As I type this letter, I am sitting at the Vimy Ridge Memorial, just a few miles north of Arras, France. To my left are the two great pillars that seem to be reaching to the havens, and in front of me is the statue of the grieving mother, a powerful symbol for the generation of young men that were lost during the Great War. We made our way here after a leisurly two-day drive through the French countryside, a trip that saw us amble through many of the battlefields of the two World Wars.
I’ve wanted to come here for most of my adult life, and for many reasons. One reason is that I wanted to get a sense of what I teach in the classroom, to better understand the struggles of the brave men who fought for freedom and for our country, so that I can better pass on their stories to the students that pass through my classroom each year.
I came here from Germany, where I was surprised to learn that anyone I talked to about Vimy knew nothing about the Ridge, about our struggle as Canadian’s, and about the significance of this monument to our country as a whole. I was anxious to get to France, where I was sure there would be broader understanding of why we wanted to come here and pay tribute to those that died in the name of peace.
I was teary as I walked through the trees and out into the field that houses this monument. When I arrived, I was the only one here, though I was soon joined by many people coming to pay their respects at this Memorial. You once wrote that coming to the monument is “like a religious experience”, though I do realize it was a fictional account you were describing. But I can’t say that I disagree. The somber atmosphere that surrounds this beautiful site does lend one to an emotional experience, especially when you read the tens of thousands of names that are inscribed on the walls that make up the base of the monument. Looking out across the vast land in this area, it’s easy to see why this location was prime territory for both sides during the Great War. But sitting here typing this letter to you, it’s also difficult to comprehend why so many young men were slaughtered trying to take and defend one swath of land on such a large continent.
I’m not sure if I was more hurt or simply disappointed by how few of the French citizens I talked to knew about Vimy Ridge. In France, I had expected to tell people where I was going and have them fully comprehend the significance of the journey I was about to embark on. It was only after driving through the French countryside and past the fields that were once blown apart by artillery fire, after imagining the pain and struggle of the people that lived through the war and saw their homeland torn apart, and after seeing the broad geography that was home to two World Wars, that I realized how ignorant I was to think that this one battle at Vimy Ridge would be engrained in their hearts and memories. I now understand why so many of the French have only a passing knowledge of the place where I am right now. The Great War was more then just Vimy Ridge, and the struggle for freedom began long before this hill was taken by the Canadians, and that struggle continued long after it was lost again.
Still, it is often said by historians that Vimy Ridge is where Canada truly became a nation, though I have to disagree. I’d like to think that Canada became a nation long before the battle at Vimy Ridge; that we became a nation centuries before as we were clearing the fields of New France, and battling on the Plains of Abraham, and doing the hard work of bridging East and West with the great railroads. I’d like to think we became a nation, not because of one battle here in the North of France, but by the battles that came before along the banks of the St. Lawrence River, and because of the battles that came after, on the beaches of Normandy, and continuing today in the deserts of Afghanistan. And I’d like to think that the ghosts of those that died here at Vimy Ridge, and Passchendaele, and Ypres, and the Somme would agree with me, and were as proud to be a Canadian then, as I am now.
I’m happy that I’ve come here to pay my respects to the Canadian’s that lost their lives during the Great War. Being here has brought me some perspective on life; perspective that I hope to pass on to the kids in my classroom once school starts again in September.
I hope you’re well.