April 9-12, 1917. The Battle of Vimy Ridge. World War 1. This battle took place in Arras, in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region of France.
This was the first time the four Canadian divisions fought together – 1st Canadian Division (Canadian Joint Operations Command from Kingston), Second Canadian Division (Canadian Army from Quebec), Third Canadian Division, and Fourth Canadian Division. Canadians fought beside the British. They were fighting against Germany, to reclaim Vimy. In the end, the Battle of Vimy Ridge lasted three days. Canada won – they were successful in taking back Vimy. In the process though, 3,598 Canadians were killed, and another 7,004 were injured. 10,602 casualties in three days… That is a lot of people who sacrificed themselves for their country! Canada showed the world during this fight that they were a fighting force.
To commemorate the 100 year anniversary of this event, Veteran’s Affairs Canada (VAC) was putting together a ceremony. A ceremony to remember all the people who were injured and killed, one hundred years ago. You had to register online to be able to be a spectator. Being in Europe, and being three hours from the site, going to this event was going to be an “easy task”. So we registered all five of us to go, and then await our tickets. In the timeframe of registering and receiving our tickets, I read a news article talking about who was going to be there. Justin Trudeau of course, being Prime Minister of Canada, but what surprised me (and not at the same time…) was Prince Charles, Prince Harry, and Prince William being there. Really, when am I ever going to be in the presence of the Prince’s again in my lifetime like that?!?! Gotta admit, knowing they would be commemorating with us, was a nice feeling – and quite cool!
Where my husband works, was setting up at least one bus for people to go. This made it easier than having something like thirty families try to find parking. In the end, there was enough people interested in going to have two buses going – around ninety people total. The closer to the event you get, your tickets are e-mailed to you (two sets of tickets actually, VAC re-issued them all less than two weeks before). VAC posted a list of “forbidden items” to bring – which totally made sense with the amount of people showing up to this event. You had to park in designated areas, then take a shuttle to the actual site. You couldn’t even get into a shuttle without your ticket and a Canadian ID (ie passport). Bags were being checked as well to make sure you were not bringing anything on the “forbidden list”. Security was definitely on par before getting to the site itself.
There was even a debate on if we could bring our big camera or not. My husband’s camera takes incredible pictures, but the list said no camera with zoom more than 10cm. We didn’t know if the zoon couldn’t zoom more than that, or if the entire camera including lens had to be less than 10cm. We weren’t going to take the chance of having his camera taken away, so we decided to stick with phone pictures instead. Turns out, you could bring the camera as long as the lens can come off. We regret not bringing it, but it’s still better to be safe than sorry. Our phone cameras did what it had to do – and we can see the professional photos if need be.
I was planning on bringing one big backpack for colouring books and toys and snacks for the kids – less to carry, right?!?! Turns out, backpacks couldn’t be more than 15l (that’s not very big…), so I had to find smaller backpacks for each of us instead of one big. We went to our local sports store, Decathlon, and bought five 10l bags, for 10€ total – amazing price! They are usually 2.99€ but were on sale for 1.99€, which made my purchase even better!
The buses were leaving at 8:00am, and only getting home approximately 11:30pm – that’s a very long day, and a lot of entertainment to prepare for three kids. Packing has become easy for me – so a day of packing was quite simple. Since we were allowed to bring snacks into the Vimy site, I found individual cereal boxes, and gave each kid five boxes. They each had three colouring books, including one brand new one – best purchase I think I have ever made!
The drive to the parking was great. There were about 10 kids on our bus, mostly sitting towards the back. Once we got off to wait for the shuttle, some people even told us they didn’t know any kids were on the bus at all, which was a nice compliment for all the parents there.
The wait for the shuttle was almost an hour long. It zig zagged through the parking lot, but it went quickly. We met other Canadians who were here for just this event, which was nice. The best part of the line? See the photo below. This man is a WWII vet. He was sitting in his wheelchair encouraging kids to come give him high fives. My oldest went over twice! He didn’t ask questions about who he was, but he told me he dresses like Daddy – which was nice of him to realize. This man loved seeing all the kids, the smile on his face was amazing!
