Security was being strictly observed for the Vimy 100 celebrations and we had to park in a central location where we could catch a shuttle. We decided to park at the stadium in Lens and take the shuttle from there. Somehow, we ended up behind three massive tour buses along the way and knowing where they had to be going, we followed them. When we arrived at about 10:00, we were surprised to be told that we had to find street parking. We invoked the Goddess of Parking, and across the street from where we needed to be, we saw the perfect spot.
We joined the queue to get through security and onto the shuttles. It was noon before we got on a shuttle. Thankfully, the crowd was amicable and light-hearted, and the queue was actually moving, snaking its way through the parking lot slowly in the 20C weather. To save ourselves for the day to come, which we anticipated might be quite draining, my sweetheart and I had brought camp chairs. We left my stepson – ‘mon beau fils’, and his girlfriend in the queue and went to sit on a slight rise in the shade. A fair number of people commented they wished they’d done the same. Eventually, our family caught up to us and we rejoined them in the queue.
Once at security, we had to go through a checkpoint, a scanner, be patted down, passports and tickets checked. We had all been told to bring the paper copy of our e-tickets, because we wouldn’t be allowed in unless we did. It included one of those scanable boxes. As we finally approached the final queue, we were shunted into something like six different rows. Our row was moving along great. And then it wasn’t. Someone had neglected to bring her paper ticket and the scanner couldn’t scan the box on the message in her email on her phone. Luckily, they pulled her to one side to deal with the issue and the rest of us continued through security.
There was excitement in the mix of Canadian military personnel and civilians on our shuttle. We were opposite a group of young soldiers to whom we got talking. One of them had managed to track down his ancestor’s full service record online and very kindly helped me find the site. I was so grateful as this was one piece of the puzzle I’d been unable to crack. The next day, I had Thomas Kerr Hall’s service record saved onto my laptop, ready to go over on Easter weekend and write about him for this blog.
We had a stunning view of the monument, high atop the ridge as we drove across the Douai Plain shortly before we arrived at the site, ready for the 1.3km walk to the monument. We were part of a never-ending queue that went on for hours. Everybody had arrived somewhat early as we had been told that security would block access after 3:00 and nobody wanted to be left behind.
As I walked up the warm, sun-dappled, hauntingly beautiful forested park, I would pause to rest, leaning on a friendly tree trunk. The sun on my face, I would listen to the birds calling and watch the sheep graze with their lambs. What a different scene to that faced by the Canadians and Thomas Kerr Hall 100 years before, when they endured the hardest winter in 21 years and battled sleet, knee deep in mud on top of everything else.
When we finally got to the monument and the cluster of tents housing food, loos, museum exhibits and a water station, we passed between two tables at which every visitor was given a red, Vimy 100 plastic water holder, Canadian Remembrance Day poppies and a programme. My sweetheart and I sat in the shade on our camp chairs watching the various school groups go through the gate toward the front of the monument, while mon beau fils and his girlfriend got us some food. Once refreshed, we explored a bit and crossed over to the monument itself.
Up close to the monument itself, we found rows of chairs set up. Grateful to see them, we couldn’t imagine they were for the general public. “Can we sit in these?” we asked someone who looked like he knew what he was doing.
“Are you Canadian?” he asked and when we replied that yes, we are, he responded, “Then they are for you.”
What an amazing scene. First Nations people, students, military personnel in full dress uniform, RCMP officers in full dress (it was an unseasonably hot day and I cannot imagine in the slightest that any of those in full dress was the least bit comfortable, but you would never have known it). Cameras and lights were set up on the monument, a red carpet lay before it. Children laughed and played, babies were nursed, constant movement back and forth to the water stations, loos and food tent. It was like a carnival in red and white. In behind, by the official entrance to the monument, were three 80mm or 85mm guns, each with a team of Canadian military personnel, awaiting the moment of the 21-gun salute.
All afternoon, replicas of the WWI soldiers’ boots were placed in rows that represented the four Canadian divisions that fought this battle. These boots, about 3,600 of them, were placed by young Canadian and French students across the field approaching the monument and then lining the monument itself. All afternoon, between performances by Canadian musicians shown on the big screen in front of us, 3,600 names were announced. One by one, their names were said, clearly and proudly, for hours. They were those that died. Those that disappeared into the mud, missing presumed dead, their names are on the walls of the monument at Vimy Ridge, almost 11,000 of them.
