This August the weather in France is perfect—blue skies for photographs and moody clouds for paintings. I came to Europe to paint.
World-class museums are filled with landscapes of the Norman and Flemish fields. This land is valuable both for its artistic and agricultural production. But it is cherished for another reason.
This is where the world came to fight, not once but twice. More than 111,650 Canadians died as a result of the First and Second World Wars. They are buried here.
As an artist, the juxtaposition of war and peace interests me. I imagine European citizens picnicking with their families on the same shores Canada stormed—busy with modern lives on old battlefields.
I want to see if remembrance exists in the off-season—when no one knows company is coming.
T he summer air is cool. Eight kilometres northwest of the medieval town of Arras, France, the ruins of the abbey at Mont St. Eloi rise in the distance. Its ghostly towers were used by the Allies as an observation post in the First World War. This is where my journey begins.
Today, grass and even small shrubs grow high in the cracks of the grey stone facade and the pigeons I disturb flap away from their quiet roosts. From this vantage, the twin white pylons of Vimy are clear on the northeast horizon. The road dips and twists as I drive through the countryside, but the friendly French are helpful. “Toujours droit! (Always right!),” they call as I wind through the red brick villages and towns of Neuville St. Vaast, Givenchy-en-Gohelle and finally Vimy.
At first light on April 9, 1917, the Canadians attacked at Vimy Ridge. Five days later they had gained more ground than any previous British offensive, but the price was high. Of over 10,000 casualties, 3,598 were dead. Nevertheless, Vimy Ridge stands as a moment of national pride, and the success achieved here is part of what binds us as a nation.
The massive monument soars up, too bright to look at. I circle it, shading my eyes and come upon an elderly woman waving her hands at the 11,285 names engraved on the walls—the names of the soldiers missing and presumed dead in France in the First World War.
Anne-Marie Bourdrez lives in the nearby town of Neuville St. Vaast (ironically the site of the largest German war cemetery in France) and visits Vimy about once a month. With the help of her daughter-in-law, Alice Bourdrez, Anne-Marie explains, “The father of my husband came here to put the trees in the ground. The trees came from Canada by train. One tree for one soldier—onze-mille soldats, onze-mille arbres (11,000 soldiers, 11,000 trees)…. The trees grew thick with many branches, so for 17 years, my husband during his holidays came here and cut the branches. The green is now high, do you see?” And, indeed, the grounds are covered with pristine maples, pruned high enough to allow a view of the battlefield and the sheep that graze there. In a few months, the thousands of maples will turn red and gold and orange.
Twenty metres under Arras are limestone tunnels, called the Boves, where the population found shelter during bombings in the First and Second World wars. Allied troops could arrive at the battlefields in secrecy and safety. Just before the assault on April 9, 1917, the tunnel system had grown big enough to conceal 24,000 men.
Down a shaded path on the edge of Arras is Le Mur des Fusillés. This secluded memorial is dedicated to the 218 French patriots who were shot to death in the ditches outside the citadel by German occupiers between 1941 and 1944.
Both wars seem close in this part of France.
The trenches from the First World War stretched north into Belgium and the Ypres Salient, which was the scene of some of the fiercest fighting. German artillery range from the salient was 10 kilometres; the town of Poperinge is 11 kilometres—just far enough since most of the buildings seem intact. Poperinge is a quaint and charming place, and historic Talbot House, located along a cobbled street, does not look much different than it did when it opened on Dec. 11, 1915. This was where the troops from the First World War rested from the front, and drank buckets of tea, hot chocolate or coffee, played piano, watched live shows and got a chance to visit the chapel in the loft. I spent a delightful few hours speaking with the warden of Talbot House, Simon Barber. He volunteers two weeks a year here and tells me, “About 45 per cent of our guests have a direct connection to remembrance while others simply come to soak up the ambience of the area.”
The town of Ypres is bustling with tourists, there to sample chocolates and beer. At a busy intersection sits the Menin Gate Memorial, where faithfully every evening at eight the townsfolk gather to pay their respects to the fallen. This sunset ceremony commemorates those who died in the First World War, but have no known grave. Their names have been etched into the stone wall and the massive memorial is surrounded by hundreds of people who watch quietly as the Last Post is played.
Sunday morning the air feels like September and the morning smells on the cobbled streets are taking me back to my childhood. Today I am hunting for ‘le canadien,’ the elegant St. Julien Memorial. It is a pillar of grey granite soaring up 11 metres, the top carved to represent a Canadian soldier, helmet bowed with folded hands resting on arms reversed. The night before at the Menin Gate, I ask repeatedly if anyone knows its exact location. The Belgian people smile and say, “Ahh yes, the beautiful one, le canadien” but only vaguely direct me.
It is a scenic drive to the small village of St. Julien which is surrounded by Flemish farmland. There in the countryside, seven kilometres from Ypres, a 70-some-year-old tall and rangy farmer comes out to water his plants, squinting at the stranger on the side of the road. I walk over to say bonjour and struggle with the words in French to ask directions to the monument. Busy with his watering can he doesn’t seem to pay much attention, or appear to understand. He offhandedly asks “D’où viens-tu? Allemagne? (Where are you from? Germany?)” Upon hearing Canada he lowers the can and his English improves. His big tanned hands point the way, “To the right and about a kilometre or two down the road,” he says. And there it is—my favourite memorial. Here are remembered the 2,000 men of our country who died in the first gas attacks of the war. The site is planted with conical evergreens and for miles around the fields stretch like Manitoba prairies.
