This is the second of a series of a few posts on my experiences visiting the historical sites of The Great War in France and Belgium in the summer of 2017. For the first post, please click here.
One piece of information about Vimy that I learned, and that has stuck with me, is the manner in which Canadians prepared for the battle.
Whether from history class, or from a Canadian Heritage minute, most people know about the creeping barrage tactic, whereby the advancing troops were shielded from the view of the Germans by a rolling curtain of artillery fire. The shells hid the soldiers’ movements, and kept the German infantry sheltering in their bunkers and trenches, so that when the barrage suddenly lifted at the synchronized time, the advancing Allied forces were right on top of the sheltering Germans – an advantageous position for an attacker.
However, the information that I referenced in the beginning has to do with the specific preparations for the attack. This Heritage Minute clip does a good job of touching on most of them:
It references the tunnels that Canadian troops emerged from. These tunnels were part of an extensive and extended campaign of underground warfare, involving the use of mines against enemy targets both above and below ground, and with horrific fighting taking place in the tunnels on occasions when opposing groups of tunnelers dug into each others’ space under ground.
The main point I would like to make when it comes to the tunnels relates to the men who occupied them on the morning of April 9th, 1917. Overnight, thousands of soldiers sat in the cold, damp, dark silence, waiting for the explosion of the thousands of pounds of explosive mines buried underground that would destroy German positions, create advantageous craters and trenches on the surface, and most importantly signify the commencement of the attack.
Later this summer, after returning to Canada, we went with my mom and my brother to see the Soulpepper production, VIMY. The story is incredible, and I recommend it to anyone with an interest in Canadian history. The moment from the show that struck me most intensely was the moment where the soldiers are waiting, about to attack. They’re waiting for the mines to blow, for the artillery to let it rip, and to emerge from the tunnels to traverse no-man’s-land.
Up until this moment, the production had portrayed the soldiers as champing at the bit to get involved in the war. But VIMY so poignantly made clear that in the lull before the attack, some of the men must have begun to wonder whether the impending battle would be as glorious as they’d hoped.
Knowing how their story ends, even knowing that this battle was one of the best outcomes for the Allies in the entire war, is still to know that thousands of men would have their lives altered forever. Even those who escaped with no physical harm done would forever remember their friends and fellow soldiers who hadn’t been so lucky.
In the moment in VIMY where the battle is about to begin, I honestly started to cry and thought to myself – what if we could go back and just call it all off?
This post is the seventh installment in my month-long project, #500in28. For the next 28 days, I’ll be spending 28 minutes a day writing 500 words. See here for my first post explaining the project.