Vis­it­ing Vimy

One fam­ily’s trip to the fa­mous WW I mon­u­ment left them feel­ing pa­tri­otic and very grate­ful

Our Canada - - News - By Sharon Mcdon­ald, Saska­toon

A Euro­pean va­ca­tion pro­vided one fam­ily the op­por­tu­nity to ex­press their pa­tri­o­tism with a visit to the Cana­dian Na­tional Vimy Memo­rial.

In the sum­mer of 2010, my hus­band Shane and I, along with two of our chil­dren, Matthew and Kate­lyn—then 18 and 16 re­spec­tively, de­cided to take a fam­ily trip to Europe. Matthew was, and still is, very in­ter­ested in the his­tory of both world wars, and while in France, we took a one-day bus tour to visit the Vimy Ridge Na­tional His­toric Site of Canada.

This was a very mov­ing and en­light­en­ing ex­pe­ri­ence for us as Cana­di­ans. I re­mem­bered learn­ing in school that Cana­di­ans had made sig­nif­i­cant contributions in help­ing the Al­lied pow­ers de­feat the Ger­mans in World War I. How­ever, be­ing on the very ground where the bat­tles oc­curred re­ally brought home the sac­ri­fice of our Cana­dian sol­diers and their fam­i­lies dur­ing that dif­fi­cult time.

The his­toric memo­rial site in­cludes the front- line trenches where the Ger­man and Cana­dian sol­diers faced off against one an­other. The ground in the en­tire area is cov­ered with craters left from the ar­tillery bom­bard­ment, and some sur­round­ing fields are still fenced off with warn­ings about un­det­o­nated de­vices. What must it have been like for those sol­diers to wit­ness such dev­as­ta­tion?

Be­ing some­what naive about

war, I didn’t re­al­ize the im­mense work in­volved in pre­par­ing for bat­tle. The trenches are four to five feet deep and run for many kilo­me­tres along the front line. Be­hind these trenches, Cana­dian sol­diers built an ex­ten­sive tun­nel sys­tem to ferry sup­plies and personnel to the front line.

On April 9, 1917, the Cana­dian troops, af­ter crouch­ing in the tun­nel sys­tem for 36 hours, burst forth from the tun­nel and pushed the Ger­mans back me­tre by me­tre. By the next day, the Cana­dian troops had ac­com­plished their ob­jec­tive of cap­tur­ing the 14-kilo­me­tre-long es­carp­ment back from the Ger­mans.

Also lo­cated in the his­toric park is the mon­u­ment to the Cana­dian sol­diers killed in France dur­ing World War I. The mon­u­ment bears the names of 11,285 Cana­dian sol­diers who died in France and who have no known graves. More than 66,000 Cana­di­ans died dur­ing the Great War. The mon­u­ment is im­mense and pow­er­ful, vis­i­ble from quite a distance in the French coun­try­side.

Part of the mon­u­ment also in­cludes a sculp­ture of Mother Canada— it’s very mov­ing and brought tears to my eyes as I thought how dif­fi­cult it must have been for rel­a­tives of those sol­diers lost dur­ing the war.

More than 7,000 Cana­dian sol­diers are buried within a 20-kilo­me­tre ra­dius of the mon­u­ment, and vis­it­ing the ceme­ter­ies is a sober­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. All the Com­mon­wealth ceme­ter­ies are man­aged by the Com­mon­wealth War Graves Com­mis­sion, so they all look sim­i­lar. The tomb­stones are iden­ti­cally shaped, with em­blems de­pict­ing ei­ther the coun­try or reg­i­ment of the sol­dier. Planted be­tween every sec­ond tomb­stone is a rose bush so that at some point dur­ing the day the sun­light casts the shadow of a rose on each grave.

Al­most 100 years af­ter the end of World War I, some graves are still adorned with newly placed me­men­tos from fam­ily mem­bers who have vis­ited the graves of lost loved ones.

For Matthew, since he knew so much more about the his­tory of the world wars and the de­tails of the bat­tles, be­ing there brought that his­tory to life. He is cur­rently in the Nether­lands and has al­ready booked a ticket to at­tend the 100th an­niver­sary cer­e­mony at Vimy Ridge this year.

Kate­lyn was less en­thu­si­as­tic about vis­it­ing the mon­u­ment at first, but af­ter­wards she said how moved she was and that it gave her a huge ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the sac­ri­fices that were made. When she re­turned to school that fall, they had a Re­mem­brance Day ser­vice and she went up to per­son­ally thank the vet­er­ans who were in at­ten­dance.

As for me, I was left with an im­mense feel­ing of grat­i­tude to those sol­diers for their sac­ri­fice. It’s thanks to them we can all live in this won­der­ful and free coun­try of Canada. n

On the grounds of the Cana­dian Na­tional Vimy Memo­rial are (clock­wise from left): The statue of Mother Canada; the Vimy Mon­u­ment; a Com­mon­wealth ceme­tery.

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