On a clear afternoon headed north from Charles de Gaulle airport to Vimy Ridge, signs all clearly marked for the Canadian memorial, we drove through a tree lined lane to the visitor’s centre, where we we met Joel Cleroux, the son of Ottawa friends, who is working as a guide.
There are fourteen young Canadians working here and at Beaumont Hamel, a few miles away. After touring the information centre and getting a sense of the lay-out of this impressive site, we are taken to the tunnels and trenches- tunnels stretched for seven kilometres to the base at St Elois, elaborate systems to move guns and shells, food and men. Remarkably preserved, saw a maple leaf scrawled on the wall.
The trenches are only about forty metres from the Germans protecting the famous ridge. In early April 1917 over several days four Canadian divisions successfully advanced to capture the ridge which commands a height of land. It was not just a military breakthrough, but also the forging of Canadian morale – the first major encounter in which Canadians fought together as a unit, under the command of Julian Byng, who would go on to become Canada’s governor general.
The land today or covered with trees, and sheep graze all over the extensive property, whose main feature are large holes and craters left by bombs and shells. The monument that took eleven years to build stands at the top of the ridge, truly breathtaking – two white granite towers, with statues at the very top, at the base of the monument are the names of the thousands of Canadians who died in France without graves. We lost four thousand men at Vimy, and 60,000 during the long four year war that took place along a line of battle stretching from Belgium to Verdun.
Standing over the valley below is the statue of a woman in mourning – looking up from below her eyes are stark with grief. It is quiet, and an incredibly moving site. Meeting more young Canadians we are given directions through the French countryside to Beaumont Hamel, the site of the Newfoundland attack of July 1, 1916 in which thousands died. A haunting caribou statue stands over the pockmarked landscape, where “misinformation” led young Newfoundlanders to their death. The famous Danger Tree, stark against the sky marks the spot where so many died. The visitor’s centre has many uniforms for the short, thin lads who scrambled to the top only to be mowed down by German machine guns ready and waiting for them.
Driving the narrow roads we come across gravesite after gravesite, magnicently maintained, tended with flowers and wreathes even as we approach the hundredth birthday of this awful conflict. My grandmother Nell lost two brothers on the Somme, Arthur and Bobby, for whom I was named.
Spent the night in Amiens, whose cathedral is full of memorials to those lost in battle. The carnage of that war is almost impossible to comprehend – casualties all told in the millions.
Had spent the week in Geneva, where the post war generation tried to create a world without war, only to head to the next conflict whose devastation was in the end even greater.
A week of memory and reflection. “Make peace, not war” is not an empty slogan. It is the sheer destructiveness of conflict, the courage and sacrifice of those ready to fight and die, and the eerie calm of the countryside that will remain with me.
Bob Rae is a former member of Parliament and former premier of Ontario.