Arras and Vimy Ridge – Anniversary of the Battle

Today is the anniversary of the opening day of what we now call the Battle of Arras. Of the major battles fought by the BEF, it is probably the least understood, having been eclipsed by the Somme and Third Ypres, certainly in its study, but some authors have done their best to redress this anomaly in recent years. Jonathan Nicholls wrote ‘Cheerful Sacrifice’ back in 1990, and had the pleasure of taking veterans of that battle back to the areas in which they fought. His style of explanation is very much from the heart, and although these men have now passed away, Jonathan still takes guests to these areas and shares his love of the veterans with them.

More recently, Paul Reed’s ‘Walking Arras’ and Peter Barton and Jeremy Banning’s ‘Arras – The spring 1917 offensive in panoramas including Vimy Ridge and Bullecourt’ have brought this battle to a wider audience, through detailed pictures, maps and personal testimony, but the battlefields around Arras still remain somewhat down the pecking order for battlefield visitors – a shame.

The Wellington Tunnels have provided the casual visitor with another point of view and the experience has been set in the wider context of the battle, so that the importance of what was carried out there is more fully understood.

However, there is one section of the 1917 battlefield that is seen by some as a separate part of the battle, perhaps without even being aware of what was going on elsewhere; this is the area around Vimy Ridge. Although an essential part of the overall plan, the successful capture of the Ridge has taken on a wider significance.

This area of ground has all sorts of important references. It was fought over by all four of the Canadian Divisions simultaneously, it was successful, in that the objectives set were achieved within the timeframe allocated, (baring the actions around The Pimple, which took a little longer to acquire) and since the land was given to Canada in the 1920’s it has become one of the few easily publicly accessible places where visitors can see what it might have been like for soldiers who were there.

Battlefield visitors in the 1930's at Vimy.

                  Battlefield visitors in the 1930’s at Vimy.

Time has softened the raw edges and the steady stream of visitors provide plenty of opportunity for the student guides there to tell the story in a modern sense, although I think the colloquial use of ‘these guys’ on a recent visit, when referring to incoming shells was a little too liberal in the use of language. However, I have been impressed with many of the guides at Vimy, who obviously take it upon themselves to find out as much as they can about the battle and its wider ramifications.

Modern story telling styles for a modern audience

Modern story telling styles for a modern audience

This guide really knew his stuff - in the Grange Subway at Vimy

This guide really knew his stuff – in the Grange Subway at Vimy

The Vimy Memorial is, in my opinion, the most beautiful of all the great Memorials across the Western Front. Full of symbolism, it is of its time, and now looks as good as it ever did, after a massive renovation, paid for by the Canadian government in 2006. The number of visitors to the site increases, and the new $20 bill has an image of it on the reverse. A timely reminder to all citizens of Canada of what was done in their name.

hedstrom20121124174757190

Perhaps it is best left to two of Canada’s own to explain the significance of the Vimy Memorial.

Firstly, in a brief extract by Greg Clark, who fought with the Canadian Mounted Rifles during the Great War, and, in 1940, found himself reporting on the unfolding conflict as a reporter of the Toronto Star as once again, German forces again invaded France,

‘Well now, I forgot to mention that in a previous old war, of which you young soldiers may not have heard much, I was a fighting man. And only five miles north of Arras….there rose in the night a glorious monument, a double pylon, lonely in the fields: not a Beethoven, but a Tchaikovsky symphony, in stone: to the memory of 58,000 of my comrades who had died in that old war.’

He goes on to explain how, with a bit of bribery and collusion, he acquired a car, a driver and a bushel of mimosa, the only fresh flowers he could find.

‘And at 4 am, my corrupted driver and I stole out of Arras in the mists of May; and tooled our way amidst the sleepless throngs of refugees and British and French military vehicles and units on foot, and went north through Neuville St Vaast to the great memorial, rising out of the mist to meet the dawn. And over its foot, I spread the mimosa.’

And the final comment has to go to Will Bird, from his personal odyssey, Thirteen Years After, written in 1931, before the Memorial was unveiled.

‘The memorial has the finest site of any memorial in France or Belgium. There may be sites that provide a  more dominating position, a more commanding view, but they are few and when found have far lesser military importance. Vimy has the importance, and the commanding view as well. Vimy was our Verdun, our French Ypres, one of the key positions of the Western Front.

Add the fact that the Canadian Corps served longer as a Corps in the Vimy area than elsewhere along the front, and you can see how peculiarly fitting it is to have the finest memorial of all on such a site. Very few places can excel the view obtained there, over the wide sweep of the Douai plain and all that famed Lens mining region. And from the plain, looking up at the Ridge, the view is magnificent, sublime: the memorial fitting there with a beauty and harmony that will never be forgotten.’

