Canada’s sesquicentennial is also the centennial of the battle at Vimy Ridge. The fighting began April 9, 1917.
While some Canadians remember Vimy, others will be learning about it for the first time. Vimy Ridge and the nearby Beaumont Hamel sites are reminders of the price of freedom. If Canadians go anywhere outside the country in this anniversary year it should be to Vimy Ridge, Beaumont Hamel, the invasion beaches in Normandy, the Liberation Route across Northern Europe and to the lesser-known areas which comprised the Italian Campaign.
Right now, in April, we focus on Vimy.
The fighting at Vimy was the first time that all four divisions of the Canadian Army fought together. It was at Vimy that Canadians fought as Canadians and not as part of an Imperial force or under British leadership. The world-wide battle coverage was the first time the actions of Canadians were written about as Canadian and not British troops. That gave rise to the idea that this is where Canada became a country and our national identify was formed.
The Vimy Ridge National Historic Site of Canada comprises a visitors’ centre, trenches, tunnels and memorial.
What is surprising is how close the trenches are to each other. War movies give the impression of vast no-man’s land between the enemy trenches, but in reality some were shockingly close to each other. Were you stupid enough to raise your head above the trench, you could see the faces of those shooting at you.
Those short distances were truly no-man’s land because of they were so lethal. Warring empires employed every deadly trick, tactic and element against the enemy they faced at these places. Their efforts were total. Nothing was spared or held back. It was all out warfare. In four days at Vimy Ridge, 3.598 Canadians died, 7,004 were wounded.
One of the lessons at Vimy Ridge are battle tactics. The Germans had arrived at Vimy long before we did. They had the high ground and were well dug in and fortified. The British, in keeping with their stiff-upper-lip reputation, didn’t construct trenches like the Germans. Instead, British trenches were more temporary, because they didn’t want the troops to expect to stay put for long. The Germans on the other hand, saw no reason to advance.
In response to this Canadians did two things. We initiated the concept of a rolling barrage. Basically we fired 1.5 million rounds in one week! And we tunneled underneath the enemy – they did the same to us, so sometimes we tunneled under their tunnels. The idea was to fill the tunnels with explosives, blow up the enemy, cause havoc among their troops and in some cases provide a hole in the no-man’s land so when our troops advanced, they had cover from the type of machine-gun spray experienced by the Newfoundlanders at nearby Beaumont Hamel.
Beyond Vimy’s trenches is the famous towering white monument. Walking to it one feels like you are coming as a pilgrim and should be done in silence. It is a beautiful, inspiring, reverential place. The base of the monument has the names of 11,285 Canadian war dead, who lay in unmarked graves.
The Vimy Memorial is that: it’s about remembrance. There are no images or symbols of triumph, no soldiers, helmets, weapons. Instead there is grief. There are grieving statues. In one place a sword is being broken as a symbol to end violence. In the centre one statue, in an allegory to In Flanders Fields, hands a torch to another.
“To you from failing hands we throw
The Torch; be yours to hold it high.”
In a weird, backhanded complement, Hitler found the Vimy memorial so respectful and inspiring that he spared it from destruction.
For visitors we can walk the trenches, tour the tunnels and follow the path through the woods to the monument. In both national parks at Beaumont Hamel and Vimy, visitors can’t go off the clearly marked paths because of the potential for live ordinance which still lay in the former battlefields. In building a new visitors centre in preparation for the Vimy Ridge centennial, contractors found six bombs and four grenades. From the comfort and safety of Canada we forget that long after armies go home their presence is felt. The Belgian army has a 150-person Disposal and Destruction of Explosive Devices unit which fields 3,000 calls a year. That’s because of the 1.5 billion bombs shipped to the front in WWI, a third never exploded. They still lay in the ground all over Northern Europe causing regular evacuations and some deaths of road workers, farmers, construction workers and others.
On my recent travel to French Flanders I also learned that in addition to unexploded bombs, they are still uncovering the bodies of lost and forgotten soldiers. Unbelievably, a century after the war this happens at the rate of two per month! The number may be higher in Belgium. After the remains are found, it can take one-to-two years to identify the person. But there are teams of professionals who do work to identify the dead. Even after all this time.
Like my other travels to the invasion beaches of Normandy and the Liberation Trail in The Netherlanders, Northern France’s Remembrance Trail is a continuation of a pilgrimage. It is humbling, thoughtful and quietly inspiring.
