The statue high above the autoroute taking travellers and tourists from the Channel Tunnel to Europe and beyond watches silently, as she has done for decades. If she could talk today of all days, she’d maybe say, ‘remember them.’
On April 9 1917, Easter Monday, four divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force began an offensive which was to become known as the Battle of Vimy Ridge. The strategic high ground not far from the Somme had been under German control since 1914. They had dug tunnels and trenches, allowing them to attack and weaken the allies. After months of planning and preparation, the Canadians led a fierce and violent battle, with support from the British who provided artillery barrages.
By the end of the battle, three days later, the ridge and its lumpy top known as the Pimple, were in Canadian hands, though they had lost 3,598 men, with nearly twice that number wounded. Historians can give much more detail on they strategic significance of this battle and its impact on the rest of the Great War, so forgive my quick summary. The Canadians saw it as an important mark of its national unity, so when at the end of the war, they were seeking a site to erect a memorial to the 60,000 Canadian dead, Vimy was chosen.
The Vimy Memorial and its 30-metre towers holding high the maple leaf of Canada and fleur de lys of France, took 11 years to build, and was dedicated just three years before the start of the next war. It is set in 100 hectares of land, much of it still holding unexploded armaments, safe only for the grazing sheep. As well as building the memorial, the site holds preserved trenches and tunnels.
The site is signposted from the Calais road, we’ve seen it many times, but never been, until yesterday. As we approached, I warned Noel there would be tears, how can anyone not be moved to see the place where so many lost their lives? It’s officially a piece of Canada in France and is looked after by the Canadians, and a wonderful job they do of it, right down to having people on hand to explain the memorial’s significance to visitors.
What moved me most and yes there were tears, was to see the statue of a cloaked Mother Canada with her downcast eyes surveying the land where so many lives were lost and sadly some never finding a resting place, strangers in a strange land. Their names are carved on the memorial so they can never be forgotten.