France con­tin­ues to pay trib­ute to its al­lies

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - DESTINATIONS - RON PyADINUK

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

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