It was supposed to be the war to end all wars.
At 5:30 am on Easter Monday, April 9, 1917, four divisions of the Canadian Corps began the push to take Hill 145, a heavily fortified ridge near Arras, France, along the Hindenburg Line. For four days, they fought in the trenches and on the land, showing courage and sacrifice as their leaders fell, to finally claim victory for the Allies.
That battle is considered a defining moment for Canada, the point where it stepped out of Great Britain’s shadow and became a nation in its own right. It was not without cost. At the end of four days, 3,598 young Canadian men were dead and another 7,000 injured.
It’s cold and foggy the day I make my way to Vimy Ridge. As the cab nears what had once been a bloodied battle field, the memorial appears through the fog, standing tall and defiant against a grey and somber sky.
The cab driver asks when I’d like her to return and I give a time three hours later. She hands me her card. “It’s cold. Call if you want me to come early.”
Yes, it’s cold and the chill bites at my lightly gloved fingers. I wrap my scarf around my head and pull the collar of my coat to my chin. My discomfort is nothing compared to the unimaginable horrors the men had faced on that hill almost a century before.
I make my way up the long drive to the monument shrouded in a ghostly mist. Designed by Canadian sculptor Walter Seymour Alllward, the Vimy Memorial was unveiled on July 26, 1936, on what had been Hill 145. I stand on what is now Canadian soil, reflecting on the sacrifices of those whose names are etched in marble along the base – 11,285 missing or presumed dead in France during what was known as the Great War.
Each of the 20 human figures carved reflects the ideologies of Canada as a nation – faith, justice, peace, knowledge, honour, charity, truth and hope. The figure raising a torch towards the sky references the most famous Canadian poem from WWI, In Flanders Fields. The “Spirit of Sacrifice” is a reminder that those who fought for us should not have died in vain.
I leave the monument and walk towards the visitor centre along a boulevard bordered by forests of towering pine. The land here remains pitted and cratered from the battery of artillery that fell along the German-held line during what was known as the “week of suffering”. That anyone could have survived such an onslaught seems inconceivable. Areas are cordoned off to the public due to unexploded bombs, artillery and grenades still buried in the soil. Only sheep graze this land now.
The Visitor Centre offers some respite from the cold and damp and I warm myself watching a video on the history of the battles at Vimy Ridge. Outside, some of the tunnels and trenches have been preserved and a tour of the Grange tunnel, a 1230 meter communications link, is available for those who wish to experience the narrow corridors. I pass on the tour but wander the trenches that would have offered little shelter to the elements and bombardment.
The cemeteries that lie beyond the trenches and craters are peaceful with their stone markers lined in perfect symmetry. Soldiers who once stood shoulder to shoulder now rest in formation. As I wander among them, I’m struck by their ages, most in their early 20’s, one as young as 17. A boy, not even a man. My nephew is 19. To imagine him in khaki wool carrying a gas mask and bayonetted rifle, fighting hand to hand in the no man’s land between the lines brings tears to my eyes and I weep for a generation lost.
As I sit amid the white stones honouring those who made the ultimate sacrifice for the citizens of a country not their own, I am reminded of the fragility of democracy and freedom. Those who fought at Vimy Ridge have long found rest. Those who remain are at risk of forgetting. The ideologies that lead to the Great War still exist in our world today.
Freedom comes with a price, as the men and women we honour every November 11 knew too well. It also comes with a responsibility.
We have a responsibility to stand up for those who are oppressed.
We have a responsibility to speak for those who have been silenced.
We have a responsibility to challenge those who spread hate and fear and intolerance.
We have a responsibility to take up the torch passed to us by those who paid the ultimate price for freedom.
Lest we forget.
Vimy Ridge is accessible from the Arras train station by shuttle during peak season and by taxi outside peak season.
It is open to the public year round, free of charge. Tours of the bunkers and tunnels is available February 1 to November 30. Check the website for hours.