Thursday, November 15, 2007

Battle weary

Vimy memorial. Note the churned earth and sign to the right warning of unexploded shells

Note – I suspect the following post is a wee bit self-righteous, and possibly even somewhat pompous. Forgive me, I do get worked up sometimes.

I had intended a Remembrance Day post here about my visit, with my family, to Vimy Ridge last month. Unfortunately, the day we went to the memorial I forgot to bring my camera, and thus decided to wait until my Dad’s CD of his pictures arrived. Given that my Dad’s a far superior photographer, you can count yourself lucky.

In any case, I’ve ranted about Vimy’s place in Canadian history before and my opinion on that score is unchanged.

That said, that despite the Parks/Heritage Canada presentation of the site, the memorial is very moving. It is staffed by fresh-faced college girls reciting troop numbers, pointing out soldiers’ graffiti and scrupulously avoiding the topic of just who all these Canadians were in France to kill. Ask where the German trenches were and a vague hand is waved “over there.” German cemeteries are nowhere in evidence, German casualties never mentioned. Overall, the displays in the visitors centre are more about the act of “remembrance” itself than about what, precisely, we are supposed to be remembering. Needless to say, the site repeats the old trope that so enrages me about how Vimy proved to Canadians what we, as a nation, could accomplish

Death's tool chest in the tunnels. Not historic enough

At the risk of sounding needlessly provocative, what “we” achieved that day was monstrous. And it is this, no matter how much the myth-makers back home try to paper this over, is what the Vimy Memorial presents quite well.

The land around the battlefield is, ninety years on, pitted and scarred with shell craters, laden with unexploded ordnance. Two graveyards, filled with tombstones marked with nothing more than “A Canadian soldier” speak not just to the massacre here, but to the heartbreak of families back home who would never know what happened to their sons.

Canadian cemetery at Vimy

Vimy was won underground – an enormous network consisting of miles of tunnels allowed troops to burst onto the battlefield undetected. In these, old grenades, rifles and barbed wire fencing rust away, handled occasionally by some English major from Bathurst or Toronto who explains how they were improved upon over the course of the war to better aid the massacre.

And this, to me, is what makes this a monstrosity. So much effort, so much human labour and ingenuity spent improving the efficiency of the machinery of death.

Adolph Hitler famously visited the Vimy memorial in the 1930s, having been a runner in that sector of the front; he was invalidated out just prior to the Canadian assault. After invading France, he specifically ordered that the Vimy memorial be spared the Nazi programme of destroying war monuments, reasoning that our memorial did not express triumph over an enemy, but rather sorrow over the loss. How anyone could walk through those cemeteries or see those tunnels and think to repeat the exercise, then or now, is beyond comprehension.

Memorial detail

It does not take much of an imagination or sense of empathy to imagine what hell waiting in those tunnels must have been, feeling the reverberations of shells rumbling through the stone above you, knowing that eventually you would have to venture into the slaughter outside and, if you survived, walk up to a perfect stranger and kill him. It takes no great mental effort to imagine the lifetime of heartache a “Missing and presumed dead” telegram would bring a mother, wife, brother.

A word like “pride” has no place in reference to something like Vimy, and sadness is useless. I left Vimy angry, and I’m angry still.


Victor said...

Not that nothing else on this page made an impression on me... but... With all those potentially unexploded mines, how do you think they mow the grass?

Mark Reynolds said...

I don't know, but I did see a herd of nervous-looking sheep in the vicinity.