Visiting France April 7th & 8th

Hello Ranger Family

I have to start by apologizing for being overly optimistic when I said I would write a blog for each day of my stay.  It has turned out to be very busy with early days and late nights.  Even now here I sit on the big day, April 9th, with only a few hours to take advantage to write. So, this blog will be a recap of the last two days.

April 7th was another emotional day starting with a visit to the Cabaret Rouge British Cemetery.  he cemetery contains 7655 Commonwealth graves from World War 1.  It was a wonderful sunny day with mild temperatures. The cemetery itself is located at a beautiful site, overlooking large fields that seem to go on forever.   It is very well maintained, with manicured lawns and flower beds.

Words and pictures truly can’t capture what it is like to standing amongst 7,655 graves of fallen soldiers, many of them Canadian. What struck me was the amount of unknown soldiers. There were some graves that indicated that the soldier was Canadian, but “Only Known To God”, is written at the bottom. 

Another grave would say “A Canadian Sergeant”, but again “Only Known To God”. Then there were many that had nothing on it, only that they were unknown. 

Standing there, looking at the graves, you couldn’t help but feel sadness for the many families that kissed their loved ones goodbye and never heard another word.  Never found out what had happened.

There was a ceremony, conducted by the group of Canadian youths that have also been brought to France by Veterans Affairs, commemorating the sacrifice of the fallen soldiers. This is also the cemetery that the unknown soldier, that now rests in the tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the parliament buildings in Ottawa originated from.

We then drove to Arras and attended the opening of a Canadian War Museum’s exhibit – “Witness – Fields of Battle Through Canadian Eyes”. This took place at Musee des Beaux-Arts. This was artwork created by Canadian Artist at the time of World War 1.  

There was one painting that caught a moment in which four soldiers were in their trench early in the morning. The light was just coming up in the background, with one soldier keeping watch and the three others trying to get rest, not knowing what the day would hold.  

The exhibition will be in France until July 2017, and you can find information on the Canadian War Museum website.  

After visiting the museum we moved up the street to the Arras town square, Place des Heros, to enjoy music played by Canadian and French Military bands.   After the bands there was a light and sound show that was projected on the buildings surrounding the square. The show was on the ongoing positive relationship between Canada and France, focusing on World War 1. At the end they played a wonderful rendition of Oh Canada…I am not going to lie, I shed a tear when everyone in the square sung together.  I believe you can find a video of the show on the “Canada Remembers” Facebook page.

Early on April 8th I was honoured to attend an aboriginal “Sunrise ceremony” at the Vimy Ridge Monument. For the first time ever a group of Canadian Indigenous peoples came to Vimy Ridge and were given access to the grounds to have the ceremony.  

They came to Vimy to bring the spirits of the native and non-native soldiers back to Canada. Everything was beautiful, the view of the monument was breathtaking. I was so lucky to be there and captured a haunting picture of the monument with the rising sun just off in the background. I know the first day of the attack was cold and snowing, but it still made you think of what those soldiers saw. One of the Native leaders said that regardless of the time that has passed, it is the same sun then, that rose this morning.

From there we visited the Ring of Remembrance and the Notre Dame de Lorette cemetery. The Ring of Remembrance is a 1,132 foot perimeter ellipse, made of steel and concrete.  On the inside, there are steel panels that contain 580,000 names of soldiers that died in the area during World War 1. Let me write that again, 580,000 name, just a part of the overall dead from the war. 

The interesting thing was that the memorial doesn’t distinguish between countries. It didn’t matter if they were from the Allies or Germany, there name is listed. From there we visited the cemetery, that is across the road, which contains 40,057 graves that are primarily French soldiers from World War 1.  Again, this is one of those places that are hard to explain. Standing in the middle of a sea of crosses, I didn’t know which way to look. I could not see from one end to the other and every picture I took would not capture the view and I ended up deleting most.

After dinner, we attended the Sunset Ceremony at the Vimy Ridge. This was attended by more then just our delegation. There were members of Canadian parliament, the military and French Government. There was music by Canadian Military bands, an honour guard made up of soldiers from the different branches of the Canadian Armed Forces. It ended with the firing of a salute by artillery and rifles at setting of the sun, then the playing of the national anthems of Canada and France. From my perspective, this was a simple yet poignant ceremony leading to the events of the next day. This was so far, my favourite day as it started with the sunrise ceremony and ended at sunset at the Vimy Ridge Monument.

In late July 2006, I arrived at Kandahar Air Field and met Sgt Rob McCue, my counterpart from the previous tour.  He and I had limited time so we got down to the business of the hand over. For the next week Rob and I went over maps, equipment and went on a couple missions together. He took his time showing me the ropes and some of the points of interest that needed to be aware of. 

On the day of his departure he signed over his “shot up” G-Wagons to me, shook my hand and wished me luck (as I was going to need it). Other than a few emails over the following few months I never spoke to him again.    

On April 4, 2017 as I sat in our first briefing in Ottawa I saw another delegate who looked familiar but I just couldn’t figure from where. For the next 24 hours I tried to find out if I knew this bearded person. Then, while on the bus for the airport, when the VA rep was doing the role call, they called out his name “Rob McCue”.   I couldn’t believe my ears, he looked a lot different but it was Rob. 

What are the chances, both of us picked to be a delegate for this fantastic opportunity? We have had a great reunion. I have also watched other veterans meet other old friends they thought to have been forgotten.