Vimy Ridge

Trip Start Sep 29, 2008
Trip End Mar 31, 2009

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Flag of France  , Nord-Pas-de-Calais,
Saturday, October 25, 2008

Vimy Ridge

Going to the Vimy Ridge Memorial is something that I will never forget. I have heard about it and read about it, but I never thought that I would be there. It had been foggy when we left our apartment, but as we reached the Memorial the fog burned off. The sky was clear and the grass was a bright green, so the white Memorial really stood out.

The first time we approached the Memorial we walked all the way around and walked up towards the side facing the steep part of the Ridge and one of the first things we saw was the statue representing Canada mourning its dead. Walking around the memorial was pretty emotional, seeing the names of all the soldiers written on the memorial, remembering what the memorial represents and standing where it all happened and seeing what they fought for.

We were lucky enough to meet one of the Canadians that are over there as guides and she agreed to give us a little tour of the Memorial and explain some of the symbolism. This time we walked up from the back, the same ay the soldiers advanced, and it was a whole new feeling to be seeing something like what they would have seen. Our guide, Mary-Anne, explained that the names written on the memorial are the names of the 11,285 Canadian soldiers killed in France who have no known graves. It is staggering to think that this is just the number of dead with no known graves, not those with known graves or the injured. She explained what all the statues represent and the symbolism of the Memorial. I find you do not really appreciate something like this or a cathedral until someone tells you what it all means and how the story is shown. She also told us about one of the few things that I can figure out that we have to thank Hitler for. During WWII he came to Vimy to show that he was not destroying WWI monuments and he even posted some soldiers to make sure that nothing happened to it. One idea for why he did not destroy it was because it mourned the loss of life and did not exalt the victory over the Germans. She recommended that we go on a tour of the tunnels and on our way back to the car she gave the boys a ride in her golf cart (which they thought was great).

When we got to the visitors center we were just in time to join a tour of the tunnels. There is only a small portion of the tunnels open to the public because most of the tunnels are not safe and there are still explosive hidden and you can only go in with a guide. They have done a lot to make the tunnels safe for tourists, but it also makes it more difficult to imagine what it would have been like for the soldiers.
-the floors are concrete instead of constantly being covered in mud and water
-there are concrete support beams and mesh on the ceiling to help prevent cave-ins instead of wooden support posts
-it is well lit as opposed to the soldiers having to carry candles because there was only a light every 20 m
-it was also fairly dry, because the stone walls were chalk, which made it very easy to dig the tunnels, when it rained the moisture seeped into the tunnels, even now if it rains a lot they may have to close the tunnels because they have flooded

It gave an insight into what the living conditions were like when we saw some of the furnishings of the quarters. They were very spartan, the rooms were small, the beds were small, wood frames and if you were lucky you had a desk. The only people who got to sleep in the tunnels were the senior officers (sometimes had their own room) and the runners, the messengers, (10 or 12 in a room), everybody else was in the trenches and only came down to pass on information, get water or to wash. The water had to be pumped up from the deeper tunnels because the water in the trenches was contaminated. We got to see the storage containers for water and petrol, they found ones left over in the trenches from when the army left, and they are the same containers! So everything tasted like petrol. Yum. Our tour guide, Erin, showed us other objects that had been found in the tunnels when they were re-opened, helmets, shell fragments, barbed wire posts....and it was really cool seeing these objects in the setting they were found in, being handled and not behind barriers like in a museum, a little like seeing the guns in the barn in Normandy.

One of my favorite things that we saw in the tunnels was the only piece of graffiti there that they are almost completely sure is original. It is a maple leaf, back then we were still under British rule and wore British uniforms, but we were distinguishable by the maple leaf worn on the uniforms, so the maple leaf was already considered a symbol of Canada. They have a problem with the authenticity of graffiti because the tunnels used to be open to the public to go without a guide, so people could chip off the original graffiti or add their own. They are almost completely sure that the maple leaf is original because they have found ones like it in other tunnels that have never been open to the public.

Erin told us a story that I found particularly interesting. There was a runner on the German side that is very well known now that had been injured in the days preceding the battle for Vimy Ridge and was not there the day of. If he had been later history might have been very different, considering that in combat, runners have an expected lifespan of 5-7 days. His name? Adolf Hitler.

Outside of the tunnels we walked through the trenches and saw the craters left in the ground. I was amazed at how close the trenches of the two forces were. There were the craters left by the shell, but there were also larger craters from explosions in the tunnels under ground and they are huge! I am impressed by nature's ability to recover from something so horrendous. Most of the battle fields have grassed over and there are even wild flowers growing in some places. The Canadian Government has planted trees on the battle fields, I think to help stabilize the soil and to give shelter for the other plants, but they planted a specific kind of pine tree there because it loses its lower branches and they anted people to be able to see what the land looks like. The way the trees have grown has also reflected the irregularity of the land below, as very few of the trees grow straight.

That story about Vimy's lawn mowers being sheep is absolutely true. We saw the sheep as we were driving up to the Memorial and we went over for a closer look after our tunnel tour. They use sheep to keep the grass short in the areas dangerous to humans because the sheep do not weigh enough to set of the left-over explosives. They are the funniest sheep I have ever seen! Many them have these long tails that look like dogs' tails, we joked that they were wolves in sheep's clothing. There are several that looked recently sheared and there are others that look like they have not been sheared in years. I figure they only shear the sheep that get close enough to the fence to grab.

I think it is important for me, as a Canadian to have gone to Vimy, since it is such an important place in our history. It is the site of sacrifice and a hard won victory and we need to honor those that fought and made sacrifices for us. I think part of honoring those that fought for us is trying to understand what they did or at least to appreciate and it is easier to do this and, I feel, more appropriate to gain this knowledge through seeing objects left over or going to where it happened instead of just reading about it in a text book in a classroom.

Being at Vimy also had a more personal connection for me than just being there as a Canadian. My great-grandfather fought at Vimy Ridge, although when he came back from the war he talked very little about his experiences overseas. He went on to survive WWII as well, but after reading a copy of a report he made about one of his experiences at Vimy, I think I understand why he rarely talked about it. At that time he was Lieutenant Frank Benjamin Conrad, a Signaler in the 2nd Canadian Signals battery in the Army. He was waiting in the trenches for the first wave to go over and had been told by his officer to put down his signal equipment until it was time to go over. He started talking with another soldier from Vancouver and when his officer gave him the
1 minute warning, he bent down to pick up his gear. Just as he did that, there was an explosion overhead and a "suck" in the trench beside him, he turned to the guy beside to say, "that was close". But "he was sagging down in the trench. There was nothing left but his lower jaw. His whole head had been carried off." Those of us who have never experienced war can never fully understand what it was like, but hopefully through going to places like Vimy and seeing where it happened and first hand accounts like this one we can learn to appreciate the sacrifice that was made for us.

- Merina
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Bernard White on

My Father was gassed at Vimy Ridge ,whilst serving with the Royal Garrison Artillery,alongside the Canadians.I would like to know if there is any History of the R.G.A,Fighting there

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