We start our drive out of France,
our longest stay in one country since Australia, by heading to Dieppe (pronounced, we learned last night, as “deep” in Kiwi) and onwards towards the beaches of Normandy and ultimately Vimy. A city surrounded by high cliffs, it was the scene of a failed Allied invasion in August 1942, when a force of 5,000 soldiers, 80% or so Canadian, attempted to take the heavily fortified city. Although a major failure, with a terrible cost, war historians say that the lessons learned were critical (dare I say “key success factors”) to the success of D-Day. We find again the Canadian cemetery, a few kilometers outside of town. We are again overwhelmed as we walk through the graves – almost all of them have but one date on them: 19 August 1942. It is a chilling sight.
Across the Beautiful Normandy Countryside
We turn away from the coast, crossing the beautiful Normandy countryside as we head for our destination of Gent, Belgium. We are surprised when a sign appears announcing that we are driving alongside the site of the battle of Agincourt, which happened early in the 100 Years War, where the English, led by Henry V, won a decisive victory over the much stronger French forces. Shortly after, signs announce that we have entered the Somme Valley, scene of some of the deadliest fighting in WWI, and, as at Gallipoli in Turkey, a word that today connotes meaningless slaughter in war: Over 21,000 British soldiers were killed on the 1st day of fighting alone, and over 1.2 million lives were lost on both sides during the 4 ½ months the Somme offensive lasted, and the British had advanced only 12 kilometers, the French even less.
We make our way to Vimy Ridge, a little north of the Somme, to the Canadian WWI Memorial. Vimy was a major victory for the Canadian forces, fighting for the 1st time as Canadians and not integrated into the British forces. Unlike most of the countryside, and most of the war cemeteries, which bear few traces of the fighting, the Canadian Vimy Memorial stands on land that stands as it did at the end of the war, down to fenced-off areas still full of landmines and unexploded shells.
The Memorial is powerful: its sculptures depict the losses caused by the war. Most moving to me is the inscription around the huge base: the names of over 11,000 Canadians who died in WWI, whose bodies were never located. And saddening are the words also engraved: the war to end war.
We arrive in Gent just after 6, coming back to Marc and Yves’ wonderful guesthouse where we stayed in June, and to Marc and Yves’ wonderful hospitality: Comfortable, lavish and always pleasant, warm and inviting.
Our day, an emotional and exhausting one, ends with a feeling of being safe and protected from the world outside, safe and protected by those brave Canadian souls who fought at Vimy.