Vimy Ridge was given by France to the Canadian Government in 1920, and the site is maintained as The Vimy Ridge Canadian National Memorial Site as a Memorial to the Canadian Forces who fought in the Great War. There are three good reasons to Visit Vimy Ridge, which we will explore in more detail in this article.
There is an excellent Visitors’ Centre staffed by the same young Canadian volunteers as you will find at the Newfoundland Memorial Park at Beaumont Hamel. There are maps, presentation boards explaining the battle, photographs, military exhibits and personal artefacts on display. There is also an interesting film showing documentary footage.
When you arrive at the Vimy Ridge Canadian Memorial site the first thing to do is to visit the Visitors’ Centre and book yourself in for one of the guided tours of the tunnel system. Numbers are limited, and this is an experience you will not wish to miss.
The Germans had held the heights at Vimy Ridge since the trench lines settled in 1914, despite many heroic attacks by French forces in May and September 1915. From their positions on Vimy Ridge they had clear and uninterrupted sight of all enemy advances, whilst the Allies had to rely on aerial observation to see over the ridge. The Germans had developed three highly fortified defensive lines using machine guns, artillery and barbed wire to produce a highly effective killing ground.
To add to the visible defences the Germans had also constructed a vast network of deep underground tunnels and living quarters, which were resistant to shell fire, and equipped with electricity, medical facilities and many of the comforts of home.
As at Beaumont Hamel [see Visit The Somme] and Sanctuary Wood [see Visit Ypres], the ground in the Memorial Park has been left undisturbed, and there are trenches and shell holes clearly visible everywhere you look. Be sure to observe the red ‘Danger’ signs telling you the areas where it is unsafe to walk because of the risk of unexploded ammunition!
Close to the Visitors’ Centre, long stretches of the original trench lines have been reconstructed using concrete sandbags, so you can walk along stretches of both the Canadian and German trenches. You quickly realise how deep the trenches were.
Many features of the original trenches have been recreated including realistic fire steps, alongside the original metal plate sniper points and concrete machine gun nests. The two lines of trenches seem unbelievably close together at several points. The visit makes you realise the appalling experience of living in the trenches, with the daily prospect of instant death or mutilation by shellfire, or simply living in squalid and insanitary conditions, sharing the trenches with rate and lice.
One of the unique aspects of visiting the Vimy Ridge Canadian Memorial Site is to experience the guided tour of the Grange Tunnel. The tour lasts about 45 minutes and you will be taken around by the volunteer Canadian students from the Visitors’ Centre. Although the tour sticks to one half-kilometre section of the tunnel which has been renovated and made safe, you can see many branches running off at different angles. The tours are only given between April and November.
The tunnels at Vimy had many purposes. Firstly, they prevented the Germans from seeing the gradual build-up of troops, which would have been so obvious, had the soldiers marched on the surface. Then, many of the tunnels became temporary home for the soldiers as they waited for H-Hour, the moment of attack. Other tunnels also had an offensive role – placing underground mines under the German defenders.
Recent excavations at Vimy suggest that there are more tunnels than originally thought – perhaps as much at 10 miles, with the deepest being 100 feet deep. Experts on military tunneling estimate that a good miner could dig out 20 feet of hard chalk in one day’s shift, and records show that about 1,000 miners were needed at Vimy.
The miners faced lots of dangers, especially if they were detected by their German equivalents. The miners had to work in as near as possible complete silence, and the Canadians set up special listening posts underground where geophones were used to detect German miners. If any were heard, the Canadian miners stopped work until the danger had passed.
The Canadians, like their German equivalents, created under Vimy Ridge an underground village complete with kitchens, command posts, with electricity and pumped fresh air. You can still see the porcelain insulators on the walls which held the power and signaling cables. But whilst the soldiers liked the safety the tunnels gave them, many felt claustrophobic because the tunnels were low and narrow.
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