Travelling Historian: Belgium and France #5

LOCATIONS: France – Vimy Ridge and Surroundings
DATE: 9 April
CATEGORIES: War and Memory, First World War, Vimy Ridge
ENTRY TYPE: Daily Report
My itinerary for today was much less ambitious than the one for Tuesday, though I still modified it slightly and did not go to the last intended stop. Today’s focus was the Vimy Ridge Memorial and the Vimy Ridge National Memorial Park, as today was the 98th Anniversary of the Battle of Arras – the Battle of Vimy Ridge. This was the main commemoration around which I planned this trip. Though this was the focus, I did not begin my day at Vimy Ridge.
Prior to arriving at my first stop, I was struck by the smaller signs that began to appear along the highway, which marked the various front lines of the war throughout the course of the war. I was increasingly struck by the knowledge that I was driving through country that 100 years in the past had been torn up by a terrible war. This peaceful, serene countryside, had a violent and tragic history. I was also struck by how similar the French countryside looked to the Canadian, or at least Southwestern Ontarian, countryside. And yet, fortunately, Canada has never been subjected to the types of warfare France has been.
Stop 1: The Canadian Memorial at Courcelette
Canadian Memorial at CourceletteI have to admit that this memorial probably had the least impact on me of all the ones I saw during this trip. And that is to say nothing about the memorial, or the battle that it represents, and everything to say of my memory of and connection to the event that it commemorates. The Somme, in it’s entirety, was one of the deadliest and longest attritional battles of the war. And, when the Canadians joined in, they played a large part, and the battle went far to cementing their new found status as “hard-hitting shock troops.” (1) And yet, at the time, I couldn’t remember anything that I knew of this battle. My mind was otherwise engaged with thoughts of the Second Battle of Ypres, Passchendaele, and the Battle of Vimy Ridge. As I think back on the Memorial now, after refreshing myself on the history of the battle, it has a greater impact, as I can better contextualize the fields and the land I looked out on at the Memorial.
Observations from driving between stops:
As I was driving between the stops today, I was repeatedly struck by the nature of the terrain and the land itself. This section of France contains some very steep hills and deep valleys and I have a new appreciation for how difficult it would have been to attack a well fortified German position on top of a ridge. Especially as the soldiers were often moving forward with packs that could weigh 60lbs, over ground that was often wet and muddy. All while being shelled and shot at from enemy lines, and avoiding friendly artillery that was attempting to aid and support your advance.
Stop 2: The Beaumont Hamel Memorial
Beaumont Hamel Newfoundland MemorialMy one regret from this day was that I did not spend more time walking around the grounds of this memorial. But I let the guide at the site convince me that I needed to leave earlier than planned for the Vimy Ridge Ceremonies. And, in retrospect, this was completely unnecessary. That being said, I had plenty of time to appreciate the main area of the site and monument. This memorial commemorates the soldiers from Newfoundland who fought and were killed during the First World War, as Newfoundland was not part of Canada at that time. It stands on the preserved grounds of an unsuccessful and tragic battle the Newfoundland Regiment fought as part of the Battle of the Somme. Of the 800 soldiers from the Newfoundland Regiment who fought in this battle, only 68 returned unharmed. Like the Vimy site, which I will speak to in a moment, this memorial sits on “preserved grounds.” Essentially what this means is that, though they have let grass grow over it, few other modifications have been made to flatten or even the terrain. This allows you to see where the trenches were, and where the ground was uneven and choppy as a result of the shelling and explosions. I found that this allowed for a much greater appreciation for some of the difficulties involved in navigating the front. And this was under dry conditions.
Stop 3: The Canadian National Vimy Memorial
Vimy Ridge MemorialIn many ways, the Canadian National Memorial at Vimy is many stops grouped together into one. And I will summarize here as best I can, with the possibility of  a future post solely on Vimy. The site contains preserved ground, including a preserved section of tunnels and trench lines, two cemeteries, a visitors centre, and the Memorial itself. Not to mention there is a large area of preserved ground and forest you can walk around, much of which is cordoned off for public safety as many buried and undetonated shells remain in the battlefield areas. The preserved ground in the area clearly demonstrates some of the difficulties faced during the war, as well as the reality of an ever changing battlefield as either side would blow up the ground from underneath to intentionally alter the battlefield.
Though it is linked to the Battle of Vimy Ridge, the site itself is a memorial dedicated to all of the members of the Canadian force who were killed during the war. It also serves to commemorate those of the Canadian forces who were missing, and presumed dead, with no known graves over the course of the war. The memorial itself is imposing, and dominates the landscape.
Vimy Ridge Memorial
 In the middle of my visit to the site, I attended the ceremony for the 98th Anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. Much of the ceremony was in French, and though I can understand more French than I can speak, there were a few parts that I missed. I have decided not to go into all of the elements of war memory that were involved in this ceremony, and that play into the greater memory of Vimy Ridge, as this post is always quite long. Instead I will just say that, during this ceremony, I was most impacted by the singing of Oh Canada. There is something incredibly touching and special about standing on Canadian soil, in the middle of France, singing the national anthem with a handful of other Canadians.
The Grange Tunnel After the ceremony, I went on a short guided tour around the area of the preserved trenches and tunnels. As part of the tour, we went into a preserved section of the Grange Tunnel, which was one of the tunnels used in preparations and in getting the soldiers as close to the front line as possible for the start of the battle. I really enjoyed this part of my visit to the site – both for the insight it provided into aspects of the soldiers experience and the war preparations, and for the “I am currently in the middle of an historic tunnel” excitement factor. I am a military history geek/nerd after all, and that often contains mixed emotions and conflict between the excitement of being somewhere that has been the focus of so much of your energy and passion, and the solemnity that comes from knowing what occurred at these sites and the tragedies and sadness involved.
In Summary: This was a very heavy and emotional day that was lightened considerably by the beautiful weather and sunshine. I thought a lot about war and memory, and commemoration, and also just let myself experience the sites. Experience the “wow factor” involved in finally visiting places I have dreamed of visiting since high school or earlier. And I took the time to think about and remember the events of 98-100 years ago. The war that was so violent and so tragic and so costly in terms of lives that people sincerely hoped and prayed that it would be the “War to end all wars.” The war that resulted in so many young men and boys being buried far from home and loved ones. The war that resulted in so many of these same men and boys laying forever either where they fell or buried in locations “Known only to God.”
As I finish this post, I realized that there is still so much that I want to say, but the post is already more than long enough. Perhaps in the future, I will begin a series that looks at the battles and the memory and commemorations that surround them. For now, if you are interested in hearing some of my thoughts from the day I visited Vimy Ridge, you can head on over to my Facebook page and watch today’s unedited, supplementary video.
Life’s an Adventure

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