Back at the end of 2019 (pre-pandemic), we got this idea to travel to the continent in the springtime during Sophie’s 2-week Easter break. We could take the Chunnel or a ferry and use our own car and roadtrip across a few countries- being able to hit Vimy Ridge on 9 April for Vimy Ridge day and the Netherlands during tulip season. Well, of course the world had other plans and in early 2020 we had to scrap this springtime roadtrip idea and instead we sat in our own garden. Then we thought of it again in 2021, but Covid was still rampant and Belgium and Netherlands had very strict entry and quarantine rules.
So here we are in 2022. We held our breath. We didn’t book anything until only a couple weeks before, when finally the entry requirements for Belgium and Netherlands loosened. We would get to do the springtime roadtrip we’ve been planning for 3 years!
This blog post will just be about the first, Hauts-de-France portion of it though. It actually would have been longer, but… You’ll see.
We took the Chunnel to France from Dover. That in itself was a cool experience, driving onto the train and travelling through the tunnel. I tried hard not to think about what was overhead and then boom, 35 minutes later we were outside and in France!
We drove pretty much straight to Arras from there to check in to our hotel. We didn’t do much that night but grab a quick bite to eat and get to bed early as we had a lot planned the following day.
The next day was 9 April. Back in 2019 when we came up with this idea, 9 April 2020 was supposed to land right in the middle of Sophie’s 2-week Easter break. This time, it was the very first day, so we applied to her school to let her skip a day (Friday) so that we could use it as a travel day and be at Vimy in time.
The ceremonies actually begin in Arras on 9 April at 0630h which is the exact time that allied soldiers left the Wellington Tunnels to begin the Battle of Arras (of which Vimy was a key part). Well- we weren’t about to get up and go to that, but when we went to breakfast at our hotel, there were quite a few military personnel in full dress also at breakfast who had obviously just come from the ceremonies at the tunnels and whom we expected to see later at the Vimy ceremony.
The Vimy ceremony was to be at 1400h. We wanted to see the Visitor’s Centre there beforehand as well as the war cemeteries, so we bought some baguette sandwiches at a local bakery and packed a picnic lunch (Vimy is out in the middle of no-where). We also read that the Visitor’s Centre would be closed for a while over the lunch hour as they prepare for the ceremony so we planned to arrive around 1130h.
We left for Vimy and it’s only about a 15-minute drive from Arras, but through some small villages and some often-winding roads. Sophie was fine until we got to the parking lot at Vimy… then the waves of carsick nausea were too much for her and she got sick there on Vimy’s soil (not unlike many of her Canadian brethren 105 years before her, I’m sure). Her blood glucose was already going low when we were arriving and then she vomited up most of her breakfast, so I was immediately worried – this could quickly become a medical emergency. When a type 1 diabetic vomits, it’s always a bit difficult. They’ve thrown-up the food that they’ve already taken insulin for – so you need to replace those carbohydrates. If they feel too sick to eat or drink sugar, you’re in trouble. Like I said, she was already low so we needed to act fast. We sat her down on a bench in some fresh air and luckily she got an appetite back pretty quick. A fingerpoke showed a blood glucose of 1.5 – one of the lowest readings I’ve ever seen on her. We just shoved her full of all the carbs we could. Pack after pack of skittles and granola bars. We stopped counting. Eric ran in to the visitor’s centre to find a vending machine and buy a full-sugar can of cola. Whatever we could. But it all worked and she felt good in the end. Phewf! (This is exactly why my purse is always loaded with a ton of candy and snacks, as well as the car and house!)
Well- by the time this was all over, we walked in to the visitor’s centre to peruse it and— they were closing! Oh well. There was still a lot we could do outside before the ceremony.
We went over to the preserved trenches. They were really amazing to see, essentially the exact trenches just like they’d been encased in a thin layer of concrete (I know there was a lot more to it than that) for eternity.
It was astounding to think that the ground is still like this, 105 years later, still pockmarked and full of craters and holes. It’s still not safe to enter the cordoned-off areas.
Here is a fascinating 11-minute video about Zone Rouge, the huge area of France that is still unusable and considered a danger from WWI. It talks about how they estimate well over a billion shells landed on French soil and there are millions left still to clean up. They still find thousands every year. Apparently the biggest threat isn’t the explosions, it’s the gas. Definitely check out the video.
After going through the trenches and seeing all that, we stopped and had our picnic lunch, then we piled into the car and drove the short distance over to the Canadian CWGC cemetaries (located between the visitor’s centre and the Vimy monument).
I have visited many CWGC WWII cemetaries but this was the first time I’d walked rows of WWI gravestones. I was really taken aback by how many unknown soldiers there were, probably at least 2/3 of the cemetary were just ‘A Soldier of the Great War’.
