We landed last night in Lille, France with fireworks going off in the sky all around us. I thought it was for us, until someone reminded me it was Bastille Day. It was still a nice welcome.
Today we took the thirty minute drive to Vimy Ridge.
There are two parts to a trip to Vimy. The remnants of a war that took place 95 years ago, and the memorial. The former is an unmistakable horror. The latter is a testament to beauty, hope and peace.
Even a civilian like me can understand the strategic importance of Vimy Ridge. It extends for kilometers and overlooks the valleys on both sides. It crests at the famous Hill 145 — the key strategic point and the site of the monument.
The first thing that shocks you is the landscape. There a craters everywhere, mostly from artillery shells that rained down on the site for a week before the battle. Some are from exploding mines. Some very deep ones are tunnels that collapsed. They are not spaced out. They are everywhere.
Then you see the tunnels. They stretch for kilometers. They begin behind the lines and extend to the front. Today they have concrete steps to get in and out. In 1917 there were mud hills. Today the floors are concrete. Then they were swamps filled with mud, rats, darkness. Worse, as our guide explained to us, the tunnels were the fancy part of Vimy. At the end of the tunnels were the trenches. Open to the elements and filled with water. Today it rained most of the day. It was cold. I simply can’t imagine what it must have been like in 1917 to live there for months during the winter with bombs and bullets everywhere.
The front trenches of the Canadians and the Germans were about 25 meters apart. They could talk to each other. The killing and maiming was catastrophic. In the small region around Vimy (described to me as roughly the size of Ottawa) 600,000 people — military and civilian from all countries — were killed. The devastation is almost incomprehensible.
After a tour of the battlefield we went to the monument. It is gleaming white marble. It is peaceful. Hopeful. I had seen the plaster models of the statues at the Canadian War Museum. And I had read Jane Urquhart’s great book, The Stone Carvers, about the construction of the monument and the carving of the statues and the names of the soldiers who were never found. But I did not understand the size or the power of the monument.
We had a ceremony where several of us laid wreaths. I was honored to have a chance to say a few words:
We are gathered here today in the shadow of this great memorial. A place dedicated to the 11,285 Canadians killed in France during the First World War whose final resting place is unknown. So this is their resting place.
I have read about the Battle of Vimy Ridge. I have admired the courage of those who fought here for the values Canada and the United States shared in 1917. And still share today. I’ve been told of how the national identity of Canada was forged on this very spot — as the four divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force came together on April 9, 1917. I have seen photos showing the power and the beauty of Walter Allward’s design. Its yearning for peace.
But until you stand here. Until you see this memorial. Until you experience the enormity of this place. You cannot understand what Vimy Ridge means to the Canadian people.
I am very excited at the prospect of the Nijmegen March. I am very excited to march shoulder-to-shoulder with my friends in the Canadian Forces. But whatever comes hereafter, this visit to Vimy has made my journey to this continent one I will never forget.