It was a sunny fall morning in October 2010 when I arrived at the Charles DeGaulle airport. I had slept intermittently on my flight from Edmonton. We had a single stop in Toronto so I figured I could snuggle in an sleep the rest of the way to Paris. Seven hours seemed like a proper night sleep then I would be refreshed when my parents arrived to meet my family. Canada covers a very large land mass. I woke up 5 hours later only to be disappointed that we were only in Newfoundland. Still in Canada.
The sun was still in morning reverie while I waited with my family for my dad to zoom by in the caravan. My parents and my grandmother had been travelling in Europe to celebrate my dad’s retirement. We decided to join them for a week. This was my second trip to the continent but my children’s first trip.
We boarded the caravan and I snuggled into my seat around the table in the back. Mom caught us up on all the things they had seen and now they were trying to navigate out of Paris and head north to Belgium where we would spend our first night and get reacquainted with the culture. The vibration of the vehicle quickly hypnotized me and lulled me into a hard sleep for about an hour. I tried to stay away because jet lag is easier to overcome by going to bed when the rest of the time zone does.
I woke up and watched the French countryside zip past me. I heard the hubs say, “Oh hey, Vimy Ridge is over there.” My mom and I looked at each other when we realized dad wasn’t stopping. Mom and I spoke at the same time, “We need to go.” She called my dad to stop and he had to navigate a U-turn on a tiny French road.
We pulled into the parking lot and all funnelled out. I took in my surroundings. To my left was the Candian cemetery. Over 10,000 people were injured or killed in the battle of Vimy Ridge. 3598 soldiers died at Vimy but only 828 Canadians were buried there. To my right was hilly ground fenced off and a flock of sheep were grazing on it. Moving closer we saw a sign on the fence, ‘Danger! Unexploded shells are still in this area.’
You could see how the shells and explosions had ripped apart the earth, leaving everything hilly and uneven. I felt for the sheep being used in this manner. We kept walking along the path.
In a break in the trees, we could see the monument in the distance standing on the ridge. A Canadian flag waving in honour of the country that came to France to fight against the Kaiser, protect the French and fight for King and Country.
The path was red, it immediately reminded me of Prince Edward Island, and was lined with maple trees. It felt respectful of boys buried beneath the surface.
We walked along the beautiful path. The quiet countryside was noticeable. There weren’t sounds of traffic or people, I didn’t hear planes overhead, I only could pick out the sounds of birds in the trees. I tied to envision the sounds of gunfire and artillery rounds, men screaming and people calling to each other, but all I could hear was the sound of birds.
As we approached the monument, I expected to see the 11,000 names engraved on the walls but I did not expect to be so moved by the sculptures that lined the stairs. These felt like angles weeping at what man had done.
I stood at the top of the stairs and took in the monoliths.
I didn’t know the artist until I came home to research, Walter Allward (1875-1955). I was afraid I would forget the feeling I had standing there. I did not. I can conger it up and immediately I am transported to that cool morning in the French countryside. I stood at the top of the steps and looked out over the ridge and the morning mist covered the valley. I turned to look the other direction and caught glimpses of trenches that snaked their way across the hill.
As I walked back to the caravan, I thought about the men in my family who fought in Europe, trained in Canada and guarded prisoners in Alberta. My family was touched by both wars. I thought about how the trauma of those times had a trickle-down effect on their families after the wars had long since ended.
Vimy remains the single most significant place I have witnessed. I hope all Canadians get a chance to discover it now that 100 years have passed. For more information please visit and support the Vimy Ridge Foundation.