A place of immense importance to Canada, Vimy Ridge is one of the most important WWI sites that anyone can visit. I have had the privilege of visiting Vimy Ridge many times over my career, and have attended a number of Remembrance Day celebrations, which was a particularly special thing in which to take part.
The Battle of Vimy Ridge took place from April 9th to 12th, 1917. Germany had long held the ridge, and from there could easily dominate the surrounding region. All four divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force were brought together for the attack, and using a newly developed innovation known as the “Creeping Barrage”, among other things, the Canadians were able to succeed where others before them had failed. For this reason the battle is seen as a significant moment in the development of Canadian national identity.
After WWI had ended France gave Canada the land on which the present park is located. It sits 8 kilometres north-east of the town of Arras, and is easy to get to. Your visit begins well before you reach the monument, as you are all of a sudden thrust into a landscape still scarred by the conflict. You drive up a peaceful road lined with maple trees past a landscape strewn with shell holes. The ground is now covered with grass, and you won’t see any of the barbed wire, rats or rusted equipment that once littered the ground, but the impact of the war is unmistakeable. I recommend parking at the visitor centre, and continuing on foot up the road, just a short walk, to the memorial itself.
The Vimy memorial was designed by Canadian sculptor Walter Allward, and completed in 1936 at a cost of 1.5 million dollars. Construction of the monument was difficult and slow going, with difficulty excavating the ground for the base of the monument as there was a significant amount of live explosives in the area, and a delay in getting the stone, which was shipped from a quarry in Croatia. The memorial has two pillars, one for Canada and France, two nations joined in mourning those lost in the conflict. There are different statues around its base, including a very moving statue of a woman looking down upon a coffin, representing Canada mourning its fallen. Carved into the memorials walls are more than 11,000 names, commemorating the men of the Canadian expeditionary force killed in France who have no known grave.
After visiting the memorial it is a short walk back to the visitor centre. But before you arrive there, take a right turn down a small road where you will find two small Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries. The Vimy cemetery is a fine example of a Commonwealth War Graves cemetery, with its great alter stone, and row upon row of headstones. All are the same shape and size, a decision made during the war by the War Graves Commission in recognition that all who died did so as equals. The Victorian tradition of providing grand statues for officers was over, and a new more democratic society was emerging. Individual message were, however, allowed, and it is difficult not to be moved to tears when reading some of the messages left by loved ones.
From the cemetery it is a short walk to the visitor centre, where you can see a few artefacts and learn more about the battle and its important place in WWI. It is also here that you can buy tickets for a tour of the original tunnels that have survived.
You can then visit a series of reconstructed trenches. The trenches at Vimy give a good, but less than accurate depiction of what WWI trenches were really like. The are clean, safe and made with concrete “sandbags”, and so far from the deplorable conditions that generally existed, but they do give you a good sense of the design of a WWI trench. What perhaps strikes you most is just how close they were to the German trenches. Across the Western Front, which stretched from the border of Switzerland to the English Channel, the conditions varied greatly. In some places the lines might be a mile or more apart, while in others, like at Vimy, the two sides could toss a baseball back and forth.
Vimy remains for me, one of the most impressive and moving of war memorials, and offers visitors the opportunity to engage with the history of WWI and its commemoration on many different levels. Its beauty inspires you at the same time that its purpose saddens you. Yet all who visit, Canadian or otherwise, will leave richer for the experience.