Over there — nearly a century later there are still lessons to learn from Vimy Ridge 

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  • Story by Brian Buchholz
  • Over there — nearly a century later there are still lessons to learn from Vimy Ridge
 

Vimy Ridge: April 9, 1917

In the Pais-de-Calais, northern France, rests one of Canada's most revered First World War battlefields — Vimy Ridge. At Vimy, for the first time, every Canadian division on the Western Front assembled under Canadian orders and Canadian command.

Before dawn on that Easter morning in 1917, the Canadian Corp., together with their French, British and Newfoundland allies, executed a meticulously planned assault – gaining most objectives in the first hours. They captured the ridge and victory on what had been a stagnant and bogged battlefront. More than 3,400 young Canadians died at Vimy Ridge.

Gare du Nord, Paris: April 6, 2014

We are travelling north to visit the graves and pay homage to the thousands of Canadians who fought and died at Vimy Ridge.

Our train leaves on time on the trail to the market town of Arras. The train loosely follows the route which hundreds of troop-bearing Paris taxis took to move 6,000 French reserves to meet the German army threatening the capital in Sept. 1914. After our comfortable trip we arrive in Arras in about 50 minutes.

For most of First World War, Arras was under constant barrage from long-range German artillery. Grainy, black and white photographs at the town hall show a medieval-style village, almost completely obliterated — every building a pile of rubble and unrecognizable as to its intended purpose.

Today, Arras is rebuilt — a picturesque and vibrant town. Little evidence remains to belie that scale of devastation a century on.

The guidebook suggests a €23 taxi ride as the best option for the onward journey from Arras station to the Vimy Memorial. Curbside, we negotiate the fare with our driver Marie.

We speed through open and rich farmland; criss-crossed with motorways, rail lines and small villages seemingly lost in time. We witness the type of simple vistas captured by a Matisse or Van Gogh. In April 1917, this ground was a wasteland after three years of unimaginable and constant shelling; advance and attack, retreat and defence — death.

What we had not prepared for was that we would drive past many lesser-known Canadian war cemeteries along the road to Vimy. Thousands of Canadians are buried across this landscape — tiny graveyards, enclaves of impossibly white fences and brilliantly white grave markers dot this countryside.

At 130 kilometres per hour guilt creeps in as we learn that few pilgrims stop at these forgotten shrines. At one latched cemetery gate, the "visitor book" reveals only a dozen or so names entered each year. Some ledgers show start dates in the 1970s — plenty of blank pages remain for the traveller to sign.

Marie drops us at the Vimy Visitor Centre and suggests a three-hour return for pickup. She compliments my remedial French without a trace of a raised eyebrow. I relish the praise.

Surprisingly, we find the Vimy Memorial staffed by Parks Canada crews. The signs, the uniforms, the pamphlets — all Parks Canada. This little piece of Canada is the result of the French government transferring the land to the people of Canada in 1922. This gift from the people of France to the people of Canada emerged from a respect and appreciation for Canada's First World War sacrifice; more than 60,000 Canadians died in the four-year conflict.

With this grant of sacred land, we find solace in realizing that, wherever you walk on the hallowed ground at Vimy, the final resting place of too many young Canadian soldiers, you walk on Canadian soil.

Today, Canadian university student-guides walk us back in time. On the hour, they lead visitors through the still-in-place bunkers, firing posts and tunnels, which made up the intricate battle plan for the attack on the defending German positions at Vimy Ridge.

Scattered around the site we find small bits of human history frozen in time, little changed almost a century later.

We stumble through the zigzagging, "head-high" trenches. In 1917, casually lighting a cigarette or exposing a head above the sand bags could spell instant death from a sniper's bullet.

We pause at an Observation Post, peering out across "No Man's Land." Fifty metres across the still crater-marked field rests a harmless, though still somehow menacing, German machine gun pillbox. The rain of fire and death these heavy guns provided the Germans came from these impenetrable positions. Somehow, across the long decades, they retain an intimidating presence.

