Standing by the trenches at Vimy Ridge in northern France, there’s a palpable silence, punctuated only by the occasional sound of muted bird song.
It’s hard to believe that this was the place where one of the First World War’s bloodiest and most protracted battles took place in which more than 10,000 men were killed or wounded.
Looking out over the landscape is a sobering experience. You can imagine the horror of this battle and its dreadful death toll. This was once a place of apocalyptic horrors.
This year marks the Centenary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge which set me thinking about my recent visit to this haunting place.
Battlefield of the brave
Nothing prepares you for a visit to Vimy Ridge. It’s a sombre place where visitors come to reflect on the terrible impact of the First World War. A whole generation of Europe’s young men were killed in their prime at battlefields like Vimy.
But it’s easy to forget that many of those who died came from further afield, far from their homes. A total of 3,598 Canadians were killed and another 7,000 were wounded at Vimy. They were part of a Canadian battalion which was given the challenge of leading a fresh assault on the Germans.
Today, a visit to Vimy Ridge is a haunting experience. We arrived on a dreary wet day with mist cloaking the landscape, creating a spooky atmosphere. The ghosts of the men who were here still inhabit this place 100 years on. It’s so quiet that you can hear a pin drop.
One hundred years ago this place would have looked and sounded very different. The noise would have been deafening as shells exploded and rounds of gunfire were exchanged.
This would have been a bleak, war-torn landscape with gouged mud, shell craters and stunted trees. A network of trenches would have crisscrossed the fields, providing an underground subway of corridors and shelter for both sides.
The wrecked landscape would have appeared like a scene from Hell. The Battle of Vimy took place here between 9-12 April 2017 and became one of the defining battles of World War One.
But why was Vimy Ridge so strategically important?
This ridge was 5 miles long and held a commanding view over the Allied lines. It had been captured by the Germans early in the war and transformed into a strong defensive position.
It was a hell-hole and a difficult place to crack in terms of wearing down the enemy. The previous French attacks had failed badly with over 100,000 casualties and the German position was heavily defended.
The Canadians were well prepared and trained in the weeks leading up to the battle. Canadian and British artillery also pounded the enemy positions on the ridge, tormenting the German troops.
When the troops went over the top at 5:30 on Easter Monday, they attacked in bad weather with snow, sleet and driving wind. Their attack began with one of the biggest artillery barrages ever known in military history and was backed up by troops moving forward over the ground.
Surprised by the force of the brave Canadians’ assault, the Germans retreated. But the Canadians paid a terrible price with thousands of casualties, after gaining just 4,500 yards.
More than 15,000 Canadian infantry had overrun the Germans along the front, moving forward under heavy fire. There were reports of endless acts of sacrifice, as Canadians single-handedly charged machine-gun nests or forced the surrender of Germans in protective dugouts.
They captured Hill 145, the highest section of the Ridge, and their efforts paved the way for an Allied victory. Today the Vimy Monument stands on this spot and provides a focus for commemorative events.
It’s hard to imagine what it would have been like taking part in this battle but accounts by soldiers who were there provide us with an insight. You can read these and discover more at the excellent visitor centre with its displays about life on the front line.
One Canadian veteran, Eberts Macintyre, wrote: “It was nauseating to contemplate the horrors that the representatives of two Christian nations would inflict on each other at the time of the Easter festival, each believing that he was in the right.”
The highlight of a visit to Vimy Ridge is a trip to the underground Grange Tunnel and the front line trenches. Many of the trenches have been restored, having collapsed or disappeared into the muddy terrain. It’s about as close to the real thing as you can get, given the passage of time.
One of the most interesting things about the visit is being able to go underground to see the extensive excavations and tunnels from where the strategic operations were conducted.
The British tunnel network beneath Vimy Ridge covered around 7.5 miles and today you can walk through part of it with a guide.
It’s fascinating to walk through the tunnels which were created to connect reserve lines to front lines, permitting soldiers to move quickly to the front, unseen.
These underground ‘subways’ had a surprising range of facilities from light railway lines to makeshift hospitals. There were dormitories, command posts, ammunition stores, machine gun posts and communication centres.
It’s easy to imagine how grim it must have been living and working down in these underground tunnels and trenches. This is how one veteran described the experience:
The Germans dug similar tunnels and routes to the front line and also conducted ‘counter-mining’, destroying several British attempts to plant mines under or near their lines.
Being holed up down in this underground community must have been claustrophobic and frightening, as you would have been able to hear the pounding of shells above. But I guess it was better than being ‘on top’ in the direct firing line.
The Battle of Vimy Ridge was of huge significance for Canada as a nation, a symbol of bravery, nationhood and sacrifice. Not long after the war, the France government recognised the Canadian war efforts and ceded Vimy Ridge and the land surrounding it to Canada in perpetuity.
Their victory over German forces is often cited as the beginning of Canada’s evolution from dominion to independent nation.
At this week’s centenary events at the Vimy Memorial, Prince Charles said the soldiers who died at Vimy Ridge “set an extraordinary example of selflessness for our future generations.
“This was, and remains, the single bloodiest day in Canadian military history. They did not waver. This was Canada at its best. The Canadians at Vimy embodied the true north, strong and free.”
Justin Trudeau, the Canadian Prime Minister, also paid tribute to those who fought at Vimy.
Many historians believe the Canadian victory at Vimy was a defining moment for Canada, when the country emerged from under the shadow of Britain and achieved greatness. Others question whether it’s a good thing to mythologise war in this way.
But the main feeling I took away was one of sadness and the frustration at how we haven’t learned from history.
How many more wars do we need to fight?
It’s a chilling thought.
Tammy’s Travel Guide – Vimy Ridge
Vimy Ridge Museum and Memorial is located five miles north of Arras in northern France. It is an easy drive from the Channel ports if you’re arriving in France by ferry boat.
The museum is open from Mondays to Wednesdays and Fridays from 9:30 am. to 6 pm with late opening till 8pm on Thursdays. The timed tours are in English and French.
Don’t forget to explore to visit the nearby war cemetery – it’s a moving and humbling experience.
If you’re interested in the history of the First World War, this area of France has many battlefield sites and tours which can be visited.
The Vimy Foundation has useful background information on the history of Vimy Ridge and the First World War, if you want to learn more.