It was a great morning in France. I wrote for a while and headed off to see some historic sights after that. As I peddled through the winding streets of Arras, the day improved a bit more, when I said to myself “Happiness is peddling on a light bike.” I left my 60 pounds of panniers at the hotel, so cycling was much easier. One of my first stops was for a little bit of magic, French bread and pastries. I’ve had very good bread in other countries, and I enjoyed it. But when bite into the bread and pastries here, I always wonder, “How do they do this?” I mean, every thought stops and wonders what’s going on with my taste buds. I usually forgot to breathe. I’m seriously thinking about dumping the 60 pounds of gear in my panniers and replacing all of them with French bread and pastries. I wonder if I really need my passport. It does take up important space…
The rest of this description will be different from what I normally write, as will the description for tomorrow. Normally, I like to combine some serious stuff with some playful stuff, probably because that’s the kind of person I try to be. This day was more about serious stuff, not melodramatic, but a sincere appreciation for the troops in WWI. There are still one or two funny bits, though, since the troops were still men who needed a laugh. After today and tomorrow, I’ll return to my regularly scheduled program, of sights, adventures, and misadventures.
I have to start with a little history, which may not be entirely accurate since I’m sitting at a French café with no wifi. That means I can’t look at Wikipedia, but it does mean it’s a great place to write. I put a Wikipedia link in my previous posting to WWI, if you want to have a look. Back to the history, it’s about Vimy Ridge. In WWI, the Germans held that ridge for about 2 years. They held off large attacks by the British and the French. The result was that Vimy Ridge became the classic no-man’s land that WWI is known for. The phrase “crater-scape” is one good description because hundreds, or thousands, of shells pounded the ridge. Most of those battlefields have long since been leveled over turned into fields, or Flanders Fields as this area is known. Vimy Ridge is now a memorial, so it has not been leveled. The craters are still there, but now, trees and grass have naturally grown over.
The image of no-man’s land is probably the most familiar sight of WWI. It is strange to see, even with grass and trees, but something that’s even stranger is what below the craters, the tunnels—more on that in a moment.
The third army that tried to take Vimy Ridge from the Germans was the Canadians. At the time, Canada wasn’t as cohesive as it is today. It was more of a diverse collection of provinces than a unified country, roughly speaking. Vimy Ridge is now thought of as a battle that started to change that. It was the first battle were the 4 Canadian battlegroups fought together, in one concentrated assault. They had time to prepare, so they practiced on similar, mock-up battledfields in Canada before arriving at Vimy Ridege.
When the Canadians got here, they did what every other army did. They dug, and dug, and dug, and then dug some more. Eventually, they dug about a kilometer (I may have that number wrong, but it was big.) of underground tunnels. Canadian students now give free tours of these tunnels, so I was able to walk through them.
All armies in WWI dug many and large tunnels. One reason for the tunnels was to safely move troops up to the battleline. When troops moved on the surface, the enemy could see and reduce the number of troops, with artillery or machine guns. This worked especially well when the enemy was on a ridge, like the Germans at Vimy. Tunnels solved that problem. Another reason for tunnels was to dig under the enemy’s lines and set off large explosives. At Vimy Ridge, the Canadian tunnels eventually included a room for the commander, his office, a first aid station, a chapel, and more. This took a while to create, but there’s another strong sign of how long they stayed at Vimy Ridge. The troops planted crops, in fields behind their lines. Any soldier has to wonder if he’s been at a battle too long when he’s planting crops. But, many of these guys were farmers. They were told to stay there, and they were hungry, so in a very strange way, it makes sense, maybe.
Then, I saw some things that were really strange. In some places, the trenches were only about 15 yards apart. Men from the 2 armies traded insults, of course. Eventually, capitalism settled in, and they traded other things, especially when there was an agreed upon truce to collect bodies in no-man’s land. If you haven’t read about the Christmas Day Truce, please stop reading my words right now and look it up in Wikipedia. It’s a real story that blows away any fiction.
Finally, the Canadians started their attack, initially with a couple of days of artillery, blowing holes in the German lines and, most important, taking out machine gun nests. The casualties were as high or higher as other WWI battles, but they took the ridge. A monument to the fallen is now on the top of Vimy Ridge.
One other place I wanted to visit was a German cemetery. Canadian students now take care of it. When I learned about that, I imagined how I would feel if I were a Canadian college student asked to take care of cemetery for German soldiers. As a college student, my instinct would probably be to resist, or more. As an older man, I find it to be an impressive act of civility. Hopefully, the countries who win wars are the best, not just the strongest.
Many of my friends from home have German ancestry. I found some of their names in the book describing the location of each grave. Most of the crosses in this cemetery have 4 names on them, on the front-right, front-left, back-right, and back-left.
As I walked around that German cemetery, I thought about how the truth is the first casualty of war. For me, it needs to be triple or quadruple-checked before the troops go in. I choose to believe that a lot of the guys under those black crosses were just following the truths their leaders told them.