We duck our head at the low entrance and ease our way below ground. We are guided though a maze of the few remaining tunnels and dugouts of the Canadian redoubt. This intricate labyrinth, once kilometres in length, was largely hand dug by Welsh coal miners. These invisible tunnels provided the Canadian troops a closer and safer access to enemy lines and their counter-tunnelling efforts.

Communication tunnels, command tunnels, listening tunnels, raiding tunnels and sleeping quarters remain. Only a small percentage of these remain open to the public, most are in too great a state of disrepair to safely access. Here and there in the rear service areas, a few small pumps and other obscure machinery lie rusting in situ, silently waiting their master's return.

The organization and labour poured into these detailed, pre-attack efforts was monumental, brave and brilliantly executed. For months, commanders laid out the plan to the smallest detail. Photographs taken at the time show generals and lesser ranks, pouring over an incredibly large-scale replica of the battlefront — a miniature "No Man's Land" where each German artillery piece, machine gun, tunnel and trench was highlighted and targeted for attack and destruction.

Before Vimy, it was British Army practice that only the most-senior commanders, and a very few front-line officers would know the goal and objectives of a given attack. With a limited understanding of the "big picture" officers and troops often became disoriented and fractured under fire. The chaos of the battlefield, combined with a limited understanding of the connection with the other moving parts, increased the potential for confusion and disaster on the battlefield.

At Vimy, junior officers and some regular troops were given details of the overall plan. With this information, officers and their men were better prepared to fight in concert with adjacent units understanding the Corps' objective. The dissemination of this intelligence and battle plan contributed significantly to the cohesive nature of the various and far-flung allied forces.

As we walk the tunnels we feel the ghosts of our long-departed countrymen all around us. We arrive at a tunnel intersection and, with a smile, we stop at the crossroads. The walls have been impishly labelled with Canadian city street names and other "back home" references. Small histories scratched into the rock by long-absent inhabitants. Hearts, poems and military insignia further adorn the walls — a way to pass the time sitting under the fields of Vimy in the spring of 1917.

The loneliness and terror must have been overwhelming as we read the soldier's writings on the walls of their underground billet. The uncertainty and fear as they awaited the order to go "over the top" is impossible to imagine.

Under a still dark and gray sky and after months of planning, the battle was joined. The Canadian Corp moved into position through the tunnels and fortified trenches. At exactly 05:30 hours, on signal, a hellish Canadian artillery barrage began across the Vimy front.

Under the design and command of Canadian General Arthur Currie, a creeping barrage fell on the still slumbering Germans. The Canadians moved from cover and advanced —"bayonets fixed" — advancing just 300 metres in arrears of the exploding shells.

The months of meticulous planning quickly paid off. Where tens of thousands of French and British troops had failed and died trying to capture the ridge, first in 1915 and then in 1916, the Canadian Corp. won the day.

As we exit the trenches we walk the kilometre-long path leading to the two majestic and unmistakable spires of the Memorial.

We stroll the green, pastoral path where evidence of the horror inflicted and absorbed by the men on both sides is all but gone. Except... on the right and the left, a fence line strongly cautions the passerby to remain on the footpath. The Parks Canada sign warns: "DANGER! UNDETONATED EXPLOSIVES — NO ENTRY."

To our experience, this is not a sign we'd previously seen in any national park across Canada. We stay on the path.

Over the crater-pocked grasslands, where thousands advanced and many died, a flock of sheep now quietly patrols, simply grazing where brave men fear to tread.

The Vimy Memorial was dedicated by King Edward VIII in 1936. Chiselled from white limestone sourced, quarried and transported from Croatia. The dramatic impact of the towering memorial emerges with each step up the rise.

To honour their fallen comrades, and in time for the unveiling, more than 6,000 Canadian veterans and their families made the pilgrimage to the Vimy dedication.

The tall, white sentinels sit astride a long, commanding ridge. They offer a sweeping 360-degree view across the French countryside, now a great place for a "selfie," but in 1917 this hill offered only a deadly and seemingly unassailable fortress.

The memorial gazes over the surrounding French farmland. In almost any other scenario, the massive structure would seem out of place and on too large a scale. Walking here now, without question, it is perfect.

Designed by Canadian artist Walter Seymour Allward, the limestone monument features two pylons each 30 metres high. Allward won the competition to design the Vimy Memorial in 1921. The dedication did not take place until 15 years later.

A simple maple leaf is carved in one column and a fleur-de-lis in the other; each represents the sacrifices of the people of Canada and France.

Says the Veterans' Affairs web page: "There is a wealth of symbolism in its sculptures which help the viewer in contemplating the structure as a whole. One theme is that of the strength of the ideals shared by Canada, France and Britain, which gives its true strength to the bulwark of defense represented by the massive base of the monument. Another is the sorrow of a young nation at the sacrifice of so much of her youth. Yet a third is a prayer for peace. Some of the sculptures are mourners. As you approach the monument, you will have passed by two such figures reclining on either side of the steps — a woman on the left, a man on the right."

A towering, female visage looks down upon the land; her eyes focused downward in homage and sadness for her long lost but not forgotten sons.

The names of the 11,285 Canadians who fell in the Great War, but have no known resting place, are chiselled into the monument base. My wife Louise's family name, "Thomson," is too well represented there in the cold stone.

In 2006, after a five-year restoration, the Vimy Memorial was rededicated. Prince Phillip, the Prime Minister, Governor General, French President, veterans and citizens of France and Canada attended. Metis fiddler, Sierra Noble played the forlorn "Warrior's Lament", which echoed hauntingly across the field on the day. At the Whistler Remembrance of Service, we include that lament each year.

Sadly, the last of the soldiers of the Great War are no more. They may be gone but the memorial ensures that we who are left, we who owe a debt that can never be repaid, will forever remember them.

Louise and I place a poppy from Whistler on the monument facade.

Retracing our steps we come upon two peaceful and beautiful Commonwealth Cemeteries — we stop at Givenchy Road Cemetery.

A half dozen gardeners are bent over, pulling weeds, turning the soil and maintaining the hundreds of the now ancient markers. Row after row, bright, white gravestones with colourful spring flowers lie side by side in military precision.

Every province is represented in this silent tribute. As you read the names, which you must, you are struck with the age of the fallen. Some were in their late twenties, thirties and even forties but many, most, were far younger. Seeing the names gives each marker its intimacy and deep significance, the ages, "17," "18" and "19" — provide the horror and the sadness. Never again.

Victory at Vimy did not signal the end of the First World War. Neither was it the beginning of the end. But Vimy may have signalled the "beginning of the beginning of the end" to the war to end all wars.

Vimy's military significance as part of the overall allied war effort is debated by historians. What Vimy did signal, however, is indisputable. It created the recognition that Canadian soldiers were more than the equal of their allied partners. After Vimy, Canada was considered less as an adjunct to British forces and more a full-fledged and capable allied partner.

Vimy created a deeper respect for Canada at British command headquarters and later, amongst the Canadian people for our soldiers' ability and courage. Many Canadian historians and Canadians mark Vimy as Canada's "coming of age." It not only established Canada as a major, (equal) military partner, it signalled our emergence as an independent country on the world diplomatic and economic stage.

As we leave Arras and speed back to the French capital, we recognize that Vimy was just a fragment in time, a four-year period of hell on earth, sorrow and waste.

The visit was incredibly humbling and of course filled with some sadness. At the same time, however, it was very uplifting. We recognize that across time and across the generations, our fellow Canadians held such a deep love of country, and made such sacrifice (sometimes difficult to comprehend today) it makes us even more proud to be Canadians.

At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them...

