For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by the First World War. Perhaps, in part, this is because my grandfather headed to France with the British Expeditionary Force at the start of the engagement. Mostly though, I think it is because such tremendous loss of life in appalling battle conditions wrought so much social change.
As I ploughed through history books, watched documentaries, absorbed period dramas then, more recently, was lured (along with millions of others) into the TV world of Downton Abbey, WWI took on greater clarity. From a muddled and confusing series of political interactions and reactions that took place in the then-countries of Europe, to the involvement of nations thousands of miles away, on to Canada’s role in the 1914-1918 war, it is all laced with horror, pity and sheer disbelief at what happened.
Sadly, a death in our family took us to Europe last Christmas, and with the somber occasion behind us, we decided to drive to Normandy, France, and visit some of the memorials that I had always longed to see – in particular our nation’s grand Memorial at Vimy Ridge. Of course, I had read about the monument, and seen pictures of it, and I expected something quite spectacular. In actuality, that turned out to be an understatement.
Some 8km north of Arras, we wound our way through verdant green fields, small quiet villages seeing well sign-posted battle fields, war graves, monuments and dedications to fallen soldiers and local people at every turn. The Vimy Memorial’s twin pylons, representing France and Canada, partners in arms, rise above the ridge and can be seen from miles away. It was very windy, wet, huge dark clouds scudded across the landscape, and it was bone-chillingly cold. The vast monument gleamed, wet and shiny, stark and frigid; it was very quiet walking towards it. I felt in awe of this magnificent place; I felt pride in its sheer beauty; I felt shame and sadness, and a deep sense of loss.
Atop the front wall, a female figure, carved from a single 30-tonne block, Canada Bereft or Mother Canada faces out over the Douai Plains. The expression on her face and her stance ooze sadness and despair, and it was not easy to look at her. Equally steeped in despair are the figures representing Canada’s mourning parents; grief is shown in the bowed heads and the hands restlessly gripping at fabric. Anguish is etched in every line of the figures gracing the monument as they symbolize the breaking of swords, Canada’s sympathy for the helpless, the defenders, truth, justice, peace, charity, honour, knowledge, and the spirit of sacrifice. Presented in a seamless list are the names of 11,285 Canadians killed in France and whose final resting place is unknown. The monument is vast and leaves one in no doubt as to the intense continuing solemnity and sadness that it represents.
Opened in 1936, the monument was designed by Canadian sculptor Walter Seymour Allard and it was about 11 years in the making. The 30-metre pylons and figures contain almost 6,000 tonnes of limestone. But first, it took almost three years to clear the 107 hectare site of unexploded bombs, shells and grenades. Indeed, there are signs posted throughout the area warning of the dangers still to be found in the turbulently undulating landscape the result of artillery bombardment and mine craters.
Now, visitors can take guided tours and walk through restored trenches, including the Grange Subway, which is about 800 metres and took the reserve lines to the front line. Sticking to the marked pathways, it is possible to walk quite extensively through the grassy mounds surrounding the monument. Canadian students are employed to work during opening season at the Vimy Ridge National Historic Site of Canada, but on that wet, windy December day, the office was closed.
Another place, fairly close by, is another tribute to our lost soldiers, albeit that at the time Newfoundland was not a part of Canada. The 30-hectare site of the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial is about 9 km north of the town of Albert. A bronze caribou, emblem of the regiment, stands atop a rocky knoll that features rock and shrubs native to Newfoundland. This is one of the few sites where the trench lines of a WWI battlefield can be clearly seen. The steel uprights that supported some of the entrenchments are still sticking up out of the ground above the grass, which now covers the churned-up terrain.
There is simply too much to say about the memorials in France to Canadians in and of the Great War. It is comforting to know that thousands visit the battlefields every year, and pay homage at the monuments. It is an honour to see the Canadian flag aloft in the great cathedral at Amiens and read another country’s thanks to those Canadians who gave their lives in the war. It is a wonder that anyone who had an ancestor fight in that war is here today.
“To the valour of their countrymen in the Great War and in memory of their sixty thousand dead this monument is raised by the people of Canada” (inscription on the monument at Vimy Ridge)
NOVEMBER 2012 SENIOR LIVING MAGAZINE
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