November 11th is an important day to observe as it marks the anniversary of the official ending of World War I. That war ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month thus explaining why Remembrance day is November 11th. In Canada Remembrance Day is a national holiday and all Commonwealth Nations observe this day as a day to remember the members of their armed forces who have died in the line of duty. For those that don’t know, the Commonwealth is an organization of 53 member states that were mostly territories of the former British Empire, which includes the United Kingdom. The United States has a day of remembrance called Veterans Day, which is an official federal holiday that is observed annually on November 11. Its purpose is to honor people who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces, that is, its veterans. Armistice Day remains the name of the holiday in France and Belgium.
Now I’ve always felt that Remembrance Day was an important day to remember our fallen soldiers and I have often attended ceremonies, but since visiting the World War I and II sites in France, I have a whole new appreciation for this day. In this post, I will share my experiences visiting the WWI sites and cemeteries in France and Belgium. Experiences of my visits to WWII sites will be in another post.
The first site I visited was the Canadian National Vimy Memorial which has always been on my “bucket list” to visit. The memorial towers over the scene of Canada’s most recognizable First World War engagement, the Battle of Vimy Ridge, fought on April 9 to 12, 1917. In 1922 the French Government granted land on the crest of the ridge to the Canadian nation and this piece of land is now a Canadian National Park. To help you understand the importance of this site, here is a history lesson.
The Battle of Vimy Ridge was a military operation fought primarily as part of the Battle of Arras during the First World War. The main combatants were the Canadian Corps, of four divisions, against three divisions of the German Sixth Army.
The Canadian Corps was ordered to seize the heavily German fortified Vimy Ridge in April 1917. Situated in northern France, this seven-kilometre (4 mile) ridge which held a commanding view over the Allied lines. In May 1915, the French army attempted to seize the ridge but failed with 150 000 casualties. In February 1916, the British Army attempted to take control of the ridge but the Germans were able to push them away from the ridge.
Attacking together for the first time, the four Canadian divisions stormed the ridge at 5:30am on 9 April 1917. More than 15,000 Canadian infantry overran the Germans all along the front. Canadians single-handedly charged machine-gun nests or forced the surrender of Germans in protective dugouts. Hill 145, the highest and most important feature of the Ridge, and where the Vimy monument now stands, was captured in a frontal bayonet charge against machine-gun positions. It was the first time all four Canadian divisions attacked together and men from all regions of Canada were present at the battle. Brigadier-General A.E. Ross declared after the war, “in those few minutes I witnessed the birth of a nation.”
For me, visiting Vimy Ridge was an “eye opening” experience even though I’ve taught about the Battle of Vimy Ridge for many years. The first thing you notice are the craters left behind from the three-week bombardment that preluded the attack that occurred on the 9th of April. They were everywhere you looked. Large areas are fenced off with electric fences with signs stating that there are still unexploded devices in these areas. In fact, the attendant in the information told us that recently someone brought in a what they thought was a rock only to find out it was an undetonated grenade from 98 years ago.
When visiting the preserved trenches, I was struck by how close the Allied and German trenches were to each other. We were told that the trenches were 25 metres apart in places. In the area between the opposing trenches, known as “no man’s land” are several huge craters. We were told that these craters were from Allied soldiers tunneling under “no man’s land” and detonating explosives. My wife and I learned about the conditions of the trenches. Soldiers would spend months in these trenches often standing in ankle to knee-deep mud and water which caused many soldiers to acquire infections in their feet known as “trench foot”. The soldiers also had to contend with rats and head lice in epidemic proportions. The food was usually canned food and not much variety either. Many soldiers perished not because of battle but because of the horrific conditions of the trenches.
The park also does a tour of the tunnels. The tunnels at Vimy Ridge were part of a 20 kilometre (12 mile) network of tunnels stemming from the city of Arras. The soldiers would exit these tunnels to go onto the battle field. While soldiers were in the tunnels awaiting battle, they had to be perfectly quiet as they could be heard in the nearby German tunnels. The lighting in the tunnels was minimal so when our guide demonstrated what it would be like in there in 1917, it was almost pitch black. The temperature in the tunnels is a constant 10 degree Celsius (50 degrees Fahrenheit).