Then, we saw blue-light vehicles (in Europe, they use blue lights instead of red on police cars and emergency vehicles) and the dignitaries began to arrive. First a fabulous military band and honour guard moved through the avenue of Maples then the honour guard made up of RCMP officers and army personnel marched up the red carpet toward the foot of the monument. Francois Holland, President of France, Justin Trudeau, Prince Charles and the Princes William and Harry, and David Johnson, Governor-General of Canada attended. Prince Charles reviewed the troops and then practically simultaneously, they stepped onto the monument and moved around to the front of the memorial where the ceremonies were taking place. Then the anthems: ‘God Save the Queen’,’ Oh Canada’, ‘La Marseilles’. It felt so good to sing ‘Oh Canada’ in a group of Canadians again. The pride and love of country were incredible.
Canadian big guns were fired over the plain below for the first time in a century in a 21-gun salute. One even managed a big smoke ring!
And there was royalty.
Innu singer Elisapie Isaac performed her beautiful ‘Salluit’, First Nations drummers, Loreena McKinnet sang ‘Dante’s Prayer’, dancers, actors read letters home and performed monologues, the stories of the soldiers. Paul Gross as Major John McCrae and the writing of In Flanders Fields. It went on for hours, all interspersed with speeches by the dignitaries. All of it we watched on one big screen.
Sometimes, you would hear a polite outcry on the other side of the field we were on, if there was an obstruction to that part of the crowd seeing the screen. Sometimes, it was the front row standing too long. At one point, it was a train of golf carts obstructing the view. “Move that cart! Move that cart!! Move that cart!!” And then in behind another group started shouting, “Please!” It was the most Canadian protest ever.
We wept. Unabashedly. How could we not. We were there for them. All of us. 25,000 people quiet, respectful, proud … so very proud of what we Canucks can do. They cleared that ridge when no-one else could. The speeches all spoke of it, of the nation-building moment it was for Canada, of the determination and courage of the young men, the friendship between nations and the horrible cost of the victory. And intertwined throughout, ‘nous n’oublions pas.’ ‘We will remember them.’ It was also repeated in a First Nations language, but to my embarrassment, I can’t recall which.
Thomas Kerr Hall was never far from my heart and thoughts that day. Always, he was there; I was there for him. My first hero. I think of my nieces at his age, their friends, and while their lives are not without care, they have the lives they do because of him. Because of all of them. I was so happy to hear that the students of Canada are learning these portions of their history more intimately than we did.
When the time came to sing the anthems again, it was with a renewed sense of pride that we stood, saluted if appropriate, promising to stand on guard for the True North Strong and Free – from coast to coast to coast. We are Canadians; tough, compassionate, ready to fight, ready to die if for the right cause, ready to make peace if we can. We can withstand anything the weather throws at us. We can dig tunnels and trench systems in horrendous sleet, rain, cold and soul-drowning mud and chalk. We can take ridges that nobody else can take, we Canadians. We are loved throughout France for what these men did. This is what Canadians do. We help. We stand up for what we believe in. And nothing will stop us when we believe in a cause and in ourselves.
The public were not supposed to be allowed on the monument, but when the dignitaries had left and the media were breaking down equipment, a few Canucks stormed the barricade. It was the most polite storming of a barricade ever as we slipped carefully through gateways created in obstacles, instead of over them. We climbed onto the monument, many found their loved ones on the wall. There was even an engagement on a boot-lined corner, lit by late afternoon sun. He went down on one knee, a Canadian soldier, humble and hopeful. She, utterly overwhelmed, hands over her mouth, then a ring on her finger and she threw herself into his arms. Everyone in the area cheered and applauded while the media guys scrambled for cameras already packed away.
Shortly after, a polite announcement over the tannoy: Please will you leave the monument to allow clean-up.
And we all did. Quietly. Politely.
The people of Nord-Pas-de-Calais hung Canadian flags from their rooftops and windows, festooned cafés with maple leaf banners, cheered as we passed through the villages surrounding the ridge, not the least, Givenchy-en-Gohelle, the town on the slope of the ridge. The last of the Canadian objectives in the battle for Vimy Ridge was to free Givenchy, which was late by two days as a direct result of the delay and deaths caused at Hill 145. And in the end, the Canadians accomplished that, too.