By Charlene Wirtz
A local Legion member had the opportunity last summer to join a pilgrimage to important First and Second World War cemeteries and battlefields in Europe.
Last year Lane Gray, a Legion member and a teacher at Quill Lake School, applied for a spot on a Royal Canadian Legion Pilgrimage of Remembrance. Held every two years, they are open to all ages, whether Legion members or not, and visit important sites commemorating events of the World Wars. The pilgrimage tour includes one person from each province, and the itinerary includes sites across France, Belgium and Holland.
Although Gray has visited Europe before and seen some of the sites, this was his first pilgrimage and the focus was on paying respects to Canadians who fought in the wars. Legion services were held at every cemetery visited.
There are sites all over the area, some small, some large. The group visited Juno Beach, Menin Gate in Ypres, Dieppe, Caen, Vimy Ridge, Somme, Passchendaele and more. Among smaller sites visited, bullet holes can still be seen in the stone fence at Troteval and Beauvoir farms. Farmer Guy Frimout was only four during the war but he remembers the fighting over the farms, and his mother nursing some Canadian soldiers.
“The real highlight of the pilgrimage was meeting the people at these sites,” Gray recalled. “They remember what Canada did for them and they are thankful for Canadian visitors.”
At several sites, in fact, including the Troteval farm and Dieppe, there were people who wanted to meet the pilgrims and offer their respects.
“There are cemeteries everywhere and they are well taken care of,” Gray said. “The local people are very respectful.”
“One of the highlights for me was visiting Vimy Ridge,” Gray told the News. “My great-uncle fought there so it had personal meaning. He made it through but was killed a month later. His grave is near Vimy Ridge and I was able to visit it on a previous trip to Europe.”
Other sites had meaning as well. Gray found the grave of Alvin Rustad of Rose Valley at the Beny-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery in Normandy. At daybreak on the beach at Dieppe, the group toasted the many Canadians who fought in the raid.
At several cemeteries Gray laid crosses he had brought with him. During the school year, his shop class made crosses dedicated to local veterans whose names students had chosen from the Quill Lake Cenotaph, so Gray visited the graves of 15 Quill Lake soldiers.
“The kids were honoured to have their crosses laid on the graves,” he said.
One story Gray enjoys recounting was the experience of his roommate on the trip. Alec Dreichel’s great-grandfather Alex Wilson served in the First World War and was wounded at Passchendaele. Wilson carried a watch he had won at a carnival, and brought the watch back with him from the war. It has since been passed down in the family, though it no longer worked, and Dreichel brought it along on this pilgrimage.
Near Passchendaele, the watch started ticking again.
Dreichel also found, by accident, the grave of an uncle who fought in the First World War – not in the cemetery where it was believed his grave lay, but in a cemetery the group visited later that day. Dreichel walked down a row and happened to spot his uncle’s name.
Gray was so moved by the pilgrimage, he plans to lead a Saskatchewan pilgrimage in 2015 and is looking for other provincial Legions that might be interested. As the tour guide he will put a Saskatchewan slant on the stories, and the group will visit battlefields where Saskatchewan soldiers fought. He will also take some students to visit battlefields on the planned tour this Easter.
The Legion Pilgrimage of Remembrance gives Canadians the opportunity to visit Europe and see the battlefields where the wars were fought, to realize the magnitude of Canada’s sacrifices, and to pay their respects to all those who fought, not just those who were awarded medals. Their courage and devotion to duty shall not be forgotten.