16 MAY 2017: Everyone who has seen the Vimy Memorial in France will tell you something similar. “It’s so beautiful and moving,” “You can see the monument for miles,” or “Every Canadian should see the monument to our war dead.” Agreed.  

Vimy Ridge is one of those haunting places that look beautiful from the outset. Surrounded by fields of green, the manicured lawn by the Douai Plain spreads over the rolling hillocks embraced by tall maple trees and at its epicentre stands the Canadian National Vimy Memorial, a jewel in the French countryside.

Brief Backgrounder

The memorial, an 11 years-in-the-making stone structure, was unveiled in 1936 by King Edward VIII to honour the Canadian fallen soldiers in a battle that has been described by historians as, “the Birth of a Nation.”

Four divisions of the Canadian Corps that had never fought together came together here with the purpose to overtake the now infamous ridge. It was Easter. April 9, 1917. There was sleet, snow and muddy mounds mixed with blood and bones. The carnage was obscene, unimaginable. Out of 10,602 casualties, 3,598 Canadians gave their lives. Inscribed on the ramparts of the Vimy Memorial are the names of over 11,000 Canadian soldiers who were posted as 'missing, presumed dead' in France.

For bravery and heroism, Canada was awarded four Victoria Crosses considered the highest medal for military valour for this blood-spattered battle that occurred over three days. They were: Private William Milne, Lance-Sergeant Ellis Sifton, Captain Thain MacDowell and Private John Pattison.

Canadian Battlefields Tour

Last month I attended the centennial anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge thanks to a special 11-day niche tour offered by Trafalgar Canada titled the Canadian Battlefields Tour. People ask me, “How did you get to see the ceremony?”

The tour operator made it possible for my group to be there. With 70 years of touring experience under its belt Trafalgar is a pro on logistics handling the group transfers as it fulfilled the advanced booking procedures required by Veterans Affairs Canada. Every attendee was registered and the site was restricted and secured, meaning once you were inside the Vimy area you cannot leave.

The #Vimy100 Ceremony

I could not be prouder to be a Canadian. Among the 25,000 estimated Canadians in attendance, half of them were students. There were crowds clumped everywhere: schools, families, uniformed armed forces, young and old. The atmosphere was electric. There was not a cloud in the sky only plenty of sunshine with summer-like conditions. You heard chatter pre-ceremony, silence during the ceremony, and more chatter post-ceremony.

You couldn’t leave the crowds even if you wanted to. A fence encircled us, and in this post ceremony haze there I stood fenced-in aiming my camera toward the fabulous Vimy Memorial. It was magic hour. Just after 5 pm as the waning light kissed the stone façade, I was beside myself.

The only thing getting in the way of this perfection was a small crowd who decided to walk on the grassy-strip inching in my direction. I remember mumbling to myself: “Why don’t these people get out of the way? Don’t they know they are in my shot?”

The Magic Moments

The more I concentrated on getting a Vimy sans people, tightening my shot, the bigger the faces became in my lens. “Oh, my God,” I heard someone in the crowd blurt, “It’s William and Harry.”

Still dumbfounded, I stood hanging over the fence, camera in hand, eye behind lens. I’ve got Harry in view. I can’t believe it. He breaks stride from his brother, leaves him behind, and begins walking toward the crowd ... to me.

In this moment of reality, it hits me: Prince Harry is now walking with purpose straight towards me and is now posing questions to me. I’m usually the one on the other side doing the questions so already it was a strange start.

One of the heartfelt questions was personal but I’ll share it because of the gravitas.

“Have you family connection to Vimy?” asks Harry. Unbeknownst to me a Clarence House photographer was snapping a picture of us capturing the moment I will not forget.

“Yes, I have a strong family connection,” I said having the full attention of the Royal Prince. My spouse Stephen’s maternal grandfather Thomas “Tommy” Clark was 15 years old when he volunteered. A taller-for-his-age lad, the recent Scottish immigrant to Canada, pulled up his boot straps, and like so many eager young recruits returned to Europe to fight for “King and country” as a sapper.

Tommy fought at Vimy Ridge and later returned to Toronto, married, worked as a lumberjack, and in just about every construction trade going, he eventually opened up a small corner store in the east end and raised five children, one of whom became the captain of Toronto’s oldest fire station, the Yorkville Firehall. I must have blurted out Toronto several times because each time I mentioned Toronto I noticed his attention was more focused. Silly me, I didn’t even think of his new love interest living here.

I ended that story of Tommy Clark on a positive note as it was.

HRH moved on and as I glanced to my left Prince William was approaching, shaking hands, mingling then stopped for a delightful Q+A with topics of his choosing. Prince William was curious to know who I was as he gestured behind me to a crowd of swooning teenagers who clearly were enamoured by his brother.

“Oh no, I’m not with them. I’m with a tour group called Trafalgar. We’re from Canada and we have been visiting the battlefields in the area.”

His Royal Highness asks, “Where from Canada?”

“Toronto,” he responds with a widening grin and on he moves.

The shrieks have now intensified. It feels like I have been transplanted in the middle of a rock concert. Oh wait, it’s not. It’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on the scene. Sparse on the small talk, Justin shakes hands with the frenzied females as the swell of shrieking young onlookers, jumping up and down only intensifies.

...and there we were all left standing breathless at Vimy Ridge.

 

VIMY
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Ilona Kauremszky

A regular contributor to Travel Industry Today, Ilona is a prize winning journalist whose writing pursuits have taken her around the globe.

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