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Visitors to the Juno Beach Centre examine an exhibit. Photo courtesy of the Juno Beach Centre Association

War: A hands-on history lesson

  • November 7, 2019

As Canada commemorates Remembrance Day, a group of university students plan to conduct their own research of the World Wars.

Danielle McLennan can’t help but think about the Canadian soldiers who dashed on the sand, behind enemy lines, in front of machine guns, sacrificing themselves during the First and Second World Wars.

“The World Wars are important to youth because a lot of the people that were fighting or serving overseas were the same age as a lot of university students,” said McLennan.

McLennan, 20, a history major with a minor in political science at King’s University College in London, Ont., is one of 20 undergraduate students who have been awarded the Juno Beach Centre Fellowship. 

In the past, the Juno Beach Centre Association has awarded the Fellowship to graduate students who crafted research projects around the Juno Beach Centre. This year, however, a different direction has been taken with the King’s undergraduate course. 

“The opportunity to spread the money around a bit to help the students get to Europe was one motivation,” said Alex Fitzgerald-Black, digital projects coordinator for the Juno Beach Centre Association. “Also, in spreading the funds around we also get to call upon the resourcefulness of a group of 20 students rather than just one. We’re very excited to see the work the students produce on the connections between London, Ontario and Juno Beach, Normandy. Their efforts will fit within our wider programming, showcasing examples of friendships or hardships formed and experienced between Canadians and Normans in the context of liberation.”

The group will split a $5,000 prize and visit the Juno Beach Centre in France from April 30 to May 11. The trip coincides with the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe. Their visit is part of a course called The World Wars in History, Memory and Reconciliation.

“We’ll spend about a week on the western front from the First World War, which is in Belgium and France, and then we’ll spend a week in Normandy for the Second World War battlefields,” said Graham Broad, associate professor of history at King’s.

“The Juno Beach Centre, being one of Canada’s premier museums, has a lot of resources we can use to help us,” said Broad. “They have a lot of artifacts on-site and have a lot of connections through the local communities. We’re hoping, in addition to the museum and its resources and tours, that they’ll be able to connect us with the families who lived under German occupation during the Second World War.”

Fitzgerald-Black said they must educate future generations about the role Canadians played in preserving the freedoms we enjoy today.

“Not only that, we must not forget the role of Canadians in returning freedom to societies in Europe under the Nazi jackboot,” said Fitzgerald-Black. “It is this legacy of gratitude shared between Canadians, Normans and other Europeans that is particularly poignant.”

Visits to Beny-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery, just a few kilometres inland, frequently resonate deeply with visitors, in particular youth.

“For Canadian youth, the experience is made all the more emotional when they realize the ages inscribed onto the tombstones,” said Fitzgerald-Black. “Many Canadian soldiers were between the ages of 18 and 24, about the same age as most post-secondary students. What’s even more impressive is that they were all volunteers. The relatively safe and prosperous world young people grow up in today exists in large part due to the sacrifices a generation made 75 years ago.”

Broad discussed the significance of the Second World War noting it was the most destructive war in history. An estimated 70 to 85 million people died in the war, which was about three per cent of the world population of 2.3 billion in 1940. 

“I think it’s important that we understand the causes of war, the consequences of war, but also to be able to think about how to reconcile with former enemies,” said Broad.

The Juno Beach Centre pays homage to the nearly 45,000 Canadians who lost their lives in the Second World War, of which 5,500 were killed during the Battle of Normandy and 359 on D-Day. It has been established as a permanent memorial to all Canadians who were part of the allied victory and to preserve their legacy.

“We’re working with the Juno Beach Centre on a project,” said Broad. “It’ll be an exhibit here in London and then when we’re overseas, we’ll be meeting with Juno Beach and their personnel to use some of their resources to help us run the class overseas.”

Broad will teach the course with Katrina Pasierbek. Broad has published two recent books, One in a Thousand: The Life and Death of Captain Eddie McKay, Royal Flying Corps, and A Small Price to Pay: Consumer Culture on the Canadian Home Front, 1939-1945. These texts will be used in the course.

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