Vimy Memorial

                                 Vimy Memorial

Book References

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Arras-Offensive-Panoramas-Including-Bullecourt/dp/1845294211/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1365505969&sr=1-1&keywords=arras+peter+barton

510SQIFgueL._AA160_

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Walking-Arras-Battleground-Paul-Reed/dp/1844156192/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1365506008&sr=1-1&keywords=arras+paul+reed

51q6H1WAA-L._AA160_

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Cheerful-Sacrifice-Jonathan-Nicholls/dp/1844153266/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1365506055&sr=1-1&keywords=jonathan+nicholls+cheerful+sacrifice

51V58RPJKYL._AA160_

Advertisements

The Centenary Approaches

Yesterday, I found myself being involved, in a small way, to assist in plans for the forthcoming centenary of The Great War. I couldn’t help but notice that, in line with this, my Twitter feed has been full of opinions and comments on this same subject over the past few days, so I felt it would be an opportunity to make my thoughts known on this.

Whilst I admit a certain bias here, The Great War is something that should be remembered  everyday, as its effects are still with us.  Centenary events are important and I have noticed the debate on what will and will not be commemorated. The Prime Minister has pronounced, the Imperial War Museum is undergoing extensive renovation and interest in the battlefields is increasing. However, picking certain dates, important though they are, and assuming that nothing happened outside of these dates is the trap that I feel many may well fall into.

For me, it’s not just about an individual day or and set piece action. I often tell my guests that whilst the Official History tells us that the Somme battle finished on 20th November 1916, had you been up on the Transloy Ridges on 21st November, that fact wouldn’t have necessarily been apparent to you. The point is, for a full aspect of remembrance, you should remember each and every day. There are those that I know who do. One, who will be nameless, told me that it is the defining thought on waking up and the final thought on retiring for the night that these men should always be remembered. I would suggest that is a pretty good mantra. And, as I wandered around London yesterday, there is plenty of evidence about to remind us, if we look closely.IMAG1661IMAG1667        War Memorials to Railway staff at Waterloo Station, above and Euston, below.

So what may be the outcome of what is planned. Many, I know, and I have to say I share this point of view, strongly believe that the key opportunity to further educate the wider British public into the ultimate success of what was achieved will be squandered. We like a good defeat and failure, so the Retreat from Mons, Gallipoli, the Somme, (and read for that, 1st July 1916 only) and Third Ypres will be given plenty of coverage. The role of the Royal Navy will probably be relegated to a sideshow, the emergence of the RAF will likewise probably be glossed over. The final success of the Hundred Days will scarcely get a mention.

The efforts of the Commonwealth Forces will, I hope, be recalled in the correct way, as an integral part of the BEF on the Western Front, and not some glorious ‘strike force’ that came and sorted out the mess the British had got themselves into. It’s something I try very hard to ensure that my guests take away with them, bearing in mind that over the years the vast majority have been from Australia; I think I have achieved that by the simple expedient of stating the truth and not allowing stereotypes to be confirmed.

We live in a different society now, with different values and a much wider cultural hegemony than the generation who marched off to war in 1914 would believe possible. This has to be reflected in how the Centenary is approached for a new generation, who possibly consider it to be irrelevant to their lives today, especially if they are from a background which has little to identify itself with Edwardian England. That is the job for others, who have a broader and wider remit. Educational organisations do a pretty good job, and the number of school groups that I see on the Western Front each year shows that at least it is being taught in schools, which not a luxury that I had. If only one of each coach group visiting Thiepval or the Last Post at the Menin Gate is ‘converted’ then I would say that is job done.

I’m not advocating that everyone becomes a historian or develops a fuller understanding: it is a colossal topic and no one I know would realistically profess to know everything about it, although I admit there are many who have far greater knowledge and specialist skills than I do.

Will the British public have a better understanding of what the Great War was all about come November 2018? Sadly, I suspect not. That old and discredited phrase, which I dare not even state here, will have been trotted out many times, serious academics will have looked skyward and wondered why they weren’t properly asked and the men who fought on the Western Front and elsewhere, in Gallipoli, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Syria, Italy and across the seas will be seen as relics from a previous era.

As for me, well, I hope I will have had the pleasure of many more guests from wherever in the world to visit the Western Front, at all times, not just in July or November. And, if I have done things correctly, then they too will remember every day, not just for one day.

We will see.