Commodore Angus Topshee, Commander Canadian Fleet Pacific (left), Chief Petty Officer First Class Sylvain Jacquement (centre, standing) and Royal Roads University President and Vice-Chancellor Philip Steenkamp (right), lay wreaths in commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the sinking of HMCS Athabaskan (Courtesy of Royal Roads University)

Memories of war put together as vignettes by RRU professor

Geoffrey Bird’s focus is in revealing the shared history that helps people make a connection

The significance of Canada’s contributions in the Second World War is not lost on Royal Roads University professor Geoffrey Bird.

As a director for War Heritage Research Initiative, his work is interested in sites of war memory and their significance for people today.

“When people travel to sites of war memory, like a battlefield or anything like that, it can be a lot more powerful for people than simply reading a book,” he noted.

Bird’s focus as an anthropologist is in revealing the shared history that helps people make a connection. Stories and artifacts can serve as the gateway to a particular historical period, he said.

“To have those stories told by local people that I call guardians of remembrance, people that know the story well… can speak about the significance of the history,” he added.

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Bird has worked on various short documentary films produced by the university that serve as “vignettes” of Canada’s wartime history. His latest one, on the sinking of HMCS Athabaskan, took him to Plouescat, France, where the service of the Royal Canadian Navy crew members is still remembered.

In his visit to two cemeteries on the Brittany coast, Bird found approximately 70 burials out of the 128 who died when the Athabaskan was sunk by a German torpedo a few weeks before D-Day.

“It’s a sad story for us in a lot of ways, but it’s also a story of liberation,” he said.

“It’s an example of Canadians being involved in the Second World War in an effort to liberate Europe from the Nazis.”

“So they remember that. They commemorate it, as do we,” he said, adding, however, that the experiences are “entirely different.”

ALSO READ: First World War letters put a human face on the war that shaped us as a nation

The people of France were occupied and had their freedoms and liberties taken away from them, Bird points out. Commemorations there are a part of an “obligation to remember,” he added.

Jacques Ouchakoff, a Frenchman, spent nine years in search of the Athabaskan wreck, eventually finding it in the English Channel, near the island of Batz.

Three of the crew members who died were students at Royal Roads when the university was a naval college: Chief Petty Officer Charles Sweet, Lieutenant Theodore Izard, and Sub-lieutenant Robert Annett.

ALSO READ: Soldier’s letter tells of gassing, accepting ‘ultimate sacrifice’ during First World War

The West Shore and a commune in France, separated by 8,000 kilometers, acknowledged their shared history this past Monday by commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Athabaskan sinking.

Around 80 people were there for the ceremony, which was “kind of an invite-only,” Bird said. Seven families who were descendants of crew members of the ship attended the event, coming from as far as Vancouver, Mayne Island and Comox.

“It was a very powerful afternoon in that we were able to share our story and also learn the stories of other crew members who were involved with the Athabaskan,” Bird said.

swikar.oli@goldstreamgazette.com

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