Article written by Lieutenant-Colonel (ret’d) Harry Hall, former RMR Commanding Officer & Honorary Colonel
RMR Association France & Belgium Battlefield Tour: 26 September – 03 October 2018
On September 26th, 2018 seven retired RMR’s and Branch 14 Royal Canadian Legion members embarked on a 10-day adventure whose primary purpose was to visit and walk the European Battlefields that Canadian Soldiers in general and The Royal Montreal Regiment in particular conducted combat operations on during WWI and WWII. We also wished to pay our personal respects to Canadian and RMR fallen comrades at various Commonwealth War Grave Cemeteries in France and Belgium.
The trip was organized and lead by former Honorary Colonel and Commanding Officer LCol Harry Hall and included 2 former RSM’s Capt Georges Gohier and CWO Robbin McIntyre, a former Warrant Officer and currently serving officer Capt Tony Petrilli from Calgary, 2 former Senior NCO’s Sgt’s Bill Thibault and Joel Tartiere and one former NCM Pte Wayne Davies. We were able to chronical our journey via Facebook everyday including comments and pictures. We primarily stayed at AirBnB’s and cooked many of our own breakfasts and dinners, thanks to our cook RSM McIntyre, which kept the cost down. Everyone worked well together and pitched in as required, with special thanks to Sgt Bill Thibault who was co-driver and handled all the money for tolls, gas, groceries etc.
Tony Petrilli sent all of the participating members his summary of the trip and I am borrowing / plagiarizing many of his comments because they were spot on. As an introduction, every Canadian should make this journey to understand the sacrifices made that went into defining who we are and what we value. People seek out peace after knowing war.
Sunday – Monday We flew overnight to Paris, rented a 9 Pax van with a GPS using a British ladies voice, that as my comrades will attest, did not like me as the primary driver. She was the object of much foul language throughout out road trip. Drove to our first AirBnB at Courseilles-sur-Mer, very close to the Juno Beach Center. Early night helped by a few drinks, as we adjusted to the time zone.
Tuesday onto Juno Beach, toured the Juno Beach Center, some of the pill boxes on Mike Sector, then to Bernieres-Sur-Mer to visit Nan Sector and the different Regimental Memorials there. Off to Pegasus Bridge then to Omaha Beach and the American Cemetery. Comparing the Juno and Omaha beaches, Canada made its objectives but it’s clear that the US Omaha Beach was a greater physical and defensive challenge. Post visit from our discussions, we realize that the RMR was on the ground earlier through the individuals who had been dispersed to other units after 32nd Recce(RMR) Regiment was disbanded for replacements in April 1944.
Wednesday we were off to our first Canadian War Cemeteries at Bretteville-sur-Laize and Beny-sur-Mer Cemeteries which was humbling for all. Then to Dieppe, which was a tragedy but if we truly took the lessons and applied them to later battles, it may have been worthwhile. Many of us were interested in the beach rocks as much has been made about how difficult they were for the tanks. The tanks Churchill tanks of the 1942 Calgary Tank Regiment were not up to the task since the rocks did not appear to be that significant by todays standards. None the less, to stand on the beach where many comrades died and Col Hart earned his Military Medal was, to say the least, humbling. New AirBnB where we discovered many restaurants are not open Wednesday Nights.
Thursday, off to the Arras via Amiens, stopped at Bapaume Post Military Cemetery to visit the grave 0f Canon Scott’s son. Canon Scott, the RMR’s first Protestant chaplain who rose to become the Chaplain for the First Canadian Division, personally searched the battlefield for his son after he was declared missing (presumed dead), eventually identifying him by a ring he was wearing and then conducting an impromptu burial service while under enemy fire… a very sad story.
Then to Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme and is a war memorial to 72,246 missing British and South African servicemen who died in the Battles of the Somme of the First World War between 1915 and 1918, with no known grave.
Not too far away was the Beaumont Hamel National Memorial Site where on July 1st 1916, the 1st Newfoundland Regiment faced devastating losses on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Going “over the top,” Newfoundlanders were completely exposed to intense machine gun fire and the attack was a horrific failure. Within 20 minutes, approximately 85% of those who had started forward were dead, dying or wounded. While the casualty list varies, most records indicate that 287 Newfoundlanders were killed in this battle, on the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army. Great little Museum and tour detailing the battle that essentially wiped our the better part of a generation of Newfoundlanders.
Before going to our next AirBnB we managed to do a side trip to Cagnicourt to visit Capt McKean VC Memorial and Square. As Tony notes “The 41 Brigade motto is “Fortune Favors the Bold” and there was never a better example of that than how a small patrol lead by Capt McKean, took a far larger German unit with guile.”
The best AirBnB we encountered was in Mazingarbe, just outside of Arras. The hosts were great and they provided us with a wonderful 4 course meal, for 12 Eros each, the first night including wine, beer and Calvados.
The next day, Friday, our host, a retired teacher, accompanied us to Cabaret Rouge Cemetery which is significant because it is where Canada’s Unknown Soldier, now buried in Ottawa, was original buried until 2000 when he was repatriated. We also found an unknown 14th Bn. grave. Our host then lead us to the French Cemetery of Notre-Dame de Lorette which is the largest French military cemetery, with over 40,000 soldiers, both known and unknown from France and her colonies, buried here, including 2 mass graves of ~5000 soldiers each. Then to Neville St. Vaast German Cemetery which is the largest WWI German cemetery in France and contains the remains of 44, 833 German soldiers killed in Artois.
