Sixty-nine years ago today, thousands of Canadian soldiers huddled in landing craft off the coast of Juno Beach Normandy, shivering from equal parts cold and outright fear. I try to imagine my father, a medic in both that campaign and the liberation of Belgium and Holland, yet not even the age of my son today, and wonder what it took to calm his mind and remain as focused as he could under the circumstances. Perhaps the quote “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgement that something else is more important than fear,” held him and his brothers together that day.
Even a cursory examination of the events of the first hours of D-Day reveals the impressive accomplishments of the Canadian assault battalions. Most of the elaborate pre-invasion fire-support plans had failed, leaving the infantry, combat engineers, and armoured troopers to overcome the enemy by direct fire. It took incredible courage just to keep going; there are no words that can do justice to the fourteen thousand individuals who rose to the challenge and led assaults on deadly enemy positions. The price they paid was high – the battles for the beachhead cost 340 Canadian lives and another 574 wounded.
John Keegan, eminent British historian who wrote Six Armies in Normandy, stated the following concerning the Canadian 3rd Division on D-Day: “At the end of the day, its forward elements stood deeper into France than those of any other division. The opposition the Canadians faced was stronger than that of any other beach save Omaha. That was an accomplishment in which the whole nation could take considerable pride.”
Of the many lessons that we can take from the Normandy invasion, two stand out for me. The first is the importance of mental health. Canadian infantry battalions lost on average 80% of their soldiers in the three months following Juno Beach. As many as a third of all non-fatal casualties were designated “battle exhaustion” cases, breakdowns from the extraordinary stress of combat that today we call operational stress injuries.
Allied medical facilities were poorly equipped to deal with psychiatric casualties effectively, which aggravated existing manpower problems and almost ground the army to a halt after Normandy. What we can learn from this is that mental health is of profound importance in military and civilian life, and must be treated as an urgent component of medical care and public health. Additionally, if mental strain and anxiety could sometimes be too much for even the hardened Canadian soldiers who won Juno Beach, it can sometimes be too much for anyone. There is no shame in that.
Juno Beach is also a lesson in Canadian values. More than a million Canadian men and women volunteered during the war, a war far from home and with little immediate impact on daily life. But there was a broad understanding among Canadians that their responsibilities did not end at the country’s borders. In 1944, Canadians demonstrated a willingness to volunteer and fight for principles and interests beyond the physical safety of family and country. The D-Day landings were the ultimate sign of Canada’s commitment to and engagement with the world, values still reflected across our country today.
These days we often take for granted our rights, our freedoms and our values. In our day to day lives we pay little heed, if any, to the source of that which we hold most precious. Martin Luther King said that ‘a man who is not willing to die for something is not fit to live’. If for only one day a year we remember those who were willing to die for the values and freedoms we hold dear, let it be today. Let it be now.
And let us never forget that freedom is not free. It is paid for in the blood of a generation that we can never afford to lose, that of our nation’s children.