A Canadian at Vimy Ridge

Vimy Travel Blog

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The distance between the foes.

The day started gray and cold. Dressed for rain, I walked down the street to the 'Over the Top Tours' store front. This small boutique carries a variety of World War I books, films and trinkets. It also acts as the point of departure for the various tours that the propriater, Andre, gives. On this day I'd booked a tour to see Vimy Ridge and the surrounding area.

We began our drive south. Dotted here and there in the fields on either side of the road were blocky concrete structures, sometime alone sometimes in small clusters. These Greman pillboxes trace an undulating line across the lanscape that reminds you just how far the front line stretched. The closer we got to our destination, the darker the sky became, eventually turning into a gentle shower that lasted all of 12 minutes.

Tunnels under the ridge.
By the time we reached the Vimy Ridge Visitor's Center, the rain had all but stopped. The small center gives visitors an idea of who Canadians are and how the Canadian Corp dealt with the war, the taking of Vimy Ridge and rememberence. It is staffed by Canadian universitry students on exchange in France. 

Their other duties include walking visitors around the reproduced trenches above ground, and into the 'subways'... tunnels dug delow the base of the ridge for a variety of purposes. I went into the subways with two of their guides and a gaggle of high school students there on a field trip. We would reach a junction in the tunnels and the guide would start to quiz the kids on something. And, being the nerd that I am, I had to resist the urge to raise my hand every time I knew the answer.

At one point I was looking at some carvings in the walls with some interest when the second of the two guides came over and explained that the ones I was looking at were fakes, carved in the walls years after the conflict before the site was tended.  In the currently open tunnels, there is only one real carving, which she showed me. It is a small representation of a maple leaf behind a plexiglass panel in a side corridor. After climbing out of the depths, the next stop was the top of the Ridge.

In 1917, Vimy Ridge represented one of the most heavily fortified points on the Western Front. During the course of a half dozen different battles the French and British armies had tried to wrest control of this ridge from the Germans, as it allowed them to dominate the Douai Plains and keep a stranglehold on French coal production.

It is estimated that a half million men from all sides died on the ridge during these attempts. At one point, Morrocan troops managed to take the heights of the ridge, but without reinforcements they were unable to hold it.

By this point in the war, the Canadians had gained a reputation as soldiers who could get the job done, and as part of the larger Battle of Arras, they were tasked with taking the ridge. And they suceeded beyond anyone's expectations. Through a combination of new tactics and the ref98inement of existing ones, the Canadians were able to take a hold the majority of the ridge in a matter of hours, with the last of it falling into their hands a few days later.

Although the Battle of Arras failed to make any headway, the capture of Vimy Ridge represented the first major vistory for the Allied cause and cemented the Canadian Corps' reputation as an elite fighting unit.

At the end of the war, the French government granted Canada rights to the land, to serve in perpetuity as a national war memorial. In 1936, the Vimy Ridge Memorial was unveiled. Towering over the ridge, the memorial includes in it's imagery 20 differnet figures representing Canadians and their feelings towards war and towards those who faught it for us. It was very moving and nothing I could put into words.

After a good period of time there, we drove on towards Souchez and the Cabaret Rouge Commenwealth Cemetery. The unorthdox layout of this cememtery, with arching rows of graves was complimented by the exceptional care that it's tenders gave to it.

Among the graves here is an emoty one, where an Unknown Canadian soldier used to lie. His remains were removed and moved from here to Ottawa, Ontario, to lie in the Tomb of the Unkown Soldier. Truth be told, I think Cabaret Rouge is where I'd prefer to spend eternity.

After that we stopped for lunch at a little resto called 'Abri des Visiteur'. Farm fresh lamb grilled to perfection. Sweet Jesus I could get used to living there. Or eating there at least. The restaurant was linked to a small enclosed area. For the price of a euro you can padss through a turnstill into a fenced off section of trenches from the Battle of Artois. No efforts have been made to preserve the trenches, but their locations can still be easily discerned. AT times, there was no more than 20 feet between the German and French trenches.

As we were leaving, Andtre pointed at the ground where I looked down and found a French bullet, unfired, half buried in the mud. I almost brought it home, but didn't think it was teh kind of thing I should try to carry in my luggage through security.

After that, we walked across to the French National Cemetery at Notre Dame de Lorette. Along with the remains of nearly 41000 of their brothers in arms, for of France's unknown soldiers are intered here. One from each of the World Wars, the North African War and the Indochine War.

Our last stop on the tour was the Neuville-St Vaast German War Cemetery. The soldiers are buried here four to a grave. The stones here are stark... a grey cruciform with the soldier's names on each side.

Scattered among them are the graves of their Jewish comerades. As we left the cemetery, a gentle shower began to fall, which turned into a minor torrent as we made out way for the Belgian border.

That evening I had an early dinner at Poppy's Steakhouse, after which I went to the Last Post. Held each evening at the Menin Gate, this is a memorial service given by the people of Ieper for the soldiers of all nations who faught to defenbd Ieper and Belgium during the first World War. It's a very emotional display, after which I didnb't feel up to much except sleeping.

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The distance between the foes.
The distance between the foes.
Tunnels under the ridge.
Tunnels under the ridge.
photo by: emperial78