PHOTOS: DAN BLACK; METROPOLIS STUDIO
Sheep graze peacefully in the wooded areas and open fields of the Canadian National Vimy Memorial Park, unaware they are treading on some of the most fought over territory of World War I. It is the space where historians have said that Canada became a nation. “The land is very uncommon. There is very little battlefield terrain left to us,” explained Hélène Robichaud, the director of the Canadian Battlefield Memorials Restoration Project for Veterans Affairs Canada. In fact, the Vimy site and the land preserved around nearby Beaumont Hamel where Newfoundlanders showed their mettle in that same war, comprise about 80 per cent of WW I battlefields still in existence.
So when VAC announced in 2001 that it would spend $30 million to restore the Vimy memorial and Canada’s 12 other WW I sites in Europe, the project team could hardly overlook the land itself–a land that has occasionally yielded some important artifacts, including bullets, shells, bits of barbed wire, grenades and rifles, as well as human remains.
Together, Vimy and Beaumont Hamel receive about one million visitors a year. “Most of the visitors come for remembrance,” said Robichaud. “It is green space which means a lot to the French people. France has many people per square kilometre. However, the French national forest is right next to the Vimy site for picnics, camping and that sort of thing.
“The restoration project is divided into four main areas of responsibility, namely the restoration of the Vimy monument, restoration of the sites around the monument, conservation of the battlefield terrain and the investigation of the underground features of the property.
One only needs to stand on the ridge to realize its strategic importance during the war. Although the hill is low, it offers a full view of the vast Douai Plain and its patchwork of farmland and small villages.
But the grand vista visitors see today is far different from what greeted Canadian soldiers when they first arrived with the challenge to take the ridge that had already cost thousands of lives.
As Canadian author Pierre Berton described in his book Vimy, “There it lay, facing the Canadian lines–a low, seven-mile escarpment of sullen grey, rising softly from the plain below, a monotonous spine of mud, churned into a froth by shellfire, devoid of grass or foliage, lacking in colour or detail, every inch of its slippery surface pitted or pulverized by two years of constant pounding. At first glance it didn’t seem very imposing, but to those who knew its history and who looked ahead to that moment when they must plough forward and upward toward that ragged crest aflame with gunfire, it took on an aura both dark and sinister.”
Underneath that unappealing stretch of land was an incredible infrastructure of tunnels which had living quarters, command offices, a hospital and an elaborate railway system with lines that were used to bring troops and haul supplies to the front lines without being the target of enemy fire. Over the years the wood construction holding up the walls has rotted and collapsed.
After the war, the battlefield was cleared of debris by France. This was followed by the planting of one million three-year-old pine trees, in an effort to restore the area’s original country character.
At the same time, Canada entered into negotiations with the French government about preserving the Vimy site. An agreement was reached in December 1922 that the land was to be held in perpetuity for the use of the Canadian government for the erection of a monument and the creation of a memorial park.
The deal was formalized and the land was presented to Canada’s Parliament which was “gratefully accepted” by all parties of the House of Commons in February 1923. Arthur Meighen, who was leader of the official Opposition at the time, noted, “The site of Vimy is beyond comparison, of the various battlefields of the war, the most closely associated in the hearts of the Canadian people with all that the war involved in story and in sacrifice.”
Today, the park is approximately 117 hectares. This figure is not exact following the acquisition of a small amount of additional property by the Canadian government in 1930. A considerable landslide had occurred near the monument while it was still under construction and caused damage to neighbouring property. The federal government purchased the land rather than face a legal dispute with the site’s neighbours.
The site contains the monument and a large parking lot and visitors centre. There are pathways around the park, as well as military cemeteries and the preserved portion of the Grange Tunnel. The largest cemetery is the Canadian Cemetery No. 2, where 695 Canadians are buried. Ironically, there is no Canadian Cemetery No. 1. Another is the Givenchy Road Canadian Cemetery which has 111 headstones and is accessible only by forest footpath from the larger cemetery.
