Pilgrimage of Remembrance, 2013 – Part I by Roy Toomey

So what do museum staff members do when they go on vacation? One of our education programmers, who is a military history enthusiast, went to visit some World War sites in Europe. This blog is his personal account of what it meant to him.

I have always had an interest in, and deep passion for, Canada’s military past.  A big part of this passion stems from my grandfather’s nearly 30-year career in the Canadian Army (Signals Corps).  His service in Europe in World War II was one of the main reasons I fell in love with this subject, as it gave me a personal connection to it. 

As I grew older, I came to appreciate how vital Canada’s military history is to the history of our country in general.  Many of the events Canadians participated in and witnessed during two World Wars helped to shape Canada into the country it is today.  

Before going on this trip, I had worked with our curator, Joanne White, to create a database of soldiers from the St. Albert area that served in World War I and when Dan and I were planning for this trip, I felt that as a member of the museum staff, I should try to do some research for the museum while in Europe.  In the course of my research, I found that three of the men from St. Albert that died in the First World War were commemorated on the Vimy Ridge Memorial.  As such, I made certain to take the time to find their names and photograph them while at Vimy.  I will cover this in another post later on.

In June of this year, my friend Dan and I embarked on a nine day pilgrimage to visit the Canadian battlefield, memorials, and cemeteries of both World Wars.  Over the next weeks leading up to Remembrance Day, I will share our travels with you.

Dan and Roy on the ferry to Calais, France. White Cliffs of Dover in the background.
After flying to London, England, Dan and I traveled to Dover.  From there we took a ferry to Calais, France.  We took the ferry in order to experience what it was like to cross the English Channel in a boat, as our soldiers would have.  In Calais, we rented a car, and took off across France and Belgium.  Our first stop was Dunkerque, France, site of the famous Dunkirk evacuations at the beginning of World War II.  An old church in the centre of town remains scarred by gunfire to this day: a reminder of the destruction of war.
Old church in Dunkerque, France. Bullet holes can be seen to the lower right.
After Dunkirk, we drove to Ieper, Belgium (Ypres). Ypres witnessed some of the bloodiest battles of the First World War.  We stayed at an old manor house, at Hooge, Belgium, with preserved trenches, a bunker, and rusty wartime artefacts right in the backyard.  The Hooge Commonwealth Cemetery was my first experience with a military cemetery in Europe.  We weren’t prepared for how emotional an experience it was.  The number of graves, the names and ages of the men, the number of unknown soldiers (‘Known Unto God’), and the epitaphs all spoke to the tragedy of war.  Of the hundreds of epitaphs I would read, the one that always haunts me is this simple, loving phrase: “A Good Son.”
Hooge Commonwealth Cemetery

Please visit the Musée Héritage Museum’s blog next week for Part II of our pilgrimage, where I discuss the rest of our time in Belgium, and our visit to one of the holiest of Canadian historic sites: Vimy Ridge.  This entry will also cover the St. Albert connection to Vimy Ridge.