They came for many reasons, but with one purpose.
On a day when the morning air felt suitably heavy, they made their way by the hundreds, the thousands, the tens of thousands up the long trail through the high pines, the rolling mounds and trenches a rich spring green and freshly mowed by grazing sheep – a pastoral scene regularly jarred by red “DANGER” signs warning visitors that they step off the fenced pathways at their peril.
It is not the sheep; it is the unknown. It is what fell out of the skies here a hundred years ago and still lies beneath such perfect grass.
They then reach a long walkway leading to a heart-stopping vision, an idea that came to designer Walter Allward in a dream, a monument that, in the words of Vimy historian Dr. Tim Cook, is “so large and powerful that it seems almost un-Canadian.”
It has not, however, felt so Canadian as on Sunday, the 100th anniversary of the critical Great War battle that showed Canadians at their very best, but at such enormous cost.
It was a day where images were more powerful than words – the empty boots in the field, the five era bi-planes, the gun salute. Of all the high personalities who came – Governor-General David Johnston, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, French President François Hollande, Princes Charles, William and Harry – none could match the presence of the monument itself, “so large and powerful.”.
It was here at Vimy Ridge where, in the words of Mr. Johnston, “We learned the hard lessons of war.”
“Le Canada est né ici,” Mr. Trudeau tells the huge crowd.
“This,” Charles, Prince of Wales, believes,“was Canada at its best.”
Throughout a long day, the pilgrims gathered under the sun until they formed a sea of red shirts, umbrellas and Canadian flags. There was not a one without his or her own story.
James Kraehling came to Vimy on his Harley, his German-born wife, Marina, on the back making sure that their two pivotal flags snapped proudly to each side. One, of course, was the red Maple Leaf; the other a photograph of a young man named Mark Robert McLaren in uniform. Cpl. McLaren was the son of dear friends in Peterborough, Ont. He and two other soldiers were killed by an improvised explosive device on Dec. 5, 2008, the 98th, 99th and 100th Canadian soldiers to die in Afghanistan. He was on his second tour of duty and was a recipient of the Medal of Military Valour. He was 23, planning to marry.
“Just a kid,” Mr. Kraehling says.
Mr. Kraehling himself spent nearly eight years in the Canadian army. Now 52, he lives in Germany and often bikes to the various battlegrounds and cemeteries. If he had one wish, it would be that the thousands of young people gathering this gorgeous day on the safe lawns in front of the memorial would know and appreciate that “There’s bones below us.”
Big, burly and bearded, the biker with “Veteran Canadian” stitched on the back of his letters weeps as he considers this.
If he had a second wish, he says, he would buy a field and, with his Ontario farmboy background, he would plant it with poppies so that they would come up in the form of a huge red Maple Leaf – something to remind passersby what Canada did here through two horrific world wars.
A woman from Vancouver came alone in order to hear one single name called out among the day-long reading of the war dead.
Tracey Clarke-Blaise stood near the base of the monument with her iPad held up as the long string of surnames beginning with “B” began.
The young special-education teacher had no family connection to Vimy, but she had somehow broken through to a reclusive old man, James Barrett, who lived as a near hermit on William Street in East Vancouver. They would speak to each other and sometimes he would tell her his life had been ruined by Vimy.
He had not fought here, but his father had. And died, leaving behind a large family that young James was now forced to take over.
When James Barrett died, Ms. Clarke-Blaise found herself drawn to his house, which she entered for the first time – only to find that it was a virtual shrine to Vimy Ridge.
She then began searching the Barretts who might have served here, eventually found Anthony and then a family photo that included not only the soldier Barrett but young James Barrett, the hermit who had let her into his life.
She came here for him, just to hear the father’s name read out among the 3,598 Canadians who fell at Vimy.
When the moment approached, she pushed “record” – snaring “Anthony Barrett” out of the still air and capturing it to take home. She did it for James. She did it for herself.
Amanda Lamb and Colleen Quinn-Boyer had much different reasons for coming. Ms. Lamb, a religion and English teacher, and Ms. Quinn-Boyer, a vice-principal at Notre Dame College in Welland, Ont., came with a contingent of 350 high-school students from the Niagara area – just a small portion of the roughly 12,000 students at the Vimy Memorial on Sunday. Most trips were paid by the students’ own fundraising.
“I want them to think of the men who fought here and died here,” Ms. Lamb says, “many of them not much older than these students.”
“Many of these youngsters are away from home for the first time in their lives,” Ms. Quinn-Boyer adds. “They’re now in a place where history was made. I want them to think about what it would mean to be able to tell their own children, and their children’s children, that they were here to mark the 100th anniversary.
“I just hope they take from this a sense of what it means to be Canadian.”
Kaitlynn Sheculski knows. The 17-year-old came from Summerside, PEI, with classmates. She had often talked with her grandfather, Gordon, about is life in the military and how she wished she could go to Vimy. But she hadn’t signed up for the trip.
When her grandfather passed away last summer, she “made it my mission” to get aboard. David Chisholm, a teacher helping to organize the trip, made it happen, and suddenly, it seemed, she was here texting back to her grandmother, Brenda, what it was like to reach the memorial her grandfather had so often talked about.
“It just feels so surreal,” she says.
The day before, the Summerside students went to the war cemetery at Thélus. There, each took a letter they had written to one of the war dead and placed it by the soldier’s marker. Her soldier was Private R.H. Hamilton. When she set the letter down, she cried.
“My vet was 21 years old,” she says. “That’s going to be me in a couple of years.”
She sat a long time at the grave of Pte. Hamilton. “I thanked him for his service,” she says.
“I thought about how I have been so blessed to have a good life because of these soldiers. I don’t have any siblings and I can’t even imagine what it was like for those families back home to lose a brother or a son or a father.
“It must have been horrible.”
One hundred years ago, it was. In Prince Charles words, “This was a battlefield of corpses. Victory came at an unbearably heavy cost.”
One hundred years on, the people gathered here on the anniversary would certainly agree it was horrible.
But there is also something here that is beautiful and wonderful.
Just ask 13-year-old Max Vandervoort, a student from the small eastern Ontario town of Carp.
“I’ll probably remember this until I’m a hundred.”Report Typo/Error