September 14, 2017. After the tour of the Vimy Memorial Visitors’ Centre, Pieter and site manager Johanne Gagné went to explore the tunnels. Pieter was in second heaven! They saw two of the many tunnel systems, one used by the Black Watch, and one used by the Princess Patricia Light Infantry.
Some of the main tunnels at Vimy Ridge have been restored to make them safer and reinforced with concrete floors, as well as some of the walls. All of the tunnels were named by the WWI soldiers so that they would know where they were.
Tunnels were used for two main purposes: to safeguard troops from enemy fire, and for transportation of materials such as bombs and mines that could be used to blow up German tunnels. A narrow gauge railway system was installed as whatever materials were dug out to make the tunnels had to be transported out and then covered so that enemy observation planes couldn’t spot mounds of earth and be aware of where digging was going on.
Using the material transported into the tunnels, Allied forces tried to undermine the trenches of the Germans by blowing them up from inside the tunnels. This had the advantage of allowing Allied forces to safely advance without being exposed to enemy fire.
Some tunnels were designed for living quarters and as command centres. Messages were passed along from the command centre by runners to the troops. There were ways out of the tunnels into the trenches.
An interesting and surprising fact Pieter learned was that electricity was in the tunnels. They had electric lights in the Vimy tunnels! As Johanne Gagné noted, “So modern!”
Near Vimy was a tunnel called the Maison Blanche (“The White House”), so named because the outside building was white in colour. That tunnel used candles for lighting.
In Pieter’s opinion, the unrestored tunnels gave a better picture of what had gone on at the time. The restored tunnels give you a safer impression of what happened, but doesn’t have the impact of the dire conditions the men worked in. “I was amazed by how many tunnels there were, going in all directions” Pieter explained. “It was a real maze.”
From the observation post, you can still see a big crater where Allied troops blew up a trench.
We were very interested in the observation post as Gunner Harold Keith HOWATT of the 8th Siege Battery spent a lot of World War I in an observation post, and we had wondered what one looked like. So Pieter went into one and took a look.
Howatt participated in the Battle of Vimy Ridge in April 2017, and survived. In fact, he survived the war and came back home to Augustine Cove and had a career as a teacher.
But back in February 1918, his unit was back at Vimy Ridge. In his diary entry of Saturday, February 16, 1918, he recorded the following observations:
“….In the afternoon I took a walk up to the top of Vimy Ridge. It is some place, never yet have I seen a place so battle scarred. There are shell holes everywhere, hardly two square yards of level ground on the ridge. And the mine craters, they are tremendous. Some must be from 40 to 50 feet deep and from 40 to 50 yards across.
There is a large monument on the top to the 44th Battalion, with the names of all the officers and men, who were killed during the attack on the ridge on April 9, inscribed on it. There is also a monument to the 78th Battalion, and one to a sergeant of the Winnipeg Grenadiers who set off an enemy mine and lost his life in the act. The crater is called the ‘Winnipeg Grenadier’. There is also a monument to a major and to Lieutenant Gass of the 5th Canadian Siege Battery, who was killed in an O. P. (note: Observation Post) the day before Vimy was taken.
There was a party of English labour tourists on the top of the ridge while I was up there. Was talking to one fellow for a few minutes, pointing out Lens, Avion, and place within our own lines, to him….”
We weren’t sure if the crater referred to by Howatt is the same one to be seen from the observation post outside the Visitors Centre. We did not see the monuments described by Howatt and guess they are no longer there. And Vimy Ridge is now filled with trees, a barren landscape no more.
Johanne Gagné had given us a fantastic tour so far, but there was more. In the next blog entry we visit the Canadian National Vimy Memorial, and bring along the photos of John Lymon Wood and Patrick Raymond Arsenault, whose names are inscribed on the memorial.
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© Daria Valkenburg