RETURN TO VIMY RIDGE 1917-2017

 

 

RETURN TO VIMY RIDGE 1917-2017

We arrived in Charles de Gaules Paris around 08:30 on April 2. After few hours of looking around to figure out where to go and who to follow, we finally get led to 4 buses, 2 for Sigs and 2 for Gunners that were going to take us on this journey. Before getting on the bus, we received a lunch bag containing one bottle of water, an apple, a bag of chips and the piece of resistance…..a baguette sandwich. 4:30 on the bus from the airport to Juno beach which was our first site to visit. The Canadian house, which still stands, sells memorabilia and collects donation to preserve it. The beach is an unbelievable view knowing what happen on June 6, 1944. A monument has been put up in memories of the fallen with the Canadian Flag flying high in the middle of all of them. One of the defensive post is still intact for people to see and as well as a bunch of commemorative plates and pictures with some description of what happened on D-Day. After an hour of looking and walking on the beach, the bus took us to our hotel for the next 2 nights. We walked downtown to find a place to eat supper; we ended finding a little place named Le Clou de Giroffe. Food was awesome, was actually the first time I hate a medium rare steak properly cooked…. Delicious!!!

We left the hotel at 0900 to go to the Juno Beach Center. The guide was really knowledgeable and really interesting to listen to. He knew really well how to catch the attention. Every Year, they take Canadian students to be guide for the Center for 6 months. The tour started with a walk through – talk through of an old underground command post and observation post. The command post tunnel was found by a dog in 2010. They dugged it out….. 20000 tons of sand later they were able to get it prep to open to the public. The observation post walls and roof are made of 2 meters of cement and was situated at the highest point where they could see 360 on the beach and surrounding. When the tides would rise, the water would hit the Observation post and kids would use it to actually jump in the water. Now, the water is far from touching it and sand form a wall in front of the observation post which you wouldn’t be able to see anything from it now. Interesting fact, the Atlantic Wall was made by the Germans with forced laborers and was 6000 km long, with Machine Gun at every 100 meters and tanks etc. Was the biggest project mankind ever done. To give you an idea of the length of this wall, think that the distance between Halifax to Vancouver is about 5000km……. so add another 1000km to that…… that wall was longer than Canada itself!!! Then, we went in the Center itself. Beautiful museum, with lots to see but the most interesting parts was the 12 minute video at the end of the visit which was called: We walk with them. It basically walk you through the days of the battle and at the end u see a family walking and “ghost” soldiers walking behind them on the beach. Touching moment! Enough to have a tear in my eye and goose bumps. It gave a totally different meaning to the tour in a really good way.

Beny Cemetery was a remarkable place. All exactly the same tombstone with their name, age , date, occupation, unit and a small quote at the bottom. All have the same information except 20 of them who are the one for unknown soldiers. 181 tombstones in the Beny Cemetery are Canadian gunners. A memorial cross is situated in the center of the cemetery where, today, we have put a reef to remember the 100 anniversary as well as put arty flag on every gunner’s tomb. A scene I will never forget, the pride demonstrated in the way they take care of that place is undescriptible.

We stopped at the D-day Academy which is a hand on museum. From clothing to vehicles that fought during the war in working condition, plane parts, weapons, you can try it all! If it had to do with the invasion, he more than likely has it. I said HE because the academy belongs to a man named Jean-Pierre Benamou. It’s his private collection. His dad started and at the age of 9 he would take his pedal bike and go search for random pieces in neighbor’s field and barns. Mr. Benamou was a dental surgeon, now retired, he wrote books and he is a passionate on the history of the invasions. He also gave us a piece of shrapnel that was fired during D-day, they discovered it on the beach itself. His crew says that he is the most knowledgeable man on the subject on heart. He remembers everything and can describe it in such details that you would think you are there yourself. He is a very respected and humble person who loves to share his passion. Next stop Abbaye Ardenne!!

Abbaye Ardenne was a strong point for the 12 RSS during the war commanded by Colonel kirk Myer. The Germans could see all the way to the ocean from the top of the, now library but before was a 13 century church highest tower. The buildings are still standing and impressive with their massive doors. The most interesting part in the Abbaye Ardenne was the garden where 20 Canadian soldiers were executed with a bullet in the head. They believe more than a 130 Canadians soldiers would have been murdered by the 12 RSS. The pictures of the 20 soldiers are displayed on the wall and a brief description of the soldier can also be found on a different wall.

