There is no joy to be derived from visiting any war memorial. There is no celebration in visiting the grave sites of the hundreds of thousands lost in any conflict or war. For me, there is only sadness, an unbelievable sadness, a sadness that lays like a heavy blanket over everything.
No matter how beautiful, how moving or how eloquent our memorials are, no matter how well maintained, how lovingly cared for, how graceful our attempt at honouring our dead, there is only sadness, heavy, profound and palpable.
Despite that sadness, I feel driven and obligated to visit these sites. I attend to honour the dead not the war. I am there to bear witness and acknowledge the soldiers who gave their lives not the generals or the politicians who sent them on their mission. I do not celebrate the war but I do honour and respect the combatants.
While it may be counter-intuitive, it makes sense to me. More than 66,000 Canadians gave their lives in the Great War.When I visit the various memorials and grave sites around Arras – Vimy and Beaumont Hamel – I am paying my respects to the bravery, discipline, courage and commitment of Canada’s soldiers.
Vimy is the iconic site commemorating our Canadian soldiers’ epic contributions to the Commonwealth effort to break the stalemate of trench warfare in the Great War. It was the first place that all four Canadian divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary force fought together, under the command of a Canadian, General Arthur Currie. Some 3600 Canadians were killed during the battle of Vimy Ridge between April 9-12, 1917; another 7000 were wounded.
The Vimy Memorial site itself is part of a much larger complex with guided access to the jaw-dropping complex of tunnels and trenches that were used to ensure victory and minimize the loss of soldiers in the attack on Vimy Ridge.
The massive memorial dominates.The two large columns and the cloaked figure representing the nation mourning its dead are visible for miles. In addition, sixteen granite figures symbolize aspects of our collective remembrance of the war.
It is a solemn and sober work of art and a striking one, perched on the ridge that so many soldiers on both sides fought over. The view from the monument is striking, a reminder of why soldiers since time immemorial have fought for the high ground.
Opened in 1936, it was restored and rededicated in 2007; the 100th anniversary of the battle was remembered in April of 2017. Canadian flags still fly throughout the area, a reminder of the enduring recognition by the French of Canada’s role in the defense of France.
Beaumont Hamel is entirely different; it is a flat piece of ground sloping down into a ravine. The Newfoundland Regiment, Newfoundland still a colony of Great Britain, lost 700 men killed or injured in less than 30 minutes in the battle for Beaumont Hamel on July 1st, 1916. Only 68 men showed for roll call the next morning.
For such a small population of about 240,000, the impact on Newfoundland was devastating. July 1, Canada’s national day of celebration, is still a day of mourning in Newfoundland and Labrador.
It is an even sadder and more mournful place of remembrance than Vimy Ridge.
We were fortunate to be escorted from Arras to Vimy and Beaumnot Hamel by our guide Faye, from Living Memory Tours www.livingmemorytours.com
Faye is Canadian, a native of Flin Flon; she worked as a Canadian guide at the Vimy Memorial and has expanded her knowledge base to include the whole region.
We were fortunate to visit, bear witness to the sacrifice the French made to their own defense at Notre Dame de Lorette, the French Memorial and military cemetery.
More than 40,000 French soldiers are buried or memorialized there alone; reminding us that while Canada’s contribution to success in the Great War was significant, the French sacrifice was unimaginable.
Faye guided us to other major sites; Cabaret Rouge, a major British cemetery, Thiepval, a joint French-British memorial and cemetery, the Adanac Canadian cemetery.
All these are maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to mark, maintain, and preserve the graves and memorials of fallen soldiers. The sites are clearly, lovingly maintained on behalf of grateful citizens from every country.
Neuville Saint-Vaast is a large German cemetery near Arras, final resting place for some 44,000 German soldiers who died in the Great War. It is solemn, austere; equally submerged in sadness, a sadness made more graphic by the rows of thin iron crosses and complete lack of adornment – no plants, no flowers, no uplifting icons. It is a reminder to us that Germans suffered along with everyone else, losing their fathers, sons, brothers, and friends.
We are vested with a responsibility, to never forget. We are given a high honour, to show our respect to those who sacrificed their lives in the Great War. We are given a challenge, to ensure that such carnage never happens again.
Our sadness, our sense of loss pays tribute to the loss, to the sacrifice these citizen soldiers have made for the common good. Our sadness should be as boundless as their sacrifice.
The only way I know of to honour these reluctant warriors is visit the sites, the monuments, the cemeteries and embrace that sadness.