It’s peaceful on Juno Beach on a sunny July afternoon. A few tourists, a few locals getting some sun; if I had been thinking I would have taken off my shoes and socks and dipped my toes in the English Channel, just so I could say I had done that.
We arrived in Normandy after a week in Belgium, after visiting Flanders Fields and Passchendaele. We had absorbed the history of the First World War, read stories of the carnage. Now it was time to learn of a different war, with different stories, though the two are tied together. You could perhaps make the case that the two World Wars are really the same conflict, with a 20-year cease-fire in the middle in order to grow more soldiers.
Juno Beach is where the Canadian troops landed on D-Day, June 6, 1944, in what turned out to be the successful beginning of the liberation of Europe from Nazi dictatorship. Today it is difficult to see just how formidable a task that was. There is no barbed wire on the beach today, no mines or tank traps. The remains of the German fortifications don’t look all that scary, but 70 years have passed. Time really does heal a lot of wounds, for landscapes as well as people.
Since we are Canadians we will visit the Juno Beach Centre, but for now we walk along the sand, veering up into the dunes whenever something looks interesting.
There is the obvious, like the large Cross of Lorraine that commemorates the spot Charles De Gaulle landed, eight days after D-Day. There are also smaller memorials, such as the one for the Royal Winnipeg Rifles and Canadian Scottish regiments. I observe the small wreaths of poppies left at the foot of the marker – we are not the first Canadian tourists to come to this spot.
Three hundred and fifty-nine Canadian soldiers were killed in action here on D-Day. Coming from Flanders, where daily death counts were in the thousands, this number brings home how waging war had changed in a short time. It has changed even more in the ensuing years. Canadian troops fought for a decade in Afghanistan, ending in 2011; their total casualties were less than one third the number they suffered on D-Day.
I don’t think about death very often. As a Christian I consider the matter settled. But a month spent wandering through battlefields, cemeteries and old churches does mean that the topic has been on my mind. We are all going to die. That having been accepted, it becomes more of a question of when and how (and sometimes why) we die.
The 359 young Canadian men who died on Juno Beach were volunteers. I doubt they were under any misunderstanding: they knew that they were going to be landing on a well-defended beach and face withering machine gun fire. They realized it was inevitable some of them would not survive the day.
Were they afraid? I presume most of them were to some extent. I suspect they were also exhilarated. This is what they had trained for, and what is more, the cause for which they were serving was one with which they agreed. The people of France (and Belgium, Poland and a host of other countries) had not chosen the Nazis in a democratic vote, they had been conquered. D-Day was about freedom, and those landing on Juno Beach that day believed in freedom,
Out peaceful walk along the beach on this sunny July day was possible because so many who believed in freedom were willing to risk their lives for that ideal. That is worth remembering.