In the nearby city of Arras, my wife and I visited the Wellington Quarry (la Carrière Wellington) a museum that opened in 2008. The museum is a section of the many kilometres of tunnels dug by the British Army in WWI. Here is another history lesson.
From the Middle Ages through to the 19th century, the chalk beds underneath Arras were extensively quarried to supply stone for the town’s buildings. In 1916, during the First World War, the British forces decided to re-use the underground quarries to aid in a planned offensive against the Germans. The quarries were to be linked up so that they could be used both as shelters from the continual German shelling and as a means of conveying troops to the front in secrecy and safety, so 500 miners from the New Zealand Tunnelling Company, were brought in to dig 20 kilometres (12 miles) of tunnels. They worked alongside the British coal miners. Many were soldiers of below average height who had been rejected from regular units because they did not meet the height requirements.
The tunnel system could accommodate up to 20,000 men and these tunnels were outfitted with running water, electric lights, kitchens, latrines, a light rail system and a fully equipped hospital. Thousands of soldiers were billeted in the tunnels for eight days prior to the start of the Arras offensive on 9 April 1917. At 05:30 that morning, exits were dynamited to enable the troops to storm the German trenches. The Germans were taken by surprise and were pushed back 11 km (6.8 miles). However, the offensive soon bogged down and it was eventually called off after casualties reached 4,000 a day.
When you visit the quarry which lies 20 metres (65 feet) below the surface you are immediately struck by the numerous tunnels down there. A guide takes you through showing the many bottles, cans, shoes, and other WWI artifacts that are still there. You are also shown the graffiti on the walls left by the soldiers as well as one of the exits that led to the battlefield. It was truly one of the most moving and spiritual experiences I have ever had.
My wife and I also visited the many, many WWI military cemeteries in the area. We were actually overwhelmed by the sheer number of them. We visited three or four commonwealth cemeteries, which lay many Canadians. We visited a German cemetery and a French cemetery. What was astonishing to us was the number of unknown soldiers in these cemeteries. One of the cemeteries we visited had over half of the graves as unknown soldiers. Another surprising observation we made was how well-kept these cemeteries were. There were flowers growing between every headstone, the grass was always well-groomed and monuments were found in every cemetery. I think this speaks of the character of the French people and nation. It says they have great respect for the dignity of all fallen soldiers. The French value and honor all soldiers, no matter what side of the war they fought for. I was also struck by the sense of peace in these cemeteries. It was truly a humbling and touching experience to visit these resting places of WWI soldiers.
Notre Dame de Lorette is the world’s largest French military cemetery. Beside this cemetery is the Remembrance Ring (Anneau de la Mémoire) officially known as Mémorial International Notre-Dame-de-Lorette. This new memorial was inaugurated on November 11, 2014 and takes the form of a 328-metre ring of concrete with 500 sheets of bronzed stainless steel inside listing 579,606 German, French and British names. Now that is a lot of fallen soldiers and that does not include the many unknown soldiers whose names are not part of this memorial. What was so unusual to me was the fact that the French Government collected as many names as they could obtain of soldiers who perished in WWI regardless of their nationality; regardless of which side of the war they fought on. Once again this speaks of the character of the French nation. My wife and I wandered around in awe of this memorial finding our family names. It is very powerful and humbling experience to stare at 113 people with the same surname as me who fought with the Germans, the enemy of the day. As you might have gathered, my ancestry is German.
My wife and I now have a whole new appreciation for all soldiers and the sacrifice they made to maintain freedoms. Even though WWI was such an unnecessary war and a world war caused by the big egos of the leaders of the day, it was still necessary for soldiers to keep France and Belgium from being occupied and controlled by a foreign empire. I will attend the Remembrance Day ceremonies this year with much more gratitude and appreciation of all soldiers, especially knowing what the soldiers of WWI had to endure.