On Saturday August 29 we had to prepare to say goodbye to Belgium. Our whirlwind time in Ieper was over. We were sad to leave our little home at the Novotel. The rooms were huge and the breakfast was outstanding. Ieper was full of charm and had so many yet-to-be-explored corners. But the time had come to head south – to France! However, our first day was one with many somber tones, as we continued our quest to better understand Canada’s role in World War I.
Our guide Steve, from our previous Ypres-Salient tour, joined us as we head ~1 hour south to Vimy Ridge. The Battle of Vimy Ridge (April 9, 1917 – Easter Monday) was one of huge significance for Canadians. In 1914 the Germans had taken he strategic position on the hill in Vimy. As part of the “Race to the Sea” the French had tried (and failed) 3 times to claim it. However, Canadians (4 divisions working together), with the use of the current trench system, as well as a strategic tunnel system, were able to claim it, and in turn, claim a victory (and source of pride) for Canada. At this point it was the largest victory for the side of British Commonwealth. However, it came at the cost of 3500 lives lost, and 7000 wounded.
When we arrived at Vimy Ridge we were able to start by touring the trenches and tunnels that were used during the war. The conditions were bleak, and the thought of being a soldier during World War I did not appeal to our group. Being 10 meters under the ground in a dark damp tunnel was less than ideal, but then again, the trenchfoot and danger of the trenches wasn’t exactly appealing either. You could split the difference and work in communications between the two – but that lead to higher than average mortality. Needless to stay, we finally had a better understand of the complexity of war (at least one very small part of it). As in any scenario, walking in another persons shoes helps us to better understand them. Well the same applies to learning about the war. Walking the food prints of where it happened helps us to better understand what it was like, and how truly GREAT the sacrifices were to ensure our freedoms.
After our tour of the trenches and tunnels we were able to head up to the memorial itself. As luck may have it, we arrived at a slow time, and had the memorial all to ourselves for a few moments. Steve sat us back across from it and talked about the story of how this hill (hill 145) was so important, and how the battle went down. The landscape is covered with craters of all sizes – from bombings and collapsed in caves alike. Sitting among these craters to understand where they came from was eerie and humbling. After we better understood the significance of what happened here, we head towards the memorial itself. This memorial isn’t just here to honour those who fought or died at the Battle of Vimy Ridge, but to any Canadian soldier who was killed or presumed dead in France during World War I. The missing are listed on the front of the monument. Designed by Walter Seymour Allward, it took 11 years to build. It won a contest (beat out the brooding soldier from Passchendale), and was constructed with special marble imported from Croatia. It is one of two possible places to be a”National Historic Site of Canada” and yet reside outside off Canada. The second is Beaumont-Hamel (which I will talk about another time).
We were lucky to have time to visit, contemplate, and pay respect to those who have fallen.
The true cost of war is just beginning to set in. First Anne Frank. Then Ypres. The Menin Gate. Vimy and the Somme. Then on to World War II sites in Normandy. And this is just a start. Europe had so many remnants of war that we as Canadians from BC don’t always understand. We have experienced nothing like it in our province. When we left Vimy Ridge this day we drove to lunch – past the most adorable little farm house. With a front yard full of shells left from World War I. We drove past a French cemetery (with white crosses as far as the eye can see) and a German cemetery (with black crosses). It’s been one hundred years – but the evidence is still everywhere. I hope that if you are reading this, you too will consider a visit to this region. It has been an unforgettable time for our crew (and we’ve only just begun).