Lest we forget – My visit to Vimy Ridge and how it brought me closer to history and home.

I guess technically I was geographically closer to home than I am here in Belgium. I’m not sure why I didn’t get my act together and post this sooner (story of my life), but it seems fitting that I post it today. I didn’t plan it like this I just thought since I hadn’t posted it already that it would be a good day to do it. Please forgive in advance any glaring historical errors. I will gladly correct any that are pointed out to me. So here we go…

Tuesday, October 18, 2011:

I remember Lucie and I had to drop Sylvain off that morning. We stopped at the bakery first  – I wanted to take Lucie before she left and then we also had a snack for on the road – and after dropping him off realized I didn’t have the address and the monument wasn’t listed as such on my GPS. So we went back home and I turned on my computer before thinking it might just be faster checking on my iPod. It was. It was difficult to find because the address does have a number, only the postal code. I eventually just selected a road near the town (Canadian Way) and hoped for the best. My ‘final destination’ was a little before we actually entered the 107-hectare site that was France’s gift to Canada, but we ended up finding it no problem. It was a little frustrating that there’s no actual website, but we managed. I was a little worried for time because Google Maps said it would take around 3 hours to get there. In reality it only took 2. So even though we left half an hour later than planned, we still got there before we thought we would.

The drive wasn’t bad. It rained a little off and on and was pretty cloudy the entire time. I think Vimy is only about 30-45 minutes from the France/Belgium border. Under an hour anyway. When we actually entered the site it was really neat. It’s been reforested to prevent erosion and in among all the trees is the bumpy terrain from artillery. It felt like we were in a large park. The roads inside are still main roads that connect the surrounding towns, but it didn’t feel that way to me. And then we saw all the danger/warning signs and the Government of Canada signs and we started to get excited. For me it was a little like a homecoming. It’s been a while and I’m missing my homeland. Being surrounded by familiar symbols and flag made me feel all giddy despite the sombre mood of the day and the history of the place. The memorial is actually the Vimy Ridge National Historic Site of Canada and is one of only 2 Canadian national historic sites outside of Canada.

I'm not sure if this was made from above or below... Either way it's huge!

As we walked up to the Welcome Centre we noticed there was a large school group and we got a little nervous. We didn’t really want to be in a tour with them. Small tour groups are always better if you can manage it. Fortunately they have separate public tours. We arrived just before noon, but the next available tour was at two so we chatted a bit with the girl who was stuck working by herself while the rest were on their lunch break and took a look around inside at the information, and pictures and things. We were curious about how you could get a job working there. I guess you have to be a current student who plans on going back to school after your term in France. You also have to be bilingual. All the guides are Canadian which made it really neat because we were able to talk about home with them.

We also watched a video of the restoration which took place from 2005-2007. Unfortunately for us that group of students came back in from finishing their tour and were really noisy. A bunch were sitting ‘watching’ and I was happy that I could read a bit of French (the subtitles) because until they left we couldn’t hear a thing. After that we went to visit the Canadian cemeteries. First was the Givenchy Road Canadian Cemetery which contains the graves of 111 soldiers. The Canadian Cemetery No. 2 holds only 693 Canadians, but over 2000 British and other soldiers. We signed the registry books that were in each, reading where our fellow Canadians were all coming from and when. Of course it’s not just Canadians who come, but there were a lot who signed the register. In the 2nd cemetery there are many, many graves with the nationality of the soldier, but no name, just ‘Known unto God’. On some they don’t even know what country. I find that to be one of the saddest things of all. For the families to not know. I guess they would have an idea of where a soldier had died because they would have known where he was fighting, but to want to come and visit the grave, but not know which one…I can’t imagine.

Row after row of simple headstones mark the country in which many laid down their lives fighting an enemy who would have preferred to be their friend.

By the time we walked back to the Centre we had just enough time to eat out lunches and for me to take more pictures before meeting up for our tour. I think there were about 8 of us – all Canadians actually – most from Ontario, but a couple from Saskatchewan. Lucie and I were the youngest one’s there by far. This time of year it’s mostly British and French school groups. It’s busier in the summer. The monument itself is actually accessible 24/7, it’s just the Welcome Centre that isn’t.

After 50 years of being our own country we were finally recognized as such. Unfortunate that this recognition cost so much.

