September 12, 2017. After a few hectic days when there was no time to do any writing as we were on the go from early morning until quite late in the evening, we now are settled for a few days in a quiet cottage in a forested area, and hopefully can catch up with all of the memorable days we’ve just experienced.
The most anticipated stop on our memorial trail of honouring the men listed on the Borden-Carleton Cenotaph was Vimy Ridge. Two WW1 soldiers are listed on the Vimy Memorial, John Lymon WOOD and Patrick Raymond ARSENAULT.
Our hotel was in Arras, and Vimy Ridge was a 20 minute drive from there. Just before the turn-off to Vimy Ridge we passed through the town of Thélus. There is one stop light in town. To the left are signs directing you to cemeteries and memorials. To the right are signs directing you to more memorials.
Right by the stop light is the Canadian Artillery Memorial, built to remember the sacrifice of Canadians from Artillery battalions who died in the battle for Vimy Ridge and the surrounding area.
It’s daunting to see how many reminders of war there are in France. Everywhere you go, you see memorials and cemeteries – both civilian and military. It’s a grim reminder of how many people lost their lives. It’s impossible to ignore or forget. And it’s a very big reminder of how many countries came to help in the Allied cause during World War I. It truly became an international war. Every one of them has at least one memorial and the war cemeteries are filled with Allied and German lives lost.
The turn-off to the Vimy Ridge memorial and visitors centre is a tree-lined road, with jogging and walking paths, well used by citizens of the area. It’s a public road that goes to the nearby villages of Givenchy and Vimy.
We were very lucky to have been given a guided tour of the Vimy Ridge Visitors Centre, which opened in April 2017, by site manager Johanne Gagné.
Among the many exhibits in the Visitors Centre is one that replicates the graffiti found in the tunnels of Vimy Ridge. Using 3-D technology, exact replicas of the graffiti have been made, and researchers have tried, where possible, to provide a face and story to the men who made the graffiti.
Ms. Gagné noted that this graffiti display will be on tour in various places in Canada after leaving Vimy Ridge. If it comes to your area, you won’t want to miss it!
We certainly had the right person to give us a tour, as Ms. Gagné worked for two years in Canada in developing the visitors centre before coming to France for two years as part of an interchange agreement with Parks Canada. Hailing from Coteau-du-Lac, Quebec, she has a background in museology, exhibit design, and developing visitors programming. Our interest was certainly caught, and this was from one exhibit only.
The Visitors Centre has many interactive displays, in three languages (English, French, German), and one of the displays is very personal. It tells the story of World War I from the perspectives of a young girl, a soldier, a nurse, etc, and all the stories are based on letters and diaries of real life people.
We were fascinated by a wall of patriotic signs, urging support for the war.
An interactive display explained the troop movements during the Battle of Vimy Ridge on April 8, 1917. Another interactive display gave a tour of the tunnels below Vimy Ridge. This was a marvellous solution to see the tunnels, especially if you were not physically capable of entering the tunnels yourself.
We asked Ms. Gagné her perspective of the Vimy Ridge Visitors Centre and Memorial. “Most of the time, people come and say that they came to honour the sacrifices made. I asked myself, what does it mean to me? Why have I spent three years on this project? I’m giving the soldiers a voice. I hope that through the exhibits, that we can show the public how the soldiers lived, what they saw, what they did, and close the loop by telling their stories.” The exhibits certainly do that. They are interesting and well done.
The tour of the Visitors Centre over, it was time to see the rest of Vimy Ridge. On Pieter’s bucket list was a tour of the tunnels, a wish that was granted, and discussed in the next blog. While he and Ms. Gagné prepared themselves for the tunnels, I took a look at the tunnels from the comfort and safety of the Visitors Centre.
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© Daria Valkenburg