The Beaches of Normandy and Dieppe

A poppy, laid atop the National War Memorial in Ottawa, Ontario.

My Great-great grandfather, George "Harry" Powell, carried a small 1-inch Bible in his pocket through World War I.  I don’t know much about him, aside from that he was born in Kent, England, he was shot during the War, he lost a kidney as a result, and he later died long after the war had ended.  He wrote his birthday in the front cover of that Bible, and that little scratch of ink is the most I’ll likely ever know about who he was as a person.  I carried that Bible in my pocket the day I married my wife, and it sits safely in my bedroom closet for my sons to have when one day I’m gone.  I may never know what it may have seen, and perhaps that’s part of the beauty of the connection I have to it.

I’ve personally served in the Canadian Forces since 2007, and I’ve proudly been sent all over the world in many capacities, but the most important to me is my present position as a photographer.  It allows me the rare opportunity to not only see the world, but to share moments with other Canadians; moments which may have otherwise come and passed like the wind, thin slices of time.  In this role I was sent to France two weeks ago to support a number of events, namely the events surrounding the 75th anniversary of the Dieppe Raid, and a series of interments of recently identified WWI Canadian remains.  While I’ve been to France before, and walked through the graves of Canadian soldiers, it never quite sunk-in in the same way.  Yes, the impact of seeing the sacrifice impacted me in previous visits, yet each name was a silent raindrop, unique, yet lost in the storm – not something I found myself personally connecting with.  It’s a hard reality, but unless you know or are connected to a name it may as well be just a scribble inside the cover of a long-closed book.

This time my travels took me to Ypres, to Passchendaele, Dieppe, Dunkirk, Carentan, Arras, Caen, and the beaches of Normandy.  I've been to many of those spots before, but nothing I’ve ever read nor watched has ever done it any measure of justice.  Interestingly, it was the smallest things that grabbed me, things that if I hadn't been there would never have occurred to me.  Things like how the beaches of Dieppe aren’t sand, they’re large rounded pebbles that shift with every step and make movement nearly impossible; and how the expanses of Juno and Utah beaches in Normandy are flat for miles with no chance of cover, as a former infantryman it’s an overwhelmingly grim prospect.  I’ve never in my life been so humbled by the courage of those who served there, bravely pressing through those conditions.

I also had the unique opportunity to meet a number of men who served at Dieppe, and their life gave me such hope.  Men like Stan Edwards and Colonel David Hart, men who pushed through those stony beaches and survived.  Men who stared down fear and offered their all for people they did not know on a beach a thousand miles from home.   True heroes.  I listened to them tell tales of their friends who fell, and connected with the loss in their eyes.  Those grave stones may just be names to some, but to them they were friends and brothers.  It gave me a new and powerful perspective on things, particularly reading the names of those lost and never found etched for eternity into the walls of Menin Gate.

Growing up I spent a lot of time with my Grandfather and one of my favourite films was Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.  In it Jimmy Stewart says this line, “Have you ever noticed how grateful you are to see the light again after coming through a long dark tunnel?”  That line popped into my head at a number of times through this visit.  When I thought of Normandy or Dieppe before this trip it never conjured images of life.  It brought up images like the intro to Saving Private Ryan, or episodes of Band of Brothers, so for me it was a bit unexpected to see how beautifully life had carried on in those places.  In many ways I feel like the people flourishing in Dieppe, Normandy, Passchendaele, Ypres, and all of those towns are just like that light after the long dark tunnel.  Walking those wide beaches, watching families and children laugh and play on those hallowed grounds, was an experience beyond words.  I couldn’t help but feel like the innocent joy, the way the air carried the very sounds of life, honoured the fallen.  Perhaps this was the hope of all of those who gave their all. 

Here I am at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial.

In a way, that little Bible of my Great Great Grandfather’s is connected to me in the same way that each of those silent grave stones is connected to each of us as Canadians.  It is a direct tie to the sacrifice that led to the freedom and the life that we have today.  We may not know the person whose life it represents, but it is a life that served our own and others.  More than that, there’s something simple and beautiful, something often overlooked, about the way that life has carried on.  Certainly not all sacrifices resulted in sweeping victories, the Dieppe Raids were one strong example of that.  Yet, all sacrifices speak to something more; to a character of who we were and are as a people.  To a distinctly unique Canadian hope, and a deep-seeded love towards others.

I was honoured to have had the privilege of being permitted to film a series of the beaches the Canadian Armed Forces fought upon in the Dieppe Raid (Pourville, Puys, and Dieppe).  In making the film I decided to take some advice from Jimmy Stewart and, “always try to see life around you as if you’ve just come out of a tunnel.”  So I made the focus of my short film exactly that: life carrying on after the sacrifice. 

If you have 90 seconds more feel free to watch the video, see where the troops came ashore, and the beauty of the life that lives on there now, it's featured HERE.  There are also a number of other great projects that our team worked on, and plenty of information regarding the recent Dieppe anniversary and interment events - you can find them on the Canadian Army Facebook Page.  I hope that should life bring you to those beautiful French shores, that you find what I did.

 
 

-Wes.