WE REMEMBER: Vimy Ridge then and now

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A glimpse of a WWI era allied bi-plane as it’s seen through the arch of the Vimy Ridge War memorial during ceremonies that commemorated the 100th anniversary of the battle, this past April in France.
Photos by Andrew Skene

Submitted by Irene Skene

April 9, 1917, dawned cold and wet as four divisions of Canadian soldiers launched their attack against two German divisions at 05:30 hours. The combat conditions were made even more difficult as snow had fallen, making the terrain a sea of mud.

By 13:00 hours, the Canadians had taken full control of the entire ridge, turning the tides in the Great War that had begun in 1914.

It was an amazing victory, months in the making, with tunnel preparations, physical training, and rehearsals. But it was an amazing victory that was coupled with amazing loss.

There were 10,602 casualties among the Canadian ranks at Vimy; 7,004 were wounded and 3,598 lay dead.

April 9, 2017, dawned quite differently 100 years later, with blue skies, brilliant sunshine, and very warm temperatures.

We boarded our bus in Belgium at 09:30 hours. 

France and the official commemorations at Vimy Ridge awaited us, and after parking lots and queues, security checks and walks, we arrived at the memorial around 13:30 hours, in preparation for the 16:00 hour event.

A view of the 27-metre tall Vimy War Memorial, on Hill 145 where nearly 3,600 Canadian soldiers lost their lives in a battle that would turn the tides of WWI.

We vied for seating with the other 30,000 people in attendance- people of all ages, all walks of life, many nations, all with their own reasons for being there, and all awed by the sight before us.

It is a memorial of grand proportions- two soaring white pillars that each stand 27 meters tall, each adorned, along with the base, with 20 symbolic figures.

With the addition of its base, on which is engraved the names of the 11,285 Canadians who have no known graves, and its position on Hill 145, the whole monument soars 110 meters above the Douai Plain, on a site that covers 117 hectares, now land that was given to Canada, by France, in 1922- “freely and for all time, exempt from all taxes”. A Canadian ambassador, who oversees the memorial, lives in permanent residence on the site.

The memorial, designed by Sir Walter Allward, pays tribute to the 60,000 soldiers who died in battle during World War I in Western Europe.

As the clock ticked toward the 14:00 hour mark, volunteers began to place 3,598 pairs of army boots, one for each Canadian soldier who had lost his life, in a pathway from the entrance to the memorial. Direction was of the upmost importance as there is still buried ordinance in some areas. Grass cutting duties in these areas are left to the sheep as the weight of the humans walking behind lawnmowers could set the ordinance off.

The guns fired once more on Hill 145 to commemorate the 100 anniversary of the battle on April 9, 1917.

This was followed by the arrival of the helicopters carrying the dignitaries. Canada was well-represented with Governor General David Johnston, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the Honourable Kent Hehr, Brigadier General Guy Chapdelaine along with members of the Canadian Armed Forces and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. 

President Francois Hollande and Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve, both of France, were also in attendance, along with England’s Prince Charles, Prince William and Prince Harry.

It was a thought-provoking ceremony that paid homage to the contributions and sacrifices made by our soldiers in the Great War, while delivering a message that was relevant to today. Presented in four movements, it was a story of Canada’s experience told through dramatic readings, musical performances and commemorative elements such as the 21 cannon salute (one of which shot a perfect smoke ring), a flypast by replica biplanes, the laying of wreaths, and a flypast of contemporary aircraft. 

The sun was setting as the ceremonies ended, and by 21:30 hours, we were back in Belgium, a day ended, but never forgotten. 

One can’t.


Rest In Peace.


About chrismarchand

Chris Marchand is a native of Dryden, Ontario. He served his first newspaper internship at The Dryden Observer in 1998 while attending journalism studies at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops B.C. He's worked desks as both reporter and editor at the Fernie Free Press as well as filled the role of sports editor at the Cranbrook Daily Townsman. Marchand served as editor of the Dryden Observer from August 2009 to April 2018.

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