Vimy Ridge & Arras: An Origin Story

I hope you all are keeping well out there in this mad, mad world. I have been suffering from the travel itch yet again, especially as I have come up on an anniversary of a fantastic trip to France I took in 2015. It has inspired me to share a bit about that trip, which is also another piece of how my interest in the First World War was sparked.

When I was 23 I moved to Canada for graduate school. While I had always had an interest in the First World War, it was during my time there that I was exposed to its memory a lot more. Canada, as a Commonwealth country and in 1914 part of the British Empire, jumped into the war right away, and the Canadians were the first to arrive to Britain’s aid on the Western Front. Canada was a small country then, and the losses they suffered during the war had a lasting impact. I naturally heard a lot about Vimy Ridge, and quickly understood it was the national symbol for Canada’s sacrifices. The battle for Vimy Ridge was the first time Canadian troops fought together as one and it is attributed as stirring the first sense of national, unified pride for the dominion. There is some contemporary debate on how much this actually was Canada’s “birth” as a nation, but in any case, that is the myth.

When I was planning my trip to France in 2015 to visit a friend, I scheduled a few days for myself in Paris after arrival before meeting up with her in the Vendée. I was, of course, overwhelmed by the amount of things I wanted to do and see in Paris. The thrilling thing about travelling alone is that the itinerary is all yours to do as you please, but at the same time that can honestly be a bit daunting.

Somewhere along the planning process I realized a couple things:
1. It was less than an hour by train from Paris to get to Vimy Ridge, and
2. I would be there on April 9, the anniversary of the battle.
Anyone who knows me know once I fit those two things together in my mind there was no going back.

The Canadian National Vimy Ridge Memorial is a site that is run by the federal government of Canada and is not only the site of the battle for Vimy Ridge, but the site of a beautiful memorial that pays tribute to all members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force killed in the First World War that have no known grave. Similar to the American cemeteries, the land was gifted to Canada by the people of France. The closest major city to Vimy is Arras, and indeed, the battle for Vimy Ridge on April 9, 1917 was part of the larger Battle of Arras.

April 9, 2015, was a sunny and warm day. The train rolled in to Arras, and I would be taking a taxi from there to get to the memorial. I remember very distinctly the sandwich au jambon et fromage (ham and cheese sandwich) I got from a boulangerie across the street from the train station (don’t ask me why this is an important part of the story, it just is).

The taxi ride was quick and upon arrival at the visitor center I was able to take in the small museum. Then I began to walk the grounds.

I remember seeing the rugged terrain that had been left to show the hell of shell holes it had once been.

And then eventually, the memorial came into view.

It becomes all the more spectacular close up, the scale of it. And the view of the surrounding countryside that you get demonstrates just how important this ridge must have been.

A ceremony commemorating the anniversary of the battle took place, so beforehand I found a spot to sit on the grounds. Along with me I had my copy of Pierre Burton’s “Vimy.”

It was a powerful time for reflection for me. The ceremony was touching, though hot, as the sun seemed abnormally bright to me for early April. I walked more of the ground and saw some reconstructed trenches until I realized it was time I would need to start my return travel to Paris.

The taxi ride from the memorial back into Arras was one I will never forget. The taxi driver took it upon himself to show me some of the other cemeteries (Commonwealth, French & German) in the area and sites from the battle of Arras. He was rather enthusiastic about it, and when I thanked him profusely at the end of the ride he said to me something along the lines of, “so many young Canadians came here and died for us, it’s the least I can do.”

I was moved very deeply. I didn’t have the heart to tell him I was American. I’ve tried to share this story with Canadian friends of mine to pass on the sentiment.

Since then I’ve learned much more about the Battle of Arras, and the part Vimy Ridge played in that overall battle. The context is interesting. The British fought this war on such a large scale, something as small as Vimy Ridge in the end just one part of one battle. But in Canada, Vimy has taken on such mythic status. The painting “the Ghosts of Vimy Ridge” is for me one of the most haunting pieces of art depicting the Great War.

The artist, an Australian named Will Longstaff, also did a piece called “Menin Gate at Midnight” that is also beautiful though not quite as spooky.

For me, my visit to Vimy Ridge did two things. One, it deepened my love for my “adopted” country. Not that any part of me ever stops being American (trust me, it’s inescapable) or loving my home, but I am grateful to hold bits and pieces of Canada in my heart as well.

This visit also solidified my passion for all things of the Great War. At the age of 13 I had started my process of visiting American Civil War Battlefields. Seeing some of the grounds in Europe added of fuel to my passion and desire to see more of the Western Front, maybe someday beyond. I can only hope it won’t be so terribly long before I can tick some more boxes off my list, but at this point it’s anyone’s guess.

Post Script: I highly recommend the virtual battlefield tours given by Battle Guide Virtual Tours. The one given today on the battle for Vimy Ridge was spectacularly well done as have been the many others I have seen. Check them out!

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