I never really understood trench warfare in WWI until I actually was able to go in the trenches. Beyond what you see of trenches open to the sky, there were also elaborate underground tunnels on both the Allies and the German side. I found this out on my visit to Passchendaele, Belgium and the Vimy Ridge National Historical Site of Canada Memorial at Vimy Ridge, France.
Passchendaele is a small European city with surrounding agricultural fields. Lots of potatoes growing in the fields. But when I stood at the Canadian government memorial in the rain, and saw the fields, I could still imagine the troops, the bombs and the quagmire that was Passchendaele.
A short drive from the memorial is a museum commemorating the Battle of Passchendaele. At this Battle there were more than just Canadian troops, so you get to learn about what all the allied forces went through here. In the basement is a recreation of the underground tunnels that stretched for miles. These tunnels were muddy and dark. Soldiers stayed in them for a few days before going up to fight, and while underground had no washrooms or other sanitation. It must have been hell below as well as above ground. Walking through these tunnels you really feel for the soldiers. In the main floors of the museum is a a display of war artifacts. One that stopped me cold was the poison gas display and all the different types of gas masks. After reading about the different gases that were developed and how they would kill soldiers, it made me wonder how cruel people can be. Lest we forget…
The other WWI memorial I visited was the Vimy Ridge National Historical Site of Canada. This memorial is strictly about the Canadian experience at Vimy Ridge and has been designed by the Canadian government. It is nice because Canadian University students are working there for their summer jobs before going back to work on their History or Human Geography degrees. Also a rainy day, it helped put me in the mindset of the soldiers who would have been fighting in similar weather conditions. How cold they must have been, I thought, as I had my layers of clothing, hat and umbrella. There were both trenches and tunnels at Vimy Ridge, and sometimes very close to the German trenches and tunnels. Sometimes no more than 50 m apart. You needed to be quiet underground so that the Germans could not tell where your tunnel is located. Within the tunnels were rail lines made of wood to carry the soil away from tunneling as well as to bring troops and supplies. The use of wooden rail lines served many purposes: to prevent a spark which could ignite ammunition, to hide the soil that had been dug in the tunnels, and to keep the noise of rail movement down to prevent the Germans from knowing where and when we were moving… So complicated and so cautious we had to be.
Above ground, even now Vimy, Passchendaele, and other WWI areas in Europe are dangerous, with farmers digging up unexploded bombs, which sometimes do explode, killing the farmer. At Vimy as we walked the visitor centre area, there were roped off areas around the trenches, where there could still be bombs. The grass was neatly cut and one person from my tour asked about how the grass was cut. Our tour guide mentioned that they have a herd of sheep that are allowed into these areas to eat the grass. Tread lightly!
One of the highlights of the visit is to see the Vimy Memorial of white carved stone in the middle of a well manicured field, thanks to the sheep. As with Passchendaele, it was a rainy day at the Memorial. As I sat in my rental car, wondering when I will brave enough to go into the deluge, the clouds broke and the sun started to shine. As I stood outside walking to the memorial, it was wet and shone like a pearl. The memorial is huge and has the names of 11,285 Canadian soldiers who were killed in France and whose final resting place was then unknown. The memorial is of twin white pillars, one with the Canadian maple leaves and the other the fleurs-de-flys of France to represent the sacrifices of both countries. At the top are figures presenting Peace and Justice and below then are the figures representing Truth and Knowledge. At the base is a representation of a young dying soldier, the Spirit of Sacrifice and the Torch Bearer. Seeing how these figures tower above you and reading the names of the soldiers, and remembering the talk by the interpreter about the war, really made you feel for the soldiers’ losses, and made me really proud to be a Canadian. I hope the pictures I have included of Vimy instill that feeling in you too.
If you ever get a chance to travel to France or Belgium, I highly recommend visiting one of our war memorials, to make the past more tangible, and to hopefully learn so we have a better future.