For more information:

Visit the Veterans' Affairs website for more Vimy detail

Whistler Public Library has many volumes of fiction and non-fiction on the subject of war and Remembrance

Three Day Road is the first novel by Canadian author Joseph Boyden. Set on the Western Front (and Canada) during and immediately after the First World War, the novel is the frightening and gripping story of two First Nations' soldiers — their astonishing battlefield triumphs and their terrifying personal demons.

You don't have to be a so-called war buff or amateur historian to appreciate a visit to Vimy. I encourage everyone to make the trip to Vimy (or any memorial) part of their Europe itinerary. Such a pilgrimage is a simple, significant way to demonstrate the understanding to the sacrifice and loss of our war dead — across the decades and around the world.

As Pique prepared to honour Remembrance Day this year it reached out to public schools to ask for submissions around the event. On these pages you will find poems written by students in Shelley Ledingham's Grade 7 class at Myrtle Philip Community School. They are considered found poems, as some of them have been inspired by other poems that were read in class. Students brainstormed powerful words and phrases from other works and then generated their own verses.

———

Above and Below

By Sean McClean

Neath the pounding of screaming and guns

Laying and counting both moons and suns

And as I lay here above and below

I scream at my men to keep their heads low

Soldiers fall and succumb to the light

Some are alive, injured but continue the fight

Poppies shade bodies down at the ground

We hope one day that peace will be found

———

Remembrance Poem

By Tristan Gosselin

Blood drenched the streets

Though no one was in sight.

The grey hues of ash fell from my boots as I walked

People passed looking twisted, their faces pale and blank, emotionless

Everything was dark, the daylight was stolen from me the day I returned

I am a pessimist, I am invisible to everyone, a prisoner of myself

There is no trade for terror

The war did not end for me when I left the battlefield, but rather, began

———

Once a Soldier

By Ryann Kristmanson

I was proud to be a veteran,

I served my country well.

I fought, strived and never was afraid,

Until down I fell.

Now I lie beneath a cross,

That's standing proud and tall.

I look up at the sky,

And remember my duty that called.

I now lay beneath the sun,

Knowing my work as a soldier is done.

November 11th they will remember me,

The day is close to come.

———

A Vow of Peace

By Macy Kercher

The earth shakes in desperate rage

Another battle has been waged

An eternal war starts again

Broken souls in pulsing pain.

Men kill men over peaty soil

Blood flows and hatred boils

We should forgive the evil done

But wars are not forever won.

We could stop its burning path

But we must set aside our wrath

We could change the world now

If we could all take a vow.

A vow of peace, a vow of friends

We can make the cycle end

———

Fighting For Light in Our Time of Darkness

Simon Long

I stare up to the cloudy sky,

amidst a field of flowers,

I look over to see a comrade,

forsaken, just like me.

I remember the honour I had shown,

fighting for light in our time of darkness.

I remember my courage,

I had offered my life,

I was feeling profound pain,

just as the other comrades were.

We must all fulfill our duty,

fighting for light in our time of darkness.

———

A Forgotten Exile

By Jake Feliks

Amidst the battle

a warrior falls,

a young man who offered

his soul to all,

now waits forgotten

for the crimson red,

to embrace him till'

he lies forever dead...

———

Freedom

By Jordane Way

A bullet goes through my chest

A heavy weight clings to my body

I fall to my knees and drop to the ground

I relax my eyes to see something beautiful

I see the sunset now, darkness filling the sky

Stars twinkling above my head

Lost in thought, picturing my family

Being free

Not being forced to fight

Fight in what I don't believe in

My eyes close and see a heavenly sight

Not images of prisoners in camps or men being shot

As I gently drift off into a long and dark sleep

I lay in a bloody battle field

———

Our Freedom

By Dewi Wahono

As sundown begins our nation's darkness shines upon our land.

Poppies grow for those who fall for freedom.

Those who fought till the end

Those who come back,

Are forever scarred

But know that our people roam free because of them.

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