Also in the park is the Moroccan Division Monument which pays tribute to those Moroccans in the French Army that also fought and died at Vimy. “The roads are very chalky and the paths can be very muddy,” explained Robichaud. “We wanted to improve the quality of the terrain.” Much work under the project has gone into levelling the footpaths and replacing broken stones to make the area safe for visitors.
“This is a very big block of Swiss cheese. It is full of holes,” Robichaud explained. “We needed to learn more about it. We are using sonar and electromagnetic equipment. Much of the skills we are using are from geology and mining.”
There are parts of the park site that are unsafe. “The problem is the relief of the terrain, and it is too wet. There are places you could not walk two steps without getting stuck. Of course, the areas that are unsafe are not accessible to the public. These are cliffs and natural hazards.”
So in order to keep the grass mowed and the grounds green, sheep are used since they can easily manipulate their way through rough terrain and sunken areas. “There is so much that is unknown to us. There were hospitals and trains down there. The soil tends to erode.”
The forest, the Bois de Vincennes, is also a major part of this work. “One of the problems is that the trees were all planted at the same time, so people think they will all die at the same time,” she explained. Dead trees become a safety hazard and have to be removed. The strategy under the current project is to select trees for removal and replace them so there is a continuous growth.
The monument’s sculptor, Walter S. Allward, wanted to frame the monument with trees. Pathways cut through the pines and lead to the monument, while the main road is lined with Canadian maple trees. “There are maples in the woods now, but those are just from the seeds of the ones planted along the road,” said Robichaud.
“The trees on the site have a great value in protecting the soil,” she explained. “But we have to remove the hazardous trees knowing that we are on battleground terrain. That caused us to develop ‘soft logging.'”
Soft logging is a way of removing trees without greatly disturbing the land.
With the conservation work on the land and in the forests, reminders of the past occasionally come to the surface.
Steve Austin, a senior project officer with VAC in Charlottetown said, “It is not uncommon as you drive around the countryside in France to see areas where farmers have piled ordnance and other debris with their plows. They are just left there for the proper authorities to pick them up and dispose of them.”
The service de déminage, provided by the Ministry of the Interior picks up the ordnance and delivers them to disposal dumps run by the Ministry of Defense. Austin said there is one disposal depot near Vimy but not on the site.
How much of the heritage still rises to the surface? “It depends on where you dig,” said Austin. “You could dig a trench line or run an underground cable and come across nothing. A lot of stuff does come up such as corkscrew pickets or bits of fence. But when we discover ordnance–a shell or hand grenade–it goes to the service de déminage.”
Austin said that unless there is a project to disturb the soil things are generally not found. “When we do find an artifact it is recorded. You do find shrapnel from artillery shells, coils of barbed wire, helmets and maybe a rifle.”
When artifacts are found they are recorded by the department for future historical reference but most of it is left in situ as yet another reminder of the war. “We’re not in the habit of digging. We are into conservation.”
Robichaud said a skeleton was found in one of the areas where they were doing some construction work. “It is all done properly. Even though the Vimy park is property of Canada it is still on French soil. We have to turn the remains over to the proper authorities.”
When that occurs, the French police are notified. “The skeleton will be analyzed. They will try to determine to which country the individual belonged and then turn the remains over to the appropriate embassy in a very dignified manner.”
The public can get some idea of what the underground was like during the battle by visiting the Grange Tunnel where they can walk through a preserved section.
One gets a last reminder of the big block of Swiss cheese that makes up the land around Vimy as one exits the tunnel that led back to the Support Line. When it was originally dug the winter before the attack, the Canadians came across an unexploded heavy shell.
The VAC website notes the shell had been fired by the Allies from nearby Mont St-Éloi, but once it hit the soft soil it just sank deep into the ground. After that discovery, the Canadians knew their tunnels would have to be at least nine metres below the surface.
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