Catherine Berthelot and her husband, Alain, have never turned down a request from Canada. For a decade now this unheralded French couple has been scouring the cemeteries and war memorials of Normandy, answering queries from Canadian families searching for a grave location—or a photograph, or a tombstone inscription—any information about the resting place of a relative who died in France during the Second World War. “We would be proud and happy to help Canadian families who are wanting to honour their soliders,” says the small, pink information slip the Berthelots hand out to any Canadian they meet. “Don’t hesitate: we can go for you to put poppies, flags or messages to your boy’s grave, or photograph it for you. Our gratitude toward them is forever.”
The Berthelots live about 100 km south of Juno Beach, in the tiny Normandy village of Larré, where Alain is the mayor. On July 16, 1944, a Halifax bomber was shot down and crashed in Larré. All six crewmen were killed, including three members of the Royal Canadian Air Force. In 2001 the Berthelots set out on a quest to locate the families of the six airmen who died in a field on the edge of their town. They struggled to find families of the English crew, but they had much more success in Canada.
The first Canadian family they searched for was that of Warrant Officer Joseph “Wilf” Fournier, the bomber’s gunner, who is buried in the Canadian war cemetery in Bretteville-sur-Laize. The graveyard’s register said Fournier came from Prince Albert, Sask.—an extraordinary coincidence. “Alain’s grandparents had emigrated to Canada, directly to Prince Albert, in 1914,” says Catherine. “Finding out that one of the airmen, who died in our French village, came from the same town in Saskatchewan, for us it seemed like a sign.”
Lured by the promise of farmland, Alain’s ancestors moved to Prince Albert on the cusp of the First World War. In 1931, in the midst of the Great Depression, the whole family moved back to France, and ever since the name “Prince Albert” has been regarded as a quirky Canadian interlude in the family history.
In 2003, armed with the burial records of Wilf Fournier and the two other Canadian airmen, the Berthelots travelled to Canada in search of the men’s families. In Prince Albert they found two of Fournier’s nephews, as well as other relatives elsewhere in Saskatchewan. In Surrey, B.C., they located a niece of Flying Officer Derwood Smith. And in Penticton, B.C., they found a cousin of Flying Officer William Linning.
In each case the Canadian families were surprised to meet a French couple who had appeared out of the blue, offering to connect them with the memory of long-lost relatives who died in France during the war. “They had information about my uncle that nobody in my family had,” says Darla Isaak, Wilf Fournier’s great-niece, who hosted the Berthelots at her home in Saskatoon during a subsequent visit to Canada in 2008. Isaak remembers her grandmother Rose telling her stories about an uncle killed in France during the war, but no one in the family ever knew exactly where his plane had gone down. And no family member had ever visited his grave. “Catherine and Alain had pictures,” says Isaak, tearing up as she recalls their emotional meeting. “They could show me where he was in the cemetery, they had pictures of the field where his plane went down.”
During his first visit to Saskatoon, Alain donned his mayoral sash and formally presented Isaak with tangible links to her uncle’s past, collected from the crash site in Larré—a rivet from the downed plane, a small piece of twisted metal wreckage, and a shard of an Allied parachute. On subsequent visits, the Berthelots also met relatives of other Canadian soldiers, with no connection to the Larré crash, who asked them: could you find the gravesites of our grandparents, uncles and cousins who died in the war?
So began the couple’s mission to connect Canadians with the distant graves of loved ones in Normandy. Each year they travel the countryside searching out wartime cemeteries, taking photograps, placing poppies and Maple Leaf flags on headstones, and occasionally even sending sand and pebbles from Juno Beach back to Canada.
In the process they have brought deep, personal meaning to Remembrance Day for dozens of Canadian families. “They’re an amazing couple,” says Isaak. “Canada should recognize them somehow for what they do.”
The Berthelots say they’re rewarded enough. “Their soldiers gave us our liberty, so we have to honour and remember them.”
Sunday, November 11, 2012