For those that do not know me, I have just returned from France. I lived there for three months, went to school, and experienced their culture. Of course, since I lived right near the memorial, it was an obligation to go. This blog post will concentrate more so on my travels around Vimy Ridge as well as what I learned there.
The ceremony of April 9th; the 100th anniversary, was a popular topic around Canada, and unfortunately, I did not get to go (I was travelling somewhere else that weekend). Instead, I went the weekend before.
The day started off with a visit to Arras. Arras was a bigger city that had been taken over by the Germans, and it was there where the British Army launched their attack.
Near Arras is the much smaller city of Farbus, and it was there where I attended a ceremony honouring Canadians. They were thrilled that I was going to be in attendance, and in a sense, I was made the guest of honour.
There were a few French people who had volunteered to dress up as soldiers and nurses, and they stood in line as the mayor introduced me to the crowd. I even got a poster from the event (signed by the mayor) to thank me on behalf of all Canadians for freeing them and their town.
The band played O Canada, and I (draped in my Canadian flag) sang (or, I tried to sing).
It’s hard to describe the emotions that go through you, but I don’t think I have ever been more proud to be Canadian than I was on that day. To see these people, from a whole other continent, taking their time to honour us was incredible. There were Canadian flags everywhere. Walking around town, they were on every house. I loved wearing our flag that day.
They had tents set up full of different artifacts, and the people who had dressed up as soldiers were actually professionals on these said artifacts. There were a variety of different guns laid out. I clearly remember a sort of binocular tool as well. You looked at the approaching soldier and based off how much of his body you could see (and I believe the angle had something to do with it as well) you could tell how far away he was (which helped with choosing which gun to shoot and how to aim it).
They then offered a walking tour of their town to demonstrate which parts came into play throughout the war. This tour started off in the forest. 100 years since the war, and the ground is incredibly uneven due to the trenches. At the Vimy Ridge memorial, the trenches are maintained to show the history, but in this little town, no effort has been made and they’re still there. There were even small concrete structures that sheltered canons. The Germans used the security of the forest to shoot on Arras, the bigger city.
Much of the land is now farmland and farmers find objects daily. Depending on what they find, they may have to call people to come verify that the mines are not still active. Though it’s becoming rarer, farmers still find skeletons as they work their fields.
Next, we headed down to another tented area. This new tented area was to teach more so about medicine throughout the war. Further back (on the lines), there were better equipped, hospital type tents, but what they taught us about was the front line medicine (more of an infirmary). It was a tent with very few items as the infirmary moved with the line; when the soldiers advanced, so did they, and when they retreated, so did the infirmary.
Therefore, they did not have the top quality medicine. They did their best with the wounded. All patients had pieces of cloth covering their eyes, not because their eyes were ruined, but because the flies would come eat their eyes (since they were ill, they weren’t moving around). Nurses filled out little pieces of paper so that when the doctor came, he would know immediately what had to be done, and was therefore able to save time. Every soldier had a sort of metal plaque bearing their information, and originally, when a soldier died, they would break that plaque in two. The first half would be placed under the soldier’s tongue and the second half was sent to the family. However, they quickly discovered that the plaques rusted in the soldiers’ mouths and became unidentifiable. The new solution was to write the information on a piece of paper and put that paper in a bottle. The bottle was tucked into the soldier’s arm, and this way they would be able to identify the soldier without disturbing the body too much.
Another utility in the war were the dogs. Dogs typically had two owners; one on the front line, and one further back. Also, if one of the owners died, then the dog still had someone. The dogs were one way of sending messages (and they estimate that about two million messages were sent from the front line to the back and vice versa daily). All the soldiers on the front line always wanted to ensure they were sending words to their family while they could.
Dogs could also be used to send medicine or get other necessities, but some soldiers used them at night. One man recounted his grandfather’s story. The man had a dog, and at night, he would rely on the dog to get around. The dog could sense whenever an enemy was coming, and would immediately crouch down, followed by the man. This way, when the enemy arrived, shining their flashlight ahead, they would see no one. As soon as they were gone, the dog would get up and carry on. That man and his dog were never caught.
They also said how the Germans were particularly looking for dogs during the war. They even had advertisements amongst the French people; they were offering to buy dogs, they would pick up dogs if they found them, etc. In short, dogs were incredibly useful.
Next, we headed to the real Canadian memorial. This was the last stop of the day, and it was incredibly moving. The memorial is even more beautiful in person, for those who have not gone. The names are all carved into it. When I remember that day, I also remember all the trees. They planted one tree for every Canadian soldier that died. There were so many trees. And of course, you couldn’t go anywhere near the trees as there is the risk of active land mines still being in the area.
I made sure to take out my Canadian flag to take a picture on the memorial, and even strangers walking by took pictures of me. I believe that more people at that memorial are Canadian than they are French; most people you walk by are speaking in English.
We also visited a beautiful Commonwealth cemetery and took pictures of the sheep that they have in the area. They use the sheep to “mow” the lawn, since lawnmowers couldn’t put up with all the hills from the trenches.
That memorial was strangely comforting for me. Canada “owns” a few kilometers of land where the memorial stands, so after being in France for so many months, so far away from home, I was happy to be at the memorial. It brought me that much closer to home; after all, I technically made a day trip to Canada.
Sources: my memory (all pictures taken by me)