The French, British, Czech and Polish Memorials West of Vimy
After finishing the drive from Arras to Cambrai in the footsteps of the Canadian Corp. I had time to follow up on a couple of items that Zac (faithful guide from my Vimy Trip) had suggested. Notre Dame De Lorette and the Abbey at Mont Etoi.

I drove to the Site of N.D de Lorette, which is located on a hill to the west of Vimy Ridge. A tower, Abbey, and large cemetery are at the top of the hill. The cemetery simple goes on as far as you can see along the hill in both directions. It is simply massive. If I read the french explination correctly, it indicates 60,000 dead in the cemetery and crypt. This dates to the early part of the war when there was little British or Canadian Forces in France. The French Army bore the attacks of 1914 and 1915 which overran their territory.

Moving down the road to Cabaret Rouge Cemetery – a British Cemetery named after the destroyed public house that sat at this location – I saw the largest British Cemetery I had so far. Over 7,000. It was from a plot in this Cemetery that an unknown solider, killed in the battle for Vimy Ridge was exhumed and moved to the National War Memorial in Ottawa. A marker still remains in the plot, explaining the movement of the remains.

Further down the road there are two other memorials. A Czech one that commemorates both WWI and WWII loses and a Polish Memorial from WWI. These two plus the Morocan memorial on Vimy recognize the other Allied forces of the Great War.

Last, I drove to Mount Eloi, there are the ruins of an Abbey, mostly destroyed long before WWI but commanding a view that made it an ideal command post and artillery observation site for the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

Tracing the advance of the Canadians in the last 60 days of WWI – Canal du Nord to Cambrai
Prior to leaving home I picked up one of Norm Christie’s series – King & Empire. This one ‘The Canadians at Cambrai’ Traces the advance and capture of the town of Cambrai in October 1918. The drive from Arras to Canal du Nord is about 20 minutes. I made one stop at the Canadian Memorial at Dury. Canada has 8 WWI memorials on the western front I have now seen 4 of them and I hope to make it 7 out of 8 before I leave. The day was hazy so many of my attempts to find a photograph landmarks were thwarted.

Starting at the Canal du Nord I followed the travel path outlined in the book. It took me to a number of cemeteries, again mostly in out of the way places. The most dramatic part of the day was the drive from the Drumond Cemetery – down a rough road outside Ste-Ole to the Sancourt Cemetery which is in the middle of both a farmer’s field and the approach path for the runway at a French Airforce base. The distance between these two points was about 2 km. The thought of tens of thousands of Canadian soliders crossing the farm fields was almost unimaginable.

There were compelling items all along. The commanding officer of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (a fine unit both then and now) was lost in the advance on Cambrai, he is buried at Ontario Cemetery. At the Drummond Cemetery there are 2 german soliders buried with the Canadians. At the “Canadian Cemetery” – yes that is the name, in addition to the WWI burials there is a Lancaster Crew from 408 squadron RCAF shot down while attacking Cambrai in June of 1944 as the Allies were advancing from Normandy. This bombing attack was to disrupt German supplies through the transport hub of Cambrai. Basically the same reason that they Canadians attacked in 1918.

The tour finished by driving in to Cambrai for lunch. The city had to be almost completely rebuilt after both WWI and WWII. The former because of Artillery and the Germans burning the city before while being forced to retreat under the weight of the Canadian advance. The second because of Allied bombers attacking the transportation routes that ran through Cambrai.

Personal Tours and other discussion
I had a tour guide to myself this morning, a great guy called Zac from Sudbury. All the guides at Vimy and Beaumont Hamel are University students on a federal work program. They do a 4 month rotation. Apparently they have a couple of houses that the guides share while living here. When I get back I have to write a letter to support the restoration of the Memorials and the student guide program.

So a couple of items that I didn’t really know. First there is a significant amount of articles that refer to the differences between the German and British approaches on trench warfare. I remember comments about how the British Generals didn’t want the troops improving the trenches as it worked against the intention to move forward and attack. The fortifications at Vimy were large, well developed and appears to have worked to protect troops entering and exiting the line.

Another item was the view of trench warfare as static, men living in squalid conditions for an extended period of time. While this may have been the early conditions on the Somme, by the 1917 battle at Vimy their was regular rotation of troops from the line to the rear areas. Most of the troops were billeted in houses and other shelter in towns like Arras (15km) from the front. They were still subject to artillery while in Arras and machine gun and motar fire on the way to and from the line. This is a very different view that what I had in my head for the war on the western front.

It should be noted that none of these types of well developed fortifications appeared to be in place at Beaumont Hamel for the 1916 battle but that may be the difference in strategy after the initial battles on the Somme.

Lastly, after looking at some of the additional items added to war memorials to ‘adapt’ the message – I had to ask myself what happened in 1940-1944. Once again my guide Zac to the rescue. Since almost all the WWI memorials were completed in the 1920s and 1930s, It occurred to me that if these memorials of the WWI victors was offensive to Germany, they would have destroyed them when France was occupied by Nazi forces in WWII. Zac produced a picture of Hitler touring the Vimy Memorial. Despite the other policies of the Reich, there was a general order that none of the memorials were to be touched. And with the exception of some scrounging of iron from some sites to be sold as scrap because the lack of raw materials.

A last story of was of the 51st Highland memorial at Beaumont Hamel, apparently there was some looting of metal artifacts at the site and a scaffolding was erected to remove the large solider at the top of the monument. When this was observed by a passing allied (RAF) fighter pilot, daily strafing runs were conducted to ‘discourage’ this from happening.

Moral of this story – well the easiest one – go to these places, talk to the guides – what you find is amazing.

Tomorrow, I follow the final battles of the Canadian Army in World War I, with the advance on Canal d’Nord and Cambrai.

Tour of tunnels, walk to the top of hill 145.
Thanks to a miscommunication on the tour booking, apparently they thought I was a tour group not an individual so they booked the entire 10AM tour in my name. As a result I had a personal tour of the tunnels of Vimy Ridge. The tunnel system was incredible well developed. It extended kilometers into the rear. The tunnels themselves are primarily 33ft below the surface, away from most dangers. they are 6-foot high and wide enough to allow 2 soldiers to pass in full gear. Various chambers allow for medical treatment, supplies, command and communication. A limited electrical system provided some light in 1917.

below the main tunnels, fighting tunnels were dug to try an intercept enemy tunnel systems. Either by breaking into them, collapsing them, or placing large amounts of explosives for cratering activity. The results of the British 1916 – Grange crater then became the edge of the combat line. In this cast the forward positions of Canadian and German forces were about 25m apart. Apparently, keeping your head down was a good policy for both sides.

The area was occupied by Canadian Forces for about 8 months prior to the main battle. Although the sniping, artillery, and mortar fire would be a daily occurrence.

On the top of hill 145 the view is commanding. Making the military value of the position obvious.

Finished this morning’s travel with a stop at the German Cemetery at Neuville St Vaast.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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

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>