Skip to content

ICYMI: Honouring the fallen and recalling the light of liberation

Waterdown native Rosemary Giles reflects on official ceremonies to mark the 80th anniversary of D-Day

After a short hop skip and a jump across the Atlantic, and a three-and-a-half-hour drive from Paris, I arrived in the coastal town of Bernières-sur-Mer where I would stay for the next two days. I chose this location for two reasons. First, and more practically, the town was within the restricted traffic zone set up for June 6. Second, I wanted to limit my trip to the Canadian sector as much as possible since I wasn’t here for very long, and it was one of the towns that was liberated by the Canadians.

On my first full day here, I attended two separate ceremonies at the Bény-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery. In the morning, dignitaries from Canada and the surrounding French towns paid their respects and laid wreaths at the cross in the centre of the cemetery. The contingent of Canadian veterans were in attendance and I had the honour of briefly speaking with a few of them before they were taken away to their next stop on the trip.

In the evening, I returned for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s candlelight vigil. The organization had set small lights on every one of the more than 2,000 graves in the cemetery. The ceremony concluded with the lights being turned on in a wave that swept across the headstones. We were then invited to walk among them to pay our respects. Although this was my third time to Bény-sur-Mer, it is difficult to capture the sheer numbers of graves. This was made even more apparent when the lights were lit, and you had to try and take in over 2,000 lights shining in the space.

The event at the Juno Beach Centre was well put together, and remarkably well organized for the size of the crowd in attendance. There were easily thousands of people. Guests were quickly put through security and sorted into VIP and non-VIP sections. For those of us who fell into the latter camp, we were set up in standing room on either side of the main seated section.

Fortunately, I was able to wiggle to the front of the crowd and had an excellent view of the stage for the entire 90-minute ceremony. Given that we were asked to arrive an hour and a half before this even started, a ‘pre-show’ had been set up, consisting of a few musical performances and a series of stunning parachute drops by the SkyHawks.

The ceremony itself was full of those wanting to honour the fallen. What struck me most from talking to people was the sheer number of French people in attendance. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and His Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales gave moving speeches about those who served and the partnership that was built between Canada, the British, and the French from that day onward. Prime Minister Trudeau gave one particularly moving anecdote about a Canadian D-Day veteran who unfortunately passed away just before the trip. According to him, his bag was already packed and ready to go.

And yet the most moving part of the day was not the official ceremony at the Juno Beach Centre, but the smaller local event that was hosted in the evening at

The 9th Canadian Infantry Brigade landing on June 6, 1944. Canada House (building at the centre of the image) is recognizable. Government of Canada Archive photo

Bernières-sur-Mer. Outside La Maison des Canadiens, the people of the town gathered alongside visiting Canadians to honour the lives lost there in the act of granting French liberation. In fact, La Maison des Canadiens was one of the first homes liberated on D-Day due to its location right along the beachfront. Its visage has hardly changed, and it’s easy to pick it out in photos taken on June 6, 1944.

Among those involved in the ceremony was a British centenarian who was attached to the Canadian forces on D-Day. He was determined to participate in the ceremony and was carried down to the beach in his wheelchair where he was applauded by the surrounding crowd. While there were aspects of the ceremony that paralleled the other events that I have attended in France, the village put their own beautiful spin on things. While standing watching the mayor speak, flowers were distributed throughout the crowd for the main part of the ceremony.

After the readings and other performances of remembrance concluded, the mayor explained that the light of liberation came from the sea, and so to remember they bring the light – a lantern carried by one of the local children – back to the sea and bring things full circle. The locals close in a semi-circle around him, while the sun sets, and all walk across Juno Beach to the water together. One by one, they get in, some just to their feet, and others to their waists, and throw their flowers into the waves.

“At the going down of the sun; And in the morning; We will remember them.”

Born and raised in Waterdown, Rosemary Giles is a PhD student in History at Western University who is attending the 80th Anniversary of D-Day and the Battle of Normandy at the Juno Beach Centre in France. While overseas for this event, she will visit a variety of other ceremonies and commemorations.

push icon
Be the first to read breaking stories. Enable push notifications on your device. Disable anytime.
No thanks