Ninety five years ago today, at 11 in the morning on November 11th, 1918, the fighting of the Great War officially ended with the signing of the armistice. Over the previous four years, 9 million soldiers and goodness knows how many civilians had been killed in what was called at the time, The War to End War.
The Battle of Vimy Ridge was one small part of that war. For four days in April 1917, Canadian (and some British) soldiers fought to capture an area centred on Vimy Ridge in northern France. They achieved their objectives, but by the end of the battle almost 3600 of them were dead and 7000 were wounded.
In a conflict made up of countless confrontations, the Battle of Vimy Ridge was simply part of the much larger Battle of Arras. But for Canadians it represents one of the most important events of the Great War, because it was the first time soldiers from the whole of Canada fought together.
The site has such historical significance for Canadians that, in December 1922, the French government gave Canada 250 acres of Vimy Ridge to use “freely and for all time” as a memorial to the soldiers that fought and died there and elsewhere during the Great War.
Visiting Vimy Ridge today feels like going to a National Park in Canada. The memorial has two parts. The first is the massive limestone monument designed by Canadian sculptor, Walter Seymour Allward. Surrounding the monument is the battlefield park, one of the few places where trenches and tunnels of the Western Front are still preserved.
A few months ago I wrote a blog about how moving it is to visit the 9/11 Memorial in New York. Well, Vimy Ridge is another of those places. Especially since I was at Vimy on November 11th, 2008… Remembrance Day (also known as Armistice Day or Veterans Day, depending on which country you live in).
Walking through the actual trenches where men fought and died sent shivers down my spine. Yet even standing there, it was still impossible to imagine what it must have been like at the time of the battle. For one thing, I wasn’t covered in mud and knee-deep in water. Nor was I being bombarded by enemy shells.
Beneath the trenches at Vimy Ridge is the Grange Subway, a system of tunnels 800 metres (2600 feet) long, cut through the chalk bedrock. These passages allowed soldiers to get to the front line in relative safety. And if the trenches above are eerie, the tunnels beneath are doubly so.
The Vimy Monument stands at the highest point of the ridge. Resting on a massive concrete plinth encased in stone, the twin pillars of the memorial look like something from The Lord of the Rings. Like sentinels on either side of some kind of portal. Some people claim that they represent a gateway to a place where there’s no more war. I like that idea.
Unfortunately though, the Great War didn’t turn out to be The War to End War, after all. In fact, just 22 years after the Battle of Vimy Ridge another conflict began, which would end up being the most destructive in human history. As a result we sadly now know the Great War by another name: The First World War.