Episode 350 – Vimy Ridge Through A Canadian Lens: Canadians in WWI Belgium & France

Sign at the Entrance to the Visitor Centre at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial, officially opened April 2017, 100 years after the battle fought
April 9-12, 1917.

Just last week, Ted and I watched the latest movie version of All Quiet On The Western Front , the film adaptation of the 1928 German novel “Im Westens Nichts Neues” (literally, “nothing new in the West”) by Erich Maria Remarque, a German World War 1 Veteran. The first film adaptation, in 1930, won an Academy Award; it was also a made-for-TV film in 1979. This newest 2022 Netflix version is hauntingly vivid in its depiction of a group of German soldiers on the Western Front during the last year of the war.

There is nothing glamourous about this novel or movie; it is all death and futility, and the hubris of the German command, with occasional moments of camaraderie and empathy among the individual troops. After watching it, we were left astonished at the idea that any soldier could have returned home “whole”, whether or not they were physically so.

For two days we have been at that Western Front, where from August 2, 1914 until the Armistice of November 11, 1918 more than 4 MILLION soldiers died (including over 40,000 Germans in the 10 day period from July 1-10 alone, a statistic referenced in the movie.) This is really where the outcome of the war was ultimately decided.

Canadian troops were most active at the 2nd Battle of Ypres, the Somme, Paschendaele, and the Battle of Vimy Ridge. Ted and I booked a private tour – just the 2 of us and a guide – focussed on the 4 battalions of Canadians who fought as part of the Commonwealth forces at Vimy Ridge.

At the beginning of World War 1, in 1914, Canada as a country was only 47 years old. Newfoundland had not even joined Confederation yet. Despite that, the war became Canada’s defining moment: the point after which it gained respect as an independent country on the world stage. More than 650,000 Canadians and Newfoundlanders served in the war; over 66,000 died and more than 172,000 were wounded, at a time when Canada’s entire population was only 7.2 million. Their contributions and sacrifices earned Canada a separate signature on the Treaty of Versailles that formally ended the war.

Timeline of events taken from the Canadian Veterans website Veterans.gc.ca

Our incredible guide for the first day was Carl Ooghe, who we booked through Tours By Locals. Carl had more information to share than I can possibly remember, but I’ll try to include as many of the relevant facts as I can, inspired by Ted’s photos.

En route to Vimy, we drove through vast areas of lush, flat green farmland in Belgium. “Flat” was important, because that’s why the Germans chose to march through the country, as the path of least physical resistance; the ferocity of resistance of the vastly outnumbered Belgian army and people significantly slowed but could not ultimately prevent the Germans from reaching France. It did, however, delay them enough that instead of completing their Western campaign and then turning to the east and Russia, they ended up having to fight simultaneously on both fronts.

So why Vimy Ridge? First of all, because of its strategic advantage; it is the highest vantage point in the area, overlooking the French town of Arras on one side, and miles and miles of lower land in the other. Whoever held the ridge could see their opponent coming, and attack or defend at will. Then, because of its resources. The area is home to huge coal mines, and the giant coal slag heaps that exist even today provided fuel for the German war machine.

The fighting here went on for years, leading up to the April 1917 battle in which the Canadians took the ridge, and the land itself bears eternal mute witness. I found myself on the verge of tears as we approached the 250 acres that are now actually part of Canada, gifted by the French after the war. The landscape is now treed and green, but the rolling “hills” are shell and mine craters – the sheer number of them is almost unimaginable – and all the trees date from after the war.

We started our tour by booking a time at the Visitor Centre for one of the young Canadians working there to take us on a tour of the trenches and tunnels, and then headed directly to the monument itself to capture daylight pictures in between rain showers.

The visitor centre (that’s Carl walking in with me), and a map showing Vimy’s location along with the red and blue lines depicting, respectively, the German and Allied front lines.

The Canadian National Vimy Monument was designed by Canadian sculptor and architect Walter Seymour Allward, whose design won first prize in the competition to create a lasting memorial to the Canadian sacrifices at Vimy Ridge. It took 11 years to build, and contains almost 6,000 tonnes of Croatian limestone, resting on a bed of 11,000 tons of concrete, reinforced with hundreds of tons of steel. Its size is truly majestic.

The west (back) of the monument, framed by Canadian and French flags. The twin white pylons represent Canada and France. One bears maple leaves, and the other fleurs-de-lys.
Approaching the back of the monument. The figures at the top are Peace and Justice; below them are Truth and Knowledge. Tucked into the area between the pylons is a young dying soldier, The Spirit of Sacrifice, and The Torch Bearer.
The southeast view
The east (front) of the monument, facing the direction in which the Canadian troops advanced.
Laying a Canadian poppy at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier located at the base of the monument.

