CANADA’S WWI BATTLEFIELDS PRESERVED IN FRANCE
Vimy Memorial and Douai Plains two hours from Paris; Beaumont-Hamel also nearby
The Canadian National Vimy Memorial towers above the Douai Plains in northern France. My husband Will, our son Matt and I approached the ridge from the west, as the Canadian troops did more than 100 years ago.
The battlefield and monument are a two-hour drive from Paris. We rented a car at the airport and based ourselves in Amiens, with its canals, huge cathedral and a museum/ home of author Jules Verne. The next day we drove through pretty countryside past too many graveyards. It seemed that every few miles a sign pointed to a cemetery for a regiment from the Allies. We stopped at several, all immaculately tended.
Our visit to Vimy began with a guided tour through the preserved tunnels, trenches and bunkers. On that sunny day, I enjoyed clambering through the open channels, which would have been miserable in the cold and rain and filled with rats. In dimly lit tunnels, we marched single file under low roofs. Matt crawled into a lookout he barely fit in and peered at us from the darkness.
My gaze was drawn to a pastoral scene beyond a border trench and barbed wire. Sheep grazed on a meadow, the land bumpy due to exploded German munitions. Buried, unexploded mines remain and make mowing the grass too dangerous for people. So the lighter sheep keep the meadow trim. The road to the monument follows another section of cratered land planted with trees to prevent erosion. We walked up the hill past fences with “keep out” notices warning of existing mines.
The memorial stands on Hill 145, the highest point on the strategic Vimy Ridge, which the Canadian Forces captured from the Germans in a four-day battle. After the war, France gave Canada 250 acres of land at the battlefield site on the condition that our country erect a monument to fallen soldiers and maintain the memorial park. Veterans Affairs Canada now handles the administration and hires Canadian students to work at the battlefield park each school term. The students share a house in a local French town, conduct tours, operate the visitors’ centre and experience this amazing opportunity for travel and learning about history first-hand. In my lifetime, I’ve read books and seen countless movies set during the Second World War. Vimy made me wish I’d visited the actual locations when I was young to better appreciate the stories of soldiers and civilians who faced death daily.
The Vimy Memorial is an awesome sight. Built of 6,000 tons of Croatian limestone, the sculptors carved 20 human figures representing peace and the defeat of militarism. Most prominent is a figure of a cloaked young woman, Canada Bereft, her head bowed to the plain far below, her hand cupped under her chin for support or in contemplation. Later I learned that the monument’s original design included a figure crushing a German helmet with his foot. This was omitted as too militaristic.
Inscribed on the monument’s outside wall are the names of thousands of Canadian soldiers killed in France whose graves are unknown.
Our next stop was the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial, the only other Canadian National Historic site located outside the country. The people of Newfoundland purchased the land in 1921 and built a memorial dedicated to their Dominion members killed during the First World War. This reminded me that at the war’s end Newfoundland was still 30 years away from joining Confederation. Beaumont-Hamel also is administered by Veterans Affairs and operated by Canadian students. The memorial features the sculpture of a caribou standing on boulders.
Unlike Vimy, the Newfoundland Regiment’s assault at Beaumont-Hamel was not a success. Once again, the goal was to capture a ridge held by German troops. After manning the trenches for 20 months of discomfort, the Newfoundlanders got their chance on July 1, 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme. The action began with the British troops exploding a mine under a German fortification, which damaged the structure but also alerted the Germans. Unaware of this, Allied command ordered the attack. Eighty per cent of the 780 men were shot down minutes after leaving the trenches. Most didn’t make it past the clump of trees in the middle of No Man’s Land. A tree still marks the spot.
We ended our tour of the region at the Musee Somme 1916 in the town of Albert. Housed in tunnels used during both world wars, the museum contains numerous artifacts, panels and dioramas depicting First World War battles and life in the trenches. I was most intrigued by a display of crafts that trench soldiers made from munition casings and other debris. During the hours of delicate work, those young men escaped boredom, misery and fears by creating art out of something horrible.
The Vimy memorial. Sculptors carved 20 human figures representing peace and the defeat of militarism.
Susan Calder walked among the trenches at Vimy. During the First World War they “would have been miserable in the cold and rain and filled with rats,” she reflects.
The Musee Somme 1916 in Albert features a display of trench art soldiers made from munition casings and debris.