Well as predicted once we arrived in Lille France our schedule became much busier, but first I will recap the last couple days.
Overall its been fairly straight forward. As I mentioned in my first blog, everyone arrived in Ottawa on the 4th. I was met at the Ottawa airport by Veterans Affairs staff and then taken to the hotel by shuttle. After some administration, I had the rest of the day to myself until dinner. At dinner there was a few speeches and an overview of what would occur over the next days.
On the 5th we boarded the RCAF CC-150 Polaris (Air Bus) and departed for France at 0800 hours. We arrived at approximately 2100 hours, were taken to our hotels, given a quick brief, then to off to bed. I have to say that Veterans Affairs have done a great job in planning this and they have been treating all the delegates like gold.
I am going to avoid making this blog a history lesson. There is plenty of well-written information out there, you just have to “Google” it. My focus will be to provide you an overview of what I am experiencing and some of my thoughts throughout the week.
On Friday, the 6th we were in the buses by 0800 hours and on our way to Vimy Ridge. The plan was not to attend the actual monument but to see the trenches and tunnels used in the battle. Once there, a group picture was taken and we were organized into smaller groups for the tour. My group’s first stop was in the tunnel.
Due to vulnerability of the communication trenches from shelling, the Canadians built several tunnels so they could maintain communication and troop movements along the front in safety. The tunnel we were in was approximately 8 to 10 meters underground and had been widened and heightened over the years to accommodate tourists. However, there is a preserved original section of the tunnel from 1917.
I was amazed at the ingenuity and determination that it must have taken to create these tunnels. I was more moved by trying, for a moment, to put myself in the boots of the soldiers who were in the tunnels.
Even though these tunnels were not for housing troops, they were used to conceal and protect them in the hours leading up to the attack. I tried to imagine wearing all my kit in an area a meter wide and that you could hardly stand up in, with hundreds of other troops, for up to 36 hours in anticipation for the order to attack. And, all of that time feeling and hearing the artillery barrage taking place above ground. The more I thought about it, I have to admit that I started feeling a little claustrophobic and was glad to get back above ground.
I want to mention the “underground warfare” that took place and was used more then at Vimy. Tunnelling was not uncommon and both the Canadians and Germans were doing it. They would dig and place huge quantities of explosives under enemy lines then detonate them. So just as troops were fighting a battle in the trenches, the ground underneath them would explode.
The exits of the tunnels basically lead to the trenches and would have been where the troops started the attack at 0530 hours on April 9th. The area had many trench lines and craters from the artillery but most have been softened by time and covered up by grass and trees.
They have restored and maintained approximately 100 meters of Canadian and German trenches. They are lined with what looks like sandbags, but are actually made of concrete to simulate what it would have originally looked like. It was not the trenches themselves that surprised me as they were in many ways what I had expected. It was the distance between the Canadian and German trenches that got to me. You could literally through a rock (or grenade) into the other trench. I got the chills when looking from the Canadian trench to the German and seeing another one of the group looking back.
As a soldier I can appreciate the protection from fire that the trenches afforded, however, I could not escape the feeling of being a fixed in place.
After the Vimy Ridge part of the day we visited the German Cemetery near Neuville-St Vaast. This was a very solemn time during the day’s events. This cemetery is not far from Vimy Ridge and there are 44,833 German Soldiers buried there. There is roughly 10,000 grave markers with mostly four soldiers per marker.
From what I was told not many people visit this cemetery however, I noted a number of small Canadian flags by some of the graves. I never got a definitive answer regarding the flags other than some German Canadians returned home to fight for Germany. To this day their families come over from Canada to visit the graves. I know they were not Canadian soldiers, but soldiers none the less and you could feel the emotion hanging in the air and sense of great sadness here. I can’t explain it, it was just there.