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World War One Battlefields Tour

June 10, 2015

A couple of weeks ago, our family had the opportunity to take a bus tour of some of the World War I battlefields with fellow Canadians posted in the UK.

We started the first day very early in the morning and left the Canadian detachment near London at about 06h00. We made great time and had a few minutes to shop at the duty-free store before our Eurotunnel crossing. The Eurotunnel was extremely boring. The bus drove onto the train, parked and we just sat there for about 45 minutes. The only way I knew that we were going down under the Channel was that my ears popped. It was smoother riding in the bus on the train through the tunnel than it was driving the bus on the road!

Vimy Memorial

Vimy Memorial

Our first stop was the Vimy Ridge Memorial. During the Battle of Arras in April 1917, the four divisions of the Canadian Corps, fighting side by side for the first time, scored a huge tactical victory in the capture of the 60 metre high Vimy Ridge. There were 11,000 casualties and of those, 3600 were fatalities. The monument is inscribed with the names of 11,285 Canadian soldiers who were listed as “missing, presumed dead” in France.
Just prior to visiting the Memorial, we stopped at the Interpretive Centre for Vimy Memorial Park so that we would better understand what happened in the battle. We had a guided tour of the tunnels and trenches that the soldiers lived in during the war. We learned about how the Canadians advanced on the German positions behind a “creeping barrage.” This precise line of intense artillery fire advanced at a set rate and was timed to the minute. The Canadian infantrymen followed the line of explosions closely. This allowed them to capture German positions in the critical moments after the explosions but before the enemy soldiers emerged from the safety of their underground bunkers. It was a chilly, windy day when we visited the Centre. I can’t imagine what the soldiers endured during the snow and the wind on that day in April 1917.

Troop quarters in the tunnels at Vimy Ridge

Troop quarters in the tunnels at Vimy Ridge

Beaumont-Hamel

Beaumont-Hamel

We moved on to the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial. It is beautiful but sad. On 1 July 1916, of the 798 soldiers (all ranks) that deployed into the trenches, only 110 remained unscathed. That works out to an 86% death rate for all ranks; 100% of the officers were killed.

 

We also visited the Theivepal Memorial, and the Courcelette, St. Julien, Hill 62 (Sanctuary Wood) and Passchendaele Canadian Memorials as well as Tyne Cot  and Adanac Cemeteries. We saw the Lochnagar Crater Memorial, a typical crater that was produced by tunnelling under enemy territory, filling a cave with explosives – over 27,000 kg! 6,380 officers and men were lost that day.

I was very impressed with the preservation of many of the sites an the respect that people have for the history. There was a small site preserving some of the trenches in the middle of an industrial park in Ypres. There were cemeteries and memorials in the middle of farming fields. There would be a path from the roadway to the memorial or cemetery so people could visit.

 

The area around northern France and Belgium is beautiful rolling farmland. It just amazed me that people could have a war and do such damage to such a wonderfully productive agricultural area. This is a picture from just outside Ypres. See the slag heaps? They are the same ones seen in this picture from the Vimy Memorial!

Outskirts of Ypres

Outskirts of Ypres

Preparing to place wreath at Menin Gate

Preparing to place wreath at Menin Gate

The highlight of the trip for our family was placing a wreath at the Menin Gate Last Post Ceremony. Every day, at 20h00 the Last Post ceremony takes place. We remember the terrible and turbulent years of the Great War and we pause to remember our dead. The local police halt traffic and the crowds gather – every single night! It is very impressive!

 

On our way home we were lucky enough to take the ferry crossing from Calais to Dover. The white cliffs are an impressive site. I can just imagine the feeling of the soldiers seeing the cliffs as they were on their way home from the war.
(Unfortunately, it was pouring rain our our ferry journey so I was unable to get a good photo of the cliffs.)

White_Cliffs_of_Dover_3_(Piotr_Kuczynski)-1

By Pkuczynski (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons

Although I had a deep appreciation for Remembrance Day prior to this trip, I now have a deeper understanding of what the soldiers endured during the Great War. Je me souviens!

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