The first time I heard of The Battle of Vimy Ridge was at my in-laws’ dining table. The family was sitting about after a delightful meal, with chairs pushed back and arms resting on full stomachs, when my father-in-law pulled out a small, worn, pine box. He spilled its contents onto the table. Three bullet shells rolled past empty wine glasses, along the pale green tablecloth becoming lodged under the edges of crumb-littered dessert plates.
“These are the bullets that were extracted from my father – your grandfather – when he was wounded during World War I. Once was at the battle of Vimy Ridge.” He went on to share that his father was injured, recovered, and sent back to war three times. Given that Canada lost over 60,000 soldiers in World War I, Grandpa had beaten the odds when he returned home safely and was one of the fortunate who lived to share his story.
I had never been this close to a bullet casing, let alone held one in my hand. The feel of the cool, hard steel brought images to mind that made me uneasy. I struggled, unsuccessfully, to visualize his front-line experience or summon the feelings of his family waiting back home in Canada.
A few years later, at a reading of Jane Urqurhart’s novel, The Stone Carvers, I learned of the Canadian War Memorial that was constructed at Vimy Ridge in 1936. It was the creation of Walter Seymour Allward and took 10 years from finished design to completion. The magnificent, sculpture-adorned, marble structure was erected to commemorate Canada’s part in the First World War. After Ms. Urqurhart’s reading, it became a dream for The Consultant and me to visit the site, view the famous monument and pay homage to the many who gave their lives in service for our freedom.
In the spring of 2012, during a one-week stay in Paris, we capitalized on the opportunity to realize our dream and planned our trip to Vimy Ridge. We were a bit worried when we discovered the TGS train from Paris Nord Station to Arras, the jumping off point for Vimy, required reservations but were happy to find no problem reserving with only a couple of days notice. Arras, is a town about a one-hour ride from Paris. We could easily make the entire excursion a day trip.
Once in Arras, our first challenge was to find a cabdriver who spoke “a little bit” of English. We had noticed since our arrival in France, that our junior high school French wasn’t getting us very far. A charming fellow, parked just outside the train station was willing to practise his limited English on us.
He drove us approximately 8 kilomtres from Arras to the grounds of the Vimy memorial park. These 250 acres of land were gifted to Canada from France for her contributions during the war. As we traveled up the tree-lined roadway into the battlefield area, our driver pointed into the far-off distance. Through a lush, green expanse that was mostly cordoned off by knee-high posts and wire, we caught our first glimpse of the memorial just off through the trees.
He pulled into a small parking lot to drop us at the interpretive centre.
“You want I should come back for you?” he asked.
Noticing there were not an abundance of taxis around, we thought that was a considerate and generous offer.
“Sure. How much time do you think we’ll need to see everything?”
“I think maybe … 3 hours.”
“Okay. How about we see you back here at 3:00 then.”
“Okay. I come at 3:00. Right to this place.”
Although we were anxious to make our way to the memorial, we decided to start in the interpretive centre. The young member of the Canadian Armed Forces who was working that day explained that, although the battle of Vimy Ridge was not a large battle, it was the first battle to bring together all four divisions of our forces. This was a campaign for the high ground held by Germany and control of the coal in the area used by Germany to fuel their war efforts. The attack planned needed significant manpower to meet success. He then offered to book us on the 2:00 p.m., complementary Tunnel and Trench Tour and we set off to explore.
The lengthy walk from the interpretive centre to the memorial gives plenty of time to take in the battle-pocked terrain and envision the exchange of ammunition. The surrounding grounds dip and roll and are largely cordoned off due to the threat of undetonated explosives. We couldn’t conceive of a lawn mower navigating these grassy areas yet they looked so well kept. Later we learned that sheep keep the grounds manicured by grazing. We stayed to the pathways set out for our safety.
The grey, cloudy day complimented somber moods brought on by our approach to the massive marble memorial. From a distance, I started to appreciate its enormity. The pillars stretched to the heavens and glowed white against the dark sky. I immediately identified with Jane Urqurhart’s imagination of Allward’s challenge to disengage from the project, long after its completion. Taking in the mighty columns that represent Canada and France graced with intricate sculptures, each telling a story of faith, justice, peace, honour, charity, truth, knowledge and hope, to the figure that depicts Canada mourning her fallen sons, one can understand how this great endeavor would consume a soul. What could possibly follow a project of this magnitude?
From the monument, we made our way to Canadian Cemetery #2, which is not, in actuality, exclusive to Canadians. My husband and I hardly spoke as we passed one headstone, then another, marked with birth and death dates that would have made each soldier younger than our own children. Walking amongst the graves, we conjured up the longing of parents for their youthful sons who may have been laid to rest in a grave marked “Known unto God.”
Realizing time was running short; we marched our way back to the interpretive centre where our tunnel and trench tour was about to get underway. We were fortunate to have this opportunity since there are many days when it’s too wet and rainy for these tours to take place. As moisture seeps in through the chalk and limestone walls, navigation becomes unsafe. But it is the same soft, porous chalk and limestone that allowed our soldiers to dig with ease for quick progression in order to facilitate their planned attack efficiently. I noted that the tour is not recommended for people with reduced mobility or claustrophobia. The ground is uneven with narrow, worn staircases at both the entrance and exit of the tunnel, and narrow passages with low ceilings confine the space. My mild claustrophobia was not a hindrance but I could see how it might be difficult for those who are more seriously afflicted.
From one end of the musty tunnel through to the other side, I followed behind my husband. I witnessed a grandson walk where his grandfather may have walked. We ducked our heads under wooden beams in a tunnel where he most likely ducked his.
In the preserved trenches we glanced over the edge of mock sandbags where he’d have glanced over the real thing, with the enemy in sight. We imagined his torment, his challenges, what he witnessed in battle and what he dreamt, if he got to sleep. His fear and his bravery became our own.
Sadly, it was 3:00 p.m. before we knew it and we had to meet our taxi beside the interpretive centre. I was wishing we had more time to spend inside perusing the maps and artifacts, to purchase an item of memorabilia or simply sit outside on a bench and let all we’d seen settle in our thoughts.
A cab pulled up right on time but it wasn’t our driver. He indicated, through sign language, a telephone call.
“No, no. We didn’t call a taxi. We have another fellow coming for us,” I stated, pointing over toward the road.
“I’m sure the passengers who called for you will come around soon.”
We continued to wait for our prearranged taxi.
The driver sat back in his car and waited a few moments then popped back out looking directly at us and motioning us into his cab. Somehow, we realized he’d been sent for us and hopped in.
“Accidente,” he said, a little self-consciously, as he pulled out of the parking lot.
Oh! Our kind and gracious driver had been in a car accident and sent his friend to retrieve us. We were so pleased and very thankful to both the original driver and our new one. As he dropped us at the train station in Arras, we thanked him with enthusiastic handshakes that felt like an exchange of mutual appreciation. The warmth of the Arras locals toward a couple of Canadians came from enduring gratitude through the challenging times of so long ago.
Aboard our train back to Paris, we were quiet and changed. We carried a new perspective and understanding of the sacrifices made for us. Now educated on the events of The Battle of Vimy Ridge, we felt a stronger connection to Canada and our World War I soldiers, especially one in particular.
Our compassion and love for Walter Gowsell, the grandfather we never knew, became real. May his commitment to freedom, love of his country and experiences of sacrifice live on in all of us.