I admit I am a little intimidated in attempting to describe this visitor experience for this site. Not just because I want to ensure it properly reflects the dignity and respect I have for our fallen Canadians remembered here, but also because one of the very best Storied Places Contest submissions has already beautifully captured the essence of Vimy.
This is my first time visiting the battlefields in Europe, a fact that may be surprising given my role as Canada’s History Society president. I have wanted to take the journey to Vimy for some time. Being able to go with a group of Canadians (as opposed to going on my own with my family) has made the experience even more powerful.
As we pull into the Vimy Battlefield site we are in a forest of trees – pines all around us and a boulevard lined with Maples. Our guide explains that there was never a forest in this area, but after the war Canadians planted every one of these trees “so that our boys will have something familiar around them to give them some peace.”
At the battlefield site there is a very modern-looking interpretation centre, and as you look through a cluster of trees you can see the Monument off in the distance. We begin with a tour of the restored tunnels underneath which are damp and smell like saddened earth. It is hard to imagine these tunnels crammed with soldiers in full gear, or as we see down one of the original tunnels, a railway running through them on wooden ties. The guide tells us the railway had to operate on wood because steel rails would have made too much noise.
It isn’t until we resurface and head toward the front line trenches at Vimy Ridge that I full understand why sounds were such a concern. With all of the books, the movies, and articles I have read about Vimy I never grasped just how close the two sides were to each other. I imagined a no man’s land that was much vaster than what we saw before us. At several points along the frontlines the distances between the two lines was impossibly close. At the interpretation site only a small footbridge over a deeply cratered hillside separates the Canadian and German frontlines.
We learn that the craters were created by both sides due to their aggressive tunneling underneath the battlefields and the extensive use of explosives to protect their own tunnels or destroy others as and when they encountered them. There are still many undetonated land mines making it extremely dangerous for maintenance workers and groundskeepers.
Which explains the sheep grazing on the Vimy fields. Apparently the sheep are smart enough to avoid tripping the landmines that they use them to groom the site moving them to new locations on a daily basis. The electric fencing is in fact designed to keep the sheep in, rather than the tourists out. (A note for those concerned with the animals’ welfare: our guide assures us that there hasn’t been an incident of an exploding sheep for quite some time. The rare occasions when it has occurred has most often been attributed to something startling the sheep and causing them to fall or step onto a trigger.)
Here Canadians trained for six months before making their assault to capture Vimy Ridge on April 9, 1917. Every night, soldiers would raid the enemy lines to gather more intelligence to help them in planning their attack. For some reason I never got it into my head that at some points it was probable that they could have heard the enemy talking, coughing, or sharing a joke to keep their spirits up. How incredibly nerve-wracking that must have been for a 17, 18, 19 year old boy. Nor did I fully grasp that the famous “rolling barrage” under which our soldiers advanced was concentrated within such a short span of space. I know I should have “known” all this before, and I’m slightly embarrassed that I never really understood that which I did “know.” Being here has provided more than simply a fresh perspective it’s like gaining another sense. I’ll read and watch these stories differently from now on.
From the battlegrounds, we walked up the roadway to the Vimy Memorial. All of the memorials face in the same direction in which the soldiers were headed and so we are approaching the monument from the back. For the past three days every time we’ve talked about Vimy, those who have already seen it have talked about how emotional an experience it is, and each time I’ve been getting choked up just thinking about it. We stop to take each other’s pictures in front of the monument before we start our ascent. Situated on top of Hill 145 the highest point on the Ridge, it is by far, the largest and most impressive of the War Memorials.
Walking up the steps I think to myself, “so far so good, my emotions are not getting the better of me” and I walk along the long bad of names stopping to take pictures of the Morrisons, MacLarens, Lawsons, Kennys, and Jacksons that appear there. I do not know if any of these missing men are direct ancestors of mine, but imagine that some of them might be. So many Canadian families lost a loved one in this war.
As I continue to explore the monument and turn the corner to stand at the front of the monument – I see the wide expanse of countryside in front of me. I look up at the sculpture Canada Bereft (Mother Canada) and I catch my breath. Suddenly I am overwhelmed by an odd combination of grief and pride. We Canadians all too often tend to downplay our strengths, our accomplishments, and our patriotism, but here on this site, we Canadians held nothing back. Not when we fought here, and not when we returned to remember what happened here.
It seems right then not to hold anything back now. And so, I don’t. Standing over 6000 miles away from home feeling more connected to my country than ever before.