Sunday, October 21, 2012

"Visiting Vimy" an award-winning essay by Brenda Ross



The phone rang, a wake-up call to my hotel room that morning, and I almost changed my mind.  I could barely move to answer the phone, let alone get out of bed.  Jet lag left me in an earlier time zone, my entire being exhausted.  Perhaps I would sleep late and stay. After all, Paris is for tourists.

Then it called to me.  Closer than ever before, “You’re almost here,” it called… and I found the energy to get up.

A few hours and a train ride later, the sun was shining and the sky clear blue as the taxi turned off a two lane road onto a secluded laneway.  Had I been driving, I am sure I would have missed it altogether.  Up the gentle incline of the tree-lined laneway the taxi drove, popping in and out of dappled sunlight. It came to a sudden halt in front of a locked gate.  Could it be closed? My gracious driver brought relief when he pointed to his watch then a posted sign indicating in French the park did not open until ten o’clock and it was only a little after nine. 

With trepidation, I handed him payment and stepped from the cab. What was I doing here, by myself, in the middle of nowhere?  A return train ticket to Paris in my pocket held no reassurance.  I had no clue how to get back to the train station.  All I knew was that I had reached Vimy Ridge.  All other challenges paled in comparison.

My friendly driver drove off, the sound of his tires fading to silence.  It was a beautiful spring Saturday morning, the grass around me lush and green.  Trees, proudly displaying their bright new foliage, gently waved greetings in the slight breeze.  The signs around me looked strangely familiar: brown with bilingual yellow print, English and French, yet I could not quite place where I had seen them before.

Not knowing my bearings, I wandered along a gravel path a short distance to see huge, gaping holes in the ground.  The diameter of each hole ranged from twelve to fifteen meters across. The inner slopes, blanketed in the same velvety grass, steeply dropped to a similar depth. These holes resembled craters. Narrow trenches carved deep into the earth, upheld with cemented sandbags, snaked between the craters.  The trenches were marked, helping me to clearly understand where I stood and what I was looking at: ‘The German Front’.

Turning from this place, I started back toward the gate that had abruptly stopped my earlier progress.  The peaceful pathway was newly paved asphalt, mostly under the protection of maples.  The ground under the trees, rich and lush, rolled in unusual depressions about every two or three meters.  The maples wept raindrops, telling tale of a recent storm despite the clear skies of today. Fence posts connected by hanging cable lined the full length of long pathway.  A sign up ahead declared: ‘Danger: No entry. Undetonated explosives’.

As the path rounded a curve, I had my first glimpse of the Canadian Monument through the few remaining trees.  The monument was exactly that: monumental, made of pale limestone, towering high into the sky, a startlingly white pair of tall, narrow pylons emerged from a sturdy platform base.  The base was half a football field in size. Much like uniform columns, the twin pylons scraped the sky at thirty meters height. Surrounding the monument was a treeless, level, grassy park, groomed by a close cut, without the unusual dips and peaks.

A few low tree limbs brushed me with an embrace before I reached a wide, white stone double walkway. It was perfectly straight, leading directly through the open park to the monument.  A large sign, brown and yellow, at the junction of the paths finally triggered my memory.  Vimy Ridge is a Canadian National park.  My visits to Banff and Algonquin National Parks suddenly came back to me.  How remarkable that here I stood, thousands of kilometers and across the Atlantic ocean from my home country, a guest in a foreign land, yet on Canadian soil.  Another sign explained that the French government had gifted this 250 acre area in perpetuity to Canada out of gratitude following the Great War.

Although the park buildings had not opened, the monument was accessible to pedestrians. A young woman stood sideways to me, alone between the pillars of the still distant platform, wearing a pale dress and bright red sweater, unbuttoned and hugged close with her arms crossed tightly in front.  Her loosely worn hair blew in the breeze.  She turned away from the monument, eyes down, and stepped swiftly on light feet down the steps towards me along the white path.

It was difficult to be indifferent to this place.  More signs, these ones concise and direct: ‘Silence and Respect’, they demanded.  Walking this path towards the monument, I felt a change.  The monument was at the edge of a ridge.  Hanging over the plain of Lens-Douai, a stormy sky was the monument’s dark gray backdrop.  Ahead and far below, where the ridge plummeted into the wild growth, two joggers ran soundlessly in unison on the circular road that bordered the outer limits of the park around the monument.

I looked back to the monument just as the young woman reached me.  Her eyes remained downcast and her quick steps told me she would not stop to speak.  One hand was at her mouth and tears streamed down her cheeks.  In the quiet of this solemn place I heard her sob softly as she passed me by, like a reflection.

The sun shone brightly on the monument from the sky above, despite the stormy sky over the plain, illuminating beautiful, larger-than-life figures carved into the peaks of the pylons.  No one was at the monument now, and it soared over me as I approached.  The base, above the height of my head, had markings that started to materialize.  Thousands of names, some with rank, were inscribed upon the outer walls of the base.

Before climbing the steps to the platform, I slowly surveyed the chiseled names.  Stark and plain, I reached out and touched them.  Cold, smooth.  There was no life in that rock.  It was not the warm pink granite of our great Canadian Shield. My surname was carved close by, several times, along with many other names. So many names.  I did not come to Vimy to seek a lost family member but found myself wondering: were these men distant relatives, unknown to my life because theirs had ended here?

