Getting there: We took a train from Paris to Arras (about an hour), waited patiently for a taxi at the train station, and the taxi ride was about 15 minutes (25 Euro one way – taxis only took cash here).
Our visit: I have wanted to visit Vimy Ridge for a long time – having read a lot about both WW1 and WW2, it’s always seemed to me that I owe a visit as a very small thanks to those who served. The weather was unbelievably mild for December – just above 10 degrees and cloudy. Somehow the overcast weather seemed fitting. There were literally a handful of people at the park which was amazing – I don’t imagine one could reflect as well if there were crowds. There was a peace about this place that it deserves after the horrors witnessed here in the Great War. The land is a gift from France to Canada.
Our taxi dropped us off at the Monument which is stunning – daunting in both its magnitude and colour (see the pic with d2 in it for reference of its size). We found ourselves amazed by the ridge itself: the perfect lookout to see for miles around, and apart from the landscaped areas, still dotted with the remnants of trenches which have settled and become grass-covered in the past century. We walked the perimeter of the Monument and then approached it with awe. The names of the over 3,000 Canadians who lost their lives at the battle of Vimy (April 9-12, 1917) are inscribed on the Monument itself. We read those names with pride and honour as we climbed the steps.
We continued through the park to visit the two cemeteries that are on the grounds, keeping to the path since there is still much live ammunition on the site. The site itself is immaculately manicured, though – even the wooded areas have all fallen trees and shrubbery carefully removed in comparison to the forest just outside of the park grounds. It is always stunning to see the names and ages of the fallen men – many years younger than me – and to simply be taken aback at their bravery when you think of how raw and barbaric combat was in WW1. While I can barely fathom the conditions they lived in, I furthermore can’t even begin to imagine the terror of leaving a trench to face gunfire, shelling, and who knows what else. I thought of this repeatedly at Vimy and was simply unable to comprehend being in their place. Throughout the park there are also large craters now filled with grass that remain from large artillery explosions.
Lastly we visited the information centre that is manned by Canadian students. We watched a movie and read about those days in April so long ago and how they cemented Canada’s skill in battle because of the actual precision and rigour that was displayed (they actually had a scaled model that they used to practice and the battle represented one of the first times where plans were shared at all levels of the army). We walked through trenches here that have been preserved so you could see what it really was like. Unfortunately the tunnels were not open, but exploring the trenches certainly gave us a lot more to think about.
On our way back to Paris, we went to Carrière Wellington in the town of Arras, which was also important in WW1. Here we went 20 metres down in to a limestone quarry that dates to the 1600s. Underneath Arras there is a series of quarries, and tunnelers from principally New Zealand worked in WW1 to link numerous quarries together, and which were used strategically in the war to gain on the front. So extensive are the tunnels and quarries that at one point 24,000 men lived in them. We saw original writing and carving on the stonewalls from the War as well as some remnants of items left there post-War. Exit No 10 is one of the exits that troops used to go straight in to battle on April 9, 1917, the same day that their counterparts at nearby Vimy did (Vimy was principally a diversion for this attack). Again, it was impossible to comprehend thoughts going through one’s head as they walked up those stone stairs, knowing that the enemy was literally just outside of that door.
All in all, this was a really heavy day but one that I truly felt I was meant to experience. I think that so few people reflect on our fortune to live in Canada and what those who went before us did to ensure our freedoms. I never will forget that….lest we forget.