JBPDT 2010* – Day Two: Arras, Vimy & Tunnels, Cabaret Rouge Cemetary, Dieppe (WWI)

*Juno Beach Professional Development Tour 2010

Considerably more bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, we started a very foggy second day with a trip to the Vimy memorial. It turns out that our new-found energy would come in handy. By the end of the day, we will have covered over 200 km, visited multiple cemeteries, travelled 30m underground, and visited sites of significance to both WWI and WWII.

A foggy Vimy Memorial (click for more images)

Vimy Ridge and the memorial are on a very large 100 hectare patch of ground bequeathed to Canada as a permanent memorial to the Canadian contribution in the WWI liberation of France. Aside from letting grass & trees grow, much of the site has been left exactly as it would have been at the end of the conflict. Remains of trenches, deep artillery craters and even deeper mine craters cover much of the site. From a vast open undulating field of these craters appeared the backlit outline of the Vimy memorial through the mist. I still get shivers thinking about it.

Our experienced guides brought us to the site early, before the very popular memorial gets adorned with visitors. This allowed the snap-happy members of our crew (guilty) to get lots of shots of the site without all those pesky tourists in the way. I tried my best to do the place justice, but to truly experience it, you have to go there in person. Similar to the Thiepval monument, this monument is dedicated to the Canadian WWI dead with no known grave.

The monument is placed at the leading edge of the ridge, which allows a spectacular view of the surrounding countryside. It was this vantage point that made this a strategic piece of ground for the allies re-take, and for the Germans to hold.

A 52-year-old Private, veteran of two wars

All of these memorials are intended to mark the sacrifice of our countrymen, but also to serve as a reminder of war’s brutality; a war supposedly ‘to end all wars’. So it is with a sad irony that we can imagine the 1936 unveiling of this memorial in front of some 50,000 veterans by King Edward VIII and French President Albert Lebrun, many of whom would shortly be thrown back into yet another war (see photo). A short few years later, Lebrun would flee Paris as the Germans seized power.During the German occupation of France, a propaganda war erupted with the Vimy Memorial at its centre. Hitler visited the site with cameras rolling to show that the site had not been destroyed, as allied propaganda had suggested. Thiepval also attests to the Nazi’s tendency to protect war memorials, as long as they did not celebrate the defeat of the Germans in the previous war. It is pretty standard practice in war to eliminate anything (or anyone) that doesn’t fit the narrative that the new leadership is trying to create. Chris Hedges‘ book “War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning” covers this topic in great detail, if you would like to explore this more. Luckily the Vimy memorial wasn’t a threat to the Nazi’s, and in fact served their purposes to keep it intact.

In the chaos of war, little effort is expended on recovering shells that did not explode, or retrieving large quantities unexploded explosives that were intentionally buried under enemy positions. Every spring you can see artillery shells lined up for disposal next to farmers’ fields, the bounty provided by the annual frost heave. As a result, much of sites like Vimy are off-limits to the public, due to the large concentrations of unexploded ordinance, unexhumed human remains and other things this should just be left alone. These unexploded caches occasionally make for an especially exciting lightning storm.

Allies to the left, Germans to the right, big crater in the middle.

Our next stop was the Monument Tunnel Cemetery, which is also on the Vimy site. If you click on that link, you will see a satellite view of the site, where you can see large geometric circles running at a slight diagonal up the middle. These are actually craters that are 100ft across or more and over 30ft deep (they were even deeper before years of rain and erosion). Even the largest artillery shells, some up to 16″ in diameter, can’t create this kind of impression. These large craters are the result of successive mining (dig, bury tons of explosives, boom, repeat) along this front, the location of a long stalemate in WWI. At either side of these craters were the allied and German lines. They were so close that opposing sides could easily hurl grenades or insults at each other.

One surprise to me was that the etiquette of war has changed considerably over the years. While WWI was characterized by military leaders regularly throwing away the lives of many of their solders to make negligible gains of territory, opposing soldiers would occasionally help each other during lulls in battle (maybe a case of cause and effect). After a cease-fire, it would not be uncommon for the winners of a lopsided battle to help their opponents carry their dead and wounded back behind their lines. WWII pretty much put this practice to bed. This was likely due to the faster pace of battle created by more effective tanks and aircraft, and the axis being led by bunch of genocidal lunatics.