Canada officially became the Dominion of Canada on July 1, 1867. It wasn’t until 50 years later – April 1917 – that we were finally being recognized globally as a separate entity from the British. Up until Vimy Ridge Canadian victories were celebrated as British conquests. We had managed a feat that neither the British nor the French had been able to accomplish. Of course, this was just one battle. It just happened to be an important area. Up until this battle very few people actually knew any battle plans. The general Private was kept in the dark. They just marched and fired when they were told to. This makes sense in case of capture. Vimy was different. It was so crucial for the plan to work exactly as laid out that everyone knew what was supposed to happen. Soldiers studied maps of the area, aerial photos, plans. They practised for months in between digging the tunnels that would bring them close to the enemy. So close in fact that they had to be careful because the German’s would be able to hear digging and conversation from their own tunnels.

The attack happened on April 9th. They had considerable firepower but only showed about half of it on March 20. On April 2 they started bombing in earnest. Thus began what the German’s called ‘the week of suffering’. After the targets were destroyed, the bombardment was slowed down before the actual attack. If I remember correctly what normally happened after an artillery strike was an immediate charge. I guess by slowing this down, they were able to confuse the enemy. This was the first time all 4 Canadian division were fighting together. They had to advance 700 meters over a 7km front to reach German trenches. Hill 145 was the main goal and is where the monument now sits. It was captured on April 10th. By April 12th the entire ridge had been taken. One tactic that was used was the ‘creeping barrage’. This is where the artillery would strike and behind them would come the soldiers. After the first set they would bomb again and then more soldiers. Things had to be timed down to the second or your own men would get hit from shells falling in front of or behind them. And when the artillery is coming from 10km away….timing was everything. I believe they didn’t start bombing the German’s right away, they started a littler further back thus enabling the men on foot to remain hidden and have that element of surprise. I can’t remember exactly how long it was, but before the attack the men who were to rush out of the tunnels first had to first wait inside them. They had to stand, as silent as possible, with their 30kg packs and rations for 12 hours. For some reason they had to wait for longer, maybe twice as long before they actually attacked. How they managed it I have no idea.

One tactic employed was digging smaller side tunnels deeper and closer to the enemy tunnels/trenches. They would then place explosives at the end which when detonated would create huge craters. Then as the smoke was clearing they would charge the enemy. It didn’t always work very well because the enemy knew that after that happened they would be under attack. And all they had to do during an artillery strike was stay hunkered down in their fortified tunnels and wait it out, no lives lost. This is why it was so important to confuse them when it came to artillery.

The upgraded version of one of the tunnels.

On the tour we were asked what we thought they used down there to see. They actually used electricity. You don’t want to have open flames in a tunnel for a number of reasons. They turned off the main lights and said that the emergency lights they have now would have been very similar to the lighting in  1917 – basically non-existent. Then again, stay down there long enough and your eyes will adjust. The entrances/exists were very basic, just muddy openings and slopes. The soldiers packs weighed 30kg (60+ lbs) and they had to run out and up these slopes without falling and do it relatively quickly. I couldn’t do that without a pack let alone with one that heavy on my back.

Also preserved are a length of both Canadian and German trenches. This part I really do forget, but it was an anniversary or something and there were a bunch of veterans there and they filled sand bags with cement to create realistic looking and long-lasting trench walls. The effect is really cool. For those of you who don’t know the trenches were never straight, they were always curvy. This was important because if artillery blasted in a trench the shrapnel would go further and kill so many more men if the trench was one long straight line. Also if the enemy managed to breach a trench they would just have to walk along and fire and no one could hide. The curved, zigzagging shape allows for some protection from both those things. It’s amazing to see how close the trenches of the two sides were in some places. I’m no good with distances, but I would say a few hundred feet or so. Not far at all. You had to be super careful when you were on the lookout.

This is the German trench. That big cement slab covers an entrance to their tunnels.

That cement ladder looking thing on the ground is meant to be a more sturdy replica of the wooden duckboards that were used during the war. And now enough with the iffy history lesson. On to the actual monument.

That's me on the steps. Seriously. It's me.

We were fortunate enough that the sun came out for a little while. I was so glad that I had Lucie with me. It was great for the both of us because it meant we were able to get pictures of us that we wouldn’t have been able to get otherwise. I’m glad I didn’t go alone. There is a paved lane that goes tight around the monument, but also wider around and it seems like the people who live near by just use it for walks and such.

This is what the pathway originally looked like. I'm not sure why they changed it during the restoration.