Point 67 (Verriere Ridge) was where the Canadian army broke the backbone of the German Army with Operation Blackwood. 3 teams complete with one British and one Canadian, of FOO took part in the operation. A commemorative monument is sitting on a Canadian Maple Leaf cement slab at that emplacement with this saying on it: Well may the wheat and sugar-beet grow green and lush upon its gentle slopes, for in that half-forgotten summer the best blood of Canada was freely poured out upon them. A sentence that speaks for itself when you hear how much Canadian blood was spilled at that site in 1944. Our tour guide, Brian Reid is writing a book to give the merits to the Canadian that fought that fight and explain more in details about the events that took part there. Check it out (name of the book). Back to the hotel, we went to the restaurant called La Courte paille, they cook on a grill. Food was good till midnight hit….fuck did I ever puke my guts out, food poisoning!!!

We left the Novotel at 8:30 to go to Dieppe. Not the type of beach you are expecting…. It’s beautiful, only it’s not sand. Its rocks, exactly like gravel from home but bigger!!! That’s the result of the erosion of the cliffs around. Big pieces of rocks fell in the water and the rumble of the water breaks it all out and dumps it on the shore. Those rocks were also a big problem during the war as it would get in the tracks and mobilize the tanks. The tide is also ridiculous has it rises approximately 20 ft. After a couple on the bus off the bus we signed in our hotel, The Europe Hotel. The rooms are good but the view is amazing directly on Dieppe’s beach.

For the last visit of the day, we went to Dieppe’s Cemetery where 8 Canadian Gunners are buried among others soldiers of the commonwealth who died on that beach. Some tombs say; known to be buried here. Those are the one with enough facts but just don’t know where exactly. You will also notice that some rows have 2 tombstones back to back. Those were the ones the Germans buried during the war and the single rows are the ones that got brought thereafter. There’s one tombstone with 2 names on it. They were brothers and died during the war at 2 different beaches but the family requested that they were buried together. Have you notice that all the tombstones are the same? Its to represent the countries that fight for the commonwealth. Different nationalities have a different curve to their tomb to be easily picked out from others (Black cross are for Germans, White cross for French). Interesting fact, BSM Gresl asked us to put something on a relative’s tomb if we could found it, a certain colonel Labatt. After looking in the books with no luck we asked one of the tour guides. He said: Oh yes, he was a tank commander. His tank didn’t make it to the beach, he tried to swim to the shore, his man could see him and then he disappeared. So his name should be on a memorial in Bayeux which we didn’t have the chance to go visit.

First thing on the list this morning is Passchendaele Memorial Garden. Quick reminder about Passchendaele, it was the first time using chlorine gas which Canadian survived by pissing on their anchor chief to neutralize the chlorine. In that Garden, when we arrived we noticed 2×4 coming out of the ground looking like nothing until we looked at the map. From sky view, those 2×4 take the form of a poppy and there’s one for every nation that fought.

Drove to Ypres to see Tyne Cot and Memorial to the missing is the final resting place of 12 000 commonwealth servicemen, more then 8 300 remains unidentified, And on the Eastern boundary of the cemetery stands the Tyne Cot Memorial who bears the name of some 35 000 officers and man of the force of the UK, New Zealand who has no known grave and who’s bodies could not be recovered. A majestic memorial and a frightening site.

Next was the Flanders field museum which is situated in an ancient Cathedral that was rebuilt completely. They give u a bracelet which you have to register your name and at certain place in the museum if you are connected to people in the war it will find it for you or tell you different fact etc. Like others the museum was impressively big and with lots of thing to see but what captured our interest was the statue of a horse with arty rounds on his back. That was a cool piece. Interesting fact, the town of Ypres was completely demolished by the war and they rebuilt it, at first, entirely of wood. Ypres is now named Leper!

We had to change in CF’s for the Ypres ceremony that took place at 2000. Like every night, since there about 1927, there is a ceremony to commemorate the fallen. EVERY NIGHT. There’s flyers that will say the timings and who will be present to depose a reef etc. There were around 300 ish people attending the ceremony that night, from kids all age to old Veterans from everywhere. As per normal, the military organized a shuttle to pick us up at the end of the ceremony….. They never showed up!! Big surprise, we drank in the nearest pub waiting for the bus to show up lol.