As I walked the rows I thought of how disfigured these boys must have been, all of them, to not have been identified. Some of them were able to be identified as Canadian or British from their uniform, or if they were lucky their regiment could even be identified. We even saw one headstone that said ‘Two soldiers of the Great War’ so you knew they were unable to disentangle them and they had to share a grave. I also had to think of the people who were tasked to build these cemeteries; exhume the hastily dug battlefield mass graves and bring the corpses to the cemetery. While it was a very important job at the time, 100+ years later, it has been lost to history and one of those thankless, dirty jobs that no one thinks about but had to be done.
After paying our respects at both cemeteries, we headed on to the Vimy monument for the ceremony. Above is the view of the monument from the Givenchy Road Cemetary (the smaller of the 2 cemeteries).
Once we got to the ceremony, we settled in and waited. We got there around 1315h and it didn’t start until around 1415h.
If you’ve ever been to a Canadian Remembrance Day ceremony or special commemorative day ceremony, you know exactly what the ceremony entailed. It wasn’t any different than any others. We didn’t take photos or video because that’s just disrespectful. But we did enjoy it and it was really nice to be there for it on Vimy Day. We could have walked up to the monument any day of the year, but there was definitely a special weight to being there exactly 105 years after thousands of our Canadian soldiers fought so hard and proved so much to win it from the Germans. It was nice to be able to remember the 3000+ dead and 7000+ wounded with a couple hundred other Canadians who found it important enough to be there, as well as some French and other allies.
After the ceremony we took a few photos of the monument:
I like the above photo because so often, people want a photo of the monument with no one else in it. This photo packed full of people just shows exactly what we’re meant to do – Lest We Forget. Every WWI veteran is long gone, but we’re all still honouring the ones who died in battle and the ones who came home. Look how many people still remember and won’t forget. To remember is an active verb and I like how this photo illustrates just that at Vimy Ridge on 9 April.
After the ceremony, we finally got to go to the Visitor’s Centre. It isn’t very big, but it is a beautiful centre with some very interesting content.
It is full of info about how the soldiers lived, the trenches, who they left behind, and why they were so willing to fight. Great little museum.
After the visitor’s centre, we went back in to Arras for a siesta and dinner.
It was Sophie’s turn to choose dinner and she stuck with our patriotic theme for the day and wanted to go to the Canadian Poutine restaurant we had seen the day before.
We had a nice quick dinner of fries covered in cheese and gravy (which Eric and Sophie totally loved because they hadn’t had poutine in like 2 years) and then back out to Vimy for 2030h.
Vimy was putting on an evening ‘video mapping’ event. We weren’t told much of it (despite asking) but it was some sort of video projection about Vimy on the side of the building and only for a few nights. They were very proud of it and we thought, well we’re here and it’s only 15 minutes away.
We sat at Vimy and watched the sun go down over the shell-pocked fields.
When the video projection came on (when it was finally dark), we were actually really impressed. They had colourised the photos and even animated some of them – some of the photos showed a soldier sort of waving, or limping, or a stretcher with a soldier swaying. It was really neat. It talked about when war broke out, the boys at home in Canada signing up to fight, thinking it will be over by Christmas. It talked about the dreariness once they learned the realities of war and trenches. It showed how nursing sisters were some of the bravest heroes of the war – willing to be near all the shelling, gas attacks, see the horrific carnage– all while never brandishing their own weapon. There also were some wonderful photos of 9 April 1917, the actual assault on Vimy Ridge and just afterwards.
When we had watched the 20 minute video, it was really dark by then and we could see the Vimy monument lit up, and she looked spectacular. So we decided to drive over and see it at nighttime.
I left Vimy feeling overwhelmed and just so grateful. Grateful for my nation’s forefathers who fought for us, grateful for their victory, overwhelmed with sadness at the immense loss of the war and all the wars since…. It’s just, a lot.
The next day we were still booked in to our hotel in Arras so we had planned to see more WWI memorials such as Beaumont-Hamel, but unfortunately fate had other plans…
Around 0200h, suddenly Eric woke up sick. He was violently sick all night and into the morning. We knew then that the day’s plans were wiped. Sophie and I took our meals together in restaurants and we walked around town a little bit in the sun while Eric laid in bed, half comatose. At this point, we had no idea if this illness was food poisoning or a noro-type virus that would then attack both Sophie and me and ruin the rest of our week. We were nervous.
Well, spoiler alert— now as I write this, it is 5 days later and we know for sure that it was just Eric. The only thing that he alone ate and Sophie and I didn’t was our picnic lunch at Vimy- – – he had a baguette with chicken and egg. Sophie and I both had ham. We have to assume that was the culprit. In my almost 18 years of knowing Eric, I have been that sick at least 10-12 times, but I have never, ever seen him get that sick. It was awful. He has an iron stomach, so I am just glad that it was him who got it because it probably would have landed me in the hospital! And a vomiting illness with Sophie’s diabetes would have likely landed her in the hospital too— so I suppose we got lucky?
So this blog post ends after telling you really just about one day, Vimy Day. But wasn’t it an amazing day?
The next day, we left Arras for Belgium— I’ll leave that for the next blog post because I’ve talked your ear off enough for one post here.