This afternoon we visited Vimy Ridge – the memorial, the tunnels, the trenches, the information centre and the cemeteries. Beyond doubt, this is one of the highlights of this tour and it makes us all very proud to be Canadian. It may sound biased, and it likely is, but in my view at least, this is the best memorial on the Western Front.
The successful attack at Vimy Ridge undertaken by the Canadian Corps on Easter Monday, April 9, 1917 is considered by most historians to be a defining moment in Canadian history. Attacking together for the first time, four Canadian divisions produced the first unequivocal Allied success of the war. That helped Canada emerge from under the shadow of Great Britain, and earned her a seat at the peace conference when the war ended. It also earned Canadian troops a reputation as a formidable fighting force – some say the best-attacking troops on the Western Front.
But the victory was at a terrible cost. The heavily-fortified seven-kilometre ridge had already led to over 100,000 French casualties in two years of war. Assaulting over what amounted to an open graveyard would cost the Canadian Corp more than 10,000 killed and wounded in just 4 days. Hill 145, the highest and most important feature of Vimy Ridge, is where the Vimy Monument now stands. It was captured by a frontal bayonet charge against German machine gun positions at the height of the battle that one Canadian general later described as the “birth of a nation.”
Today Vimy Ridge is owned by the Canadian Government and maintained by Parks Canada. The Vimy Ridge Memorial itself is a stunning piece of architecture, and it dominates the landscape for miles around. Carved from a single stone, it was officially opened in 1936. A little known fact is that just four years later, in 1940 when France was overrun by the German army, reports in the Allied press said that the memorial had been destroyed. To prove these reports were false Adolf Hitler made a point of visiting Vimy Ridge, and posting an armed guard on the memorial site to prevent it from being damaged.
Standing by the memorial itself one immediately understands its strategic importance. You can see for miles here across the plains of the Douai Valley. The ground around the site has been left largely undisturbed, and there are trenches and shellholes clearly visible in the grass. In one location the trenches have been restored and fortified with concrete “sandbags”, and you can walk along them. From the fire steps there you can easily see the German trenches which are not more than 20 yards away. What was once no-man’s land is now grassed-covered and grazed by sheep, but the site still contains restricted areas with live munitions almost 100 years after the battle.
One of the most interesting parts of our visit was when we descended into the Grange Tunnel beneath Vimy Ridge. This is a network of underground passages around which there are guided tours hosted by Canadian university students. These had a two-fold purpose. They were used as underground protection for Canadian soldiers as they moved to the frontline. They were also used for the placing of huge underground mines beneath the German trenches. We are told that over 10 miles of tunnels were dug here with the deepest being dug to 100 feet. The tunnels became an underground city complete with kitchens, bedrooms, electricity and fresh air pumps.
On the slopes below Vimy Ridge are two Canadian War Cemeteries that we visited next. The largest one, Canadian Cemetery No. 2, contains the graves of nearly 3,000 soldiers many of whom died storming Vimy Ridge. Most of the graves are for soldiers who could not be identified. Nearby is the Givency Road Canadian Cemetery. Here one finds headstones placed very close together. We learned later that much of this cemetery is really a mass grave that was placed in a shell-hole, and that the closeness of the headstones indicates that only unidentified body parts had been found for the soldiers listed on the headstones.
In the evening we walked the main square of Arras near the Hotel d’Ville. Our feature meal was an excellent sampling of the local cuisine at a restaurant on the square called Couleur Cafe. Our hotel in Arras tonight, the Hotel de l’Univers, is a former Jesuit monastery built in the 17th century, and our room overlooks the court yard. Looking down I almost expect D’Artagnan, Athos, and the other musketeers to ride in.
Tomorrow we’ll be touring the Somme Battlefields. Looking forward to that too.
The pictures which follow are from our Vimy Ridge collection. They can also be viewed separately from the Photo Gallery menu above. Click on any image for a full description.