Grange Tunnels @ Vimy

Much of WWI was fought underground, and the Monument Tunnel Cemetery has a very well-preserved mine (called the Grange Tunnel) that the allies used to move men, weapons and other supplies, safe from artillery bombardment. Apparently, safety means putting at least 30 ft of earth and chalk between you and the surface. Chalk is the predominant substance miners would have to dig through, to create the many kilometres of tunnels that still exist under much of France.

Next on the agenda, was to visit several large grave sites representing German, French, and Commonwealth forces. These visits allowed us to see how the different countries commemorated their war dead, and to give us a scope of the loss.

Unlike the Commonwealth grave sites, placed near where the soldiers fell, French, German and (as we will see later) American graves tended towards very large centralized grave sites. The first of these centralized sites we visited was the Neuville-St.-Vaast WWI German war cemetery (Deutsche Kriegsgräberstätte). Here lie the remains of some 44,820 German soldiers from WWI, collected from hundreds of sites, and marked with iron crosses. These iron crosses extend almost as far as the eye can see, yet each iron cross actually represents 4 German soldiers. Also a clear sign that this is a German WWI and not WWII grave site, is the occasional grave stone representing a fallen Jewish soldier.

Original grave site of the Canadian Unknown Soldier

Next we visited the La Targette French cemetery, and the adjacent (and much smaller) Commonwealth cemetery. Like the German graves, the majority are marked by crosses, but in this case are made of cement, not iron. I wasn’t able to find a reference to the number of graves at this site, but doing a quick grid count via Google Maps it appears that there are over 7,000 French graves at this site.

Our final cemetery of the day is of great significance to Canadians, as it was the source of the remains now buried at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Ottawa. This Commonwealth cemetery, called the Cabaret Rouge British Cemetery, contains about 8000 graves, and over half are unknown soldiers. All of the Commonwealth cemeteries are maintained immaculately by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which maintains almost 1.7 million war graves in 150 countries. One unique aspect of the Commonwealth graves is the space they reserve on each headstone for a personalized message from family, as well as detail on rank, and regiment. Markers of the French, German and American graves rarely have any more information than the name, rank, DOB and date of death. This was our final WWI-focused stop, and our last stop in the Pas-de-Calais region.

With our brains getting really full, and jetlag starting to reassert itself, it was a good time to relax on the bus ride to the Dieppe area. Before arriving in Dieppe proper, we stopped in a seaside village named Puys, which was codenamed ‘Blue Beach‘ in the failed Canadian and allied raid of Dieppe (Operation Jubilee). This was our first opportunity to see the imposing cliffs, and remnants of the German fortifications, most of which were constructed after the raid. Even without these fortifications, this beach was a risky landing point. Coming in slightly off course, as some troops did, you risk getting trapped against the cliffs on either side of Puys. Sandy beaches usually provide some benefit to landing troops, since the energy from exploding shells is absorbed by sand. The beach at Puys is comprised of golf-ball size rocks that artillery turns into deadly projectiles; yet one more thing to make the Canadian’s welcome to mainland Europe less than pleasant.

Our culinary experience in Dieppe.

Our second night was spent in Dieppe, at a really nice Mercure hotel right on the beach, and adjacent to the beautiful Château de Dieppe. We had our first group dinner, which ended up being quite humorous (at least to me). Mark, our tour director, had organized some fine dining to sample the local specialty, which happens to be fish. I am quite adventurous when it comes to food, so I was looking forward to it, but many in our group were quite flustered at having a fixed menu of fish! After allowing a sufficient level of anxiety to build up, other options were made available, but I chose and enjoyed the fish.

Walking off dinner allowed us to tour the beautiful historic town of Dieppe on our short walk back to the hotel. A bit of perspective on the layout of the town would come in useful the next day, when Mike B. explained the raid and indicated how far into town the Canadians actually had made it before capitulating. A solid sleep awaited after another long day.

JBPDT 2010* – Day One: Beaumont Hamel, Thiepval, Arras (WWI)

*Juno Beach Professional Development Tour 2010 [The world has too many acronyms, but this is too big a title! – A.]

What a fabulous experience! But more on that later…

Day one was a bit rough, since we hit the ground running after our overnight from Toronto to Paris, and many of didn’t get much sleep on the flight. Lori was quite a trooper (!), visiting most of the sites on the first day with the added strain of being 7+ months pregnant with our little guy. I’m sure there has been much debate at the Juno Beach Centre (JBC) over how to structure the first day, but based on my fair bit of personal experience with jet lag, an active first day after a redeye –and a subsequent good night sleep– is the way to go when trying to get clocks re-syncronized. The day was so interesting, I almost forgot my weariness and how gross I felt without my morning shower.

