When the tide went out at Juno Beach, a Red Deer teacher stood where thousands of Canadian soldiers had charged out of landing craft into enemy fire on D-Day.
Rafaela Marques Barnabe was struck by two powerful thoughts during her recent trip to France.
“I realized how much courage it must have taken,” she said, for young men from farms, fishing villages and cities from Vancouver Island to New Brunswick, to rush into a hail of German bullets and artillery on June 6, 1944.
“There was nowhere to hide.”
The social studies teacher at Hunting Hills High School also realized the great debt we owe to adolescents.
Having toured Canadian First and Second World War cemeteries in France, Marques Barnabe noticed how young the soldiers were. “They were 17, 18, 19, with some in their early 20s… There was one young man who enlisted at 15 who died freeing Normandy at 16,” she said.
“They were teenagers. People my age don’t think of that.”
Marques Barnabe believes many of her Hunting Hills students may also not realize that Canadian youths not much older than they are, won the Battle of Normandy in the Second World War and the Battle of Vimy Ridge in the First World War — and ultimately helped turn the tide in both global conflicts.
She plans to bring this fact and others to light in the classroom after spending July 26 to Aug. 4 in France at the 11th-annual Summer Institute and Battlefield Tour for teachers. Marques Barnabe was the only Red Deer teacher among 25 Canadian educators selected for the trip, based on a motivational essay she submitted about how her teaching of Canadian history will be enhanced by the experience.
“I am always proud to be a Canadian, but on this trip, it was amazing,” added Marques Barnabe, who saw how grateful French citizens feel about their Canadian “liberators.” She witnessed Maple Leaf flags still flying across Normandy, villagers singing the Canadian anthem at memorial celebrations, and streets named for Canadian regiments.
More sombre history lessons came to life as the educators visited museums, monuments, battlefields and tunnels used by First World War soldiers. The latter were still decorated with historic graffiti and drawings penned by soldiers readying for battle, said Marques Barnabe.
Walking up to the high ridge at Vimy, she saw for herself why its capture, largely by Canadian soldiers, was such a turning point in the First World War — and for Canada as a country. Historians credit the nationalistic pride this victory engendered in Canadians back home with helping build our national identity
More emotional moments were spent at the National Vimy Memorial, which loomed high into a grey sky. “We were there early and it was raining …. We were the only people there and it was surreal. You could still see craters from the bombs. It was a moving experience,” said Marques Barnabe.
Before leaving the Juno Beach Centre, the teacher bought booklets detailing the lives of certain Canadian soldiers. She intends to pass them out to groups of social studies students to help them view the war through these personal accounts. The students will eventually discover whether their soldier made it home.
That so many thousands of young Canadians didn’t was powerfully brought home to Marques Barnabe by the rows and rows of white crosses at Canadian cemeteries.
“A lot of us don’t really understand that supreme sacrifice, what these soldiers gave up for us,” said the instructor, who feels she can now impart Canada’s war history much more vividly than it’s depicted in dry textbooks.
The Juno Beach Centre, founded in 2003, is Canada’s only museum on the D-Day landing beaches. It hosts annual educational tours to battlefields for historical training.