Vimy Memo­rial and Douai Plains two hours from Paris; Beau­mont-Hamel also nearby

Calgary Herald - - TRAVEL - SU­SAN CALDER Su­san Calder is the author of two mys­tery nov­els set in Cal­gary. Please visit her at­san­

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.

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