What makes this monument different from most, is that it is a monument to the soldiers, not to the victory. Carved on the walls of the monument are the names of 11,285 Canadians who died in France and whose final resting place is unknown. From the monument’s hilltop vantage point, some of the 30 cemeteries within a 20 km radius can be seen; those alone contain more than 7,000 fallen Canadian soldiers.

None of the Brooks commemorated here are related to us.

On the west side (back) of the monument are 2 figures representing mourning parents, one female and one male. Like all the figures, they were carved where they now sit. The mother (top) holds a newspaper. We learned that in Britain, when a soldier was killed or lost, their family was informed by mail, leading to a dread of the postman – but Canada was too big a country with too sparse a population for that to be practical or timely, so names of killed or lost soldiers were published in the daily newspaper. As parents, we couldn’t even imagine what that would be like.

The front of the monument features another set of figures.

The sorrowful cloaked figure of young Mother Canada, made from a single 30 tonne block of stone, stands at the front of the monument overlooking Douai Plain, site of the deciding battle of Vimy Ridge.

On the left pylon, the figures of Faith and Hope; on the right Honour and Charity. Between the pylons are the Torch Bearer and Sacrifice.

At the bottom right of the monument, “Sympathy of Canadians for the Helpless”

Having spent almost an hour at the monument itself, it was time to tour the trenches. Our guide for this was Jess Lepine, a recent University of Toronto graduate with a keen interest in history and an incredible empathy for what the young soldiers here experienced 105 years ago.

The Western Front was trench warfare: a place where the two sides were almost at a stalemate, with the territory changing hands over and over in bloody battles. They were literally “entrenched” in their positions.

What I didn’t understand before our tour was that there was an entire underground war fought here. Once the armies decided to dig trenches in which to live and from which to wage war, each side also began digging tunnels toward the opposing trenches, with the purpose of planting and detonating explosives BELOW the trenches. It could even mean that opponents could meet underground while digging toward each other, and engaging in hand-to-hand combat in dark narrow tunnels, using only the shovels and picks that were their work tools. It’s terrifying to contemplate.

Entering the trenches.
In the trenches. Of course, during WW1 there was no “ceiling”, the walls were not reinforced with steel beams, and light was limited to one bulb about every 100 feet (imagine living – and trying to write letters home – in that constant semi-darkness and damp). Jess turned off the “modern” lights so that we could see what it was like.

Top: Looking down into a steep tunnel being dug below trench level.
Bottom: an old corroded air pump to deliver breathable air to the tunnellers and explosives handlers.

From Vimy Ridge Carl drove us to Cabaret-Rouge British Cemetery, the largest Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery in the Arras area, where more than 7,660 service en are buried or commemorated – over half of them unidentified.

Top left: all of the Commonwealth WW1 cemeteries have a memorial plinth engraved with the same words, chosen by Rudyard Kipling: “Their Name Liveth For Evermore”. Bottom left: just 2 of the Canadian graves, one unnamed, and the other identified.

In the case of Canadian soldiers, one of the challenges in identification was the use in the early years of the war of leather dog-tags with information written on them in ink. Canada had no standing army, and no experience with identification methods – those tags might have bern enough if the war really had been “over by Christmas” as originally predicted.

I felt very humbled laying a poppy at the former grave of an unknown Canadian soldier whose remains were removed on 25 May 2000 and now lie interred at the National War Monument in Ottawa.

We were fortunate to drive past the Vimy Memorial again just at sunset, to see how the white stone turns pink as daylight fades.

The Canadian monument at Vimy Ridge is featured on the reverse of the Canadian $20 bill. Ted’s photo (top) shows the monument at sunset.

We had one last stop to make, for the playing of The Last Post at Menin Gate, where the names of over 55,000 Commonwealth soldiers whose bodies were never found, including 6,983 Canadians, are engraved.

The Gate is located on the Menin Road, where over the course of the war 100s of thousands of troops walked when returning to the field after leave in Ieper (the Flemish spelling of Ypres), so it seemed an appropriate place to commemorate so many when Britain was deciding on a memorial location.

We will be back here tomorrow, but in daylight.

After Ieper was completely destroyed, and the town evacuated, only 2 priests and the Ieper Fire Brigade remained behind. Beginning in 1926, and continuing every night since then (with the exception of during WWII), The Last Post is played under the gate at 8 p.m. by a member of the current Fire Brigade.

It was a long and intense day, especially with our morning tour of Bruges, but we wouldn’t have foregone a single moment.



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