Finally we got to the shuttles, and got to the site. The shuttles drop you off around the Visitor’s Center, and then you have to walk the 1.2km to the monument. Thank goodness my kids are old enough to not need a stroller anymore. With the amount of people walking the path, the stroller would have made it a difficult walk. Holding three boys hands was much much easier! Spectators were pouring off the shuttles – the amount of people before and behind us was – just wow.
Finally you get to the actual site, and see the monument in the distance. I have seen it once before, but the amazing-ness of it doesn’t get old. The monument was made by a Canadian, Walter Seymour Allward. It took about eleven years to make, and about 1.5 million dollars to build. There are two pillars, each standing 120 ft tall. One pillar has a maple leaf representing Canada, and the other has a fleur-de-lis representing France. The monument has twenty human sculptures on it. See below for the exact description of what is on the monument.
The Chorus: A group of eight figures high up on the top of the two pylons represent Justice, Peace, Hope, Charity, Honour, Faith, Truth and Knowledge. Peace is the highest figure on the monument, reaching upwards with a torch.
The Spirit of Sacrifice: Between the pylons the group of two figures comprises a dying soldier who has passed a torch to a comrade.
The Defenders: Two groups of figures located at each end of the front wall comprise seven figures called The Defenders. The group of three figures called Breaking of the Sword is on the south corner of the front wall. The group of four figures called Sympathy of the Canadians for the Helpless is at the north corner of the front wall. Above each group a gun barrel with laurel and olive branches represents peace.
The Mourning Parents: Two reclining figures on the southern (reverse) side of the memorial, located either side of the steps, represent the mourning mothers and fathers of Canada’s war dead.
“Mother Canada” or “Canada Bereft”: A female figure draped in a cloak stands alone on the wall at the north-eastern side of the memorial. She bows her head and is looking down at a stone sarcophogus, representing Canada’s war dead, at the base of the 24 foot (7.3 metres) wall below her. The magnificent view across the Douai plain and the location of the old enemy of the time spreads out before her. This figure is called Mother Canada or Canada Bereft, representing the nation of Canada mourning for her dead. The figure was carved from a single 30 tonne block of limestone.
I am sure no matter how many times one can see the monument in person, you can never get enough. The beauty of it will never disappear!
Now to find our seats… We had VIP seating right in front of the ceremony, so we had to make our way to the other side of the monument, on the hill. This was the hard part. We couldn’t find where to go… After asking a guard, he said that security had stopped allowing anyone to get down to the other side – we were stuck up top. Now, this wasn’t going to work… We had ushers in our group, and they HAD to get down.. As a joint effort, we all tried to find someone who looked “higher up” and talk to them. One person, after about an hour of back and forth about her trying to find where we can go, and IF we can get there, we get told “the gates to the bottom are possibly going to open, get over there now!” – so we did. Another ten minutes of figuring out when they were going to open the gates, we get told “VIP seating, come with me, but you will need to hurry your feet”. So we rush. We rush as fast as we possibly can with three kids in tow, who don’t have the fastest of little feet – but we did it! Follow the crowds of people, to finally find our seats!
We walked down a long path (probably almost half a kilometer) to our designated seating area. My husband was walking, holding our twins hands, behind more people dressed in uniform. We walk through a row of people sitting on the ground, ready to watch the ceremony. All of a sudden, we hear this clapping. The man walking beside me and myself just look at each other, until we realized what was going on. The military members – my husband!! – were getting a round of applause for what they do. For the service they pay for our country. The sacrifices they do for themselves and for their families. It was probably the most incredible moment of the entire day. It was the most touching moment I have felt in this military life so far. The times I have felt most proud of what my husband does, don’t even add up to the amount of proud I felt in this moment. The pride I felt. The pride I saw in all the member’s faces once we got out of that area… I’m not sure my words even describe this enough..
It took longer to find seats together than we’d hoped – but one of my husband’s coworkers gave us his seat so we could sit together, and he took another. At least we were right on the end, so in case the kids needed a bathroom, it was an easier access.
Bathrooms were fairly easy to find everywhere on site, but given the fact that there was 25,000 people there, there probably were not enough of them. Lines were long – especially when you have kids really needing to go.. But we made it through, and all was good. Water stations were also an amazing thing that the site had. I saw two water stations, one on top of the hill, one on the bottom, and each had about 12-15 water coolers – and many more on hand when one ran out. It was a great system to have! They also had water bottles on hand to either purchase or to take (I had my own bottles, so I didn’t want to wait in line in case you had to pay); which was also great for those who forgot their own, or who needed extra water. The temperature was 22 degrees and very sunny, so the need for water was extensive!