We woke up early on this Thursday morning to be able to go see one of the most beautiful monuments we saw so far: St-Julien. It consists of a half soldier looking down with his hand over the butt of his rifle. The monument stands at 11 meters high and face the way the gas attack was coming from during Passchendaele. On the base of it, you could find the name of the surrounding cities like a compass. The details on that soldiers face are stunning.

After 2 hours on the bus, we did a quick stop at the ADANAC Cemetery… If you didn’t notice it spells CANADA backwards. 3 200 service men of the First World War and over 1 700 remains unidentified. There’s one Canadian recipient of the Victoria’s Cross buried there, do you know who he would be? He’s dead at 20 years old on October 9, 1916. His name was James C. Richardson. He was a piper during the attack. Interesting fact, if you pay close attention around you while driving, you might be able to spot some small cemeteries here and there, in field or in the woods with 4-10 tombstones of soldiers buried where they were found.

Then we continue our road to the Newfoundland Memorial Park where we had a guided visit. The site has been conserved since the war. You can see the trenches, the line of departure, the field they fought on and where almost all the 51 Island Division will die on the 1 of July. Within 30 minutes, in less than 500 meters, about 85% of the Division will be killed before calling off the attack. You can also see the Y-Ravine which is where the Germans were hidden and were getting resupply by that natural obstacle. The site has a big Caribou completely built of Bronze standing on a rock. At the bottom, little arrows pointing at the different cemeteries and memorials with the distance like a compass. Some personal stories were read by the guides as well and here’s a quote we saw in the little museum.

Remembering

A Man’s destination is not his destiny,

Every country is home to one man

And exile to another.

Where a man died bravely

At one with his destiny, that soil is his.

Let his village remember.

Back on the bus, we drive and we notice a huge building in the horizon….. That was our next destination. It reminded me of Manitoba; you see it all along but still take 2 hours to get there. Thiepval Monument is where is recorded the name of 73 367 officers and service men of the British army who fell on the Somme Battlefield July 1915 and February 1918. Behind the monument, there is tombstone but most of them are unidentified soldiers.

Our first visit of the day was the biggest cemetery we visited and will more than likely will see during the tour. 44 830 Germans soldier are buried in this cemetery called Neuville St-Vaast. It’s also a private company taking care of that cemetery and they tried to keep it intact by donation compare to all the others we visited which the commonwealth is taking care of them.

As soon as we think we can’t see anything more spectacular, we get a wake up call by something different…. This time it was at the Necropole Nationale de Notre-Dame de lorette. 40 000 soldiers are buried but compare to the German cemetery; they have a cross for every soldier, that’s why it’s bigger. Size can fool you sometimes. There’s also 2 fosse commune identified by 2 huge squares which contains 4 563 and the other 5 649 unknown soldier. Then we entered a kind of Tower where 8 tombs of soldiers who fought in those wars are displayed; 2 for Algerian war, 2 for Indochina war, 2 for WW1 and 2 for WW2. There are aches of NAZI soldiers displayed as well. We continue our visit of the site to the Memorial of Notre dame de lorette. This memorial pays tribute to the memory of soldiers who fell in the nord in the Pas-de –Calai between 1914 and 1918. 580 000 names are listed in alphabetical order without any distinction made between rank or nationalty, former enemy and friend side by side. We even found some doucet and poulin’s name out there! J After walking all around that memorial we went to La Chappelle de Lorette. Just a stunning eye sight with 3 monument. Painted with some gold flakes and only a picture can describe.

Back on the bus to get off the bus at the Museum of War Peace. This Museum was one of the most interesting one we saw because he was covering every single war and site we saw in the last couple days in details. So obviously, we didn’t have much time there lol. But highly suggested if u go, it’s FREE! Then we finish our day, by paying our respect to the volunteer Polish men who fell sur les Collines d’Artois on May 9, 1915. One of the members on the tour, Scott Clarke was asked to put a reef. The night before he goes downtown to purchase some flowers to put on the monument but everything was close. So he approached a mother and her daughter who were holding 3 flowers in their hands and asked if they knew where he could buy some flowers in a really broken French he explained the situation. The daughter then translate to her mother, who after gave Scott one of their own flower because nothing around was open. They wouldn’t accept anything for it and after giving them some small Canadian pins and many thanks we had our reef for the ceremony.

