Watching my 20-year-old son step onto the firing platform of a Canadian trench that extended to within whispering distance of heavily fortified German trenches on Vimy Ridge, France, my heart sank knowing that the young sons of Canadian and German families 96 years before had done the same never to return home from the First World War.
The Battle of Vimy Ridge holds a special place in our Canadian psyche as it was the first time that all four Canadian army divisions (15,000 – 25,000 soldiers per division) fought together as a Canadian Corps (60,000 – 100,000 soldiers in a Corps) under a Canadian commander, not a British one as would have been the norm at this point in time. Independent from Britain since 1867 it was Canada’s military success at Vimy Ridge during April 1917 that many argue sparked a growing sense of Canadian identity which ever so slowly began separating us from mother England.
Briefly escaping the grey October showers of Paris we drive north-east of The City of Lights towards the Belgian border to the French town of Arras. With our rented Mercedes, which cost about the same as a mid-size car rental in Canada, we flew along the highway making great time to Arras. An hour out of Paris the grey clouds began to break allowing small streams of sunlight through, with brief glimpses of blue skies lifting our spirits. Two hours after leaving Paris we arrive in Arras.
Pulling out our road map and reconfirming our route with the car’s GPS we leave the medieval charms of Arras as we drive through a serene countryside on our way to Vimy Ridge to visit the Canadian National Vimy Memorial a 100-hectre (250 acre) historic site that encompasses the trenches of the Canadian Corps and the opposing German trenches.
Driving around the last bend in the road as we head up the ridge the two towering, white columns of the Canadian National Vimy Memorial monument come into sight. Their clean, simple white lines reaching upwards as if to heaven overwhelm the visual senses. After decades of viewing them in paintings and photographs there they are, seeing those majestic columns 400 metres in front of you drives home the sanctity of this place.
Walking up to the memorial the skies suddenly become overcast, the winds intensify and large raindrops come pelting down for several minutes. As quickly as the squall started it abruptly ends and the skies clear when we reach the base of the monument and gaze upon a stone carving of a mother’s mournful face. The names of thousands upon thousands of Canadians whose last breaths were drawn assaulting this height of land are carved into the walls of the memorial. Many of these men would have been in their late teens or early twenties, dead before their lives had truly begun. As a father this is unsettling.
As a historian Vimy Ridge enthrals me. From the top of the ridge I stand at a spot where German officers would have had a bird’s eye view of the French, then British and finally Canadian trenches below. The green valley below is vast. It is kilometres and kilometres of wide of open killing fields. Whoever held the ridge had the advantage. What the French and British failed to do the Canadians succeeded in by capturing the ridge from the Bavarian regiments that had held them for years.
From an archaeological perspective what makes the Canadian National Vimy Memorial fascinating is that on its 100 hectares of land are some of the very few trenches left from the First World War. Considering that there would have been several thousand kilometres of trenches this is amazing.
Tours of the monument, Canadian tunnels as well as Canadian and German trenches are arranged through the Reception Centre. It is a popular destination for school groups with thousands of British students visiting the Canadian National Vimy Memorial each year.
(click images for larger versions and descriptions)
Vimy Ridge is rural and surrounded by villages. Behind the Notre Dame de Lorette cemetery is a restaurant called l’Estaminet de Lorette which was recommended to me by a Canadian friend who has lived in the area for a few years. They have a €15 lunch menu of normally three main choices which include an entrée, main dish and dessert. This is a good place to eat before heading back to Paris.
Yet gazing upon the vast, green fields as we drive by Vimy Ridge for the last time it is hard to imagine that these fields were soaked with the blood of 3,958 Canadian soldiers who had died on them and by another 7,004 who had fallen wounded and the hundreds of thousands of French, British and German soldiers who met a similar fate. These fields today look serene. Without the monuments and cemeteries it’s impossible to envisage the murderous carnage that took place almost a century ago.
All photos by Joseph Frey – All Rights Reserved