Day 3 – Vimy

Visit to the Vimy Memorial
Arrived at the VImy Memorial just after 9. The sun was still low and there was a little mist. The Memorial itself is complete enclosed while undergoing 2 years of restoration work. After 70 years there were many issue of safety and ongoing damage to the stone that needed to be addressed. Their is an extensive park area around the monument, cemeteries and preserved trenches and tunnels. Apparently it is popular as a running area as I saw many runners out on the way in.

I have been suffering from my last race with a sore achilles, I feel self conscience limping around like a wounded solider among fields of the real thing. I’m hoping the foot injury is just a strain and will recover before I hit Paris next week. The amount of walking will increase even more then.

The park is remarkably quiet. There is some noise from the N17, which is the roadway I took from Arras but other than that very little. Again this area is relatively remote from any major community. A battlefield due to geography. to the Southwest is a long plain of farmland. You can’t see very far from here because of the trees that surround the area. I suspect that wasn’t much of an issue in 1917.

There are very few Canadian Monuments in Canada itself. I guess the Parliament buildings may be the only truly Canadian one. Most of the others, like the citadel in Halifax or the walls of Quebec city date from the days of French or British rule. The construction of this memorial in Northern France is likely the first purpose built CANADIAN monument. If the history of Canada is the struggle to be independent from foreign controls – French, British and you could argue today American. Here is where the Canadian Army became independent of direct British command. While still under the overall command of a British General, this battle was planned and executed by Canadian Generals directing Canadian troops.

Well, the tour guides just arrived and someone is about to raise the flag on the flagpole. I guess I need to put down my laptop and stand for that. After all there is a plaque 10 feet to my right that declares this land a gift to the people of Canada.

Day 2C – Thievpal and back to Arras

Back at the Hotel
Well the first full day of touring around is complete. I managed to drive in France without breaking any major laws or damaging any vehicles. Most of the cementaries and memorials are very remote. Without a car, or being part of a bus tour, you really can’t get there.

There were busloads of students at Beaumont Hamel and Thievpal. The British Memorial at Thievpal is the ‘largest’ British war memorial. I don’t know if they mean size or number of dead. Likely it is largest on both counts. When you approach the structure you see what looks like weathered marble. It is not until you get closer that you realize the pattern in the marble are thousands of names (over 70,000 of them). There are national memorials for most commonwealth participants. These memorials, like Thievpal and Beaumonth Hamel have the lists of the dead with no known grave from the battle of the Somme.

I picked up the Holt’s Battlefield Guide for the Somme, I had the Ypres one prior to my arrival. It is just not possible to get to every memorial so the Guide will help me prioritize my next few days.

Day 2 – Arras Memorial

October 12, 2005. Walked from Hotel to the Arras Memorial on the West side of the City.
One of the values of a Laptop is being able to put my thoughts down when the mood strikes. Sitting in this memorial the thoughts are many but the words are few. In addition to being a burial for those that fell in the Battle of Arras, it also has walls of names of those with no know grave. The names outnumber the burials by a wide margin. The memorial also includes a list of those lost in the air war over the western front. The Arras Flying Service memorial is on the southern side. The book of memorial lists all the names of those commemorated here. I opened the volume for the flying services memorial and the second name I saw was someone from Victoria. I will have to do a little research on this when I get back.

Walking the rows of markers it didn’t take long to see the maple leaf among the crest of services and units that mark the top of every head stone. The age range is suprising. You think of all the teenagers as the sterotype of those that fight wars but the ages range from 17 to 50 in the markers I read. There are signs of current commemoration with wreaths, poppies and little crosses beside certain names. A laminated piece of paper beside one marker from two generations to a fallen father and grandfather.

At the end of the cemetary there are three headstones marked ‘believed to be buried here’ two from WW1 and one USAAF pilot from world war two. Apparently this Lt Col. was the squadron or group leader.

Last, sitting at the northern edge of the memorial, the value of reflecting on things as they happen becomes apparent. I look up and next to all the commonwealth and allied graves is one with and Iron Cross. “Muller 461216” no indication of rank or unit but obviously a German solider is here too.

Day 2B – Beaumont Hamel

Drive from Arras to the Newfoundland Memorial at Beaumont Hamel
Sitting at the 51st (highland) division memorial in the preserved battlefield at Beaumont Hamel.

The first thing that strikes you is the featurelessness of the surroundings. The countryside is farmland with small rolling hills nothing more than 15m up or down. The battle-line here were less than 100m apart. The small geographic feature of a hill or a ravine is enough to turn open country into a contested battle-line. The soil is also notable for being chalky. These natural bits of geography and geology must have been what made the Somme such a place of death.

Having studied various battles and wars, I find myself at a loss for what could be a strategic target in this area. One piece of it looks much like another. Not much different from driving 30 to 45 minutes outside of Edmonton or Saskatoon into the farmland. Even if you had a strategic target it would be unlikely that anyone in a line unit would have been able to see it from their position. Given the relative flatness of the territory anything beyond 20m (if you are in a trench) or 2 km (if you are standing on a rise) in unknown to you.

The fact that I can go to google earth, and know more about the this area in 3 minutes than the best planners on the Allied or German side did after fighting here for 3 years.

Trip of a LIfetime – Day 1.5

Airport to Arras and local pictures in Arras
It is nice to know I will not have to completely rely on my stuttering French while travelling. While I typically start the conversation in French, I am replied to in English – sort of – ‘nice try but we better do it this way’. From the Airport via the TGV train – which is fast as measured by my inability to get non-blurry pictures of distant objects. Train trip was CDG to Lille, change trains in Lille and on to Arras. Arras was briefly occupied during the First War but the main damage came from German Guns that pounded the town relentlessly. A major effort was taken to rebuild the Belfry at the Place d’ Heroes and the building of the Place d’Heroes. Grand Place, and Petit Place. Pictures of these sites as well as the Abbey Jardin (the orginal hub that Arras grew up around) are at my flickr site http://www.flickr.com/photos/bkempthorne

The shelling of Arras stopped with the taking of Vimy ridge to the north east and forcing the German guns out of range.

Trip of a Lifetime – Day 0

My trip to the battlefields of Northern Europe – October 2005
I’m calling this entry day 0 because nothing much has happened yet. I woke up at 3:30 (pacific) for a 6:30 flight. I then spent 5 hours flying to Toronto and another 6 in the Toronto airport. The airport is under construction so the international flights have been moved to a satellite terminal until the new international gates at Terminal 1 are ready (2007?). No WiFi (pay or Free) that I could find here. I really thought that would be a no-brainer in a reasonably new airport building but apparently not. <br><br>

Airport waiting is somewhat of an art. There are those that do it well, there are those that can appreciate when someone does it well, and there are those that just don’t get it. Despite a zillion (yes I’m prepared to back up that number) reminders in every form imaginable people are still being paged after the airplane has boarded. I presume the got to the airport and checked in – otherwise no-one would care. It’s possible that they are just in the wrong place but I am so paranoid about missing things that I always arrive hours early. <br><br>

I admire the people that can sit in these annoying boarding-area chairs, have their head fall forward, and just fall asleep. That is amazing to me. The rest of us read, type, listen, or tend to children and elderly relatives. <br><br>