In October 2014 my husband and I toured former battle sites of World War I and II in northwestern France and Belgium. It was a trip that touched us beyond description. A dear family friend, long since deceased, had been a veteran of The Battle of the Somme as a teenager in World War I and my own family includes many veterans of World War II including my uncle, Jack Glenn, who was a prisoner of war in Japan for nearly four years after being captured in Hong Kong on Christmas Day in 1941. Two thousand young Canadians were offered as cannon fodder that day in a futile display of defending the territory against 10,000 Japanese.
The following year, in August 1942, another six thousand brave, young Canadians were dispatched on another ill-fated mission to Dieppe in France. More than nine hundred were killed, and two thousand taken prisoner. When we were in Dieppe in 2014, we walked the route those Canadian soldiers followed after they landed on shore. Some reached a theatre across the road from the beach. That theatre, long ago abandoned, has been lovingly preserved as a memorial and museum to those young Canadians. A special guide and historian came in at 8:00 a.m. the day we were there to give us a detailed account of the day. The museum is full of memorabilia, uniforms and equipment from that terrible day.
One of the stories our presenter related is about a wounded Canadian soldier named Edwin Bennett. He had been blinded in one eye and was about to be dismissed as being beyond help by a German doctor. But a young French nurse by the name of Sister Agnès-Marie Valois, who later became known as ‘the white angel’ insisted he be treated. Bennett remembered the voice of the young nun who had intervened.
In 1982, for the fortieth anniversary of the Dieppe raid, some of those same soldiers returned to France for a commemoration ceremony. Sister Agnès-Marie was in attendance that day and her voice was once again recognized by Mr. Bennett, forty years later. It was an emotional reunion of the former nurse and the old soldier. I read in today’s Globe and Mail that Sister Agnès-Marie Valois passed away at the age of 103. R.I.P.
When we visited the battle sites and particularly at Juno Beach and Dieppe, we were struck by the proliferation of Canadian flags and memorials that are still highly visible and on display even today. Take a few minutes to think of the young men you know, perhaps your grandchildren who are 19, 20 or 23 years old. That’s the age of thousands of young Canadians who went to Europe during both wars to protect the values and freedom we now take for granted.
Merci beaucoup à eux tous.