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

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