The Free Press joined a 16-day European battlefield tour with a travel company from Calgary this summer, hoping it might offer a new perspective on the annual rite of remembrance and possibly insight into stories or issues that have been forgotten or ignored.
There are very few similar tours organized out of Canada for the general tourist, although battlefield tour companies are a booming business in Europe.
There were 37 of us, including the Dutch driver of our passenger van. The average age was older than 50 and many of the tourists were continuing education students of University of Calgary military historian Stéphane Guevremont, our intrepid tour leader.
They included a retired pilot from Winnipeg, a retired rancher from Brandon and his grandson, two geologists, an anesthetist who was also a former army officer, a geophysicist, several businessmen, a school teacher, a former member of the Royal Canadian Navy and a medley of others, including a former Dutch resistance fighter from Saskatoon.
The tour followed the Maple Leaf Route of the Second World War, the trail that begins on Juno Beach, south to Caen and Falaise, and then east and north to the channel ports and into Belgium and Holland, with a side trip to Germany. Vimy Ridge and a Passchendaele museum were also included.
The Canadian army travelled about 800 kilometres in the 11-month victory campaign, but our group logged 3,000 kilometres as we zigged and zagged from one historical marker to the next. The experience of hitting up to eight or nine locations in a day could be overwhelming. In that sense, the tour was a mile wide and an inch deep — but what an inch.
Most members of the group had an interest in military history, but others were motivated by a personal connection to either the First World War or Second World War.
Glenda Lambert hoped the trip might offer some insight into her own past. Her father was a medical doctor in the war, stationed in Portsmouth, where he conducted research on syphilis as well as treating soldiers. The port city was a major target for the Luftwaffe during the war.
He came home in 1946 "a totally different man," she said, adding he ran the household military-style, with strict orders and timelines for the completion of chores. It was not a happy experience, and Lambert said she wondered about all the men who suffered in various ways during the war years and how their experiences were passed down through the generations.
Her husband, Ken, wanted to see his grandfather’s grave in Belgium and extended his stay for that reason, since the tour didn’t include a visit to that cemetery.
The idea for the tour started with Dick Snel, a Dutch expatriate and owner of Excel Travel in Calgary. Snel met Guevremont during one of his evening war classes. Impressed by his passion and teaching ability, Snel told Guevremont he had been looking for someone like him for years to lead a battlefield tour.
Regimental associations, Veterans Affairs, high schools and universities have made the trip, but the idea of for-profit travel ventures to European battlefields is still a rarity.
By his own admission, Guevremont is a bit of an anomaly. A francophone son of separatist parents from Montreal, he is now a loyal Calgarian and a passionate promoter of Canadian military history.
The cowboy hat he wore throughout the trip and his French accent must have puzzled some Europeans, but hey, we’re Canadians. If there was a faux pas during the tour, it occurred during a visit to a German air-raid shelter in Emden. The tour guide was talking about the devastating effect of the bomber offensive and how the town had built 37 shelters for civilians, some of which are still standing.
Guevremont was feeling warm in the close quarters of Das Bunkermuseum, so he removed his jacket, exposing a T-shirt with a Lancaster bomber emblazoned across his chest. The tour guide was not impressed.
"You should have seen the look he gave me," Guevremont said.