This post is somewhat late; for that, I apologize (an aside: why do I feel verantwortlich to a largely imagined group of readers?). I’ve not written anything for awhile – working two jobs will do that to a person, sapping away free time. I had however wanted to write a follow up to last year’s Remembrance Day post, which I re-blogged the other day. This year I returned to Vimy Ridge with Svenja.
When I went to Vimy last year heavy fog had surrounded the monument, obscuring it from view until you were practically underneath. This last weekend however the monument was hard to miss, it’s massive 10-storey pillars raising up above the ridge. The late autumn sun illuminated the white marble against the bright blue sky, clearly visible from the village of Neuville-Saint-Vaast below. What seemed like hundreds of French runners filled the streets and trails, no doubt taking advantage of the last days of sun before winter truly hit. The forest surrounding the monument teemed with people, giving the area a holiday-like feeling in a markéd contrast to what seemed last year like true desolation.
A francophone traffic warden waved us into the overfilled parking lot. The number of British license plates surprised us. Our walk to the monument took us around the back lower side, overlooking the low ground beyond the ridge. Down below, I explained to Svenja, the four Canadian Divisions had spent the night of 8 April 1917 in tunnels dug underground to protect the soldiers from German artillery fire. At 5.30 a.m. on 9 April 1917 the Canadians emerged from their refuges and proceeded up the hill towards the heavily fortified German position atop the ridge. A rolling artillery barrage cleared the way for the Canadian advance, a well-rehearsed glide of 100 metres every 3 minutes. The artillery and infantry had to keep in close time with one another, lest the blunderous mistakes of the Somme be repeated. At the Somme the British artillery either fell too short amongst the advancing troops or moved far too quickly, giving the German soldiers time to re-emerge from their cover before the advancing British arrived.
The ceremony began at 11 a.m. Two groups of veterans flanked the tomb, French on the one side, Canadian on the other, while the buglers and piper atop the monument looked down upon the assembled crowd. We remained silent as the wind whipped the flags into a frenzy, and the dignitaries arrived. Just like the veterans the dignitaries were a mixture of French and Canadian. A few short speeches were given, then a benediction from a French Canadian Catholic priest. Bilingual Canadian student guides from the monument read the Act of Remembrance, after which the buglers announced the Moment of Silence, their bugles sounding warped by the cold. When the two minutes were over the piper played “Flowers of the Forest.” The dignitaries laid their wreaths, and the national anthems – Canadian, Royal, and French – were sung, with La Marseillaise receiving the most gusto.
The ceremony hardly lasted an hour. Afterwards everyone slowly filed up the side of the monument, before walking along the long path to the parking lot. Some walked in contemplative silence, and some hurried, shivering, to their cars, while others still stopped to take photographs.