Lest we Forget....

Trip Start May 31, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of France  ,
Saturday, June 16, 2007

In 1918 the Great War was dubbed 'the war to end all wars'.  Out of all the bloody, unjust and pointless wars in the history of the world, how horrific and destructive this one must have been to eclipse all other wars.  Countries from every continent intervened in Europe where the combatants mobilized all their military, industrial and human resources in a scale that was never thought possible.  No one really knows for sure how many people died in World War I but historians estimate that 10 million men died in the battlefields.  It is in those same battlefields that commemorative monuments stand today in remembrance of the fallen, where many visitors still lament to themselves: how did this happen?
As David raced us from Arras to the Canadian Memorial at Vimy Ridge, I wondered what Canadians had to do with this whole European affair in 1914.  Instead of asking, I allowed David to focus on his frantic driving and gazed out the window as I realized how little I knew about all this.  
The site at Vimy Ridge looked more like a small national park.  The quiet road ran through a wooded area with tall thick trunks that I would've thought were Sequoias were we not in northern France. Sheep in small herds were grazing everywhere, blissfully unsuspecting that the red signs posted everywhere warned of un-detonated explosives.  
The trees suddenly cleared revealing open land; green meadows and farmlands, as well as towns from miles away could be seen from this very spot.  This was Vimy Ridge.  No wonder it was such an important battle: gaining control of this stretch of land would give the occupier a panoptic view of the surrounding land, hence being able to defend and attack with an advantage. But it wasn't the strategic geography that took us aback, it was the compelling view of the memorial at the peak of the ridge that silenced us.
Two pylons stood tall and white, side by side on a base of pale limestone.  It was still very cloudy but as we approached the huge monument, past the lone Canadian flag, the sun began to shine from someplace and the sky seemed to light up as if it were trying to design a rainbow.  The stone of the monument lit up like white flame as did the figures representing the mourners of those lost.  Their faces hung low upon their bare chests.  The male mourner was the most heart wrenching: his face was turned away from his body in melancholy but his right hand was clutched as if in utmost agony.  
Up the stairs and into the landing, it was hard not to feel as if this were some sort of dream place.  The immaculate white stone of the monument against the deep lavender of the sky seemed as surreal as the events that took place here more than 90 years ago, in 1917.  We walked around the two pylons, towards the back of the monument where the pale statue of a cloaked figure stood on the edge of the monument and the ridge itself, looking on towards the land and the towns below her.  Her face was woefully turned downwards, her cheek resting on her hand.   This saddened figure represents Canada, a young, beautiful nation mourning the loss of all her sons. The sight of her alone made my eyes water, and although all these dismal images were representing an unbearable sadness, I couldn't help but feel peace here.

I ran my hand through the names of the fallen Canadians etched on the stones, of which were 11,285 names.  David explained how most soldiers were never really found because they had been torn to shreds by bombs.  The bodies that were recovered were all buried in cemeteries all around this area.  
We walked away from the monument to the other side of the site, where we took a guided tour of the trenches and underground passages secretly built by the Canadian corps to defeat the Germans.  We walked through the narrow passage ways carved out from the chalky earth and heard the stories of the soldiers and what they went through to obtain their victory. Rusty helmets and rum basins were left behind on the ground, bearing clear witness of the people that occupied this place.
The Canadian division was called on by the British Crown to help the campaign against the Germans in France. Being part of the Commonwealth as they were, they launched the largest artillery barrage in history up to that point.  The victory at Vimy Ridge forced the Germans to retreat to the lower plains that were far more difficult to defend.  This battle was a turning point in World War I history.  
I was still a long way from understanding the reasons behind the First World War, but I was closer to seeing the suffering it brought, even though I could never fully understand it. As we were leaving the ridge I watched as two elderly men slowly approached the monument. They stopped for a moment and looked around them, in silence, as if overwhelmed by the memories.  They probably weren't veterans as they'd have to be over 100 years old, but perhaps they had lost someone to the war, or been closely affected by it in their childhood, or maybe they were just there to learn and remember, like we were. 
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