In last week’s column I wrote about how much April 9, 1945 — the day my uncle was killed in battle during the Second World War — affected me personally during my recent visit.
But that same day 28 years earlier would impact the future of all Canadians. It is described as the day Canada became a nation. After unsuccessful attempts to capture Vimy Ridge from the German armies in the First World War, It was the Canadian forces that would launch an attack on April 9, 1917 that would be won in a matter of days.
Canada’s role, and that of other Commonwealth nations, in helping defeat the German Empire is what is believed to have helped motivate the change of status England had with its former colonies, allowing us and them to become fully independent nations. With the centenary of that important battle only a year away, the importance of that victory, and our broader role in what is referred to as the Great War, you have only to look to the back of our new 20 dollar bills. There you will see depiction of the Vimy Memorial, whose twin columns soar 45 metres into the sky in the 240-acre Canadian Memorial Park, honouring that achievement, and the 66,000 who were killed in the war, including over 11,000 who have no known graves.
After I left Holland, I would spend almost a week visiting the Vimy battleground and cemeteries, along with a number of others in northern France and Belgium. I travelled along a trail that is often described as the Remembrance Trail of the Great War in northern France.
Whatever your age, or what you may have known about the First World War before, you cannot help but be impacted by the staggering numbers of cemeteries and monuments commemorating the sacrifices of the young men and women who gave their lives in the cause of freedom. All nations are honoured. British, French, Australian, New Zealand, Indian and even German cemeteries, along with many others, dot the landscape in this picturesque region of France.
Newfoundland had not yet become a province of Canada at the time of the Great War, but responding to the slogan, "Answer the call right quickly", they volunteered in great numbers to join and fight with the British army. They did not want to be identified or associated in any way with the Canadian forces at that time, and would serve with great honour and distinction. They took the caribou as their mascot, and while their numbers were small in comparison to the larger nations, they were known as ferocious fighters.
While we well all celebrate Canada Day in three weeks, hundreds from Newfoundland and Labrador will be in France to commemorate the battle of the Somme, which began on July 1, 1916. In the attack near Beaumont-Hamel, described by historians as a devastating failure, nearly 20,000 British soldiers were killed, and the Newfoundland Regiment was, for the most part, wiped out when only 68 uninjured soldiers were able to answer the call afterwards.
This dedication to the memory of those who fought and died is an annual event on July 1, but this year it will be especially poignant as thousands from around the world will attend. Not far away at the Newfoundland Memorial Park, most will go to the salute the caribou atop its perch overlooking the trenches where these Newfoundlanders fought so bravely in a lost cause.
Every stop on this remembrance journey brought its own bold and introspective depictions of the different realities of war, but three were highlights for me. In a tour of the network of chalk-quarry tunnels, unknown to the German army, our guide related how 24,000 British soldiers were hidden in these underground cavities until they poured out in mass to execute a surprise attack on the Germans during the Battle of Arras. The Wellington Quarry tunnels in Arras are especially well worth the exploration. The time spent in this dank and dark shelter must have been excruciating for those soldiers as they awaited the signal to leave, hoping that the surprise strategy would work in their favour.
A second highlight pointed out the humanity of both sides in the midst of a most terrible conflict. Today, at the sight of what has become known as the Christmas truce of 1914, soccer balls are left in memory of that event that seemed incongruous with the reality of the times.
Both sides believed the war would be short. So on Christmas Day 1914 in Ploegstreet in Belgium, with troops facing each other in trenches only a few metres apart, they began exchanging Cognac and chocolates. This led to a friendly soccer match between the British and the Germans in the fields between the trenches. The Germans would win the match 3-2 before each went back into cover to resume fighting for the better part of another four years.
The third was the moving memorial tribute at the Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium. Called the Last Post Ceremony, it has taken place every evening since 1928, except for the period in the Second World War, when Belgium was occupied by the Germans. By pure happenstance, on June 2, the day we were there, the ceremony was the in honour of the 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles. Exactly 100 years before, on June 2, 1916, they were badly decimated in the battle of Sorrel, when out of their strength of 702 men, 626 were killed or wounded.
As the ceremony ended with the bugle playing of O Canada, it not likely there were many of those Canadians in attendance who were not affected emotionally. Estimates vary but it is believed there were more than 17 million military and civilian deaths on both sides, with another 20 million wounded during the entire period of the First World ar. With those numbers it is easy to gloss over the fact that each and every one of those casualties impacted many millions more. Spouses, children and parents, all who would bear the brunt of those losses for the rest of their lives.
Northern France is an exceptional region to visit today. The people continue to pay their respects to the many nations and individuals who helped secure their freedom. But out of the mud and clay, all that was left behind from the bombings and firepower of the war in many cases, they have rebuilt a thriving continuum of interesting cities and cultural attractions that go beyond the monuments and headstones that mark the graves of those who fell.
The gothic Notre Dame Cathedral in Amiens, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, stands as a defiant reminder that the people could rebuild their lives notwithstanding the impact of the war on the rest of their city. The sister to the Louvre in Paris, only open since December 2012 in the city of Lens, is a dramatic glass and metal structure strikingly opposite from the Louvre Paris in design, and even more dramatically different in presentation. There is no art hanging on walls as you will find in most other museums around the world. All of the sculptures and hangings move out from the centre of its spacious surroundings.
When I heard the name, La Piscine Museum (the swimming pool museum), I was not initially excited about the visit. It proved to be one of the highlights of the trip. Once an art deco public bath with a large pool, it has been creatively transformed into a magical environment, with stained-glass windows on each end of the now shrunken pool, giving the illusion of the sun presiding over its renowned art collection.
How does France do it? The meals are rich in cream and butter. Wine is served with every meal, yet few appear to be overweight. Perhaps the fact they walk a lot and often travel by bicycle may have something to do with it. In the time I was there, I can look back upon every meal as a treasure in taste and presentation. The desserts are created and displayed in such a fashion that avoiding them in shops or restaurants presents a challenge worth giving in to.
Read Ron’s blog at www.thattravelguy.ca. Listen to Ron’s latest podcast every Tuesday at 7:30 a.m. via his website or on demand on iTunes.
Ron Pradinuk Travel writer
Ron is a dedicated traveller, having explored 65 countries around the world as well as all but one province in Canada (Newfoundland).
Air France has convenient connections on a daily basis from both Toronto and Montreal.
On this trip I stayed mostly in three-star hotels that had great character, and had some historical significance.
In Amiens the Hotel Le Prieure (www.hotel-prieure-amiens.com) is located just around the corner from the 13th-century Notre Dame Cathedral. The foundations of the property go back to the 12th and 13th centuries.
In Arras, the l’Hôtel de l’Univers (univers.najeti.fr) was a former Jesuit monastery of the 17th century and is close to restaurants and shopping in Arras.
In Lille, I stayed at the four-star Novotel Centre Gares. (accorhotels.com/gb/hotel-3165-novotel-lille-centre-gares/index.shtml) Lille is a big city and this hotel is close to the station and other amenities.
For more information on northern France and the remembrance tours, go to Northern France Regional Tourist Board, northernfrance-tourism.com or remembrancetrails-northernfrance.com.