Those of you that have already looked at my pictures, may have wondered why I took a picture of this rather insignificant looking field of wheat:

Old sugar factory near the start of the Canadian Corps. advance into Courcelette.

This is where it becomes important to have your very own professional historian along! Mike Bechthold, a professor of military history at WLU, and co-author of multiple works on Canada’s role in WWI and WWII, provided us with great context to help us paint a mental picture of the battles, as we visited the many sites.

It was over this field that Canadian Corps made their debut in the Battle of the Somme, eventually advancing two kilometres and taking their assigned objective, the town of Courcelette. This battle within a battle was called the Battle of Flers-Courcelette. This battle is often noted as the first instance of tanks being used in warfare, with two very primitive tanks helping the Canadian Corp in their march (probably more of a muddy crawl) into Courcelette. A short bus ride took us to a monument which commemorated this first tank battle, which was adorned with little model tanks.

And you thought this was just a wheat field didn’t you? I would have too. I would show you the ugly memorial that Canada put up to designate this as a site of historical significance, but it is ugly so I won’t. Apparently there was only so much money to go around building memorials, and some had to be skimped on to prioritize others. Vimy was one of these places, and you will see in my next post that this was probably a good choice.

Our next stop was to see the tank monument I just mentioned, and the monument commemorating the Australian involvement in The Somme at the Battle of Pozières (right next to the tank monument). There is not much left of this site, called the ‘windmill site’ because the mill, and the town that it used to be part of, got shelled into oblivion during the 1916 battle. The Australians sustained heavy losses (23K casualties with almost 7,000 dead) and were eventually relieved after their successful battle by the Canadians, who then used this as the starting point for the battle of Courcelette (I guess that is why the tank monument is here).

Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial

We stopped at a site familiar to any Newfoundlander, the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial. Unfortunately, even though our group represented a good slice of Canadiana, we had no Newfies in our group. Luckily, the excellent tour guide provided by the site (what was his name?!) was from Newfoundland, and did a great job explaining the significance of this site to Newfoundlanders. Keep in mind that during WWI (and WWII), Newfoundland was an independent dominion in the British Commonwealth; Beaumont-Hamel is to Newfoundlanders what Vimy Ridge is to the rest of Canada. Due to the high death rate (slaughter actually) of the NF core, and the small-town nature of NF, every family was touched by this battle, and some even multiple times.

One thing I was excited to see (even from a distance) was something I had researched before, the Hawthorne Ridge Redoubt mine. It was a common method of warcraft in WWI to literally under-mine your opponent, fill the mine with explosives (in this case, about 18 metric tons of it) and let ‘er rip. Once the mine explodes –hopefully taking many of the enemy along with it–, the attacking force used the element of surprise to rush and take a lip of the crater as a new pre-fab defensive position.

Next, and thankfully last, in our own ‘Longest Day’ was a visit to the Thiepval Memorial, dedicated to some 72,090 British and Commonwealth soldiers with no known grave. There are also many British and French marked and unmarked graves on the site, but they are far outnumbered by the names of soldiers that cover this massive monument, representing participants of the  Battle of the Somme whose remains were never found. After the vivid imagery provided by the visit to Beaumont-Hamel, it becomes very easy to understand why so many soldiers were never found. If you were anywhere near the burst of a heavy artillery shell, you suddenly ceased to exist. If you fell in no-mans land, your body could get covered in tons of dirt thrown up by shelling or mines, and whatever wasn’t covered would get eaten by dog-sized rats fattened up by the bodies of the dead. Then are those that got buried under collapsed earthworks, many of whom were professional miners, not soldiers. Unless you were a rat, WWI sucked.

Thiepval Memorial - It's Very Very Big

We ended our day in Arras, where Lori and I chose sleep over being social, and grabbed a quick 4 hours before we ventured out into town to find a very strange local interpretation of a shawarma. We spent about 10 minutes trying to explain to the owner that we wanted to tip them, and in the end we just left the money and ran. It’s good to have a warm cozy sleep with a full belly in a nice hotel, in stark contrast to those that visited this area in 1916.

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