It’s hard to describe what I was feeling at being there. This is a place that I’d grown up hearing about in history classes. A place that we were told we should really try to see someday. In grade 12 I read the book The Stone Carvers by Jane Urquhart. At one point one of her characters (a women) comes to the monument as it’s being built. It took 11 years to build and was inaugurated in 1936. The woman knows how to carve stone, but isn’t one of the carvers (I’m pretty sure she disguises herself as a man). She ends up getting close to one of the men who carves the names and he lets her help him carve the name of her fist lover who died somewhere in France. It was the closes look I had at the memorial until now. It’s such an important moment in our nation’s history and it was a little overwhelming to realize I actually made it. It was one of those places that I always said ‘well, if I ever get to Europe I would really like to go’, but never actually thought I would get the opportunity. That I did it on my own (no parents) is also something.

"This sorrowing figure of a women represents Canada - a young nation mourning her dead."

By the time we actually got up there and were taking it all in it was just the two of us. There were others that came before we left, but for the most part we were able to look and take pictures is peace. Makes me really glad I didn’t go this summer. On the inside of one of the walls this is carved: “The Canadian Corps on 9th April 1917 with four divisions in line on a front of four miles attacked and captured this ridge.” I feel like this is something that all Canadians can take pride in and at the same time I feel guilty. I can’t take any personal pride in it obviously. I don’t even personally know anyone who fought in any war let alone at Vimy. This monument stands as a sign of change in our history. With this battle the Canadians earned respect as well as a combined pride in our country both on the front and at home. It brought them together. For me, I feel like everybody loves ‘Canadians’, everybody knows we’re so polite and nice – this stands as a reminder that we’re not simple-minded doormats that you can walk all over just because we say sorry all the time. We may be a country that prefers to keep peace, but we have the strength and character to do what is needed when called upon. Some of that might be my reaction to an episode of ‘How I Met Your Mother’, the one where Barney finds out he’s 1/4 Canadian. Heck, I don’t even get some of the Canadian references Robin makes and usually I’m pretty easy-going about Canadian stereotypes. I usually find them really funny. I think that episode took it too far. For me at this time anyway. I love my country and I want everyone else to – is that too unrealistic? Oh probably. Not everybody will love everything.

As we were preparing to leave this group from France started talking to me. I managed to have an entire conversation with complete strangers. And I translated for Lucie as well. It allowed me to see how far I’ve come in regards to French, but also how far I still have to go. It was a little difficult at times because they were talking fast and I didn’t catch everything. Maybe I convinced them that I knew more than I actually do, I don’t know. But it was a neat experience.

Once back in the car we went to Arras which was about 15-20 minutes away. Lucie was taking the train from there to Paris. We got there earlier than expected and she wanted to try to take the earlier train if possible. Again I played translator. Arras is small enough that it’s not a guarantee people will speak a little English. After saying goodbye and watching her get on the train I stopped somewhere for supper and headed back to the monument. I wanted to see it at night with the lights. There was a couple of people leaving just as I got there and again, I was the only one there. Between taking pictures and just reflecting I was there for about another hour. I felt so fortunate to be able to be there, taking my time, and enjoying the silence around me. I tried – and failed – to imagine what they went through, both sides. At one point I was almost moved to tears thinking that as lovely as this monument is how unnecessary it all was. All that death and destruction. War may be a part of history, present, and future, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. I have a strange fascination with the two World Wars. I have an interest in history that isn’t as intense as some people, but the interest is there. Maybe part of my desire to visit war memorials is because I miss home and some of the memorials are a way to connect with home if only in name. Sometimes when I think of being on the ridge I don’t believe it was real. I feel that maybe if there would have been a whole lot of people there (or at least a few others) that it would have seemed like I was actually there at the real monument. As it was it kind of felt like a dream. Especially when I went back that evening. I have this strong desire to go back. I think it’s more the lure of the Welcome Centre and my fellow Canucks than the monument itself. But with it comes this little bit of fear that my car will break down again even though I’m always going to be so careful when it comes to putting in gas.

Well, we all know my camera isn't the greatest, but here's my only shot of the full front of the monument.

 

Full album here.

                                                                                                                      

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© 2010-2011 hollyjb

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6 Comments

  1. Amazing photos–especially of the German trench (I love stones, what can I say?). And ther history you talk about is quite interesting. Laffe is right, you have the makings of a travel writer…

    Reply
    • Stones are awesome! The great things about these is that you have the look and texture of the sandbags because there actually used to be sandbags there. I’m flattered that you guys think that, thanks. ^_^

      Reply
  2. You can really write a travel book. In this post you’ve done what every travel writer should do. You described the place, you gave your thoughts and interacted with the people. This is a wonderful post … oh and any post that starts off going to the bakery deserves a 5 star rating 🙂

    Reply
    • Wow thanks! One thing I need to work on is getting things done sooner so I don’t mess up my facts so much. And the bakery rocks! I’m going to miss that when I go home….having one so near.

      Reply

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