Another interesting day but let’s talk about our group dinner! We all met in this Hotel for dinner, we were all asked to mix with the honorary guests. I sat right across Mr Beno and Poulin sat with LCol Irving and the Colonel Commandant. Mr. Beno started to go around the table and ask our names and where we came from. When I told him people calls me Deuce he was hell no, you are at least a deuce and a half! The supper was really good, we had some drinks, shared some stories and had some good laugh! At the end of the supper, my now friend Beno yells across the room: Deuce and a half get over here, I want you to meet someone! Me and Poulin walk in his direction and there he is standing with Mr. Romeo Dallaire. He introduce me has Romeo, this is Deuce and a half! Romeo shakes my hand chuckling and says: he’s a Big Bertha! We talked for a bit and then some song were sang like the screw gun and Bonhomme led by Mr. Dallaire himself. We had a fun time that’s for sure. Here’s the lyrics of the screw guns.

Smokin’ my pipe on the mountings, sniffin’ the mornin’ cool,

I walks in my old brown gaiters along o’ my old brown mule,

With seventy gunners be’ind me, an’ never a beggar forgets,

It’s only the pick of the Army that handles the dear little pets.

For you all love the screw guns, the screw guns they all love you!

So when we call round with a few guns, o’ course you will know what to do,

Jest send in your chief an’ surrender, it’s worse if you fights or you run,

You can go where you please, you can skid up the trees, but you don’t get away from the guns.

They send us along where the roads are, but mostly we goes where they ain’t,

We’d climb up the side of a sign-board an’ trust to the stick o’ the paint,

We’ve chivied the Naga an’ Looshai, we’ve give the Afreedeeman fits,

For we fancies ourselves at two thousand, we guns that are built in two bits.

For you all love the screw guns, the screw guns they all love you!

So when we call round with a few guns, o’ course you will know what to do,

Jest send in your chief an’ surrender, it’s worse if you fights or you run,

You can go where you please, you can skid up the trees, but you don’t get away from the guns.

If a man doesn’t work, why, we drills ‘im an’ teaches ‘ im’ ow to behave,

If a beggar can’t march, why, we kills ‘ im an’ rattles ‘ im into ‘ is grave,

We’ve got to stand up to our business an’ spring without snatchin’ or fuss,

D’you say that you sweat with the field guns? By God, you must lather with us.

For you all love the screw guns, the screw guns they all love you!

So when we call round with a few guns, o’ course you will know what to do,

Jest send in your chief an’ surrender, it’s worse if you fights or you run,

You can go where you please, you can skid up the trees, but you don’t get away from the guns.

 Smokin’ my pipe on the mountings, sniffin’ the mornin’ cool,

I climbs in my old brown gaiters along o’ my old brown mule,

The monkey can say what our road was, the wild goat’ e knows where we passed,

Stand easy, you long-eared old darlin’s! Out drag-ropes! With shrapnel! Hold fast.

For you all love the screw guns, the screw guns they all love you!

So when we call round with a few guns, o’ course you will know what to do,

Jest send in your chief an’ surrender, it’s worse if you fights or you run,

You can go where you please, you can skid up the trees, but you don’t get away from the guns.

The big day is here, we are going to VIMY!!! On the bus, 2 hours on the bus and off the bus. Sun was high and really hot, we get in the lineup which at first didn’t seem bad at all…. Till we notice it was like a snake between all the busses. That being said, 3 hours later we finally get on a shuttle bus to bring us to Vimy. We get on location, there’s already thousands of people. Some of us were able to go on the monument for a brief moment, others had to look at it from about 50 ft… A little disappointed as Vimy was the main event of the Tour and because we were there only on the day of the parade, we didn’t have the chance to see the tunnels and other things has they were all close for the ceremony. Still an amazing experience to be part of such a huge event, plane from the 1940 were flown above us, royalty was there and also Justin Trudeau. After the ceremony was a different story, 4 hours waiting to get on the shuttle, people pushing has they were getting impatient to leave the site…. Imagine 50 000 people trying to get in 4 busses, who will get in there first…. Yeah it was a shit show!!! LOL

As we say, every good thing as an end. Leaving at 6 am in the morning, 3-4 hours drive to the airport and our plane is leaving at 10 am….. if you do the Math, you notice that we don’t have much time to board the plane lol. The goodbye were fast and furious and then run in to go through security and the normal stuff in an airport. All and all, we met some great people, form some new relationship that will last forever and also memories that we will cherish and share for the rest of our lives with families, friends, and co-workers. Thanks for the opportunity and more to follow for maybe another trip! Cheers.