The clouds stretch from horizen to horizon, mist hangs in the air and it is cold here at the end of February, just north of the French town Arras. I am standing, for the first time in more than three months on Canadian soil.
Still technically in France, I stand in the midst of rolling green hills, trees covering much of the land, at the battleground of Vimy Ridge.
On April 9th, 1917 the Canadian troops launched an attack at 5:30am that was ultimately successful in winning the ridge. This success came from a winter of incessant training, meticulous planning, and new tactical approaches.
Fighting together for the first time since the beginning of the war, all four of divisions of the Canadian Corps were present for the battle.
For the nation of Canada, the win at Vimy Ridge, meant much more than just a strategic advance for the allies. Canada was still defining herself as a separate entity from Britain at this point in history, and Vimy Ridge is often considered the place where Canada came into her own. For the first time, our soldiers could be proud of a purely Canadian effort. They were recognized not just as a part of the British Army, but as their own entity. Although no one can rightfully claim that Canada was born at this battlefield, it has certainly become the symbolic birthplace of our nation.
No history class, no matter how good, can drive a point home in the same way that I am hit as I stand in the “Grange Subway.”
Extensive underground tunnels were built, mainly for the transportation of supplies to the front line, but also for the attack of April 9th. Dug by professional Welsh miners, almost all of the tunnels remain in existence today. However, just one section of one subway has been reinforced, enlarged and opened to the public.
It is dark and damp in the tunnels, with moss growing up the sides of the walls and water pooling on the ground. We stop.
“Right here, is where the men stood, waiting for the order to launch the attack. We’re going to walk up the same route they took, and arrive at the exact same part of the trenches where they would have come out.”
Because I stood in, quite literally, (and yet so far away from) their shoes, I will never forget the time that the battle was launched, I will never forget how close the first German trenches were (25m away), and I will never forget the men who launched themselves into that cold and rainy day in history to fight for my country.
Shortly after the war, a forest was planted on this battleground to preserve the terrain. What appear to be soft rolling hills when I arrive, turn out to be the permanent scars of incessant shelling and battles.
I can still see the lines of the trenches that once would their way through what would have been barren and hostile land in 1917.
At the top of the ridge stands a memorial to all of the Canadian soldiers who died not just at Vimy Ridge, but also for all of the Canadian soldiers who died in France and have no known grave. Their names, all 1100 of them, are carved around the base of the monument, so that they too, are not forgotten.
Even in the mist and low-lying clouds you can see for miles from the top of the ridge. It is instantly clear why this was a strategic location for both sides. It’s lonely up here too, one can still sense the old battleground and all of the sorrow that came welling from the trenches for so long, on both sides.
This day has been one of those moments I will never forget, imprinted into my memory much more deeply than the discomfort of trains or the beauty of endless museums. There are no words really, that can capture this day, or the privilege of seeing such a defining moment in my country’s history.
Today of all days I am proud, honoured, and deeply grateful that I am Canadian.