Mother Canada, Canadian Monument, Vimy FranceThis morning, like yesterday, was bright and sunny. I almost thought it should be more cloudy and dull, or even raining for a visit to Vimy, just so that it would feel a little bit more like it did for the soldiers in the first World War. After a breakfast of oatmeal and coffee, we set off in the car armed with Chris’s GPS. I’ve decided this is something I must have for our next trip. It will mean I can program it, then fall asleep and let Rob drive. Ah …. but I digress.We found our way to the village of Vimy, and had to stop a very old French lady to ask for directions to the Monument Canadien. She looked like she had lived through WWI. The monument is visible from quite a distance. I was able to take loads of pics that will show you just how grand it really is. We parked at the first parking lot and had the monument to ourselves until out of nowhere appeared a young Canadian student offering to be our tour guide.

She explained that unlike other war monuments this one does not celebrate the victory of war, but instead the suffering and pain of those who were lost. Mother Canada looks out over Vimy, with the monument being built at the highest point of the ridge. Although it was sunny, because it is so high up, the wind was quite biting. Surrounding the monument are craters made from artillery, which are marked off by electric fences. Sheep keep the grass short in the summer. And contrary to what Chris believed, they don’t get blown up when the walk over undetonated bombs. However, this does occur when people are building house foundations in the neighbouring communities.

Although each of the four Canadian Divisions had fought in the war, it was the first time they had fought together. The Battle of Vimy Ridge began at 5:30 a.m. on Easter Monday April 9, 1917, with some of the heaviest artillery fire of the war. Behind this, the first wave of 20,000 Canadian soldiers, each carrying up to 36 kg of equipment, advanced through the wind-driven snow and sleet into the face of deadly machine gun fire. Battalions in the first waves of the assault suffered the great numbers of casualties, but the Canadian assault proceeded on schedule. Hill 145, as the main height on the ridge was called, was taken on the morning of April 10. Two days later, the Canadians took the “Pimple,” as the other significant height on the ridge was called. The Germans fell back and the Battle of Vimy Ridge was over. The Canadians, together with the British to their south, had captured more ground, prisoners and guns than any previous British offensive of the war. Canadians would act with courage throughout the battle. Four Canadians would win the Victoria Cross, our country’s highest medal for military valour. They were: Private William Milne, Lance-Sergeant Ellis Sifton, Captain Thain MacDowell and Private John Pattison.

Canadians suffered about 11,000 casualties, of these, nearly 3,600 were fatal. By the end of WWI, Canada, a country of less than 3 million people, would have more than 600,000 service people in uniform. The conflict took a huge toll, with more than 60,000 Canadians losing their lives and 170,000 being wounded.

After the monument, we went to the visitors centre, to visit the trenches. Amazingly at this point there was only 25 m across a gaping crater (which was made by exploded an underground tunnel) between the Germans and the Canadians. We were able to walk in both countries’ trenches. Canada’s had peep holes in the observation posts, whereas the German’s didn’t. Canadians also named their trenches so that they wouldn’t get lost. The one we saw was named Grange, after a street in Toronto. Soon after, they named them alphabetically.We then took a walk to Canadian Cemetery No. 2. From a distance it looked quite small. But once you entered and saw the row upon rows of white tombstones, it became quite surreal. I walked down one aisle slowly, just reading the names to see if I could find a family name I recognized. We did, a Jackson. Not sure if it’s a relation of my brother-in-law. But he knows everyone, so I’m sure he’ll be able to tell us.

From there, we walked back to the visitor’s centre for our special Canadian tour of the tunnels. Usually they are closed until May, but because we were Canadian, they made a special tour for us and four Canadian military personnel who were also there. The tunnels were dug out of chalk, which I soon learned when I leaned on the wall with my black coat. Amazingly, the tunnels actually had electricity during the war. There were also rats, mud, and no latrines, leaving what must have been a horrible smell. But because they were 7m underground, they were protected from the artillery, which could only go down about 5m. The commanding officer had his own room, but others were 12 to a room. The troops rotated through the front lines so that nobody spent too much time in one place.

The tunnels and trenches were preserved in the 1920s while the work crews waited for the Croatian limestone to arrive for the Vimy monument. It’s really quite a unique experience, and probably even better because there were few people to spoil the moments. Something I’ll never forget.

Now, if Micha and Darcy are reading this, you have to apply for this job. Two University of Ottawa students were currently there, and said it’s a great way to see Europe. You can do short trips on weekends and then stay for a couple of months afterwards. I picked you up a brochure in case you can’t find it on line. After Vimy, we set of Bruges (the French spelling) or Brugge (the Flemish spelling). We didn’t have long there. But I knew exactly what I wanted: a panini (yum) and a super fresh Belgian waffle. Must run and get ready for supper. We’re meeting some of Debbie and Chris’s friends and heading to Mons for supper.

NEW: See the photos on flickr