My little car winds through corn and potato fields and the back roads to Passchendaele. There are no poor dwellings here. The homes are all brick, with neat gardens and sheer white curtains blowing in open windows to let in the air. On the outskirts of town I see a small green Commonwealth War Graves sign pointing into a cornfield. It feels a little surreal. Cut flawlessly into the field is a tunnel just over a metre in height. A strip of sod extends like a green carpet for about 90 metres. Then, the narrow strip turns left and continues another 15 metres. Other than the crows calling and the rustle of the stalks, it is quiet. There in the middle of the cornfield is a monument dedicated to 85th (Nova Scotia Highlanders) Battalion. In this land where every inch of space is put to use, there is room for Canada.
That small clearing is only a few kilometres from Tyne Cot Cemetery, the largest commonwealth war cemetery in the world. It holds 12,000 dead, but only about 3,500 are identified. Over a thousand Canadians are here, and moving among the rows are dozens of people paying their respects. The cemetery also features a granite memorial with the names of 35,000 men who have no known graves.
This part of the salient extended the farthest into enemy positions and the battles were savage. The Canadians fought their first planned offensives in June 1916, and our soldiers are also remembered at Hill 62 (Sanctuary Wood). A young blond boy explores the hill with his Flemish grandparents. They are taking him to the ‘beaucoup, beaucoup’ monuments through this area of Flanders, and are astonished to hear how far I have come.
The front rolls on through the golden fields of the Somme towards Albert, France. Round bales of hay dot these landscapes and they could easily be the same fields that inspired the impressionist painters.
In the village of Albert is a magnificent cathedral and on the top of the domed steeple rises a golden statue of the virgin holding her child up to the blue heavens. During the First World War the town was bombed to rubble but the steeple and walls of the church remained standing. The golden virgin was unhinged and hung parallel to the ground, at a 90-degree angle for most of the war. The legend was that when she fell, the war would end. Today, she stands tall once again offering her babe to the heavens and the basilica she crowns is rebuilt—magnificent inside and out.
The first day of the Battle of the Somme was the bloodiest day for the British Army in the First World War. It is a day that is etched into the collective memory of Newfoundlanders and honoured at Beaumont Hamel. On July 1, 1916, 780 men from the Newfoundland Regiment were sent forward and in less than half an hour only 110 had survived the enemy fire. The roads north and east of Albert are nick-named the Circuit of Remembrance, a loop that runs through Beaumont Hamel, to Thiepval and Courcelette and back to Albert. Reminders of the dead are everywhere.
Carved into the monument at Thiepval are the names of more than 72,000 United Kingdom and South African soldiers who have no known graves.
While there, the weather changes. It is raining cold and hard as I drive up a rough dirt road into another grain field looking for the Regina Trench Cemetery near Courcelette. This was the longest German trench on the front during the war. It took two months of attacks by Canadian divisions before it was finally taken on Nov. 11, 1916, by the 4th Canadian Division. Five-hundred and sixty-four Canadians are buried here.
A young garcon (10 years old maybe) with long blond waves and golden skin jumps down from the enormous tractor he is driving and helps me open the wet iron gate. He only speaks one word to me, “Canada?” I nod and he smiles shyly as he gallantly gestures for me to enter. This cemetery is smack in the middle of the grain field that he is harvesting, and that his family has likely worked for years. Paying no attention to the rain, he climbs back onto his monstrous machine, and hauls his trailer of grain through the yellow stalks to join the combine in the distance. This lonely field seems a good place for anything named Regina.
The Battle of the Somme cost Canada over 24,000 casualties. The Germans refer to it as dat Blutbad (The Bloodbath). Almost a century later the name Dieppe evokes the same feeling in our country. Today the cliffs of Dieppe make a scenic backdrop to the many sunbathers, but for Canadians they will always be a bitter icon of war. At dawn on Aug. 19, 1942, the allied force attacked at Dieppe. Nine hours later it was over, mostly because the landing craft could no longer get in through the hail of gunfire from the cliffs to rescue any more survivors. Of the five thousand Canadians who participated in the raid, 907 lost their lives and nearly 1,950 became prisoners of war.
From the beach it is a quick walk to Canada Square, a small park situated under the shadow of the cliffs. A perky 80-year-old lady sits beside me on one of the park benches. She is smartly dressed in a suit of cream and taupe with a straw hat set on a head of red curls. For just a second Toulouse Lautrec floats into my brain, but never did he paint a madame as prim as this. In my broken French and her better English I discover that she has lived in Dieppe for over 60 years, and she is proud to tell me that her husband had been mayor for 18 of those years. During that time, she said, “On avait beaucoup, beaucoup de ceremonies pour les canadiens. (We had many, many ceremonies for the Canadians.)” She asked slyly if I know that an important Canadian minister is coming today. As it happens, Veterans Affairs Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn is making an unexpected stop in Dieppe this afternoon.
“What brings you to France?” he laughs when he sees me standing amongst the crowd of French journalists and citizens. I introduce him to the petite madame in the straw hat and all the French reporters swarm about. Emotional after this small moment with the minister, Madame Monique Bourgois stands alone in the garden murmuring, “Nous nous souviendrons d’eux. I come because we remember, we remember, we remember…”. I turn to speak to another woman for a minute and when I turn back to say goodbye, she is gone.
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