When we crested the ridge and saw the wide Douai Plain stretch before us, you really understood why the ridge was so important. Even though it was overcast, the panorama was spectacular. It was then that we saw the memorial up close for the first time. It was a sight to behold and more breathtaking than I ever imagined. We had arrived.
Vimy Day Seven
Five a.m. wake up call…3 hours of sleep…should be epic! Wow am I tired. This is going to be a long day, but it will be an awesome experience. This will be a once in a lifetime event for students and teachers alike. We will be at Vimy in a few hours, so I need to sleep a bit.
It is six o’clock p.m. and we are finally in the bus. I have been a soldier and I am a teacher; I have prepared for and taught about war. For the first time in my life I understand what it means to be a soldier. Standing in the shadow of Canada’s greatest military monument in the pouring rain and wind, I went to school. It is amazing how it takes a journey across the ocean to fully comprehend what sacrifice really means. I’ve always remembered…now I know I’ll never forget.
This was one of the greatest events I’ve ever experienced in my life. When we arrived at Vimy we went through quite the process. We had to be issued special Vimy medals, arm bands and meal tickets. From there it was into a large building to receive candles and our lunches. We then marshalled for a 2.5km parade from Givenchy to the Vimy Memorial.
As the parade time neared, the gavity of what we were going to be part of started to sink in. As our march began, it was something to behold. I’ve never been part of anything like it. Picture thousands of high students and teachers walking in total silence along a route that Canadians fought on nearly a century before. What really struck me was how reverent and respectful the students were…I couldn’t have been any prouder than them.
The walk also epitomized what Vimy Ridge was all about; Canadians together as a nation. The students and teachers of St. Patrick and St. Ignatius Thunder Bay, and Ridley College St. Catherines walking side by side with a high school from Newfoundland. Just as all 4 Canadian Divisions fought together that day, we marched in solidarity as Canadians wherever we were from.
It was fantastic to witness the reaction of the French people, who lined the streets smiling, waving and holding Canadian flags. They understood so well what is this event was all about; I was so proud to be a Canadian and a teacher. I would put this march near the top of all the trip moments.
We then moved past the memorial towards Vimy Canadian Cemetery Number 2 for a special EF Tours service. Our route took us past the preserved battlefield of the park, pockmarked with an unbroken sea of shell craters. The fences and signs warning of unexplored ordnance made it so real. The story of the park states that there are 60,000 trees on the site, one for every Canadian killed in the war.
The service was nice, as they lined up everyone in front of a grave. There were readings by students and the playing of the Last Post and Reveille. From there we proceeded to the memorial for pictures and a visit. The only unfortunate part was that we were pressed for time and we couldn’t spend a lot of time looking around. We did get some group photos with the memorial and were able to get on the monument to look around for a bit (they kicked everyone off to prepare for the VIP’s).
I really wanted to get some photos of Mother Canada or the Spirit of Canada weeping for her fallen sons. It is the heart of the monument and sits right in the middle, by herself looking over the Douai Plain. What a moving sculpture…it would have been nice just to have some quiet time there and reflect. We then had to hustle to eat a quick bite before we were off again.
One of the biggest attractions at the park are the preserved trenches. When the park was being created, veterans help to reconstruct part of the trenches along what was called the “Crater Line.” Both sides dug underground shafts in the soft chalk and tried to blow up the other’s trenches. It left massive craters all along the ridge. This area shows the German trenches on one side of a crater while the Canadian trenches are on the other side 50 feet away. The veterans filled sandbags with cement to create the walls, which gives it a very authentic look. Near the Canadian trench is the entrance to the Grange Subway, which was an underground tunnel that led from the trenches to the rear areas. Too bad it was closed because of the volume of traffic.
The next event on the agenda was a ceremony at the monument with all 4000+ students attended by the Governor General, His Excellency David Johnston. We did a lot of waiting and the weather turned very nasty; I Tweeted that it was almost as if the heavens were weeping for Canada’s fallen too. The rain was pouring down and coming in at times sideways. Last night’s honour guard was there again, along with the 22é Regiment band, this time in full dress with Bearskin hats and red tunics. There were speeches, along with a beautiful song by an Alberta woman whose name escapes me now. Then there was the Last Post, Reveille and the Lament. For a while I forgot how cold, tired and sore I was. When I have time, I will post clips to YouTube.
After the ceremony we headed back to the bus; we were supposed to go to a concert a nearby stadium next. However, given the fact that everyone was drenched and exhausted, we decided to forgo the concert in favor of returning to the hotel. We would have liked to have stayed, but because of early flight, we would have to have left by 9:00 for the bus ride to the hotel. Everyone managed to get in a shower and then head off to get some food.
Since I’m up in 5 hours, I’ll sign off. Until then…