Katie Cranford, a Memorial student with strong family connections to the First World War, took part in a tour this summer that encompassed Newfoundland and Canadian First and Second World War battlegrounds. Below, Ms. Cranford recounts what she saw, did and felt during the experience for the Gazette.
This past winter semester, a professor of mine, Justin Fantauzzo, announced there was to be an incredible grant sponsored by Trafalgar and E&B Travel that would be available to history students.
If we were chosen, we would be sent to attend the Beaumont-Hamel centenary commemorations. Blown away by this amazing opportunity, I applied by submitting an essay. I did not expect to be lucky enough to be selected, but I believed that I was a suitable candidate since I am a fourth-year Dean’s List history and French double major.
I work as the co-ordinator for the Tutoring Work Experience Program in my local high school where I tutor World History and the French Immersion equivalent, Histoire Mondiale. I also have close family ties to the Royal Newfoundland Regiment with a relative of mine, Llewellyn Cranford, being a casualty of the July 1 bloodbath.
In May, I received a telephone call from Dr. Bishop-Stirling, the head of the history department, notifying me that I had been selected to represent Memorial. I was incredibly excited and honoured to have been given the opportunity. I vividly remember getting off the phone and immediately running to find my father to let him know.
Having arrived in Europe in late June, we travelled to Dieppe to see the local museum and the Square du Canada which represents the Canadian’s determination to liberate the people of Dieppe from Nazi occupation. We browsed the Mémorial du Caen, a museum dedicated entirely to the D-Day landings in 1944. We met the Gondrée family who still live in one of the first houses to be liberated by the British at Pegasus Bridge. We walked on the sands of Juno Beach and toured the German bunkers that made up the Atlantic Wall. I watched children make sandcastles in St. Aubin-sur-Mer where Canadian soldiers landed and were killed during D-Day.
“I estimate I have seen over 100,000 immaculately kept graves.”
We visited so many Commonwealth cemeteries that I estimate I have seen over 100,000 immaculately kept graves. I saw the Vimy Ridge monument stand tall and proud on a grey rainy morning. We toured the peaceful Langemark cemetery in Belgium where German soldiers of the Great War were buried en masse and I marveled at the tranquility of their final resting places. We visited Oxford Road Cemetery where John McCrae wrote In Flander’s Fields and we recited his timeless poem among the poppies that still grow there.
We attended the Last Post Ceremony at the Menin Gate in Ypres where they pay tribute every night to all of the fallen soldiers with no known graves. This particular night, since it was so close to the centenary commemorations for the Battle of the Somme, there were hundreds of people and a lone bagpiper played Amazing Grace. We followed the informally known Caribou Trail and payed homage to the Royal Newfoundland Regiment in Gueudecourt, Mansières, Monchy-le-Preux, Courtrai, and of course, Beaumont-Hamel.
July 1, 2016 was the apogee of the entire trip. As a Newfoundlander, to visit this site at any time throughout the year must be very special. However, to be able to be there for the 100th anniversary, was incredibly powerful. At all the sites we visited, we did so to honour the lives of the people who fought there, but being at Beaumont-Hamel for the actual anniversary had such a different atmosphere.
This year, security was strict so were registered through the French Embassy and went through security checkpoints in order to attend. The weather was not promising; it was cold, rainy, and windy. There were a lot of people at the site; however, it was not overcrowded. Seamus Hogan, the other travel grant recipient, and I were both invited to the dignitary reception where we chatted with retired Gen. Rick Hillier and his wife, as well as Kent Hehr, minister of Veteran Affairs, who was very moved by the patriotism of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians and how much we respect our soldiers, veterans and our war dead.
The ceremony itself was beautiful with lots of music and kind words and it contained time for reflection time and snippets of history. The Ode of Remembrance was read in English, French and Inuktitut for John Shiwak, an Inuit and Labradorian soldier killed in Mansières. During the ceremony, the rain started up again, but only for a few moments at a time. Everyone would put up their umbrellas only to take them down a moment later. Prince Charles and Camilla toured the Caribou Monument and before we knew it, the ceremony was over.
A wreath for Llewellyn
After, I had the chance to lay a wreath on behalf of Llewellyn. He was a bugler on that fateful day and was reported as missing in action, so I laid the wreath at the grave of an unknown soldier to symbolize all the soldiers born without a grave and buried without a name.
The other Newfoundland and Labrador Freedom 100 Tour members met up at the front of the park just before we left to sing the Ode to Newfoundland. I had been pretty good at keeping it together all day. But once we sang the line, “where once they stood we stand,” I started to cry. I had never fully understood those words before. Now I do. As we sang, it began to pour rain.
One particularly poignant moment for me during the trip was when we visited the Canadian War Cemetery in Bèny-sur-Mer for the Battle of Normandy where there are more than 2,000 graves. I walked among the headstones, reading the names and the inscriptions at the bottom. Some of the inscriptions are obviously standards — they are repeated over and over, almost as if they were chosen from a list. Others are deeply personal.
“All of a sudden it was very real.”
There is one headstone that says, “Missed forever and always by your princess,” whom I can only assume was the soldier’s young daughter. I nearly broke down. I had studied the war and its atrocities before, and I had always disassociated myself with all of the pain that it caused. Seeing something like this brought the suffering to a human level. All of a sudden it was very real. We held our own little vigil there, saying the Ode to Remembrance and I laid a cross.
They shall not grow old, as we that are left to grow old; Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn; At the going down of the sun and in the morning; We will remember them.