History

Operation Husky: The Agira Canadian War Cemetery

  • Aug 02, 2013
  • 670 words
  • 3 minutes
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Canadian Geographic Education‘s chair, Connie Wyatt Anderson, joined hundreds of Canadians as they trekked across the island of Sicily, Italy, to commemorate the Allied invasion 70 years ago. Read Wyatt Anderson’s other posts here.

Agira is an ancient Sicilian city with a millenary history perched on Mount Teja; it is an impressive sight overlooking the surrounding hills and valleys. The city was taken by the First Canadian Division on July 28, 1943 after five days of intense fighting as they advanced northward across the mountains and over the Sicily’s parched, barren terrain toward the Strait of Messina. Agira would prove to be the biggest Canadian battle of the Sicilian campaign. That September, on a small hill overlooking the cerulean Nicoletti Lake, Canadian officers chose the site for a cemetery for the graves of their comrades who gave their lives fighting on the Mediterranean island.

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Corporal J.P. Chardola was one of the soldiers who died during the Italian Campaign during the Second World War.

It is at the Agira Canadian War Cemetery that I find myself on the fifth day of my Operation Husky 2013 journey. The marchers, having concluded their trek the previous day, are assembled for a ceremony of remembrance to honour the 528 Canadians who died fighting in Sicily. The ceremony marks the culmination of the Operation Husky 2013 commemorative effort.

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Bob Wigmore was one of the first to invade Sicily.

The marchers are joined by the 60 Canadian Armed Forces members, Veteran Affairs Minister Julian Fantino, Commander of the First Canadian Division Major General James Ferron, as well as other dignitaries and hundreds of Canadian and Italian citizens.

The ceremony begins with a prayer. Padre John Aitchison, himself a marcher who has just completed the entire 300-kilometre trek, reminds the numerous Canadians in attendance: “We return to Canada with a mission: to make sure that the Canadians lying here are never forgotten.” A Canadian Forces bugler hauntingly plays the Last Post and Reveille, and several wreaths are laid at the base of the monument in the centre of the cemetery overlooking the 484 Canadian soldiers who are buried there.

Steven Gregory, the founder of Operation Husky 2013, then speaks to the crowd, “Each morning in the military, roll call is taken by a commander to make sure no soldier is missing. Today we will participate in the same roll call to remind the men here, as well as each other, that no one has forgotten them.” The participants are invited to stand graveside, representing a fallen soldier and answering in their place — Present! Here! Sir! – as a ceremonial role call is performed.

Silently we shuffle among the dead at Agira, and I find myself at the foot of the gravestone of 21-year-old J.P. Chardola of the Royal 22E Regiment. Standing on the desiccated grass, the loose, dry soil pelting my ankles (the result of a strong north wind), I notice Bob Wigmore, a Canadian veteran of the Sicilian Campaign, standing steadfastly upright at the foot of a grave. I watch as he moves to another spot where a Canadian woman stands and asks if he might trade places with her. She nodds and smiles. As she shuffles away, he says to her, “He was my best friend.”

Gazing down at Corporal Chardola’s headstone, I am compelled to turn to see the Canadian soldiers standing at the base of 60 graves. My attention moves back to Bob, and I am reminded that the Canadian men buried at Agira were not old, but in the words of war poet Laurence Binyon:

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe
As Corporal Chardola’s name was called for roll call, I stood stifled with emotion, and answered ‘Sir!’ as loud as I was able.

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