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Paying the Price for Peace – Part 1: A Life Lesson from the Heroes of Dieppe

November 17, 2012

On Remembrance Day, we remember the sacrifice of those who laid down their lives for freedom in war. 600,000 Canadian soldiers, out of a total population of a little over 8 million, fought in World War I. 64,944 died, or one out of 10. In World War II, 1.1 million served in the Canadian Armed Forces, with thousands more in the Royal Air Force, out of a total population of 12 million. Over 45,000 died. 516 more died in Korea. 158 in Afghanistan

As staggering as these numbers are, the total number of casualties in these wars was even more staggering: 15 million people worldwide died in World War I. 60 million in World War II. But I read the other day what was to me an even more mind-numbing statistic. In the years since World War II, another 86¼ million people have died in war!

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Dieppe Raid, the terrible battle at which 913 Canadians died.  

In the next few paragraphs, I want to share the story of two of the soldiers who survived, as related in the book by John Mellor entitled Dieppe – Canada’s Forgotten Heroes:

Private Tom McDermott and his close friend Lt. Jimmy Palms, from D Company of the Essex Scottish Regiment in the Canadian Army, were part of the first wave of landings in the Dieppe Raid, a little after 5 a.m.

Here’s what happened when they landed:

The Essex Scottish sailed in line abreast and hit the beach together – on time and mostly in the right spot. Lt. Palms shook hands with Tom McDermott and shouted, “Good luck!” as he led the charge onto the beach.

Where was the heavy bombing they had been promised? The enemy defences appeared to be whole and deadly efficient. Many had been killed and wounded as they stepped off the landing craft. The initial rush was halted suddenly about 10 yards from the boatby large rolls of heavy concertina wire. The me hugged the pebbly beach and waited for the Bangalore torpedoes to be placed under the wire to clear a path. The Bangalore torpedoes lay at the edge of the surf buried beneath a massof arms and legs stilled in death. The massacre would have been complete if Pte. McDermott had not suddenly thrown his body across the wire in a brave, foolish, sacrificial gesture. The survivors jumped to their feet and using his body as a bridge, raced across the wire and flopped under the scant shelter of the sea wall. Bruised and cut, Tom McDermott lay passively on the wire almost oblivious to pain until he felt the full weight of a man crash on top of him. Face down, McDermott screamed at the man to get off his aching back, but [the man] was unable to hear him. He was dead. Tearing himself loose, Tom ran for the sea wall where he could see Lt. Palms standing in full view of the enemy, trying to cut a way through the second barbed wire barrier along the sea wall. A burst of machine gun fire tore into Palms’ chest and knocked him back – dead.

 Corporal Walter Gibson landed took place 1 hour 40 min. after McDermott’s.

Gibson’s boat struck a sunken landing craft on the way in, and the men were thrown into the shallow water. Capt. Erskine Eaton stood up and bellowed, “Come on men, let’s go!” The last word ended in a grunt as his head was shattered by machine gun fire. Now it was every man for himself in the mad scramble for the beach. A weak call for help and Gibson found Pte. Pratt, his friend, with his back wide open like a split kipper.

He stayed with him until Pratt died and then heeded the call of Major Paul Savoy to move forward to the wall. The firing from the West Headland was very heavy but his training served him well. Count to five, and up and forward – down again and hug the ground – count five – up again and forward. Behind him, another cry for help. A quick glance over his shoulder revealed Corporal Grondin, a stretcher-bearer, lying wounded in the surf. Turn around – race back the way he had come, pull him onto the beach. A slap in the arm and a bullet made one arm useless; another bullet hit Grondin straight through the heart. Gibson crawled up the steep beach, a little delirious by now with pain and loss of blood. Ahead stood an abandoned tank. A strong hand hooked into his battle-dress collar and he was hauled the rest of the way by Major Paul Savoy, who was then killed instantly.

Acts of heroism and sacrifice like this were repeated so many times that day.

As I read about them, I was struck by how these were ordinary people who wanted to live, but for the sake of others were willing to die, willing to lay down their lives.

This, I think, is the real definition of “heroes.” They are ordinary people with ordinary desires, who for the sake of their love for others lay these desires down. They choose to say, “We’re in this together. I won’t leave you. I want life and health and happiness for us both, but if I have to choose, I want these more for you than I want them for me, and will sacrifice my own desires, so that my desires for you may be fulfilled.”

(This is adapted from the homily at our November 11 morning Services. The photo at the top of this posting is of the Canadian War Cemetery in Dieppe.) 

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We played the Last Post and observed two minutes of silence at both of our morning Services on Remembrance Day. If you weren’t able to do this this year, I invite you to pause remember the sacrifice made for our freedom as you watch the video embedded below.  

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: 
Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn. 
At the going down of the sun and in the morning 
We will remember them.

(Laurence Binyon, 1869-1943)

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