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France's wartime reminders Add to ...

The 11,000-tonne ferry boat that carried me from England to Dieppe hit the beach in a much more civilized fashion than did the landing craft of Canadian troops some six decades earlier. On shore, the flags of three nations -- France, England and Canada -- were flying, and with good reason: It was here that more than 900 of the almost 5,000 Canadian troops were killed in an unsuccessful landing on Aug. 19, 1942.

Walking the wide beach and exploring the little fishing harbour tucked behind the town makes one realize just how tough the landing would have been. While Canadian troops were badly defeated, their bravery helped galvanize French resistance forces into co-ordinated action against German and Vichy forces. It also made clear the need for better planning.

Today, Dieppe is a quiet place. Leaving my bike in the storage shed at my hotel, I found that the town shuts down by 10 p.m. I was alone except for one well-dressed young woman sitting by the harbour. Was she another traveller saddened by brutal events gone by?

A few days later, cycling north from Amiens, I entered the former battlefields of the First World War. My bright yellow Michelin map started to feature more and more crosses (roadside markers) and boxed crosses (cemeteries).

When I stopped at one of the Commonwealth War Grave Commission sites, I had a startling realization. Until that moment, the only poppies I had ever seen were in books, as well as the plastic ones we wear for Remembrance Day. But here, along the road, were wild poppies. I immediately recalled John McCrae's poem In Flanders Field, which I learned as a child. (It's written on the Canadian $10 bill, in case you've forgotten.) I made the town of Arras that night, and from there cycled to the ultimate Canadian battlefield: Vimy Ridge. The tree-lined roadway was flanked by turf that looked like someone had laid sod over a huge egg carton. This, of course, is the pockmarked terrain that had been methodically shelled before the Canadian advance. Canadian forces took the ridge from the Germans in a well-executed attack on April 9, 1917. More than 3,500 Canadians lost their lives, but Vimy is considered a turning point for the Allies.

The memorial consists of the underground tunnels and staging point on the lower part of the hill, and the twin-towered cenotaph itself. The monument, unveiled by King George VIII on July 26, 1936, contains the names of 11,285 Canadian troops listed as "missing, presumed dead" in France.

Although the site is more awesome and saddening than anything I have seen, there is gentle levity nearby. Grazing on the bombarded landscape, beneath signs warning of undetonated explosives, are sheep. None of the animals have yet met an unlucky demise, I was assured by the Canadian students who provide interpretive services.

As I cycled into the afternoon calm of the French landscape, I was reminded that this was where Canada came of age, amid barbed wire and machine-gun fire. Today, however, it's all bright cornfields, with the smell of fresh bread in the air.

Life goes on, it seems, but France is full of reminders, lest we forget.

For more information on the town of Dieppe, visit the Web site at http://www.mairie-dieppe.fr. For more information on the Vimy Memorial, visit http://www.virtualmemorial.gc.ca .

 

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