The Memorials to the Battle of Vimy Ridge
The soaring Canadian National Vimy Memorial in northern France stands at the top of Hill 145, fiercely fought over by Canadian soliders and the British Expeditionary Force at the Battle of Vimy Ridge on April 9th, 1917. It's at the north end of the 240-acre Canadian Memorial Park.
Background to the Battle
In 1914, Canada as part of the British Empire was at war with Germany. Thousands of Canadians enlisted and arrived in France to fight alongside their British and Commonwealth counterparts. In the first two years, the Western Front was a stalemate of trench warfare along the front line which ran for nearly 1,000 kilometers from the Belgian coast to the border of Switzerland. In 1917 a new offensive was planned, which involved the Battle of Arras and as part of this, the Canadian soldiers played a decisive part in the new offensive. Their task was to take Vimy Ridge, a vital part of the German defences and at the heart of a major coal-producing region.
In autumn 1916, the Canadians moved to the front lines. Vimy Ridge had been taken by the Germans early in the war and subsequent Allied assaults had failed. There was already a huge underground system of enemy tunnels and trenches just yards from where the Canadians were positioned.
Their winter was spent strengthening the lines, training for the forthcoming conflict and in particular, digging tunnels along the Canadian lines. On the morning of April 9th, 1917, at 5.30am it was snowing, cold and dark. Alongside the 5th British Division, the Canadians stormed out of the trenches into a no-man’s land of shell craters and barbed wire in the first wave of soldiers. Their bravery was astonishing; their losses appalling: some 3,600 soldiers died on Vimy Ridge and another 7,400 were injured out of a total Canadian fighting force of 30,000.
But the battle of Vimy Ridge was a victory and the forces captured another vital plateau called the Pimple on April 12th. The Canadians gained a reputation for offensive warfare that was feared by the Germans for the rest of the war, and four Victoria Crosses were awarded to the Canadian soldiers who captured enemy machine gun positions.
The Canadian Memorial Park
The park today, one of the few places on the western front where you can wander through the trenches, is a strange mix. It is beautiful with its undulating landscape and wooded slopes through which the trenches twist and turn. But it’s also chilling; the enemy trenches are so close and the 11,285 Canadian trees and shrubs commemorate the number of soldiers ‘missing’. There are 14 craters dotted around the park, full of Allied mines detonated on April 9th. There are wartime tunnels, trenches, craters and unexploded armaments on the site, so much of it is closed off.
The Visitor Center has comprehensive displays of the battle. It’s run by Canadian students who also conduct free guided tours, explaining how the trenches were built and taking your through the area.
Practical InformationVisitor Center
Tel.: 00 33 (0)3 21 50 68 68
Open Late Jan and Feb daily 9am-5pm; Mar- end of October 10am-6pm, End October-mid Dec 9am-5pm.
Closed public holidays
Canadian National Vimy Memorial
Standing high on top of Hill 145, captured on April 10th by the Canadian troops, the huge memorial is an overpoweringly impressive monument. The soaring, twin-columned memorial, seen for miles around, commemorates the Battle of Vimy Ridge, fought on April 9th, 1917, by four Canadian divisions alongside British soldiers. The Canadians were serving under their commander, Lieutenant-General Sir Julian Byng, who later became Governor General of Canada.
The memorial stands at the north end of the 240-acre Canadian Memorial Park which is on the site of the battle. The land was given by a grateful France to Canada in 1922 on the understanding that Canada build a monument commemorating Canadian soldiers killed in the war and would maintain the land and memorial in perpetuity. The monument commemorates not only those identified soldiers who died at Vimy Ridge; it also acknowledges the 66,000 Canadians killed in the whole of World War I, and the 11,285 unknown dead.
The monument is set on a base of 11,000 tons of concrete. It was designed by Toronto sculptor and architect, Walter Seymour Allward in 1925, but took another 11 years to build. Finally, it was unveiled on July 26th by Edward VIII, a few months before his abdication. Watching were the French President and over 50,000 Canadian and French veterans with their families.
Over the years the sculpture suffered water damage and with a massive grant from the Canadian government, was closed in 2002 for extensive renovation. It was rededicated on April 9th, 2007 by Queen Elizabeth II, commemorating the 90th anniversary of the battle.
The two columns are 45 meters high, one symbolizing Canada and bearing a maple leaf, the second adorned with a fleur-de-lys to symbolize France. Each figure around the base and on the monument has a specific significance. Justice and Peace, Truth and Knowledge, Peace and Justice, cannon barrels draped with laurel and an olive branch, and the grieving, cloaked and hooded woman representing Canada Bereft, the country in mourning, are just some of the many references to war and peace.
It’s a particularly important monument for the Canadians as it also represents national unity; the battle was the first occasion when all four divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force fought as a cohesive unit.
Practical InformationThe Memorial is open year round and admission is free
Directions Vimy is south of Lens, off the N17. If you’re travelling on the E15/A26, take exit 7 signposted to Lens. All the roads nearby are well signposted to Vimy and other sites nearby.