Saturday, 8 November 2014

Vimy Ridge: The Trenches

It seems fitting that for this month,
with the centenary of the beginning of the First World War,
that we visit sites that pay homage and commemorate the 'Great War'.
I began November with my last post about the poppies at the Tower of London, here.

During the half-term break,
we went to Vimy Ridge in Northern France, a National Historic Site of Canada.

Despite wondering how you should behave
when visiting places that mark very solemn events
(especially with our kids and their cousins, all eight of them, aged three to fifteen),
we were excited to find out that we were in Canada.
Well on Canadian soil anyway,
the French have given the land, this historic site, 107 hectares to Canada.

When driving into the site, the first thing that struck all of us
was the ground,
pockmarked by shells.

 Recently I have been looking at paintings by Paul and John Nash,
commissioned as official war artists during the First World war,
and have been puzzled by their paintings of the landscape, so bumpy and undulated.
But seeing this, it all made sense.
The ground at Vimy Ridge was never levelled after the war,
it still holds evidence of shell holes and bomb craters.
However after the war, it was reforested,
we were looking at trees all the same age, nearly 100 years old.

If you're interested to see how John and Paul Nash painted the landscape,

All fifteen of us booked into an English language tour by a Canadian guide
and headed underground.

Our tour guide began by making the context for the Canadian involvement
in the First World war very clear.
In 1914 Canada was still part of the British Empire,
so as our guide told us, when Britain declared war, Canada was by rights involved.
It wasn't a question of asking whether or not to participate,
but of deciding what their contribution should be.
Canada sent four divisions, their soldiers all volunteers.

For me, this was a day of challenging so many preconceptions,
making me think about things that had never even struck me before.
The landscape, the Commonwealth.

Underground, "subways" (we are in Canada) were built to bring men to the front,
safely and secretly.
Fourteen miles of tunnels, one meter wide and two meters high,
were dug out by hand, by Welsh miners, through the chalk ground.

Using these...
...pick axes and shovels.
They make much less noise than using explosives to blast your way through the ground.
It took them three months, working 24 hours a day, three eight hour shifts.

The tunnels have been modified for visitors today,
widened and supported with concrete.
However the problem of flooding remains.
Soldiers often had to wade knee deep through these tunnels,
and recently they have had to close the tunnels to visitors and wait for the water to recede.
The colour of the walls shows the water line from the last flood.

Underground there were headquarters, electricity,
telecommunications and some accommodation.
You got to sleep down here if you were a runner.

Runners were a vital part of communication.
Running from the front line, wearing a white armband, back to operations with messages.
This sounded dangerous, and it was.
We were asked what we thought was the average life expectancy of a runner
on the front line.
No-one could have guessed at the answer.
Four days!
But this was a post soldiers willingly volunteered for,
the reward of six times your regular salary,
and getting to sleep in the relative safety and shelter of the tunnels,
being away from the trenches, must have perhaps made it an appealing option
despite the risks.

"Anyone know the most famous German runner?"
There's a story.

From the tunnels, we headed to the front line, to the trenches.
"Trenches of 1917/18, like fortresses, very well thought out defences."

These trenches once two and a half meters deep,
are now lined with replica concrete sandbags and duck boards.

In the visitor centre you get an idea of what the walls of the trenches
would have looked like,
real sandbags and barbed wire,
without the rats, wet and lice that plagued the them.

Facing the enemy, a place to put your rifle and protect your head.

Although this trench is kitted out with replica sandbags and duckboards,
its position is very real.
Here in Vimy Ridge, the front line is only thirty meters from the German trenches opposite.
We were astounded,
Apparently soldiers began to recognise each others faces across no mans land.

From the German front line, faces were easy to spot in the Canadian trench opposite.

Between front lines, bomb craters, no mans land landscaping,
exploded deliberately to make crossing it difficult.

Learning about war in the trenches,
led us to ask questions about life in the trenches.
Where did you go to the toilet?
What happened if you ran away?

The toilet facilities:
Apparently there were latrine trenches,
but if there weren't, there was a truce, the deal here was that
if you climbed over top with a white flag and your pants down (remember this is Canadian speak), you were signalling that you were going to the loo (British speak)
and you weren't shot at.
There was also a truce, an agreement, at Vimy Ridge that hand-grenades would not be used.

As for running away, a question asked by my eleven year old son,
I wondered what was going through his mind.
Deserters were, "shot by their own".
they were few in the Canadian Corp.
We were told that this was perhaps because they were volunteers.
In the words of our guide, the soldiers knew that,
"if you deserted there was a hundred percent chance you were going to die,
if you advanced (over the top), you might live".
What a way to live.

Photos in the visitor centre

It was with this visit in mind that the following weekend,
we went to see the Tower Poppies at the Tower of London,
Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red,
a poppy for each Commonwealth and British fatality.
Looking at the sea of red poppies in the moat, it wasn't too difficult to imagine those
blood swept lands.
You can read my thoughts on the Tower Poppies on a previous post, here.

Information about Vimy Ridge and visitor centre, here.

This seemed like such a long post,
that I have decided to post about the Vimy Ridge memorial separately in my next post,
coming soon.


  1. So interesting and thoughtful for today. It sounds as though you had a very informative and moving visit. Today we will remember. xx

    1. Thankyou Amy. Just started working at Imperial War Museums in Learning. On a steep learning curve.

  2. Very thoughtful post, made for an interesting read. Look forward to reading your post about the Vimy Memorial as well.

    1. Thanks Jennifer. I was inspired to visit more battlefield sites. Need to get to France again.

  3. Really interesting and appropriate for the time of year. The comment about the soldiers from opposing sides recognising one another's faces across the divide is thought provoking. Does knowing someone's face make it more or less likely that you will kill them given the opportunity?
    Have you read Birdsong by Sebastian Faulkes? I read it some time ago but this post reminded me of it as it is set, in part, in the tunnels of the war.
    Looking forward to your next post.

    1. Thanks Ali. I'm trying to blog about the First World War during the month of November. I feel embarrassed that I haven't read Birdsong. It's on my reading list now.


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