A Canadian at Vimy Ridge
Vimy Travel Blog› entry 6 of 20 › view all entries
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.