The official beginning to our great ‘lets go live in Europe’ adventure actually started on January 15. Even though I left Canada on Dec 12, I’ve been in and out of B&B’s and hotels, so the official date we started towards Spain, where we have an real villa rental, not charged by the night but by the month, was in my mind the 15th. Car loaded up, belly’s full, dog on lap, no European registration on the car and iffy insurance, we ventured off facing south and just kept driving, although no speeding or other traffic violations in mind as to not command any unnecessary attention from the police.
We both agreed and planned our first stop months ago: Canadian National Vimy Memorial, about ten kilometres north of Arras, France.
I’ve always wanted to see Vimy Ridge Memorial. I’ve seen the WWII Canadian cemeteries and museums in Holland and I’ve been in the vicinity of the VRM many times but for some reason the timing never seemed right. Witnessing the 90th Anniversary Remembrance Day ceremonies on TV a couple of years back sparked the urge to see this majestic tribute in person. I promised myself the next time I was in Europe, I was making the effort to go see this great national treasure. I certainly wasn’t ready for impact this memorial would play on my psyche.
It was a very misty, foggy and cold day, somewhat peaceful and spooky at the same time sort of day. The drive into France was uneventful and somewhat boring considering we couldn’t see much past the roads. It took a few wrong turns and u-turns but we finally found a sign indicating we were on the correct road and in the correct direction. Strangely, once we made the last turn to descend into the memorial site, we both became silent and sombre, unaware at what we were witnessing.
At first I didn’t realize what my eyes were showing me. I initially thought it was a strange landscape with little rolling hills followed by
miniature little valleys. Tall, slender dark trees (Wayne pointed out how young all the trees are, still not cluing in) poked up from the gentle rolling grass, almost making an enchanted little forest effect. Immediately there are bright red signs; probably announcing the Canadian aspect of the memorial or hold it – stop – what does it say? Then the realization arrived all at once; this enchanted forest is actually hundreds, no thousands, of bomb shell blasts that still scar the landscape. Very raw and startling reminders of what happened here almost 100 years ago. Suddenly this ‘gentle’ landscape revealed itself through the fog for acres and acres, an apt metaphor for what just happened to me. It was only once I was at the actual memorial viewing all the names of the soldiers who died here did I realize that between and betwixt the bomb blast scars and mounds are many unknown soldiers buried in their final resting place. That’s when the enormity of it all starts to hit you; many fine, young Canadian men – lost to their families on many levels, are hidden forever among the displaced soil. I can’t remember at what point I realized the only flat terrain in the vicinity was the base of the memorial and surrounding cemeteries.
Few words were spoken for the rest of the visit. The whole area of 107 hectares became a holy sanctuary of enormous proportions and with us being the only visitors at that particular time, it only emphasized the privilege we were bestowed by having the place to ourselves. Walking into the cemeteries felt sacrilege, like we were invading the still energy that surrounded us. We were hesitant to enter the gated graveyard area until I realized we can only truly honour them by acknowledging them. Even though the headstones mostly indicated “A Soldier of the Great War” and nothing else, with some having at least a regiment title and the very few with an actual name, somehow you knew who they were. No names were needed to make an instant connection.
The memorial is massive. I understand on a clear day you can spot it from very far away. We could barely see the outline but she encouraged us to draw near with no fear. As she revealed herself through the misty day it was difficult not to shed a tear for those who have passed on in such horrendous ways. It was only +1C and the wind was biting. It was tough to complain, though, when you realized at least we didn’t have tired wet feet, empty stomaches, dead buddies, bombs, bullets and enemies to deal with. If you closed your eyes, in the silence, you could hear the echos of a blast and a soldiers last scream. The memorial only added to the sacredness of it all. I will not go into detail here of the memorial as there are many fine websites that do a better job of it than I ever will. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canadian_National_Vimy_Memorial.) I will only say that it was haunting and mesmerizing and it took me a few days to let it settle within my realm of understanding.
As we were leaving, I turned around once more and saw the most amazing sight. The Canadian flag, flying proudly, with the VRM in the misty distance, tucked firmly below, as if the memorial was being fiercely protected by today’s Canada. It represented to me our past allows us, as Canadians, to be proud and hold our head high as we have sacrificed our most precious resources for the right to do so. The past is not so distant in our young country’s history and is present with us today but do not let it fade away in the mists of time. It also reminded me to be vigilant and protective of my birthright and not to forget the shoulders of the giants I stand on; no matter where I go or what land calls me to visit, also reflective of Canada’s military to this day.
Every Canadian should visit this mystical site and memorial at least once in their lifetime. Simply to in person remember and thank the ordinary people who gave up their lifes so that strangers – us – enjoy our lives in peace today. Plus, it will make you very proud and remind you of everything good to be a Canadian.
Canada, don’t worry, you are firmly entrenched in my soul and I will be back. And I will always stand on guard for thee.