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Do you remember when you were in elementary school and had to write in your daily journal for class, “What I did on my summer vacation” during your journal time? Well I feel a little like that today. What I did on my Italy “vacation” by Carla Wilks.
When we arrived in Italy, we arrived in Rome and then soon after, flew to Sicily. Our typical pattern was that we would learn the history of the battle, then learn about the details of the battle procedure, and then we would walk on the ground where the battle took place, and then we would go to the cemetery where the fallen soldiers from that battle were buried, and that is where I would lead a ceremony that helped us to reflect on the battle and remember the ones who died. On our first day learning about the battle, we were in Sicily – because that is where the Seaforths first arrived for the Italian Campaign of World War 2. We walked on the beach that they arrived on – put our toes in the same waters that they jumped into as they approached the beach for the first time.
Since I have been home, people have been asking me, “Did you have fun?” “How was your vacation?” My response has usually been – “it was an incredible experience – one I will never forget.” It was jam packed – I learned a lot, and our days were full. Usually starting on the bus at 8:30 am and then we’d finally be back to the hotel or finished dinner at about 10pm at which time I would go back to my hotel room and write the ceremony for the next day. We had one half day of “free time” and that was on the last day, when we were in Venice.
People also have asked me what the best thing about my trip was. I have a few answers for that one – but I’ll start with a story. One of the very first stories I heard when I was first being introduced to the Seaforth Highlanders – before I was enrolled, was of the “Ortona Christmas dinner.” That story inspired the choice of Psalm 23 for today – so that’s where I’ll begin. The liberating of the city of Ortona was a really important battle for the Seaforths in Italy in World War 2. The chaplain of the Seaforth Highlanders during the war was Padre Roy Durnford. It was his Bible that I swore on when I was enrolled, which was the one that Padre Durnford had in WW2. He organized a Christmas dinner in Ortona on December 25, 1943 in a bombed out church – Santa Maria di Costantinopoli. In his war journal he wrote: “For the dinner there was soup to start then roast pork…. Christmas pudding and minced pies for dessert…the tables filled and emptied and were filled again all day, and I saw tense forces relax in the friendly warmth that grew up within the walls of the battle-scarred church…. Above the din one could hear sometimes the distant chatter of machine-gun fire and the whistle and cramp of shells landing not far from the church.”
We went to that church – it is rebuilt now – and I met that priest of that church. Standing in that church was very emotional for me – knowing what had happened on that spot almost 80 years before. When I was in Italy, as I was thinking about the Ortona Christmas dinner – Psalm 23 came to mind, and I used it in the ceremony that I led in Ortona. It struck me as we were retracing the steps of the Seaforth soldiers, while we were walking in safety in beautiful places, they would have really known and lived the words of this psalm. They might have spent a fair bit of time feeling like they were walking through the darkest valley. I recalled these words of the Psalm as we heard of the darkness and thick smoke from all the gunfire, that covered the Liri Valley as the soldiers approached the Hitler Line, another battle we learned about.
Their every day experiences would have tested them – experiences that for many would be like looking into the face of evil – an experience to be feared. While the Psalm says “I fear no evil, for you are with me, your rod and your staff they comfort me,” I imagine that there would have been fear in those dark valleys.
I wonder where they would have found their comfort? In the memories of their families back home? Some of them may have found comfort in the words of this psalm. Some of them may have found comfort in the shared experience and friendships that they had formed with their fellow comrades. In Italy we heard stories of Canadian soldiers helping out Italian families by bringing them food. I wonder if helping others would have been a source of comfort for them, as they comforted others. I wonder if for many of them, finding comfort in the normal things of life was what kept them going. Perhaps having a traditional Christmas meal to mark the occasion of Christmas, just as they might have at home with their families, likely brought comfort to these troops. The Christmas dinner became a symbol of civility amid the horrors of war.
Psalm 23 states “you prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. My cup overflows.” I’m sure that I will not read this Psalm again without imagining that Christmas dinner table in Ortona, with the Seaforth Regimental March, Pibroch of Donald Dhu, playing in the background, and the sounds of war and battle beyond.
Another significant moment in Italy was when we were in Sicily, and learning about our first battle, the battle of Agira. We saw the landmarks that identified the defensive lines, and we learned the history of the battle. Then we went through the battle procedure, which was way more detail than I could really understand – but by the third battle, I understood it a lot better! During the battle procedure part, we were going to do a bit of a re-enactment of the orders that would have been given to the Seaforths as they prepared for battle. One of the people who was on the trip was a retired Seaforth, and his dad actually commanded the Seaforths in battle in Italy. So – in the re-enactment, the orders were given by the man whose father had given the actual orders in the war. It was a powerful moment. Now many of the people on the trip would have said it was the dust in the air, but I saw some leaking eyes being wiped in those moments.
