How can you describe this day. It was not just the sites, but a veiled glimpse into the
realities of war.
We crossed the border into France and visited the Canadian Memorial at Vimy. You could see the memorial from miles away. At shortly after 9:00am, the day was sunny and we had the memorial practically to ourselves except for some hawks that hovered nearby.
It was peaceful…so peaceful. As were almost all the sites we visited today it was quiet with the only sound coming from the breeze in the trees or (at other sites) in the cornfields.
We next drove a short distance to the visitors centre. This war site and memorial are fully staffed by Canadians.
The now grassy area was pockmarked with shell and mine craters. Most cratered parts are fenced off due to concerns of undetinated explosives. Herds of sheep graze in these areas…the sheep are not large enough to set anything off and they keep the grass short.
There were a few more people at the visitors centre and we took a guided tour through the Tunnels and trenches. The Canadian University students that work at the memorials are part of a Canadian government program; FSWE (Federal Student Work Exchange). They work for a 3 or 4 month period.
We were surprised at how close the Allied and German front lines were, about only 30 feet between the scout trenches at the Vimy Ridge area.
In Vimy we visited Mont-Saint-Eloi (a shelled church on the back lines), Cabaret Rouge Cemetery, La Targette Cemetery, The German Cemetery, Zivy Crater Cemetery Theius Cemetery, the Canadian Artillery Memorial, The French Memorial at Notre Dame de Lorette Church and many other cemeteries and memorials.
There are over 1000 cemeteries dotting Belgium and France. You can tell the British Commonwealth, French and German burial grounds by the grave markers. So many graves marked only as “A soldier of the Great War”. Most of the inhabitants of graves identified with names and ages were in their 20s. Some were as young as 14 and 16 because they lied about their ages to become soldiers (you were supposed to be 18). They thought this war would last a summer. It seemed like a big adventure.
Some of the burial sites were small but others were so vast that you couldn’t see the end. Most Canadian graves had a maple leaf emblem on them. We found the grave where the body of Canada’s unknown soldier had lain, (he now lies in Ottawa).
In WWI Canada lost over 66,000 soldiers.
That’s a big number. You can learn the facts and numbers of this war and read the books, but when you stand in these cemeteries you realize that each of those markers represents at least one person that was a child, a sibling, a friend or a parent. Many families lost all their sons. I do not want to even imagine how much horror, pain and suffering these soldiers and their families endured. Many of the bodies were never found; covered where they fell.
We spent the later part of the afternoon exploring The Somme. We went to the Canadian War Memorial and Cemeteries at Beaumont-Hamel. At wartime, Newfoundland was not part of Canada and they chose to fight with the British. Out of the 801 Newfoundlanders that left the trenches on the morning of July 1, 1916 only 69 returned, the rest were dead, wounded or missing.
We were the only ones on our guided tour at this site. We were also the last tour of the day.
The Caribou stag is the emblem of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment and is the monument for this soldiers. The Caribou stag is also the emblem on their graves.
We visited more burial sites, the Ulster tower monument and the dramatic Theivpal monument and burial sites. As we walked through the markers, the town church clock struck 7pm. It was time to go back to our hotel.