The Somme and Vimy

Trip Start Aug 04, 2009
Trip End Aug 17, 2009

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Flag of France  , Nord-Pas-de-Calais,
Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The morning promised a beautiful & sunny day, as we drove into Arras to check out a market on the Place des Heroes – I don't believe it was their regular market day (this was a Wednesday), but the square was full with household wares, clothing, fruit and vegetable stands, fish & cheese sellers and butchers.  We saw an intact, skinned rabbit and I wish I had taken a picture, but I do try not to look too much like a tourist sometimes!

We decided to go to Beaumont-Hamel first, which is south of Arras and then make our way back north of Arras, to Vimy and Neuville St-Vaast.  John’s great-grandfather was in this area in 1917 as part of the 26th (New Brunswick) Battalion, and was seriously wounded by artillery while in Neuville Saint-Vaast.  We knew the village was leveled by 1918, and there wouldn’t be many remains from that era, but still something that we just had to do!  We used the GPS, but somehow got off track and we had to do some backtracking, but any drive through the French countryside is extremely enjoyable to me.

Anyone that bothers to read this knows the significance of the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial and the first day of the Battle of the Somme, July 1st, 1916.  The site is very nicely preserved, there is a modern visitor center and museum, a fitting memorial to the Newfoundland Regiment including a bronze caribou and plaque, with the caribou raised high and surrounded by wildflower indigenous to Newfoundland, preserved trenches (some of the best preserved in Europe).  There are also three smaller GWCG sites within the Memorial Park.  The visitor center is run by Canadian students, who spend 3 or 4 months as student guides at this site or Vimy Ridge, a program through Veterans Affairs Canada.  These girls obviously loved being there and we spent some time talking to them, about what they do there, where they were from, etc.

We spent a couple of hours there, walking the perimeter of the field and stopping at the cemeteries.  There are still lots of danger signs and you are not to walk off the marked paths.  Near the bottom end of the park is a memorial to the 51st (Highlander) Scottish Division, and I was very impressed with the sculpture of the Highlander, and it is in quite a nice setting, overlooking the Y Ravine.

We felt like we were ready to move, as the day was starting to get warm and we wanted to be back in the A/C for a bit.  Our GPS lead us to the D919, past Serre Road Cemeteries No. 1 & 2.  We stopped to take a look at Cemetery No. 2; its appearance from the road caught our attention.  This cemetery was packed full with lavender, and, again, the views of the farmlands surrounding the cemetery were very peaceful. 

Before starting a tour of the tunnels and visitor center at 'The Canadian National Vimy Memorial Site Visit’, we drove through the villages of Neuville Saint-Vaast and Vimy.  The villages are quite small, and have lots of buildings obviously built after 1918 – felt like a suburb back home!  We picked up some sandwiches and drinks in a corner store in Vimy and ate in the car at the parking lot – obviously we are not ‘foodies’ and would rather take the time looking at things than eating in restaurants.  We both found the tunnels preserved under Vimy really neat, amazing the shape they are still in, and it was a nice respite from the heat.  We also were amazed to be able to see the lines of preserved trenches.  After some research, we knew in advance this line of trenches was where the 26th (New Brunswick) Battalion had spent some time in early 1917.  Incredible that this was the line that was preserved!  The actual tour provided by the visitors center was somewhat lacking, and I found some of the others in the group rather annoying and were made it difficult to hear.  Another reason why John & I prefer to travel alone!  The visitor center had some information and artifacts related to the campaign, but I think by that time I was getting tired and wasn’t absorbing.

The day was starting to get overcast, but still a really warm breeze.  We wanted to see some of the British and Canadian cemeteries that are right around Vimy Ridge, one being Givenchy Road.  There was a lot of sheep grazing around just outside the perimeter walls of Givenchy.  I read the sheep are used by the French government to help clear the mines!  What I had been noticing, in contrast to WWII cemeteries, is the over representation of Unknown Solider graves.  I found it so sad to think that so many people never knew what happened to their loved ones.  Or that the soldiers knew that, if killed, they may never have a grave.  But, bodies are still being found and some are actually being identified and you do notice newer burials at some of the cemeteries.

After leaving Vimy Ridge, we made a left at the junction and went to the Neuville Saint-Vaast German cemetery.  We noticed it the night before, and wanted to come back when it was open.  Again, what a contrast with the Allied cemeteries; you get a very different feeling there.  It is difficult to comprehend the remains of over 44,000 soldiers are in that one cemetery, sometimes four names to one cross.  Any cemetery is sad, but the German cemeteries seemed to be worse.

The last stop of the day was the remains of the St. Eloi Abbey, which we spotted in the distance the day before.  The Abbey was hit during the war, and all that remains looks like a skeleton, to me.  There wasn’t too much to see besides some signage out front and we took a few photos and poked around a bit.

We went back into Arras for a quick supper and picked up some things for the next day’s breakfast at a grocery store.  We needed another quiet night to rest and organize, because the next day we were headed to Paris!
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