It was spring of 1992. We were on the final leg of a two-week bus tour through Europe– snippets of Austria, Switzerland, Belgium, northern Italy, France. We left Paris early in the morning, feeling a little wobbly after our last-night-together revelry with our tour mates, bound for Calais and the channel crossing back to Dover. Late in the morning we reached the last “tourist” stop on our itinerary: the Canadian National Vimy Memorial.
There are experiences that etch themselves in memory with such clarity and precision that they remain ever accessible as perfect mental snapshots. The hour I spent at the Vimy Memorial was one such experience.
To approach the monument, the bus snakes its way along a long, winding road through a stretch of forest. The guide instructs us to look out the window into the trees on either side of the road and make special note of the ground. It looks like waves– as though it had once been a body of water, surface tossed by a heavy wind, and some grand magician had frozen it in an instant and covered it in a coating of green grass. The wavy surface is the legacy of the vast expanse of battlefield mud. The guide explains that it is forbidden to leave the road and walk into the forest because there are still live charges lurking beneath the grassy surface.
We reach the area that has been made safe for tourists, disembark at the interpretive centre, and are led to where the trenches have been preserved with concrete replicas of the original sandbags. What strikes me most about the trenches is how shallow they are. Standing in the bottom of the trench, the top of the sandbag wall barely comes up to my chest. These trenches were clearly built for crouching or lying in. And that meant lying in the mud.
A cluster of bomb craters has also been preserved. Like the wavy, shell-torn landscape along the roadway, the craters are dressed in green grass that ought to soften the impact on the viewer. It doesn’t. Nothing could possibly mask the size and depth of the hole in the ground, and the realization of just how close that hole was to the trench in which I had just been standing. The craters have been named for Canadian cities who gave up lives of so many of their sons and fathers in the battle at Vimy. I am shaken by how close to home it feels to stumble upon a sign proclaiming the “Winnipeg Crater.”
It is in the craters that I see the poppies. Not the “row on row” we have been taught to visualize by John McCrae’s poem, but a sparse handful of red flowers delicately dotting the vast expanse of green.
The monument itself sits on the highest point of a vast expanse of brilliant green . The green seems to stretch forever in every direction. The sky is cloudless and bright that day– blue in a way that is almost surreal. It too seems to go on forever. My 21 year old snapshots don’t come close to capturing the intensity of that sky, but if I close my eyes I can see it as if I had been transported back in time and space.
You have to approach the monument along a long walkway that takes you over the field and up the rise. From a distance the monument appears massive, but it is only as you draw closer that you realize just how vast it is. And how small it makes you feel.
As you get closer, the human figures that adorn the monument reveal their life-like details. Any one of them looks like at any moment he could step down from his stone perch and walk beside you.
And then you notice the names. Long lists of names of the fallen, etched in precise columns in the towering stone. Each name linked by memory to a family somewhere. A son, a brother, a lover, a husband, a father, an uncle. A life cut short by the unthinkable horrors of war, in the desperate pursuit of peace. A young man whose last view of creation was not a brilliant blue sky over a rich green landscape, but rather a sky full of blinding explosions rendering the earth into a ocean of boiling mud.
And the moment you realize that is a moment you can never, ever forget.