One of the days when we were retracing the steps, we climbed up a mountain, and another day, we walked down into a gully as they would have done on their approach to another objective – and they had to cross a river at the bottom, which for us was supposed to be just a trickle at that time of year… but – as you may have heard, there was some flooding in Italy, in the north, but more rain than usual all over Italy. Our little trickle, was about 20 feet across and thigh deep, and the river banks were about 8 inches deep slippery mud. But we needed to cross it to continue on our journey, so off came our shoes and socks and across that river we went. It was nothing compared to what they would have done 80 years ago – but things not going as planned, was very appropriate, as that happened then as well – the best laid battle plans often had to be adjusted at the last minute.
As many of you know – I was a little nervous before I went about the ceremonies that I had to do in the cemeteries. I wasn’t sure what they were to look like or what was expected of me. Well apparently Nancy was right when you all blessed me on my way – I did have everything I needed, and your prayers and good wishes certainly helped. The ceremonies went very well. The one that people found most meaningful was the day after we learned of a battle in Cassino, which was particularly devastating for the Seaforth. 48 of their soldiers died on one day – May 23, 1944.
I had taken a spreadsheet with all the names of the Seaforth who died in Italy, and so I assigned a name of one of the soldiers who died that day in the battle we just learned about, to each of the 30 people on the trip. I matched names as much as I could so that they would have a personal connection. For example, I gave the Robert on the trip, someone named Robert. I also gave them the location of the gravestone. During the ceremony, I did a roll call, calling the names of the deceased, and each person said present – and then after the ceremony they were invited to find the gravestone and put a Canadian flag in front of it.
I also think that your prayers and good wishes followed our trip and blessed us on our way – a few things happened that had very fortuitous timing for us. The day after we flew from Sicily back to Rome, the volcano in Sicily – Mt Etna, erupted, closing the airport the day after we flew out of it. Also – there was major flooding in the north when we arrived in Italy, which is where we were headed in the second week, and all the highways we would be driving on, were closed. Fortunate for us – by the time we got there, the water had receded, and they were all open again.
Along the way we were honoured to meet Italian people who remembered the Canadians who brought them food or gave them candy or saved their lives. Many of them, being children 80 years ago, and speaking of their memories – it really struck me that they may not be telling these stories too many more times, and so the importance of us remembering and keeping the stories alive – seemed very significant. One of the stories we heard was in Ortona – two sisters had left the city during the battle to stay with family. They were returning home after the battle, and started walking across a field… which was full of landmines. A Canadian soldier saw them, and he carried one at a time across the field back to safety – because he knew better where to safely step. Those sisters, every day for the rest of their lives put flowers in the centre of town as a thank you to the Canadian soldier who had saved their lives.
On the second last day we were in Ravenna where we had our last cemetery visit. These cemeteries are all maintained by the Commonwealth War graves commission. A decision was made when they were set up, that all the grave stones would look the same, just with slight differences on the inscriptions. The cross of Remembrance was the same in every cemetery as well – just the placement was different. In Ravenna, we were going to be reading the biographies of a few of the soldiers. One of them was Leo Charbonneau. Leo Charbonneau’s best friend was also a Seaforth, George Campbell. George Campbell was the father of the Rt Honourable Kim Campbell, former Prime Minister of Canada. She was there at the cemetery for the ceremony honouring her dad’s best friend. Leo’s family – his great niece – was also there. Kim Campbell, being the first and only female Prime Minister, was quite thrilled that the chaplain was a woman, so I ended up chatting with her quite a lot. And then the next day when we all went to her home in Venice for dinner, she asked me to say a few words before dinner. I can’t say that I ever thought I’d be saying grace for the former Prime Minister of Canada! But it was certainly another thing that made this experience in Italy one that I won’t forget.
Psalm 23 reminds us that even in the darkest of times, we are not alone, and we can find comfort and guidance. It reminds us that there is hope for each of us and for a better future, and that goodness and mercy can always be found. In Italy I was continually reminded of the importance of remembering stories – the stories that make up our history – the stories that bring that history alive, and the stories that help us to remember the lives of the ones who went before us.
Thus ends my first journal entry of what I did on my trip to Italy.