My son joined me for a short visit in France. I had asked him to choose an area of France he would like to see and he picked WWI battlefield sites. Thus, we arrived in Arras one cloudy afternoon, picked up our rental car, programmed Google Maps and set off for our first destination, Vimy Ridge.
After a short 15 minute drive, we started seeing signposts with Canadian flags directing us to the Visitor Center. The land at Vimy Ridge, where both the memorial and the Center are located, was gifted to the Canadian government by the French shortly after WWI. Today, Veteran Affairs Canada employs bilingual Canadian students on 4 month stints to act as greeters and guides at the site.
Vimy Ridge holds a special place in the heart of Canadians. Between April 9 and 12, 1917, 4 divisions of the Canadian Corps of the first army battled the German army in an effort to capture the high ground of Vimy Ridge. They succeeded, despite the loss of over 10,000 men. Vimy Ridge remains a symbol of sacrifice and heroism, but also one of national pride. It was the first time the Canadian regiments had fought as a separate unit and their strategy, tactics and perseverance were widely regarded as being instrumental in their victory.
Trevor, a recent graduate from the University of Ottawa and heading to Immigration Canada, gave us a private tour of the tunnels. I had seen photos and reenactments of the trench warfare – most recently via Mathew’s WWI travails on Downton Abbey – but nothing prepared me for the real thing. Despite the day being overcast and wet, the trenches (most of which are re-creations) were dry and protected from the wind. But it was easy to imagine the horrors – trying to race across the muddy ground with heavy packs, barbed wire everywhere and German soldiers firing at anything that moved. Even staying in the trenches would be awful; they easily flooded in the rain, bringing dampness and the rats. The tunnels were a relief- warmer, dry and dimly lit.
Trevor described the 3 lines: the front line was nearest to the Germans and no man’s land (sometimes only 100 meters apart), then there was the support or observation trench and finally, the reserve trench, containing reserve soldiers if those on the front line faltered. Linking the trenches were the tunnels, providing storage and communication between the trenches. Sometimes, tunnels were cut under the German lines and explosives detonated, resulting in the giant craters which still exist today. But most of the pocks in the landscape are the result of grenade attacks.
After the tunnel tour, we went to the Visitor Center. It provides excellent commentary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, the combatants, its outcome and its importance, along with shelter from the elements, clean toilets and good wifi, with commentary from polite, enthusiastic Canadian students. We ended the day with a trip to the memorial:
The Somme: Beuamont-Hamel and the Somme Museum:
Our second day in Arras began with a quick trip the center of Arras and its advertised “baroque style central square” with market. It was definitely Baroque style, but completely reconstructed due to its total destruction in WW1 Sadly, the vista was lost on us as most of the square was taken up with a combination X-Mas and weekly market. Ferris wheels and giant slides do not evoke Baroque architecture, nor do the clever cheese trucks and other market mainstays.
Our objective today was the Museum of the Somme in Albert, but as we were driving toward it, we saw more maple leafs and signs pointing us to Beaumont-Hamel, a battlefield made famous by the Newfoundland regiment. As Newfoundland was an independent dominion until joining Canada in 1949, it provided its own soldiers and fought under its own flag as a battalion of the British Expeditionary Forces.
As we learned on our tour of the grounds, on July 1, 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, the Newfoundland battalion pressed forward into no-man’s land, but the more experienced German infantry had advance warning of the attack thanks to a mine detonation and the Allies’ flares signalling the start of the assault being confused by the combatants. In less than 30 minutes, 670 of the 780 Newfoundlanders were dead, injured or missing.
We were again guided through the site and the battle by another Canadian student. She provided excellent commentary about the build-up to the battle, the strategy, the shortcomings of the Allies’ attack and their ultimate defeat on July 1, 1916, as well as leading us around the site – through the trenches, the cemeteries and the memorial. We finished at the Visitor Center, where more information about the battle and its impact on Newfoundland was provided. Sadly, the battle effectively wiped out a generation of Newfoundlanders, leaving the Dominion economically strapped and dependent on Britain.
We drove to the town of Albert where the Somme Museum is located in a 13th century tunnel. Dioramas portray aspects of life in the trenches, for soldiers, communications, medics; a video highlighted many of the memorials, and plaques explained the Somme battles in a broader context. Very simply, the Germans were seeking to arrive at the Atlantic on the Western Front, a 700 kilometer stretch of land from Belgium south through France, and the Allies were trying to push them back. On July 1, 1916 the Allies began an offensive against the Germans lasting 114 days. The Battle of the Somme was largely inconclusive in terms of victory or defeat, but both sides suffered heavy casualties. Estimates range as high as 1 million dead or wounded on both sides.
The following day, we went to Ypres in Belgium, another significant battlefield along the Western Front. The nearby area resonates with Canadians for 2 main reasons: Flanders Field and Passchendale. In Flanders Field is the poem written by Canadian physician John McCrae, who was inspired to write it during a funeral for a friend when he noticed how quickly the poppies grew around the graves of those who had died near Ypres. A memorial to McCrae stands at the well preserved Advanced Dressing Station, a medical triage center, where McCrae served as a medic:
A few miles away is the town of Passchendale, near a ridge overlooking the entire area. Its strategic location high above the land made it desirable by both sides. The Germans had dug in there with deep, well defended trenches. British forces had unsuccessfully tried to retake the ridge. In July, 1917, the commander of the British Expeditionary Force ordered the Canadian corps, a formation over 100,000 strong, to capture the ridge. While the Canadian commander objected owing to his concern for the potential loss of lives, his protests went unheralded. In mid-October, the Canadians began their onslaught on the ridge. By October 26th, they had captured the ridge, earning a reputation for bravery under horrendous conditions, but at a cost of 15,654 dead. A Canada Gate honours their achievements and those who were injured or died in the battle.
Touring the battlefields and nearby towns strikes home the awful reality of WWI – the trenches, the devastated towns, the gigantic cemeteries – and the memorials ensure that the lives lost will not be forgotten. I have two lingering memories. As we were driving through the fields toward Passchendale, our guide stopped at the side of the road to point out a shell recently uncovered as a farmer tilled his soil. “This” he said, “was a weekly occurrence. There is still a bomb disposal unit which comes around once a month to pick up all the shells. Most are duds, but two years ago, a live one exploded.”
I also thought the memorials and Visitor Centers do Canada proud. The sculptures are moving, thoughtful commemorations, the Visitor Centers informative and the guides, all bright-eyed, polite, bilingual Canadian students, are great ambassadors for the country.