A Remembrance Day Lesson in Italy

"On November 11th if you can't remember war, think of peace"

Nothing brings the human dimension of war closer to home than standing amid a sea of headstones in a Canadian War Cemetery. The orderly rows of tombstones etched with the names of our soldiers, air crews and navy personnel killed in action are vivid reminders about those who fought and died for peace and freedom. A visitor can't help but come away with a deeper sense of admiration and respect for our veterans. And, as happened at the Moro River Canadian War Cemetery in Italy, a visitor may also learn a valuable lesson.

Dominion Command, the Royal Canadian Legion

The Moro River cemetery, south of Ortona near the Adriatic Sea, is the burial site for 1,375 Canadians and 240 Commonwealth servicemen who died during the Second World War in liberating Italy. In all, 100,000 Canadians troops served in the campaign. Casualties numbered more than 25,000 including 6,000 killed in action.

Driving with my son Jeff, his wife Johanna and Italian cousin Giovanni, we took a wrong turn upon entering the cemetery and found ourselves in an area reserved for the maintenance crew and their equipment. Two workers politely asked us to find another parking spot. But just as Jeff put the car into reverse, Giovanni --- who was conversing with the grounds keepers --- apologized for our inadvertent intrusion. His companions, he explained, were visitors from Canada.

That's when an imaginary red carpet rolled out. "Just leave the car where it is," said the workers. We expressed willingness to move elsewhere but now the workers insisted we stay put. Go and visit, they said. There was no rush to move the car. We did not deserve such deferential treatment, for none of us had ever served in the Canadian military. But it was a powerful reminder that six decades after the end of the Second WorId War, Europeans have not forgotten the incredible deeds and personal sacrifices of the Canadians who helped to shape world peace. We were, by virtue of our citizenship, the beneficiaries of their unselfish contributions.

Before visiting the graves, we stopped at the cemetery's shelter building. There, we found a bronze box containing a register pinpointing the location of the individual resting places. Jeff quickly found the name of a Cape Breton Highlanders corporal who died in early 1944. Jeff had promised to photograph the grave for the soldier's brother who lives in Ottawa.

I signed the visitor's book and penned a few words in memory of the troops, but struggled to find the right words. My thoughts were distracted by the gracious reception we had received just minutes before. Then, glancing over my shoulder at the burial plots, I concluded there wasn't a combination of words in any language to adequately express the gratitude we owed to Canadians buried at Moro River or at any of the other war cemeteries around the world.

What I saw that day were not cold statistics, but headstones bearing inscriptions with real names, ranks, regiments, and the dates of death of those who never returned home. "Young men, some only 19, cut down in the prime of life," I wrote in my diary. It's not something to forget.

And so, as we enter the last two months of the Year of the Veteran and prepare to honour fallen soldiers on Remembrance Day, Nov. 11, it falls to us to keep the memories of our veterans alive. We not only owe our veterans, living and dead, thanks and appreciation for giving us peace in our times, but for the enduring respect we enjoy when travelling abroad.

© Rene Pappone 2007 - reprinted with permission of the author, Mr Pappone, a resident of Aylmer.