At 41 years of age, I am distinctly too young to remember the fear that gripped the world as young men began a months-long voyage to a war in a land they likely never would have otherwise seen. However, as a daughter of a former Canadian Armed Forces member, I had the unique opportunity to live in Lahr, West Germany – back when there was a West Germany – for four years. From 1984 until 1988, I was a young teen, exploring Germany, France and Switzerland while on a variety of school trips. The most memorable by far was a week long tour of a variety of World War I sites, including the site where Canada essentially founded its reputation for outstanding soldiering. As the centenary of the start of World War I is marked, I have been reflecting on that tour a great deal.
I went to Vimy Ridge as part of my Grade 10 History class, and I remember being warned by the tour guide that we were not to stray off the paths, as there were unexploded munitions in unknown locations dotted throughout the lush green location. I had been, however, allowed to stand inside a crater that was deeper than my own 6 feet height and take a picture of my friends standing along the rim of it. My friends seemed to loom above me as I peered up at them to take the picture, and for a moment, I had been caught by the strange sense that seven decades earlier, it could have been a very different shot.
As a woman, I would not have been allowed to go overseas to fight in the war, though I would have likely served as a nurse; my feminine nature would have been deemed unworthy of carrying a gun to take on the responsibility of killing someone should the situation have arisen. However, I had no trouble envisioning one of my friends, filthy and bloodied in the crater, gunfire whizzing overhead as he was nearly deafened by the explosions of mines that echoed through the smoky air. I could see any one of my male friends, who would have been near the age of many who went to war then, with a rifle in their hands and a helmet strapped to their heads, fighting to stay alive in the hell that was the war exploding around them.
The Vimy Ridge monument, sculpted by Canadian Walter Allward, is a stark testament to the successes that Canada had on the Ridge. Back then, Canadians were fighting as part of Britain and did not truly have a unique identity as Canadian soldiers. It was the Canadians, though, that came up with the plan to ultimately take Vimy Ridge, though heavy losses were sustained. Even placing the huge memorial on the site was daunting; it took over two years to clear the area of unexploded munitions. However, 10 years later, the Vimy Ridge Memorial was officially opened, and global citizens now visit the site daily.
I remember walking around the memorial, touching the names engraved in the gleaming marble. There were several hundred, if not over a thousand, of these names, but I wanted to see them. I somehow felt equal parts proud and sad that this happened, but this would not be my only exposure to this piece of World War I history; my history teacher was also taking us to a World War I cemetery nearby.
It’s a stunning and humbling thing when you realize as a teen just what was sacrificed for you by your predecessors. There were countless headstones that read, “A Soldier of the Great War” or “Two Soldiers of the Great War,” and I remember asking my teacher whether they had run out of space in this cemetery. He told me, rather sadly, that there were occasions where those who were responsible for burial of these bodies simply could not find enough body parts to equate to one full human. They could only take what body parts they could find and give them the appropriate respect, which meant a burial for what was left. It was a horrifying concept to me and my peers at the time, and still is.
I hope one day to take my daughters to this incredible World War I memorial and hopefully impress upon them some of the history they, as Canadians, are a part of. World War I was once dubbed “the war to end all wars;” sadly, this has not held true.
by Christina St-Jean