Return to Dieppe Series - Parade Through Dieppe
After a stirring ceremony at the Cemetery of Virtue - the Canadian war cemetery above the town of Dieppe - the French citizens lined up on the "plage" (the esplanade atop the beach) waiting for the official parade to begin. There were perhaps a thousand or so, and we all thought: this was pretty good for a hot August day, it's sure nice to be appreciated. The band was in full scarlets and pith helmet, the vets in blazer and flannels, beret and medals, the serving officers in full DEU and berets and medals. It was, at 11 a.m. already 85 degrees. Humidity was nearly 100 %.
Finally, the French officer commanding the parade gave the order and all began moving - the RHLI in the lead, Canadian vets and cadets following, and me in front of them all, taking pictures. Behind came the Royal Marines band and British vets, and behind them the band from the French signals unit with their 50-man guard in the curious French camouflage and unique FAMAS rifles. The crowd broke into spontaneous applause as we moved down the Rue des Sygognes - the same street the RHLI took into town from the Casino and that deadly beach.
It was at the first bend we got a big shock. We thought the crowd on the esplanade was splendid - but lined down the street 10 and 15 deep were thousands of Dieppois - tens of thousands, and more - thousands more - from the surrounding countryside, from Caen and all over Normandy. Dieppe has a population of about 30,000 - and with shops closed for the event, they were all there.
They broke into full-throated cheers and applauded until hands turned red - and kept applauding. This must be how the vets felt as they liberated village after village - perhaps it was one of the things that kept them going with comrades slaughtered all around them in the bocage, the heavily wooded Norman countryside lined with hedges and sunken roads.
Something curious struck me as I marched and took my pictures. It was the large number of children who were present - the third generation at least since the war. It was their grand-parents who were there - but who made sure their children knew what happened and who liberated them and who in turn, were now making sure their children knew.
An everlasting memory for me will be the look on RHLI Drum Major Sgt James Greve's face as the crowd erupted in front of him. All of a sudden his proper military bearing, his concentration on leading his band, just changed. A huge grin lit up his face, his arms swung just that much higher and his mace just sang in rhythm. He didn't just march - he paraded. The band picked up the same spirit - it's too bad there wasn't a recording studio at that moment!
The last vet in the last contingent got the same applause as the first, all the way to the turn into the City Hall gardens where a vast reception was awaiting - food, drink, and rest for weary feet. Jackets and tunics were gratefully shrugged off as soldiers, vets and bandsmen tucked into a cold repast washed down with vin rouge and vin blanc, not to mention the bottled water.
That night, the Town of Dieppe put on a fantastic multi-media display. For nearly an hour, synchronized fireworks from both ends of the beach kept time to a narrated history of Dieppe from the Norman conquerors to the end of World War 2. We knew well when the story got to Dieppe - the cliffs sparkled with special effects, special fireworks, while along the entire kilometre-long beach, smoke erupted in a repeat of August 19th, 1942.
The narrator - using a speaker system which could be heard clearly down the length of the plage - was accompanied by eerie battle sound effects - machine guns and cannon blasts, soldiers shouting and dying - while huge searchlights used their powerful beams to project patterns onto the famous Dieppe castle which towers over the town. The Canadian, French, British and American flags featured prominently in the projections.
Our hotel keeper told me the display cost over 175,000 Euros - and a Euro is equal to a US dollar. He had lived in Dieppe all his life (he was born after the war) and this was the best display he had seen yet.
The French? They will remember.
One of the RHLI bandsman on parade - a volunteer Associate bandsman - was Chuck Merry, a trumpeter. He did his 32 years' active service before retiring. He was in the Ordnance Corps in the closing days of the war, joining at 17, with the war ending a month before his 18th. "It was awesome!" he told me. "It must be what VE day was like here - there's still a lot of people who remember that!"
Sgt James Greve couldn't find words to express his feelings. "That was exciting," he kept repeating. "Man, that was great!" You could see the italics as he spoke, sweat still pouring off his brow, pith helmet newly removed and mace still cradled in the crook of his arm. "I've never seen anything like that, people wall to wall, almost crying for joy - I could see it." This from a musician who has been in literally hundreds of parades in Canada and the United States.
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