Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Canadian National Vimy Memorial, National Historic Sites of Canada, Vimy Ridge, France - An Easy Day Trip from Paris

the approach to the Vimy Ridge Memorial

Early in 1917, the Allies launched another massive offensive, ever determined to achieve the elusive breakthrough. This time the plans called for a French offensive in the south between Reims and Soissons, combined with British diversionary attacks about Arras. The Germans, meanwhile, quietly withdrew to strong new defences, the Hindenburg Line. In so doing they exchanged a long, bulging line for a well-situated shorter one, which they fortified with powerful modern devices.

The Canadian share of the British assault was the seizure of Vimy Ridge. The task was formidable. For the Germans it was a vital key in their defence system and they had fortified it well. The slopes, which were in the Germans favour, were interlaced with an elaborate system of trenches, dugouts and tunnels heavily protected by barbed wire and machine guns, and defended from a distance by German artillery. They had even installed electric lights, a telephone exchange, and a light railway to maintain supplies of ammunition. All previous attempts to take the Ridge had failed.

Canadian commanders, however, had learned well the bitter lessons of assault by vulnerable infantry, such as those that had occurred the previous year at the Somme. This time the preparation was elaborate and the planning thorough. Engineers dug great tunnels into the Ridge; roads and light railways were built; signals and supplies were ready. The operation was to be supported by a large concentration of heavy guns and howitzers, and full artillery. The men too were fully prepared. The area was simulated behind the lines and troops practised their roles until every man was familiar with the ground and the tactics expected of him.

Preliminary bombardment, designed to conceal the exact time and extent of the attack, began on March 20. It was intensified from April 2 with such crushing blows that the enemy called the period "the week of suffering". On the night of April 8 all was ready and the infantry moved to the prepared forward positions.

The attack began at dawn on Easter Monday, April 9. All four divisions of the Canadian Corps - moving forward together for the first time - swept up the Ridge in the midst of driving wind, snow and sleet. Preceded by a perfectly timed artillery barrage the Canadians advanced. By mid-afternoon the Canadian Divisions were in command of the whole crest of the Ridge with the exception of two features known as Hill 145 and the Pimple. Three days later these too were taken.

In 1922, the French Government granted "freely, and for all time, to the Government of Canada the free use of the land exempt from all taxes" 100 hectares of land at Vimy Ridge. A Canadian architect and sculptor, the late Walter Seymour Allward, designed the Canadian National Vimy Monument. His design was selected from 160 others submitted by Canadians who participated in a competition held in the early 1920s. Work began on the monument in 1925 and eleven years later, on July 26, 1936 it was unveiled by King Edward VIII.

Canadian Line Sniper Positions
Like Beaumont-Hamel much of the site has been left “insitu” with shell holes pock-marking the landscape from the artillery bombardments. On average there were 5 shells per square foot over the 14kms front, as a result much of the park is closed to visitors because of still unexploded munitions, as a result the grass in these areas are not cut by machine but by grazing sheep. Sections of German and Canadian trenches have been preserved with concrete sandbags, the “Grange Subway” has also been preserved, one of the numerous underground tunnels, used for bringing up supplies and as protection for the troops, so visitors can picture the enormity of the tasks facing the forces on both sides of the war.

the landscape of Vimy Ridge

The monument is located on the highest elevation of the ridge, overlooking the Douai Plains. It is a massive17,000 tonnes of concrete and limestone. Upon it is carved the names of 11,285 Canadian soldiers who were killed in France and whose final resting place remains unknown. The memorial also contains numerous carved features and statues, which symbolize peace and sacrifice.

The front wall, normally mistaken for the rear, as the monument is approached from the rear, contains at the base of the steps on each side of the front wall the ‘Defenders’; The ‘Breaking of the Sword’ is located at the left of the front wall while ‘Sympathy for the Helpless’ is located at the right corner. Above each there is a cannon barrel draped in laurel and olive branches carved into the wall, to symbolize peace.

The Front of the Vimy Ridge Memorial
The figure of a cloaked young female stands on top of the front wall and overlooks the Douai Plains where over 7,000 Canadians are buried in 30 war cemeteries within a 16 km radius of the Vimy Memorial. The woman has her head bowed, her eyes cast down, and her chin resting in one hand. The saddened figure represents Canada – young nation mourning her dead. The statue is the largest in the monument and is a single 30 tonne piece of limestone. Below her, at ground level, is a sarcophagus, bearing a helmet, a sword and draped in laurel branches.

The twin white pylons rise to a height 30 metres above the memorial's stone platform. One bears the maple leaf for Canada and the other the fleur-de-lis for France, which symbolize the unity and sacrifice of both countries. At the top are figures representing Justice and Peace. Peace stands with a torch upraised. The figures of Truth, Knowledge, Gallantry and Sympathy are below them. Around these figures are shields of Canada, Britain and France. Large crosses adorn the outside of each pylon. In the center, at the base of the pylons, is the ‘Spirit of Sacrifice’ a young dying soldier throws his torch to a comrade who holds it aloft behind him.

The remaining two figures are: The Mourning Parents, one male and one female figure, they are reclining in sorrow on either side of the stairs on the reverse side of the monument.

Including Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial and the Canadian National Vimy Memorial the National Historic Parks of Canada and Veterans Affairs Canada oversees close to 80% of conserved First World War Battlefields

The Park is located 8kms north of Arras, France outside the town of Vimy
The Canadian National Vimy Memorial is open to the public all year from sunrise to sunset and is free of charge
Between April 1st and November 30th there are a number of Canadian students, through Veterans Affairs Canada, on the site who provide guided tours and explanations of the battlefield daily from 10:00 to 18:00 hours
Getting there and away
There are numerous daily direct train from Paris Gare du Nord to Arras where one can take a taxi to the site

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