August 5th 1914, marks the first full day of the United Kingdom and the Commenwealth’s war against Germany and the start of the First World War.
To honour and remember that, I am reposting a story I wrote of my own pilgrimage to Vimy Ridge 11 years ago. It is still, and will likely always be one of my most memorable moments of my life and it is because of the sacrifice of all soldiers and innocents in war that it affected me so deeply.
The day I walked from Arras, France to Vimy Ridge…
The stories of Arras and Vimy Ridge are intertwined. There were actually tunnels from the city halls and buidings of Arras all the way to the front lines near Vimy Ridge.
On one of the very hot days when I was there in June 2003, I walked from the center of Arras all the way to Vimy Ridge. It took me about 4 hours… I think it was around 30km. I tried to keep to the country roads out of town… there are plenty in France… the countryside was quiet and beautiful. A perfect pilgrimage.
As I got closer to the site of the memorial, visual clues around me triggered a growing sense of anticipation and quiet at the same time. The heat beat down upon me as if to ensure that both body and mind were sufficiently assaulted.
As I approached the memorial there was suddenly a forest. After seeing only huge expanses of fields and grass this native stand of trees was odd. When I entered the forest it became clear that this forest was as much a part of the memorial as the stone monument itself. Amongst the trees were huge depressions, poked periodically by small red flags. The flags signalled the position of mines, bombs and grenades… all manner of ordnance… still left from 80 years before… the depressions were craters, from bombs, shells and battle.
I continued to walk up the now nicely shaded road, the occasional car passing by. The hill was a steady climb into the forest, but it was not clear when I would reach the crest.
Then through the trees I could see a clearing, indeed, it looked as though the forest ended as quickly as it appeared. A few more steps and all I could see was the monument.
I have never been so moved by an object. I was not prepared for how this visit would affect me and apparently I was not prepared even for my initial reaction. My stomach flipped and tears quickly swelled in my eyes. I had never seen anything quite so beautiful and powerful and imposing all at the same time.
That is why I took the pictures I did. From a distance. The picture above was the point where I first perceived the monument, and I simply could not bring myself to take more pictures of it after that. So moved was I by the reverance of the place that I would not, could not, embarrass it and its’ visitors by taking photographs.
As I walked up the path… cordoned off on both sides to protect visitors from entering the still deadly surrounding fields, the majesty of the monument made me bow my head. I found it difficult to look at. It was as if the statues were challenging me to look them in the eye and keep my composure.
It was too much for some. There were a handful of people looking for names enscribed in the stone…and more than one cried out in grief as they found the name of their loved one.
I am proud of what my countrymen did at Vimy Ridge, but my visit to the site did not fill me with pride. It was with great sadness that I looked out upon the French countryside that was the final resting place of so many men and women. And given the events of the previous few months in Iraq and elsewhere it was a startling reminder of the horror that war brings upon all involved.
I had posted this a few years ago to commemorate another moment of remembrance. The rededication of Vimy Ridge on April 9, 2007. For my own archives, that post that preceded my story is included below…..
There will be ceremonies today at the Vimy Ridge memorial rededicating it after a 3 year restoration process.
I travelled to France in 2003, and my stop at Vimy Ridge was the most memorable and striking part of my tour. It is a solemn place, a place of mourning. Not of celebration.
I would also like to note the loss of 6 more Canadian soldiers yesterday in Afghanistan. While Vimy and Kandahar are worlds apart, the sacrifice and cost remain. I fully support our troops and understand their sacrifice and their raison-d’etre. But lest-we-forget that at the end of the Great War, the words “Never Again” rang out. The human race has yet to figure out how to resolve it’s difference without resorting to war. I will continue to hope, and advocate for a day when peaceful negotiation can always, and forever replace bloody conflict. Then places like Vimy will not only be places of mourning and pride for loss of our best and brightest, but also places to remind us of why we can never do it again. After the bloodiest century in human history, I hope that that day will come sooner rather than later.