A few years back, I found myself in an extraordinary position -- I was going on a dream vacation to France. When I started planning our trip, I became very focused on Paris. How could I not? France, to me, was the Louvre, gorgeous architecture, and wine with every meal.
As plans began to fall together and reservations secured, a thought dawned on us: since we're going all the way to France, why don't we visit Vimy Ridge?
Fast forward a few months, and we're boarding a train in Paris, ready to embark on our journey to the Vimy Ridge War Memorial. We were welcomed by what I can only describe as peacefulness; only the sounds of rustling leaves and swaying trees could be heard even though the grounds were full of people. It was the polar opposite, I imagined, of what was going on in that same spot in April 1917, during the Battle of Vimy Ridge.
We immediately made our way over to the Vimy Ridge Monument. My first impression was that it is gigantic and tremendously stunning. The structure is made of white marble and around its base are the names of the over 11,000 Canadian soldiers killed in France during the First World War whose bodies were never recovered (these men were officially recognized by the Canadian government to be, "missing but presumed dead").
After spending some time at the monument, we walked towards the underground tunnels, on a path lined beside a forest of very important trees. The ground from which these trees are rooted looked misshapen and unnatural. We later learned those trees were planted by the French after the war to protect and preserve the distorted earth from erosion.
The point was to keep the scarred earth exactly as it was, to preserve the memory of the war and the men who sacrificed their lives there.
In 1922, the French government gave Canada the land in and around the memorial grounds, which is now considered Canadian soil.
As we continued to walk down the path, our eyes swept over signs that warn of unexploded bombs still hidden underground. Once again, we couldn't help but imagine what was happening, in this now serene spot, nearly 100 years ago. There are large craters peppered throughout the grounds, which we discovered were made when Canadian soldiers, hiding in their tunnels (sometimes for days, in the dark), had to blow out an exit so they could pour from the earth and face their fate.
During the four-day battle at Vimy Ridge, over 3,500 soldiers were fatally injured and 7,000 wounded.
A university student from Ontario was our tour guide, he brought us down into the tunnels and showed us the conditions in which the soldiers lived. As we descended into the belly of the Earth, I felt like I could understand, in a small way, what life there must have been like -- cold, dark, dripping, and miserable. The tunnel walls are made of chalk and there were soldiers' carvings everywhere; sometimes their initials or those of their sweethearts.
After we emerged back out from the tunnels, we headed over to the cemeteries. Row after row, the names of the men and boys who died there are solemnly displayed. At 30 years old, my husband was already older than a lot of those who died at Vimy Ridge. I couldn't believe how many tombstones revealed soldiers of only 17 and 18 years of age.
We spent a long time in the various cemeteries -- both of us quiet, walking up and down the rows of tombstones, taking in all the names, ages, and (sometimes) the few details provided, giving us a glimpse of who these men were outside of wartime.
It was very humbling.
If you get the opportunity to go, do. You will never regret it.
By the end of the First World War, more than 170,000 Canadian soldiers were wounded and over 60,000 killed (which came at a time when Canada's entire population was roughly below eight million people).
As that day drew near an end, the weather turned grey and drizzly. Droplets of water splashed down on us as we waited for a cab to take us back to the train station. It was an unforgettable experience, one that I will always consider myself incredibly lucky to have had.
When I think back to my trip to France, I realize we did a lot of really special things: we looked out over Paris at night from the Eiffel Tower, walked along the Seine, and saw Marie Antoinette's bedroom. Those were all great, but nothing compares to our trip to Vimy Ridge. If you get the opportunity to go, do. You will never regret it.
April 9 is National Vimy Ridge Day, and this year marks 100-years since the Battle at Vimy Ridge. Please take a moment to learn more about this important piece of Canadian history.
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