By mid day we were at the Vimy Ridge National Memorial. I am not sure if Vimy more than any other event defined Canada as a nation but it certainly made the Canadian Army. We walked the trench lines and visited the tunnels. A must do for any visit to France.
Our final visit for the day was Nine Elms Cemetery which collected the fatalities from the first day at Vimy. Every member of the RMR should visit the graves of the 82 RMR’s buried there. It’s that fundamental to who we are and why we continued on and did not disappear as any Task Force does once the job is done. Plot I, Row A has the remains of 80 men of the 14th Canadian Infantry Battalion RMR arranged by Rank and Name, who fell on the 9th April 1917. By the way, there are only 8 Elms there now.
Saturday, we said goodbye to our hosts at Mazingarbe and were on the road to Ypres. First stop was Passchendaele Memorial and Cemetery, personally made special as both my grandfathers fought at Passchendaele. Tyne Cot Cemetery was only a few kilometers away and it is the largest Commonwealth War Graves cemetery in the world. It is also the most important reminder of the Battle of Passchendaele from 1917. At Tyne Cot we found three 14th Bn. graves and 2 VC winners (one Canadian and one Australian). We then did a tour of Ypres and visited Menin Gate before returning to our new AirBnB in Zonnekeck Belgium. After a good supper, we wandered across the street to the local watering hole and enjoyed a good evening meeting with the local population. One gent worked for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and gave us some mementos from the local farmer fields of brass buttons and webbing brass which are on their way to our museum.
Sunday we were up a little late, maybe some of us suffering from local hospitality and local beer. Off we headed for Essex Farm where LCol John McCrea Aid Station was when he penned “In Flanders Fields”. Also notable are the bunkers that remain, the grave of Valentine Joe Strudwick that died aged just 15 years and 11 months and the grave of a British VC winner.
Then to the Railway Dugout Cemetery which contained a great number of 14 Bn. members including Capt. Whitehead. His brother survived the war, later as a Brigadier General, and his mother presented one of our set of colors.
The Brooding Solder Memorial at St. Julien memorializes the Second Battle of Ypres, our first battle that features the gas attack in 1915 that caused an opening in the lines when French troops withdrew and Canadians filled the gap. We drove past where Capt Scrimger’s won his VC at Shelltrap Farm.
We returned to Ypres for the Menin Gate nightly ceremony. This remains special for the fact the Remembrance Ceremony is held daily by the Ypres Fire Department buglers to express their gratitude towards those who had given their lives for Belgium’s freedom. We certainly don’t remember daily. Except for the occupation by the Germans in World War II when the daily ceremony was conducted at Brookwood Military Cemetery, in England, this ceremony has been carried on since 2 July 1928. On the evening that Polish forces liberated Ypres in the Second World War, the ceremony was resumed at the Menin Gate despite the fact that heavy fighting was still taking place in other parts of the town. This is the depth of gratitude for the sacrifices made by distant nations.
Monday, we left Zonnebeck and headed up to the Leopold Canal Area. The Adegem Cemetery is the most prominent cemetery for our Second World War fallen particularly from the action where Captain Schwob won his MC at the Leopold Canal. Also buried there is LCol T.C. Lewis, who left Canada with the Regiment in 1939 as the RSM, was LCol commanding the RMR by 1943 and after the unit was broken up for replacements became the CO of the 17 Duke of Yorks Royal Canadian Hussars. He was Killed in action while Acting Brigade Commander going forward to brief the CO R de Chaud. We paid respects to all these RMR’s. Furthermore, as mentioned earlier, we realized that the RMR has more buried there, like LCol Lewis, who had been serving with other units.
We walked the ground of the Leopold Canal Battle and can clearly understand the challenges posed by the canals and interlocking fire of the pill boxes.
We did try to visit the local Polish Canadian Museum only to discover it was closed on Monday’s and Tuesday’s. Next time!
At this point we headed back to Paris CDG Airport to return the van, check into the Ibis Hotel and our last 2 nights in Europe.
Tuesday – Up and out early, veterans discount on the rail line into Paris..bonus! Did some general sightseeing including the Tomb of the French Unknown Soldier – Arc de Triumph, Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame de Paris, the Seine, the Louvre, Napoleons Tomb etc. We did over 20 Km walking according to my Fitbit and enjoyed every minute of it. A fitting end to the visit. Flew back Wednesday a little tired but satisfied that we had put a lot into the 10 days we were on the ground.
For future Battlefield Tours We had an ambitious itinerary but there are other things to see if time and interest permits; Wimereux Cemetery is of general interest because John McCrae is buried there. The Gavrelle sector where George McKean earned his VC needs some researching but may not offer much to see. Across from the Neville St. Vaast German Cemetery is the Maison Blanche Tunnel. This is where the chalk carvings are. The tunnels are operated by the British organization that revealed them so a visit would take coordination but I am certain they would welcome us given that we are represented among the carvings.
Thank you to all my comrades who made this such a memorable trip. What do we do next year??