I turned back and climbed the steps to the platform between the towering twin pylons.  Looking high to their peaks, the sun warmed my face and dazzled my eyes as I squeezed them shut.  At that moment, eyes shut, I heard a distinct sound pierce the silence.  High-pitched and faint, the only sound… a living thing… peaceful… a bird.  “And in the sky the larks, still bravely singing, fly…”

With my eyes shut in silence I heard the din.  Guns and artillery exploded, the sounds of carnage and destruction.  Not a blade of grass was visible in my mind.  Not a leaf on a tree or an unbroken trunk, leaning, roots grasping, withstood the desolation.  No white stone platform protected me from the mud, blood and death at my feet.  The sky, thick with smoke and heavy overhead cloud, caused a bone-chilling dampness.  As real as the tears that welled in my eyes, I heard and felt this. Fear and sorrow gripped my soul.

When I opened my eyes again, the grass was groomed and green, the leaves of the trees still fluttered in the breeze, the sun shone down from the sky above, and the joggers ran a second lap round Vimy Ridge.  Time moved on and the park buildings opened.

The balance of the day was spent in a wonderful explore of the history of Vimy Ridge during the Great War.  The Interpretive Centre, loaded with artifacts and displays, tells the story of how Canada came together as a nation.  I was treated like royalty by the two young men working there, dressed in familiar tan shirts and brown pants, Canada’s National Parks uniform.  As I entered I greeted them tentatively, “Bonjour …”

“Canadian! Welcome home,” was the warm response. I had stepped into Canada.

A walking tour of the tunnels and trenches showed the conditions under which our men in arms, branded British but proudly Canadian, so valiantly fought the enemy upon that ridge.  The enormous craters at the Front were formed on the same day that Canadians won the ridge.  Those craters still remain.

In the tunnels, towards the end of the tour, the guide said, “These tour tunnels were widened, ceilings raised and modern lights installed.” He indicated to a dull passageway. “This tunnel, off limits for your safety, is preserved with the low ceilings, narrow walls and dull lighting of 1917.”

As the tour moved on, I hung back, pressing against the barrier to peer down the banned passageway. In the tense, oppressed atmosphere, dozens of men in uniform leaned and sat against the walls, waiting to be called from the tunnel to attack in no man’s land. Some sipped lukewarm tea made with brackish water. Two spoke softly, so as not to be detected by the enemy. Another, his helmet momentarily set aside, squinted in the dimness at a photograph of his sweetheart. I blinked and they were gone.

Back above, at the park cemetery, tears flowed freely again. Row upon row of gravestones marked the last resting place of so many young Canadian men, boys really, who came to France as I came, but never returned to their loved ones and the country they called home.

I walked a last time along the treed path towards the monument, this time understanding each depression in the ground to be the place where an artillery shell had exploded ninety five years ago.  Thousands upon thousands of them. The trees, leaning to me in the wind, are men: the Canadian soldiers with no known graves, their mortal remains in the Canadian soil of France and pulsing through the veins of the trees, rooted firmly, their maple leaves whispering, “…take me home with you.”  The trees number the same as the names on the monument base: 11,285.  Upon my last visit to the monument, I no longer had it to myself but shared it with many pilgrims, come to pay homage. The pristine chiseled rock basked all day in the sun’s rays but remained icy cold. It is a deception, this park.  So much violence and chaos concealed under a lush layer of growth and brilliant white human engineering.

This place had called to me.  Over an ocean and half a continent it had called.  It called and I came. To the craters, the tunnels, the trenches.  To the monument, the signs and the trees.  But most of all, I came to the place where Canadian nationalism found itself through young men, far from home, bound by a commonality only described as being Canadian.  Men who gave their lives so that we may live in peace.  It called and I came, not just to observe, but to find myself also.  Many times in my life I have been deeply moved, but nothing has moved me more deeply than my day at Vimy Ridge. 

Back in Paris, I entered the hotel lobby a bedraggled traveler. The desk clerk greeted me with unlimited energy. Bonsoir, madame. Je suis désolé pour le mauvais temps. Il a plu toute la journée.

While the sun shone on Vimy Ridge, in Paris it had rained all day.


Brenda Ross lives in Brampton but prefers to be sailing in her favourite place, the North Channel of Manitoulin Island. She has been published in the magazine Latitudes and Attitudes and in the newspaper The Muskokan. Brenda is currently working on a novel. “Visiting Vimy” won the 2012 winner of the Muskoka Chautauqua writing contest.


See Brian Henry's schedule here, including writing workshops and creative writing courses in Kingston, Peterborough, Toronto, Mississauga, Brampton, Georgetown, Milton, Oakville, Burlington, St. Catharines, Hamilton, Dundas, Kitchener, Guelph, London, Woodstock, Orangeville, Newmarket, Barrie, Gravenhurst, Sudbury, Muskoka, Peel, Halton, the GTA, Ontario and beyond.

3 comments:

  1. Visited Vimy Ridge a few years ago. I so enjoyed this essay. It captured the special nature of Vimy for Canadians and the world.

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  2. What a beautiful essay. I really enjoyed your writing style and felt like I was standing right there with you as I read this piece. Really well done....

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  3. You know how I feel about Vimy, Brenda. Thank you for putting it into words.
    Michael Joll.

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