11-11-11: Years ago in journalism school a colleague of mine visited the Sunnybrook Hospital Veteran’s wing to interview some of the last surviving World War I vets for a compelling radio documentary that still grips me to this day. “What’s going to happen once they are gone?” I remember him telling me as I could feel the self-imposed weight on his shoulders over the men he had befriended.

In a recent Toronto visit by tourism reps from ATOUT France and Northern France’s region called the Nord-Pas-de-Calais, we reflected on the sacrifices made by the many for the peace and freedom which we enjoy today.

I learned just how important this part of Northern France remains to them and to us all. For the most part those scars of battle have healed yet the memories of war and peace remain.

That is due to a variety of forces, one of the biggest being the impact of the sites themselves. The Regional Council of the Nord Pas-de-Calais has recently completed the creation of four trails to honour the sacrifices made by those lost generations who fought for peace, and freedom.

Called The First World War Remembrance Trails, it is comprised of the sites and memorials to help us understand the gripping events that occurred in Northern France.

Scattered in fields between quaint villages from the seashore to bucolic countryside, this memorial pilgrimage links 110 sites, of which 36 are considered especially significant. The maps are available in a guidebook, website and even has a Smartphone app.

“For most of us passing on the story of past conflicts is a duty. I invite you to travel with younger generations to regions of France where Canadians proved their courage and left an enduring mark. The landmarks are more than the dedication of men and women and they are more than symbols, they are meeting places that keep values and beliefs alive,” reflected Armelle Tardy-Joubert, director for Canada with ATOUT France.

It is often said that Canada became a nation during the Battle of Vimy Ridge. Between April 9-12, 1917, over 3,500 Canadian soldiers died in muddy trenches along the 8 km Vimy Ridge. It was a crushing high casualty rate for such a young nation.

“When the Canadian people died at Vimy Ridge their spirits of the free world was born in the hills. Now it’s time for us to share this commissary and to welcome you to Northern France. We may never forget the Canadian sacrifice,” said Christian Berger, deputy director of the North Pas de Calais Tourism Board.

Monsieur Jean Jacques Pringué, marketing manager of the Nord-Pas de Calais Regional Tourism Committee told me how he has combed through the Canadian names of the fallen and was shocked to see so many whose origins were from the GTA area.

You might have a loved one too, an ancestor, who voluntarily enlisted. Sometimes you hear the stories of strapping tall 16 year olds posing as 18 (that was the legal age) who enlisted at the local recruitment office. Soon they were shipped off to war with their allotted cigarette rations.

Some wrote the occasional letter home, fought, and then fought some more. Saw buddies die. Survived mustard gas and the Battle of Vimy Ridge and returned home without ever mentioning the war again.

Years later the many grandchildren would ask, “What’s that on your face Granddad?” as the shards of razor thin shrapnel would resurface over his body over the course of a lifetime.

This much beloved granddad, husband and father of five children was Thomas Clarke, World War I sapper at Vimy Ridge, who never spoke of his time overseas. He was one among countless young soldiers injured at Vimy who returned home to Canada to pick up the pieces and build a new life. Thomas is now buried at Mount Pleasant Cemetery, and is my other half’s beloved grandfather.

For those who might have no direct connection to this ‘War to end all Wars’ as it became known, the region Nord-Pas de Calais has a quiet beauty, and possesses an otherworldly charm in stark contrast from the bustle of nearby Paris which is a short one hour train ride to Lille.

In fact, it’s hard to imagine that “The Great War” was fought in such beautiful places.

While each landmark along these Remembrance Trails is equally important in their own way, it would be hard to draft up a list of must-sees so instead here’s a look at three of the trails that resonated with me as Edouard Roose, special cultural projects coordinator for the Remembrance Trails, portrayed some of the historic sites along the way.

The Western Front Trail: 19 memorial sites starting from Ypres and concluding in Ayette.

Vimy Ridge National Historic Site of Canada, near Arras

Canada it is said grew up and became a nation when Canadian troops took Vimy Ridge, and in the process took more prisoners, gained more ground, and more ammunition than any other previous British battle.

A National Historic Site connected by two sovereigns: Canada and France, Vimy Ridge’s haunting beauty is unquestionably in the Walter Seymour Allward limestone memorial. Edouard said, “For me the Vimy Ridge is one of the most impressive and most emotive sites in all of Europe. When you arrive to this monument you see a lot of symbols and the effects of the Great War. You arrive at the base of the monument on which it is written the names of over 11,000 Canadian soldiers who have been declared missing during the Great War in France.”

Located on the highest peak of the Vimy Ridge escarpment, Hill 145, the memorial overlooks the Douai plains. The mounds themselves have grown over in a field of unfulfilled dreams. It’s very moving to know young Canadians research the history and serve as guides on a four month student guide program from Veterans Affairs Canada.

Arras: A medieval village totally destroyed but in the war restoration during the 50s with the shortage of men and skilled labour, there was an influx of immigrant workers who settled and helped rebuild the city to its majestic medieval grandeur. M. Pringué noted the meticulous reconstruction was possible by the original city model which was salvaged and used in the city recreation. The priceless model is now on view at the local fine arts museum.

The Allies’ logistics base on the Channel Coast Trail: 5 memorial sites from Cap Blanc Nez to Montreuil-sur-Mer.

The poppy we wear today (and quoted in the headline above) is due to the poem “In Flanders Fields” written by the Canadian fallen soldier who was also a doctor, John McCrae. He is buried at the Wimereux Communal Cemetery with 3,000 other soldiers and nurses.

The Post-war reconstruction Trail: 6 memorial sites from Bailleul to Cambrai

Cambrai: Frederick Banting, the discoverer of insulin, was wounded in this battle as he was performing his duties as a medic but continued to help other wounded soldiers despite his own injuries. The National Film Board of Canada has a rare silent reel depicting Canadian troops advancing near Cambrai. Watch here http://www.nfb.ca/film/canadians_advance_near_cambrai_3/

Post Notes:

You can follow the Remembrance Trails: www.remembrancetrails-northernfrance.com

For more information on the Comité Régional de Tourisme Nord-Pas de Calais see www.northernfrance-tourism.com

To download the Smartphone application www.nordpasdecalais.mobi

Agents can become a France expert. Currently ATOUT France is offering a contest. Win a trip for two with a four night stay. Complete the certification program by November 30, 2011 for your chance to win.

For registration visit www.training.franceguide.com and for contest rules visit the Travel Trade section at ATOUT France http://ca-en.franceguide.com

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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.

Read more from Ilona Kauremszky

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