History Happened Right There
Today I searched slowly over white stone walls for the surnames of my ancestors. I had no expectation of finding them, and I didn’t. But I cried all the same. I didn’t expect I’d cry standing in the presence of the Vimy Ridge Monument either, but I did.
Last year, when my parents visited me, they took a day to go to the monument. Some of my teammates asked where they had gone, and when I told them they said, ‘Vimy? What’s that?’
If you tell anyone here in Paris, and I dare say in France, that you are driving out to Vimy, they’ll look at you confused.
‘It’s a WWI monument,’ you might explain. And maybe you’d leave it there.
But maybe not.
Maybe you’d tell them it was German held high ground, and Canada took it where others failed. It’s the place where all four divisions of the Canadian Corps fought as together for the first time.
Maybe you would tell them, those men practiced for days and weeks before that Easter Monday 1917, so the attack would be coordinated perfectly. And that it lasted four days.
Maybe you would tell them, it was the first time Canada was known on the world stage, not just as a British colony, but as a nation, and as reliable fighters.
That in the first 30 minutes of battle, 10,000 Canadian soldiers were wounded, dead, or missing. That in WWI, 8% of Canadians served, and that France took the highest point of Vimy Ridge and ceded it in perpetuity to Canada.
Or maybe you wouldn’t say it like that at all.
I fall somewhere in between. I often remark on how strange it is, something so important to Canadians means next to nothing to the French. But truth be told, it didn’t mean all that much to me either. Or at least, it didn’t feel the way it felt today.
War had always been an abstract thing for me. The story of Vimy Ridge lay next to the other historical events held by my mental archive of semi-useless facts.
Just after New Year’s I had the great pleasure of crashing the family holiday of a few Ottawans who happened across my path. At dinner one night, one of them said something to the effect of, ‘The difference between history in Europe, and history at home, is here it happened… right there.’
And yeah, he’s right…
I could point to the spot where thousands of people were put to death during the Revolution. I could stand where the Last Grand Master of the Knights Templar was burned alive. I could walk past the bones of countless Parisians who, no doubt, still have living relatives, maybe walking through the catacombs and not knowing they move past their kin.
History happened right here.
But even so, it didn’t hit me until today.
Today, with my sister and her husband, I went to the Vimy Ridge and Beaumont-Hamel Memorials.
My brother-in-law is from Newfoundland. At the time of the first world war, Newfoundland was not part of Canada, though still under British rule.
The monument to the Royal Newfoundland Regiment stands to commemorate the nearly 700 men who were killed or injured there, on July First, 1916. This site is set as a reminder of the tragedies of war, and of the sacrifice.
These men did not succeed in taking ground. Owing to a mistimed explosion and misunderstood information, July First was a failure.
To the Allies, a white flare meant partial success, send more men… but to the Germans it meant, we’re being attacked, send help. When the white flare went up on the morning of July First, the Newfoundland Regiment advanced. They assumed the first wave was successful, and the Germans were caught unaware… but it was a German flare.
For me, the most staggering fact of that day, was not that a simple miscommunication resulted in the deaths of so many men, but that there were a few hours truce for both sides to collect their wounded.
This is beyond understanding to me. How can we as human beings have the capacity for such compassion, but the viciousness for such destruction. Why can we call a timeout when men are dying, but not before putting them in trenches.
When I mentioned this, the tour guide said the war wasn’t personal. It’s not like the soldiers hated each other. They were just following orders. Then she mentioned a photo taken at Passchendaele during the Christmas Truce, where a British and German soldier share a cigarette.
That photo makes me sad.
Today, the war became a little more real for me, even though it happened over 100 years ago. Because it happened right there. Right where I was standing.
Today, as I walked in the footsteps of men who ran out of trenches, as I looked for a name I didn’t want to find on a white wall covered in names, as I saw my brother-in-law reach out and touch his last name on the Beaumont-Hamel Memorial, I cried.