I spent the last five weeks in the UK with my boys, visiting the in-laws in the idyllic Cotswolds and my grandmother in Glasgow. My brother-outlaw, who has a long-held fascination with warfare, took Colin and me to France for three days of exploring war sites.
Over those three days, we visited Vimy ridge twice, and went to Ypres in Belgium, and stopped at countless small sites en route. I took many pictures, which I’ve posted to my flickr page; although the pictures were taken and the impressions formed two weeks ago, I’ve been trying to find a way to package them to best express the emotion and atmosphere. I’ve come to the conclusion that maybe there isn’t a perfect, or even necessarily good, way to do this. After all, if there were, we wouldn’t need to maintain these sites, because we could all just read someone else’s impressions. Now that I’ve been there, all I can really say is that if you haven’t been, go. Here’s why.
~ The Canadian Memorial at Vimy, which seems somehow unCanadian, stands starkly against the crystal blue French sky, piercing the horizon, visible from miles away.
~ The memorial is covered with names. Name after name after name. So many. We counted 37 Moores. We found a few Goldings. I touched M. McDonnell. The names stretch all along the wall, around the side, down the stairs, along the next wall, and up, and around...
~ The memorial is the least moving element of the site. More moving:
- The Canadian flag quietly fluttering in the breeze
- The Canadian accents of all the students who are spending their summer teaching us about the battle and the site
- The Canadian accents of many of the visitors – and all the visitors who aren’t Canadian, coming to pay their respects.
~ The most moving aspect of the site is the very earth itself. Trees have been planted to prevent further erosion of the site, and aside from the parking lot and the ground around the memorial itself, the ground has been left as it was after the war. The earth is surreal – nothing in nature should look like this. The ground has been ripped apart by shells and mines and shovels and barbed wire, and 90 years later the weirdly undulating fields are a better testament to the unnatural destruction than any white marble could ever be.
~ The site includes a preserved tunnel which you can tour with a guide and walk safely through – the tunnels are well-lit, dry, and structurally sound. But you can still, somehow, imagine what they must have been like for hundreds of young men, carrying 70 lb backpacks through unlit tunnels, kicking over the unseen toilet buckets, ignoring the rats that brushed past their legs, hoping that the canister they were drinking from held water, not gasoline, feeling the endless earthquake of shells hitting the ground above, and finally, scrambling up a steep, muddy incline into the open air, hoping they’d live to see the next morning.
We went to France on the Eurostar, which was fast and convenient (and after some web research of different booking sites, not too expensive). We based ourselves in Lille, which is about half an hour north of Vimy, and about an hour from Ypres. On our second day, we went to Belgium, with the Menen gate in Ypres as our primary destination. Along the way, we stopped at several other sites, including half a dozen tiny cemeteries in farmers’ fields, with the graves of soldiers from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Scotland, England, all maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves commission. When you look at a map of the Nord-Pas-de-Calais, you can see that there are almost two hundred Commonwealth cemeteries in the area. Some are tiny and others are massive. The tiny ones are devastating because they’re in tranquil fields miles from anywhere, and you can read each stone – so you can see how far from home the men were, and how young... and sometimes, all the stone says is “A Soldier of the Great War”.
The massive cemeteries, like Tyne Cot and Notre-Dame-de-Lorette, are devastating because they are, well, massive. Stones as far as you can see. At Tyne Cot, the largest Commonwealth cemetery, there are over 12,000 graves – and another 33,000 names on the back wall, commemorating the soldiers whose bodies were never found. We also stopped in Neuville-Saint-Vaast, at the largest German cemetery in France. Here, the graves are marked with crosses – except for the Stars of David marking the graves of Jewish German soldiers – and the crosses seem to go on forever. You can’t see the back of the cemetery. Each cross has a name on the left arm and another on the right arm, and two more on the reverse. In all, there are over 44,000 men buried there.
I could go on and on – the Menen gate is terrifying in its enormity; more than 54,000 names covering every available surface. The Irish memorial, where I found four pages of McDonnells in the registry, has a truly Irish sense of poetry in the stones. At the other end of the spectrum are the weird museums and “preserved” battlefields, where during the day tourists walk the trenches and during the night sheep graze in No Man’s Land. Pictures of all of the above are on my flickr site (or will be ASAP), but as I said, these are sites that should really be experienced first-hand.
The trip was like nothing I’ve done before. We had a great time, really, which seems disrespectful to say, except that I think in some way, us having a great time is perhaps a fitting tribute. I was genuinely proud of Colin for enduring three days of history lessons, and for being daring and eating his first (and I think last) escargot.
And finally, in a discussion of modern French architecture as represented in Lille and Lens, I taught Adam the very useful word “fugly.”