 30% French, 14% British, about 9% from The Netherlands and the rest from other countries. The centre was created by veterans with funding from governments (Canadian, provincial and French), individuals and corporations. The goal is to reach 85,000 visitors per year, which would make it self-sufficient in terms of funding, Worthington says.
"This is a significant part of your history," Worthington tells us. "Every Canadian should come visit the Juno Beach Centre."
NEED TO KNOW
The Juno Beach Centre is open daily from February through December (closed Dec. 25 and during January). Hours vary depending on season. Adult admission to the centre is 6.50 euros (about $8.25) and 5 euros ($6.36) for Juno Park. Combined Centre and Park admission is 10 euros ($12.72). Admission is free for World War II veterans, their widows, disabled war veterans, and children under 8 with an adult. If you plan to tour the other D-Day museums and beaches (Omaha, Utah, Sword and Gold) in the area, buy a Normandy Pass with your admission to the centre. The extra euro will give you discounted admission at the other sites. A special exhibit Allies: Canadians and British During The Second World War runs until the end of 2012. Contact 011-33-2-3137-3217 or junobeach.org.
The disastrous raid on Dieppe -- code-named Operation Jubilee -- stands as Canada's worst single-day loss of World War II. Of the 4,963 Canadian soldiers who came ashore at dawn on Aug. 19, 1942, less than half -- 2,110 -- returned to Britain. Some 807 Canadian soldiers died, 1,946 were captured, and another 100 died as prisoners of war.
The Nazis seemed to have had advance knowledge of the attack, German defences were stronger than anticipated, and air support for the invasion was inadequate. Historians are split on whether the raid was a smokescreen for intelligence gathering, a test-run for later amphibious invasions of Europe, and whether lessons learned at Dieppe contributed to the success of the 1944 D-Day invasion, or if it was simply a badly planned operation that culminated in a bloody massacre.
Those who know the true answers to these questions are likely long dead, but the Jubilee Association -- a small group of dedicated local volunteers and the town of Dieppe keep the memories of those brave soldiers alive in a little museum housed in a 19th-century theatre. Documents relating to the battle, vintage photographs, newspapers, military equipment, uniforms and a film featuring testimonials from veterans who fought at Dieppe make it particularly poignant.
In 1944, Canadian troops liberated Dieppe, and in August of this year veterans, French and Canadian dignitaries, and townspeople gathered around the war monument at Square du Canada to mark the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Dieppe.
NEED TO KNOW
The Dieppe Memorial to Aug. 19, 1942 is run by volunteers and closes for the winter. From Easter to May 31, and from October to Nov. 15, the museum is open weekends and holidays from 2-6 p.m. From June through September, it opens Wednesdays to Mondays, 2-6:30 p.m. Admission is 2.50 euros (about $3.15); veterans and children under 16 get in free. For details, see dieppe-operationjubilee-19aout1942.fr.
With some 400,000 visitors each year -- and up to 600,000 on special anniversary years such as the 60th anniversary of D-Day in 2004 -- the Caen Memorial Centre for History and Peace is France's most-visited World War II memorial, and Normandy's most important tourist attraction.
Opened by French President Francois Mitterand on June 6, 1988 -- the 44th anniversary of D-Day -- the Memorial was built to "thank those who fought for our freedom," says Olivier Pizzimenti of the centre's promotions department.
The original museum focuses not only on D-Day, the Battle of Normandy, and World War II, but also events and the political climate in Europe leading up to war. There are memorial gardens dedicated to the three main Allied nations -- Canada, Britain and America -- involved in liberating France from the Nazis. And the centre organizes guided walking and coach tours in the summer -- including a Canadian D-Day Tour -- of the landing beaches, war cemeteries, the Atlantic Wall, and other significant sites. One exhibit details the efforts of the French Resistance during the Nazi occupation from 1940-44.
"The location (of the centre) is very symbolic because the headquarters of a German division are right below us," Pizzimenti says.
About two-thirds of all visitors spend most of their time in the World War II museum but the centre continues to expand and evolve, he adds.
Today, flags of all nations involved in World War II -- both defeated and victorious -- fly in front of the Caen Memorial Centre. In 1991, a gallery dedicated to the Nobel Peace Prize was added, and a 2002 extension focuses on the Cold War and the search for world peace, Pizzimenti says. Major renovations in 2009 made the centre fully accessible for visitors with disabilities.
NEED TO KNOW
The Caen Memorial Centre is open Tuesdays to Sundays until Dec. 23, then daily starting Dec. 24 (but closed Dec. 25). Regular adult admission is $18.50 euros (about $23.50) with various discounts for off-peak times, Normandy Pass holders, children and seniors, etc. Admission is free for war veterans, war widows, persons with disabilities, children under 10 with an adult, and other select groups. Tours and packages are available. Contact 011-33-2-3106-0645 or memorial-caen.fr.
IF YOU GO TO NORMANDY
Along with local tourist boards, the Association Normandie Memoire has produced an excellent Normandy 1944 brochure, which provides details on memorial sites, museums and military cemeteries. The association also offers the Normandy Pass. See normandiememoire.com.
Air France's Discover Europe winter promotion offers great rates on flights to Paris from several Canadian cities. For instance, return Voyageur (economy-class) fares from Toronto, Ottawa or Montreal start at $899 (including taxes). Flights must be booked by Nov. 20 for travel Jan. 9 to March 30, 2013. Fares include one free stopover in Paris. Departures from Quebec City and Halifax are also available (see the website for prices). Air France has connecting flights to cities in Normandy, or you can rent a car and drive there in about 90 minutes. Starting in 2012, the airline will provide digital versions of newspapers and magazines. For information and reservations, see airfrance.ca.