Lest we Forget

Vimy, in northern France, is a very important place for many Canadians - those with long family histories in the country, at least. Some consider it to be the place where Canada came of age. That’s probably true in a military sense. The town itself is nothing - a tiny farming community in Normandy that happened to be the site of one of the key battles of World War One. I won’t write a history lesson here - the facts are all readily available. I’ll summarize, though - by the spring of 1917 the German forces had become deeply entrenched in the strategic high ground of Vimy Ridge and the surrounding area. All attempts to dislodge them had failed with massive loss of life. As part of the Battle of Arras, Canadian forces were able to take the ridge. It cost nearly 4,000 lives. Out of this horror and others like it was formed a deep core of pride and patriotism in Canada.

Ask me if it was worth it. I have no idea. My feelings about the Great War are deeply mixed. I feel a confusing swirl of pride, awe and shame. I know that my great-grandfather fought in the battle, and I know that he lost brothers in Normandy. Truly lost, in cold ground with no marker for them and no one to play the lament on the pipes. I wonder if they really believed what they were told, that this would be the war to end all wars.

So you can imagine how I felt when we stepped off the bus outside Vimy. The town itself is scattered with Canadian flags, and we’d encountered a great quiet respect from everyone we’d met that day. The bus driver understood who we were and why we were there, and went out of his way to drop us at the access road to the memorial. We didn’t know where it was, exactly, or how we were going to find it. But we could see it from a very long way away, glowing warmly white at the top of the ridge and shining out over the plain. It made my heart skip a beat when I saw it for the first time, and I knew it wasn’t going to be an easy pilgrimage.

It’s a long walk across the ridge to the memorial, through a calm green forest road. The weight of history there was nearly unbearable to me - I felt sick to my stomach and it seemed as if a hundred men lay under every bit of ground. There’s no uncertainty when reaching the grounds of the memorial. The battleground was ceded to the people of Canada from the people of France in perpetuity, and it’s the responsibility of the Canadian government to maintain it. This means bilingual signs with the familiar Canadian government insignia and design. The ground still shows the signs of the battle - there are bomb craters and shell holes everywhere, covered by a thin skin of grass and trees. Some of the trenches are preserved, too, with concrete sandbags. We looked through the small but moving exhibit in the reception area, and then went on to the monument.

The approach to the monument is a long and winding walk along a road lined with maple trees, electric fences and signs warning about un-detonated explosives. The last corner we turned brought the monument itself into view across an empty windswept green field.

Canadian Memorial at Vimy Ridge

Honestly, it was glowing in the slanted afternoon light. The stone was a creamy white limestone that looked warm and soft to the touch. The monument has sorrowing figures at its base, allegorical figures at the top of each pillar, and one figure representing the Unknown Soldier between the pillars at the bottom. Behind the monument, looking out over the plains, is a grieving female figure representing Canada itself.

Canadian Memorial at Vimy Ridge

The monument is beautiful and painfully moving, and it’s made even more so by the thousands of names carved in lines along its base - the names of all the Canadians who were lost in the war and never found. I knew my great-uncles of the Scott family were among them, but I didn’t expect to be confronted by their names as I climbed the steps - it was shocking to me, and added a personal ache.

Canadian Memorial at Vimy Ridge

We walked back away from the monument quietly and thoughtfully. I think we were the only Canadians there among the throngs of British, French and Australians. Even a few Germans were there. We weren’t sure how we’d get back to Lille in time to catch our train to Brussels, but a nice Frenchwoman picked us up hitching. She was surprised, she said, to hear from us that Vimy was a household name in Canada. I was surprised in my turn that such a thing wouldn’t be well known here in France.

I don’t feel that what I’ve written does justice to this place. None of my words really capture the barren, horror-struck grief and majesty of it. I’ll have to admit defeat and close this entry. If I could express myself well in writing, I wouldn’t be a photographer. I hope the photographs do a better job.

Remember: Never Again.

Flourish

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Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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