Pictures from Arras, the city closest to the Canadian war memorial at Vimy Ridge. The stories of Arras and Vimy Ridge are intertwined. There were actually tunnels from the city halls and buidings of Arras all the way to the front lines near Vimy Ridge.
On one of the very hot days when I was there in June 2003, I walked from the center of Arras all the way to Vimy Ridge. It took me about 4 hours… I think it was around 30km. I tried to keep to the country roads out of town… there are plenty in France… the countryside was quiet and beautiful. I perfect pilgrimage.
As I got closer to the site of the memorial, visual clues around me triggered a growing sense of anticipation and quiet at the same time. The heat beat down upon me as if to ensure that both body and mind were sufficiently assaulted.
As I approached the memorial there was suddenly a forest. After seeing only huge expanses of fields and grass this native stand of trees was odd. When I entered the forest it became clear that this forest was as much a part of the memorial as the stone monument itself. Amongst the trees were huge depressions, poked periodically by small red flags. The flags signalled the position of mines still left from 80 years before… the depressions were craters, from bombs, shells and battle.
I continued to walk up the now nicely shaded road, the occasional car passing by. The hill was a steady climb into the forest, but it was not clear when I would reach the crest.
Then through the trees I could see a clearing, indeed, it looked as though the forest ended as quickly as it appeared. A few more steps and all I could see was the monument.
I have never been so moved by an object. I was not prepared for how this visit would affect me and apparently I was not prepared even for my initial reaction. My stomach flipped and tears quickly swelled in my eyes. I had never seen anything quite so beautiful and powerful and imposing all at the same time.
That is why I took the pictures I did. From a distance. This was the point where I first perceived the monument, and I simply could not bring myself to take more pictures of it after that. So moved was I by the reverance of the place that I would not, could not, embarrass it and its’ visitors by taking photographs.
As I walked up the path… cordoned off on both sides to protect visitors from entering the deadly surrounding fields, the majesty of the monument made me bow my head. I found it difficult to look at it. It was as if the statues were challenging me to look them in the eye and keep my composure.
It was too much for some. There were a handful of people looking for names enscribed in the stone…and more than one cried out in grief as they found the name of their loved one.
I am proud of what my countrymen did at Vimy Ridge, but my visit to the sight did not fill me with pride. It was with great sadness that I looked out upon the French countryside that was the final resting place of so many men and women. And given the events of the previous few months in Iraq and elsewhere it was a startling reminder of the horror that war brings upon all involved.