In light of 2017 being the Centennial Anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, the Royal Canadian Army Cadet Corp Manitoba Horse – from Morris, MB – sent 19 cadets and two Cadet Instructors Cadre to France to attend commemorative services.
The Battle of Vimy Ridge, during the First World War, is one of Canada’s most celebrated military victories. Four divisions of the Canadian Corps, fighting side by side for the first time, attacked the ridge between Apr. 9-12 1917.
Before the ground was taken from the German army, more than 10,500 Canadians were killed or wounded.
Walter Seymour Allward, a Canadian architect and sculptor, told friends the design for the chalk white limestone memorial came to him in a dream. The monument looks out over the Douai Plain from the highest point of Vimy Ridge.
It was unveiled by King Edward VIII on July 26, 1936, to commemorate Canadians who served their country in battle during the First World War.
The face of the monument is a marker bearing the names of 11,000 Canadian servicemen with no known graves who died in France.
During the visit, it was discovered that the age of one individual who fought in the battle was 15. This was rather poignant since some of the young women and young men who made the trek to Europe from Morris were the same age. What were their thoughts?
Looking out over the battle field was breathtakingly beautiful. It reminded me of an ant farm. The green grass carpeted the shell holes and bomb craters. Trees grew where none would have been standing that day. If I told you it was pretty but made me feel really sad, would you understand?
I am afraid looking out over the field. I know what is expected of me. I have accepted getting out of this alive is not possible, let’s just get on with it. I hear the shells exploding and people yelling.
I understand the Canadian soldiers had little experience or training for the day. Craters and pock marked earth from the shell explosions is all I see. Thinking of it makes me petrified. I do this for my country’s honour but what about my family?
Troops who fought in the battle were billeted in nearby homes and villages, others were sheltered in tented camps. Leading up to the battle there was secret work underway constructing a network of tunnels.
Included in the construction were des souterrains, ancient man-made underground caverns carved out of the chalky soil. The subterranean network was designed to bring allied troops out in front of the German lines, without having to cross under enemy gun fire in the area of open ground called no man’s land.
At 5:30 a.m. in the predawn darkness of Easter Monday, 1917, Canadian soldiers began the battle to take over Vimy Ridge from the German Army. It was cold. Driven snow and sleet swept across the ridge, making condition miserable. What were their thoughts as they waited in caves until called upon?
Soldiers would have been packed together underground. There was no room. What would they have done if you were claustrophobic? A door slammed and all I could think about was the muffled sound of big guns the soldiers would be hearing.
The air was stale in there. I felt like there wasn’t enough oxygen to breath. I turn around and tried to think about how many soldiers would have marched through these tunnels on their way to their death. The walls were carved by real people. My feeling were a mixture of really pretty and really sad.
Creepy giant hole that was cold dark and awesome. Amazing. A personal connection to the regiment that was there. We have experiences that enable us to put ourselves in the situation and understand what it means to work together as soldiers.
There is a wealth of symbolism in its 20 sculptures that stand as cicerones for viewers contemplating the whole structure. The following words were written on the basic design drawing for the monument submitted by Walter Seymour Allward, to the Canadian Battlefields Memorials Commission competition:
“At the base of the strong impregnable wall of defense are the defenders. One group showing the breaking of the sword. The other the sympathy of the Canadians for the helpless. Above these are the mouths of guns covered with olive and laurels. On the wall stands the heroic figure of Canada brooding over the graves of her valiant dead. Below is suggested a grave with a helmet laurels etc. Behind her stands two pylons symbolizing the two forces Canadians and French. Between and at the base of these is the spirit of sacrifice who giving his all throws the torch to his comrade. Looking up they see the figures of peace, justice, truth, knowledge, etc. for which they fought chanting the hymn of peace. Around these figures are shields of Britain, Canada, France. On the outside of the pylons is the cross. The sacrifice and Canada would be of bronze making two dominate notes other sculptures and architecture of stone.”
Many young people take our own world for granted. I don’t want something like this to happen again. Why doesn’t it matter anymore? Younger generations need to be reminded and understand what happened here.
I felt my heart grow heavy at the graves in the cemetery. Thinking of the soldiers fighting for their country honour and I am standing here to remember them. It was an privilege to be there but upsetting all the same.
I brought back sand from Juno beach, coins from the time period and replicas of old war ration tokens. I wanted to remember the trenches and the poppies on the beach.
In researching this story, it was discovered that herds of grazing sheep are used to maintain the battlefield terrain area around the monument. The sheep minimize the impact on the area while keeping the vegetation short enough for visitors to view.
The quintessential farm animals taking care of the grounds is apropos. Some of the men who fought in the battle and some of the young women and young men attending the memorial would have farming as a part of their lives.