Cover

WHEN MEMORY FADES TO BLACK

Who will inspire us to greatness after all the war heroes have died? How will we remember?

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS June 7 2004
Cover

WHEN MEMORY FADES TO BLACK

Who will inspire us to greatness after all the war heroes have died? How will we remember?

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS June 7 2004

WHEN MEMORY FADES TO BLACK

Who will inspire us to greatness after all the war heroes have died? How will we remember?

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS

JUNE 6, 1944. D-Day. Under a low, metalgray sky, the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division waits off the Normandy shoreline. The high winds kick up a vicious cross swell. The wet and seasick flotilla of some 14,000 troops makes its way towards the white line of surf breaking on Juno Beach. Impromptu choruses ofRoll out the Barrel and For Me and My Gal can be heard alongside the cannon roar of Allied battleships and the aerial bombardment of the French coast. But the singing fails to mask the tension. Almost three years of training and the debacle of the earlier Dieppe landings, 100 km to the east, bear down on soldiers and sailors alike.

At 7:40 a. m., the artillery in the larger landing craft begin the final barrage of German defences. Out in front, 25-man assault crafts start the dash to shore. At 8:12, members of the Queen’s Own Rifles are the first Canadians to land. Like so many others to storm the beach, they find themselves running into a hail of bullets from virtually undamaged machine gun emplacements. The battle for Juno Beach is joined.

We have embraced D-Day as a moment when we helped change history

The heroic landing. The hard fight for the beachheads of Courseulles-sur-mer and Bemières-sur-mer. The execution of Canadian troops by SS Gen. Kurt Meyer. The gruelling month-long struggle for Caen, 15 km inland. For the veterans who fought in the Normandy campaign, these are signposts on the path of remembrance that begins with D-Day and ends almost a year later with 42,042 Canadian war dead and victory in Europe.

Now, 60 years later, D-Day looms ever larger in our collective consciousness. The hours and days that followed June 6 have become more than just a defining moment in our past. In books, film and textbooks, we have embraced D-Day as a coming of age, a moment when we stood among equals and helped change the course of history.

The present-day pull of D-Day no doubt partly stems from anxiety about Canada’s role in the world and our capacity—military or diplomatic—to influence events. Equally, though, June 6, 1944, appeals to our sense of who we are as a nation and what we want to accomplish. We see, in the heroism of those citizen soldiers who landed at Juno Beach, a touchstone for values we want to continue to promote abroad: democracy, protection of human rights and the willingness to bloody the nose of tyranny.

Something else is also propelling our reawakening interest in Canada’s military heritage. In 1995, more than 500,000 veterans helped Canada mark the 50 th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. Today, a little more than 200,000 will be with us to commemorate the D-Day anniversary. This year of 60th anniversaries (including the Italian campaign and the liberation of Holland) will be the last opportunity for many Second World War vets to participate in the commemoration of the history they helped create.

Herein lie the promise and pitfalls of D-Day and the sometimes tenuous link between our history and the values we hold dear. In the coming decade, the responsibility for memorializing our military heritage will pass on to a generation that has never known a fullscale war. Without veterans to help remind us of events such as D-Day, we risk losing touch with the memories that inspire us to greatness. To ensure that June 6 continues to be a touchstone of our past and future, Canadians must never forget that overcast day on a desolate beach 60 years ago and the horrible price others paid for our freedom. fl]

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