The ceremony itself felt a little Canada Day in Ottawa type of ceremony. Dancing, and a lot of singing and music. Not to say it wasn’t nice, but having been to more than one “military ceremony”, this one didn’t feel as “military” as the others did.
First was an Aboriginal dance. Right after that, the military parade came marching in. I love this part. I love this part because I know the amount of practice it takes to make this part “perfect”! I know the dedication these guys and girls have for the parade., and the effort they put in!
The parade was giving way for the Honorary VIP’s to come to their seats. These VIP’s included, as mentioned earlier, the Prime Minister of Canada – Justin Trudeau, David Johnstone – Canadian Governor General, Prince Charles – Prince of Wales, Prince William – Duke of Cambridge, Prince Harry – Prince of Wales, and who I didn’t know would be there, was Francois Hollande, President of France. It was nice to see such big names willing to come to a ceremony for our Fallen Canadian Soldiers.
Prime Minister Trudeau, President Hollande, Governor General Johnstone, as well as Prince Charles all had beautiful kind words to say. Talking about remembering the soldiers, and how great Canada is of a country. It was very nice to hear each one talk!
Between most of the speeches was a song that was sung, mostly by a known Canadian singer. Isabelle Boulay was there, as was country singer Johnny Reid (whom I met probably 15 years ago when he wasn’t famous yet – so to have him here was a happy moment for me). This is mostly what I meant by it seemed more like a Canada Day Celebration. Yes, their songs were significant to what we were remembering, but I feel it wasn’t a necessity – plus it could have cut some of the ceremony down.
Now my absolute favorite part of this ceremony, was hearing the “stories of war”. Four actors (actually I’m not sure who they were…) were reading real letters of military members who fought during World War I, and who were killed during The Battle of Vimy Ridge. It was shocking. To hear that someone wrote to his parents or girlfriend saying “we had sun here today” instead of “I am scared of dying” was a hard hit. These guys put their lives on the line – and 3598 of them were killed in those three days! 18, 19, 20, 21 year olds… I found myself during the stories saying “wow”, and “omg” and “I can’t believe that” much more often that I would have expected. I am pretty sure at one point hearing one story, my eyes teared up a little, and I have no shame in admitting it. It really did hit me hard. And here I was – sitting with one child in my arms who is fast asleep, one in my husband’s arms who is fast asleep, and the other sitting on the ground in front of me playing with his stuffed animal, and couldn’t help but think “these guys are the reason I am sitting here today. These guys are the reason I am sitting with my three beautiful little boys living an absolutely amazing life!” I am grateful. More than grateful. I am blessed.
After the ceremony we decided to go on a small search for souvenirs before heading to the shuttles. There were pamphlets we took for family back home in Canada, but the best souvenir we found was free. Canada Post was there selling stamps, and at the same time, they will stamp your passport with a Vimy Ridge stamp! Very cool! Now beside all the stamps already in there, no matter how many places we have traveled to, this Vimy one is probably the coolest and most special of them all!
Heading back to the shuttles is probably the only real complaint of the day. It was an unorganized terrible process. We waited for an hour and a half for a shuttle to get back to our bus to bring us home. That wasn’t the bad part – the wait could have easily been handle if there was a line. There was no line, it was total chaos. Everyone was pushing to get closer – when that wasn’t helping whatsoever. One kid being as short as my boys’ are, started feeling claustrophobic. Trying to keep people away wasn’t helping, so eventually he had to be picked up to get out of the crowd. But other than this moment right here, the rest of the day was fairly well done.
I hope these words can explain how I felt, because I feel words can’t even explain properly what was going through my heart in moments during this day… At the end of the day, I am so so glad I was there! I know I would have regretted not being there! My kids were incredible all day long, no complaints until the shuttle to go back home. Never complained about hunger, or thirst, they just rolled with the flow. It shows me they are growing up, which makes me happy, and sad at the same time.
I am incredibly proud – of all the men in my family!!! ❤