Near to Beaumont Hamel and Vimy Ridge is the Thiepval Memorial. It is on the site of another part of the Somme offensive. It is the largest British war memorial in the world and commemorates 72,205 British and South African soldiers killed during the Somme offensive.
WWI was the first mechanized war, which sadly seemed to facilitate greater numbers of deaths. The deaths from WWI basically would have basically depopulated a small country. The German, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires and the Bulgarians lost 3,366,650 troops. The French lost 1.2 million men. The British lost 979,470 (60,260 of them Canadian). The Russians lost 1.7 million and there were more losses among other European nations.
The landscape of Northern France has endless memorials and graveyards for the war dead. Some are massive, many are smaller. Within an hour of Vimy Ridge are four war cemeteries which contained the graves of 100,000 soldiers.
One of the cemeteries was the German War Cemetery at La Maison Blanche Neuville-Saint-Vaast. With 44,833 graves, it is the largest German cemetery in France, and, like all such cemeteries, is meticulously and respectfully maintained.
The Cabaret Rouge Military Cemetery in Souchez contains 7,655 British graves. Nearby is the French National War Cemetery at Notre-Dame-de-Lorette. It has over 40,000 graves – 22,000 of which are unidentified. Next to it is the Ring of Remembrance. This is a new circular memorial where the inner walls of the circle are engraved with the names of the 590,000 soldiers on both sides who died here. Names are listed alphabetically, with no reference to nationality, rank or religion. They are displayed in a circle to show equality in death.
Some people may think it morbid to visit cemeteries, but I find it contemplative and instructive. Seeing acre after acre after acre and rows of thousands of graves quantifies the scale of the slaughter and sacrifice. And in a way it clarifies life. So many of the daily annoyances people complain about seem pretty petty when we consider what preceding generations faced. I find these war routes help refocus on what is important in life. I am also impressed at how nations united for a common cause and then later took the peace and sacrifice to express philosophical ideologies of our national traits and aspirations.
For example, in German mythology fallen warriors return to nature, so while their graveyards are as symmetrical as all the others, they wouldn’t cut down a tree to facilitate that precise line, so graves are occasionally positioned out of sync to respect nature. And while those members of the British Empire, now Commonwealth, use the poppy for remembrance and on graves, the Germans opt for Forget-Me-Nots and wreaths of natural materials, like pine cones and moss.
Following the ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’ battle cry of their revolution, the French mark all war graves with the same simple cross, same identifier and without distinction for rank. Generals lay next to privates.
In the Commonwealth cemeteries, all stones are uniform in size and placement. The only variation in decoration goes to nationality. Canadian stones generally have a maple leaf. Some may have a Star of David. British troops may have their regimental crest, if known. South African graves carry the image of a Springbok, while the Irish have a harp. The Indian troops are recognized with Sanskrit inscriptions.
Driving across this flat northern landscape, it seems that every field contains a cemetery, memorial or heart-breaking story, like the battle near the Lochnagar Crater, where 6,000 Australians lost their lives fighting for control of a village of 400 people. In this area of France, 380 villages were destroyed in WWI. It was not uncommon for armies to fight for control of and liberation of villages where no one lived.
The other surprise for me was learning that famed English gardener Gertrude Jekyell determined the flowers and bushes to be used in the Commonwealth war cemeteries. She focused on climate, maintenance, how they would appear year round and were guaranteed not to grow larger than the stones. I also learned that Rudyard Kipling, who lost his only son, John, in 1915, was so heartbroken that he wrote the phrases and verses seen at Commonwealth Graves around the world.
A final act of remembrance should be a stop at the Menin Gate across the border in Leper,
Belgium for the Last Post Ceremony. This has been performed at 8 pm every night since 1928, with the exception of WWII. On the evening I was there about 1,000 people attended. A bugler sounded the last post, wreaths were laid, O Canada performed because that evening Governor General’s Honour Guard were in attendance.
French Flanders isn’t all doom and gloom. It is just spiritual in a non-secular way. It is still France, so there is cuisine and culture to experience.
If you go:
French Flanders is a two-hour drive from Paris, an hour by train. Consider using Amiens, Arras and/or Lille, as your base.
For information about Beaumont Hamel and Vimy Ridge and any special events and programming, check Veterans Affairs Canada Veterans.gc.ca and Remembrancetrails-northernfrance.com.
As the other major war commemorations approach I will add details about The Liberation Route, Beaumont Hamel and Juno Beach.
There are better recordings of the song by this group, but it’s sung on-site: