Visiting the Canadian National Vimy Memorial, Vimy, France: between sacrifice, hope and poignant remembrance

Flag of France
Flag of France | Source
Flag of Canada
Flag of Canada | Source
Canadian and French flags at the Vimy Memorial, on Vimy Ridge, France.
Canadian and French flags at the Vimy Memorial, on Vimy Ridge, France. | Source
Steamship Duchess of Bedford passenger list for Pilgrimage to the Battlefields - front cover
Steamship Duchess of Bedford passenger list for Pilgrimage to the Battlefields - front cover | Source

Memories of Canadian military achievement and suffering on French soil

The Canadian National Vimy Memorial was dedicated in 1936 by Edward VIII, as King of Canada, in the presence of French President Albert Lebrun and thousands of Canadians, French people and others. Following a thorough program of refurbishment, Queen Elizabeth II formally rededicated the Memorial in 2007 for the 90th anniversary of World War One's Battle of Vimy Ridge, which occurred April 9 - 12, 1917, to the west of the Douai Plain, in northern France. The Canadian Corps suffered 10,602 casualties at Vimy, and the opposing Imperial German army, dug in at Vimy Ridge since 1914, lost an unknown number, but the result was an Allied victory.

The Memorial is a National Historic Site of Canada.

The striking monument was the work of Canadian sculptor Walter Seymour Allward (1876-1955). The structure's most conspicuous elements are two huge pylons, representing Canada and France. At the base of the monument are various allegorical statues, representing Mother Canada, the Spirit of Sacrifice, and others.

The monument was executed in Seget limestone, on a site extending to 100 ha. of land granted by France to Canada in perpetuity. The work was assisted by Danish structural engineer Dr. Oscar Faber and Canadian Major Unwin Simson.

The land of the battle-site still contains unsafe tunnels and hazardous ordnance in areas not open to the public. While the greened area now exudes peace and quietness, something of the bleak and grim conditions of the battle itself may be strongly imagined, because many of the trenches and tunnels of the battle-site have been preserved.

Some Canadian historians have claimed that it was Vimy that made Canada a distinct, independent nation (1). Others would argue that the emergence of Canada as an independent Dominion related to a whole series of events during and around the World War One period.

Vimy, and other events, also mark a stage in the reluctant education of the British Imperial political class. If Canada was sending hundreds of thousands of troops to the trenches of the Western Front, then it was hoped that, morally and psychologically, the political and military leadership of Great Britain would be compelled to start consulting the Government of Canada, and those of other Dominions, about the course of the war. Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden had deplored the lack of communication, having been compelled for the most part to get his information about the course of the War from newspapers — and censored newspapers, at that. Over a year before the Battle of Vimy Ridge, Prime Minister Borden had privately mused in exasperation:

"Plans of campaign have been made and unmade, measure adopted or rejected and even vital character have been taken, postponed or rejected without the slightest consultation with the authorities of this Dominion.

It can hardly be expect that we shall put 400,000 or 500,000 men in the field and willing accept the position of having no more voice and receiving no more consideration than if we were toy automata." (2)

No one hero stands out in the contribution of the Canadian Corps at Vimy, but prominent Allied soldiers at the Battle of Vimy Ridge included: Lieutenant-General Julian Byng (later, Governor-General of Canada, and Field Marshall Viscount Byng of Vimy), 1st Division commander Arthur Currie (later, General Sir Arthur Currie, Inspector-General of the Canadian Army) and Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew McNaughton (later General, and Canadian Minister of National Defence). Significantly, the Battle of Vimy Ridge within the greater Nivelle Offensive, of which the action at Vimy formed part, was the only Allied success of the Offensive.

When I visited Vimy, the young Canadians who served as guides to the site, were doing a magnificent job, being well versed in historical details of which I was not aware. Veterans Affairs Canada / Anciens Combattants Canada is responsible for maintaining the site.

(Note re. flags: I am heading the article with a French flag for a number of reasons; Vimy Ridge is in France; its Canadian Memorial site was gifted by France; huge numbers of French lives were lost at Vimy Ridge in the years prior to the decisive battle in April 1917; and, last, but not least, it is my custom in my hubpage articles to head them with the symbol of whatever is the jurisdiction of the place that is being described.)

Notes

(1) For example, Robert Boyko, biographer of Richard Bennett, who in World War One directed Canada's National Service Board, has pithily claimed this, regarding the importance of Vimy to Canada: 'Macdonald might have created the state, but Vimy created the nation'. Robert Boyko, Bennett: the Rebel who Challenged and Changed a Nation , Toronto: Key Porter Books, 2010, p. 117.

(2) Sir Robert Borden, qu. in: Michael Bliss, Right Honourable Men: The Descent of Canadian Politics from Macdonald to Chrétien, Toronto: HarperPerennial Canada, 2004, p. 79. Liason and communication between the Canadian and British Imperial Army leadership continued to prove difficult beyond the time of the undeniable Canadian military achievement at Vimy. An example of this is when Field Marshall Haig declined to accept General Arthur Currie's advice that 16,000 casualties would result if Haig insisted that Canadian troops take strategically insignificant Passchendaele, Belgium in the summer of 1917; in the event, 15,654 casualties resulted and the Imperial Command subsequently ordered the vacating of Passchendaele, thus reoccupied by the Germans without a fight. In any case, particularly in French Canada, where after 1917 the Government of Canada's attempts to impose Conscription encountered strong, and sometimes violent, resistance, perceptions of superciliousness and callousness among the British Imperial leadership ran deep.

Also worth seeing

In Vimy itself, in France's Pas de Calais department, the town hall (French: Mairie ) has a striking, ornate frontage.

Douai (distance: 34 kilometres) has an interesting, Gothic belfry dating from 1380.

...

How to get there: United Airlines flies from New York Newark to Paris (Aéroport Paris-Charles de Gaulle ), from where car rental is available (distance from Paris-Charles de Gaulle airport to Vimy: 170 kilometres). Please check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information.You are advised to consult with appropriate consular sources regarding border crossing visa requirements for citizens of certain nationalities.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.

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