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.

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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

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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

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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

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The Calgary Highlanders Return

Battlefield guiding is immensely satisfying, but when a group wants to come back for a return visit, you know you must be doing something right. So, no one was happier than me to see the Calgary Highlanders Army Cadet Corps arrive at Heathrow Airport on a cold and snowy London day at the end of March.

Any trip of this nature requires a great deal of planning and preparation, and I was grateful for the assistance of my colleagues at Backroads Touring for supplying the vital logistical support necessary to ensure a successful trip. Having looked after this group in 2010, I knew it would be an interesting few days and this time we were venturing into new areas, not only for the group but for myself as well.

We started in Normandy, looking at the role the 3rd Canadian Division had played in the D-Day landings as well as considering some of the German opposition at the preserved gun battery at Longues-sur-Mer. Another essential Normandy visit is to the Pegasus Bridge Museum, which offered its usual warm welcome. Canadian sacrifice was not forgotten, with visits to the Commonweath War Graves Commission cemeteries at Beny-sur-Mer and Bretteville-sur-Laize and the sad location of the Abbie d’Ardennes, where Canadian prisoners were murdered by the SS.

Getting wet feet at Juno Beach

Getting wet feet at Juno Beach

Remembering at Beny-sur -Mer

Remembering at Beny-sur -Mer

As we left Normandy, we headed for the first of our two personal visits, to the vast cemetery at St Sever in Rouen, where Stanley Morton Cooper was buried on 21st November 1917. Stanley was wounded on 30th October 1917, as his battalion, 5th Canadian Mounted Rifles were involved in the first of two assaults by the Canadian Corps on the village of Passchendaele. This was one of Canada’s costliest actions of the Great War, but his burial, many miles from his place of wounding, shows how well the medical evacuation process had developed by this stage of the war. Michael and Douglas Cooper, great, great and great, great, great nephews respectively of Stanley, placed their own tributes on the grave, whilst Pipe Major, Ian Miles played ‘Amazing Grace’. It was a moving visit for the whole group and an eye opener for some. ‘There’s so many of them’ was one comment I heard was we walked back from the grave and the eyes were moist, there is no doubt.

Michael and Douglas Cooper at the grave of Stanley Morton Cooper.

Michael and Douglas Cooper at the grave of Stanley Morton Cooper.

Stanley Morton Cooper

Stanley Morton Cooper

Returning to World War 2, we headed towards Dieppe, where we were welcomed at the Memorial Museum with its moving film, explaining the disaster that was the raid of August 1942. The cadets spent some time on the beach, and realised how difficult it was to run up the pebbles; they weren’t being shot at or shelled either!

The Somme was the next of our series of stops. Lochnagar Crater, The Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, Newfoundland Park and Courcelette were all visited, including the grave of Piper Richardson VC at Adanac Cemetery. I was also grateful to Don from the Ulster Tower for giving us a tour of the trenches in Thiepval Wood, as I had forgotten that this had been included in the previous trip. Fortunately, the OC, Major Chris Morris hadn’t and we were entertained and informed in that typically warm Ulster manner that Teddy cultivated and Don has continued almost without a break.

Don delivering his usual  high standard of commentary.

Don delivering his usual high standard of commentary.

No trip to the battlefields for Canadians can be considered complete without spending time at Canada’s National War Memorial at Vimy Ridge. Those of you who have visited this most beautiful of war memorials will know why it is so special, and the Corps had been given special dispensation from Ottawa to parade in full kit and lay a wreath on behalf of the Regiment. The behaviour of all concerned during this formal section of the trip was beyond reproach. The officers and cadets looked magnificent in their kilts and both pipers played as the Corps marched to and from the Memorial.

Forming up in front of the Vimy Memorial

Forming up in front of the Vimy Memorial

Ypres was next, with some down time for shopping, before a full day and the second of our personal visits. Sergeant John Henry Thomson had enlisted with the 13th Battalion, (Royal Highlanders of Canada) before the end of August 1914 and had undergone all the privations that my own grandfather had suffered before they arrived up in the front lines in mid April 1915. That my grandfather and John would have known each other is beyond all doubt, at least as far as I am concerned, so I hit it off very well with his great nephew, Tom O’Sullivan, who was accompanying his son Michael on the trip. Michael was the youngest of the cadets and also a piper; he had been drawn to the story and had expressed a desire to play his pipes at the grave of his great, great uncle, who was killed as a result of the German attack after the release of chlorine gas on 22nd April 1915. John is buried in Poelcappele British Cemetery, along with a number of 5th CMR men that Stanley would have known, including the fabulous Lieutenant Allen Otty. I was happy to help ensure this happened.

Tom and Michael at the grave of John Henry Thomson, KIA 23.4.15

Tom and Michael at the grave of John Henry  Thomson, KIA 23.4.15

We also crossed the ground where Stanley Cooper would have been injured over two years later as well as covering all the major Canadian locations in the Salient. Another surprise awaited at Essex Farm, where Maddy McCrae calmly told me that John McCrae was her three times great uncle. She knew about him as she had had to do a school project about him.

The Last Post Ceremony is always a highlight of any Ypres battlefield trip and when your group are laying a wreath, providing an honour guard, speaking the exhortation and piping a lament, you can rest assured that it will be one that will remain in the memory for some time. As a finale, the officers and cadets marched into Ypres to the sound of Black Bear, with the traditional Canadian vocal additions to this splendid marching tune.

Major Chris Morris, OC 2137 Calgary Highlanders Army Cadet Corps speaks the exhortation under the Menin Gate.

Major Chris Morris, OC 2137 Calgary Highlanders Army Cadet Corps speaks the exhortation under the Menin Gate.

An additional request for this years trip was a visit to Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp. This required a long drive into Germany, broken up by following some of the route of XXX Corps as they tried to get to Arnhem Bridge. We had ‘A Bridge Too Far’ playing on the bus as well to give things a more realistic approach and had a brief stop at Holten Canadian War Cemetery, where we were met by Paul Hilferink, a Twitter friend who I have now met. Paul kindly gave us some of his time and explained what Canadian forces were doing in this part of the Netherlands towards the wars end. A good German meal rounded off a long day.

Our time at Bergen-Belsen was an interesting part of the whole experience. Our group was met by our English speaking guide, Jakob Ruhe, who was truthful, honest, compassionate and understanding as he explained how Bergen-Belsen evolved from a camp to house workers building the nearby army barracks in the pre war period to one of the most appalling examples of Nazi human denigration by 1945. We were all allowed the necessary time to absorb what we had seen and read and to think our own thoughts as we walked around the communal mass graves.

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The group left for Calgary on the Monday morning, vowing to return again. I hope they do. We hear much of the bad behaviour of young people, but this group was a shining example at all times of how teamwork, compassion, understanding, and a sense of humour can pay great dividends. They were a credit to themselves, their Regiment, their parents, their officers and their country, which gave so much in two World Wars and whose sacrifice then allows these young Canadians to live in peace and prosperity.

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