25 June 2013

Vimy Ridge: Canada's great sacrifice

For nearly 20 years I’ve been zooming up and down the A26 from Calais to other parts of France. And each time I spotted the sober sign saying “Mémorial Canadien de Vimy”, I vowed I would stop one day and pay a proper visit to this monument commemorating one of the most significant battles of the First World War.

It took a recent overnight visit to nearby Arras to make me realise how easy it is to take in this evocative slice of history in a portion of land ceded by France to Canada. Restored trenches from that 1917 battle wind through one large section of the 107-hectare site, where grassy sections are pockmarked by shell holes. Signs everywhere warn you not to walk in areas where there are still unexploded munitions from 96 years ago. They can’t even use mowers to cut the grass, leaving that job instead to flocks of sheep. (Presumably they’re too light to trigger any explosions – one hopes.)

The horrors of trench warfare aren’t difficult to imagine when you see how close the German line came to the Allies’ defences. It was primarily Canadians who fought in April 1917 to take this vital ridge that had been stubbornly held by the Germans since the early days of the war.

Their success was a pivotal point in the war as well as in Canada’s young history, although the price paid for it was 3,598 dead Canadian soldiers. Their memories are kept alive in the quietly impressive monument designed by Canadian sculptor Walter Seymour Allward. Two towering pylons stand on a giant concrete base, where names of the 11,285 Canadian soldiers killed “somewhere in France” are carved. Among the sculpted figures is a woman who represents the young nation mourning her dead. Its simplicity is eloquent and almost unbearably moving.

Teams of young bilingual Canadians give informative tours of the site, mainly to other Canadians who have grown up with the story of Vimy Ridge. They all want to see for themselves the sacrifice their countrymen made for them nearly a century ago – in this corner of France that is forever Canada.

Images © Adam Batterbee

09 June 2013

Normandy: Blood, toil, tears and sweat

Normandy's D-Day beaches have a tight grip on the mentality of much of Western Europe. And rightly so, considering the vital importance of the June 1944 Normandy landings that finally hastened the end of the Second World War. Even the countless coaches of tourists trudging along coast can't diminish the impact of seeing first hand the scenes of such bravery, ingenuity and, ultimately, horror.

It was unseasonably chilly when I visited, just two days before the 69th anniversary of the D-Day landings. The wind was quite fierce along the Pointe du Hoc between Utah and Omaha Beach, the desolate spot where US Rangers took on the Germans on a rocky outcrop. The gun emplacements are still there, along the with giant craters created by falling bombs. I've seen photos of children playing in the gaping holes, oblivious to their significance. On the day I visited, only a few people were walking sombrely in the dips and hollows, visualising what the soldiers had to endure.

Just east of here is Omaha Beach, where an enormous, stark memorial on the beach is flanked by a modern sculpture that sits in the sea. A middle-aged American man wearing a Vietnam War veteran's jacket stood at the foot of the memorial, lost in thought.

Most visitors head straight to Omaha Beach's American cemetery and memorial, where the simple white crosses of the gravestones stretch into the distance towards the sea. The memorial museum is intensely moving and enlightening – and doesn't just focus on the American aspect of the operation. I thought I knew a lot about the invasion, but, thanks to one display in particular, I learnt about the vital role of the Ruperts, the 500 dummy parachutists dropped during Operation Titanic to fool the Germans. I shan't think of the name Rupert in quite the same way again.

Further east was Juno Beach, where the Canadian soldiers played their valiant role in the invasion. There is no cemetery here; in its place is an evocative and simply eloquent memorial consisting of countless names of the dead on blue plaques. On the way to the beach is a grey sculpture showing Paul Verlaine's poem "Chanson d'Automne", which was the signal the BBC used to alert the French resistance to the invasion.

Summertime on the Normandy coast brings out the crowds on the beach, eager to bask in the sun. It also evokes the memory of so many thousands of Allied men and women, whose sacrifice is inescapable.

Images © Adam Batterbee