Sacred trust

Ninety years after Canadians captured Vimy Ridge and gave the country its first stirrings of nationhood, thousands gathered to rededicate the carefully restored Canadian National Vimy Memorial.

Surely no musical instrument conveys the deep anguish of mourning better than bagpipes. Their melancholy keen drew me to the Canadian Cemetery No. 2 on the northwest side of Vimy Ridge National Historic Site of Canada, located near the villages of Vimy and Givenchy-en-Gohelle in the Nord-Pas de Calais region of France.

Thousands of people already thronged the grounds this sunny Easter morning, 90 years after the artillery barrage that signalled the start of the three-day battle for Vimy Ridge.

At the cemetery, a ceremony honouring the 3,598 young men killed during the action was ending. While most eyes were on the wailing pipers, mine took in the whole scene and then filled with tears. Behind each grave marker stood a Canadian high school student dressed in a green shirt. Above each heart, a label bore the name of one of the dead warriors, many as young as the sombre students.

Goosebumps rose on my arms in spite of the warm morning sun. Here are walking ghosts, I thought. The impression was even more forceful during the rededication event in the late afternoon when the whole complement of young people marched down the hill and filed into an area just below the massive monument. It was a brilliant illustration of the human cost of war.

The throng around the soaring Canadian National Vimy Memorial stirred memories for Tom Atherton of Ancaster, Ont., travelling with CARP Travel’s Ted Barris Return to Vimy tour. [Barris is author of Victory at Vimy: Canada Comes of Age, April 9–12, 1917 (Thomas Allen Publishers, 2007).] The veteran had been a radio operator in the merchant navy in the Second World War. As an 11-year-old, he had accompanied his father, Peter, to the inauguration of the memorial in 1936. Peter, wounded at Ypres in the Great War, had lost his brother, killed near Boulogne only two and a half months before the Nov. 11, 1918 armistice. Atherton recalls King Edward VIII dedicating the memorial, but for a young boy, the long bayonets of the French soldiers proved more fascinating. Incredibly, the 100,000-strong crowd was about four times larger than the one assembled for the April 2007 event.

While the king’s niece, Queen Elizabeth II, officiated at the recent ceremony, Atherton reflected on why the Germans held on to the ridge so fiercely. “They had quite a view. They could shoot anybody coming up. I didn’t appreciate that the first time.”

Although RCMP officers were anxious to close the structure for security checks, the CARP group managed to spend several minutes on the monument with Julian Smith, the architect who masterminded the careful refurbishment of the iconic monument. The magnificent edifice created by Canadian sculptor Walter Allward had suffered the ravages of time and water. The Croatian stone and the concrete used to carefully piece it together had different rates of expansion, inevitably leading to fractures and also limestone deposits over some of the 11,285 inscribed names of Canadians killed in France who have no known grave.