I had heard of the Battle for Vimy Ridge but never known much about it or appreciated the scale of the horror, the intensity of the fighting or the significance of the victory there. I hadn’t even known that the vast majority of the soldiers who took part and who died were Canadian. Every November we buy a poppy and stand by a war memorial saying we’ll remember them but we don’t know the bloody half of it in the first place. You can’t remember what you didn’t already know.
I found the Vimy Ridge Memorial site about ten kilometres north of the town of Arras and it was well worth a visit as it had been the scene of some of the direst trench warfare of World War I. There were almost two full years of battle there, culminating in its capture by the crack Canadian Corps in April 1917. British troops participated and died in their thousands too but the memorial at Vimy Ridge reflects Canada’s sorrow . . . a young nation mourning her dead.
Vimy Ridge Memorial to Canada's 60,000 dead from the Great War.
The restored trenches, punctuated with almighty bomb craters, were interesting to see and eerily brought desperately bad images to mind in a place now so tranquil. The underground bunkers stay closed unless there is a guide to accompany visitors but it must have been a bank holiday in Canada today because none of them had turned up for work and consequently the underground bunkers stayed closed for me. Very disappointing!
Electric fences kept visitors away from the craters and trenches which apparently were still awash with live ammunition and concealed approximately 11,000 bodies which were still unaccounted for. In such a small area, sheltered by such lovely pine woods, I found it hard to get my head around something as distressing as the Battle for Vimy Ridge and the number of men who were missing. Beyond the electric fences, sheep grazed. They must have been very brave or very stupid or unable to read the warning signs.
The memorial monument was absolutely spectacular and covered at its base with the names of the 60,000 Canadians who died in the First World War. I spent a lot of time there but I struggle to find even a few words to describe my feelings. It was utterly heart breaking. The much more modest Moroccan memorial located nearby was equally moving. One word sums up what I saw really. That word is ‘Why?’
I bought some postcards in the visitor centre. The shop worker there spoilt it for me. He was a geeky git of a Canadian college student who just seemed to be too full of fun to be working in a place where so many of his countrymen had died. I bought some stamps from him too. He asked if he could lick them and stick them on my postcards because gosh, licking stamps was one of his favourite things. I said ‘No!’ and again asked myself ‘Why?’
Canada, a young nation, searching the horizon for her lost sons.