France continues to pay tribute to its allies
IN last week’s column I wrote about how much April 9, 1945 — the day my uncle was killed in battle during the Second World War — affected me personally during my recent visit. But that same day 28 years earlier would impact the future of all Canadians. It is described as the day Canada became a nation. After unsuccessful attempts to capture Vimy Ridge from the German armies in the First World War, It was the Canadian forces that would launch an attack on April 9, 1917 that would be won in a matter of days. Canada’s role, and that of other Commonwealth nations, in helping defeat the German Empire is what is believed to have helped motivate the change of status England had with its former colonies, allowing us and them to become fully independent nations. With the centenary of that important battle only a year away, the importance of that victory, and our broader role in what is referred to as the Great War, you have only to look to the back of our new 20 dollar bills. There you will see depiction of the Vimy Memorial, whose twin columns soar 45 metres into the sky in the 240-acre Canadian Memorial Park, honouring that achievement, and the 66,000 who were killed in the war, including over 11,000 who have no known graves. After I left Holland, I would spend almost a week visiting the Vimy battleground and cemeteries, along with a number of others in northern France and Belgium. I travelled along a trail that is often described as the Remembrance Trail of the Great War in northern France. Whatever your age, or what you may have known about the First World War before, you cannot help but be impacted by the staggering numbers of cemeteries and monuments commemorating the sacrifices of the young men and women who gave their lives in the cause of freedom. All nations are honoured. British, French, Australian, New Zealand, Indian and even German cemeteries, along with many others, dot the landscape in this picturesque region of France. Newfoundland had not yet become a province of Canada at the time of the Great War, but responding to the slogan, “Answer the call right quickly”, they volunteered in great numbers to join and fight with the British army. They did not want to be identified or associated in any way with the Canadian forces at that time, and would serve with great honour and distinction. They took the caribou as their mascot, and while their numbers were small in comparison to the larger nations, they were known as ferocious fighters. While we well all celebrate Canada Day in three weeks, hundreds from Newfoundland and Labrador will be in France to commemorate the battle of the Somme, which began on July 1, 1916. In the attack near BeaumontHamel, described by historians as a devastating failure, nearly 20,000 British soldiers were killed, and the Newfoundland Regiment was, for the most part, wiped out when only 68 uninjured soldiers were able to answer the call afterwards. This dedication to the memory of those who fought and died is an annual event on July 1, but this year it will be especially poignant as thousands from around the world will attend. Not far away at the Newfoundland Memorial Park, most will go to the salute the caribou atop its perch overlooking the trenches where these Newfoundlanders fought so bravely in a lost cause. Every stop on this remembrance journey brought its own bold and introspective depictions of the different realities of war, but three were highlights for me. In a tour of the network of chalk-quarry tunnels, unknown to the German army, our guide related how 24,000 British soldiers were hidden in these underground cavities until they poured out in mass to execute a surprise attack on the Germans during the Battle of Arras. The Wellington Quarry tunnels in Arras are especially well worth the exploration. The time spent in this dank and dark shelter must have been excruciating for those soldiers as they awaited the signal to leave, hoping that the surprise strategy would work in their favour. A second highlight pointed out the humanity of both sides in the midst of a most terrible conflict. Today, at the sight of what has become known as the Christmas truce of 1914, soccer balls are left in memory of that event that seemed incongruous with the reality of the times. Both sides believed the war would be short. So on Christmas Day 1914 in Ploegstreet in Belgium, with troops facing each other in trenches only a few metres apart, they began exchanging Cognac and chocolates. This led to a friendly soccer match between the British and the Germans in the fields between the trenches. The Germans would win the match 3-2 before each went back into cover to resume fighting for the better part of another four years. The third was the moving memorial tribute at the Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium. Called the Last Post Ceremony, it has taken place every evening since 1928, except for the period in the Second World War, when Belgium was occupied by the Germans. By pure happenstance, on June 2, the day we were there, the ceremony was the in honour of the 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles. Exactly 100 years before, on June 2, 1916, they were badly decimated in the battle of Sorrel, when out of their strength of 702 men, 626 were killed or wounded.
As the ceremony ended with the bugle playing of O Canada, it not likely there were many of those Canadians in attendance who were not affected emotionally. Estimates vary but it is believed there were more than 17 million military and civilian deaths from both sides, with another 20 million wounded during the entire period of the First World War. With those numbers it is easy to gloss over the fact that each and every one of those casualties impacted many millions more. Spouses, children and parents, all who would bear the brunt of those losses for the rest of their lives. Northern France is an exceptional region to visit today. The people continue to pay their respects to the many nations and individuals who helped secure their freedom. But out of the mud and clay, all that was left behind from the bombings and firepower of the war in many cases, they have rebuilt a thriving continuum of interesting cities and cultural attractions that go beyond the monuments and headstones that mark the graves of those who fell. The gothic Notre Dame Cathedral in Amiens, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, stands as a defiant reminder that the people could rebuild their lives notwithstanding the impact of the war on the rest of their city. The sister to the Louvre in Paris, only open since December 2012 in the city of