by Chor Leoni bass, Rick Bennett
In the spring of 2017, one hundred years after the Battle of Vimy Ridge, Lorraine and I joined thousands of Canadians in a pilgrimage to Canadian battle sites and cemeteries of World Wars 1 and 2. Our travels took us to Flanders, Juno Beach, and Vimy Ridge. We felt an obligation, once in our lives, to walk among our fallen countrymen (they were virtually all men), to honour them as best we could by our presence, in a sense to say “sorry” to our dead of the first war, and “thank you” to those of the second. This is a reflection on some of what we experienced.
The place of Vimy Ridge in our national story is well-known. The Ridge runs on a north-south axis for seven kilometres. To the east it slopes steeply down to the Douai plain, 100 metres below. The small city of Lens, a critical rail link for the German army, is easily visible a few kilometres away. The Ridge’s height gave the German army an unobstructed view down the gentle western approaches to the far horizon and for most of the war had proved impregnable. The Germans had bloodily defeated all British and French assaults from the west. But in one week of fighting from April 9-12, 1917, the Canadian Corps, fighting for the first time as a single national unit, successfully attacked and took the Ridge. The cost was terrible: over 10,000 casualties, including nearly 4,000 dead. It is often said that Canada became a nation at Vimy.
We visited Vimy on a hot, sunny day in May. The weather could not have been more different from the wind-whipped sleet and cold that greeted Canadian soldiers as they left their trenches and tunnels at dawn on April 9, 1917.
The Memorial sits atop Hill 145, the high point of the Ridge, on the edge of the eastern escarpment. In keeping with Canadian tradition, it faces east – the direction of the Canadian advance.
Approached from the west (rear), nothing really prepares you for the magnificence of the Vimy Memorial, on a sunny day impossibly white. The grief of the statuary is heartrending: the sagging shoulders, the eyes downcast, unfocussed, searching for meaning among the children who will not return.
Our heartache became palpable as we came round the plaza to the front of the Memorial, and first saw Mother Canada, also known as Canada Bereft. She stands on the edge of a parapet, her torch fallen at her side, her downcast hooded head gazes sightless over the fields down to the plains below. On the parapet at her feet are carved the names of 11,285 Canadians who died in France in World War I and left no known remains – “missing, presumed dead”. There are another 6,994 Canadian names on the Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium.
All told more than 66,000 Canadians died during or as a result of the war. Another 172,000 were wounded.
Lorraine and I struggled with these numbers. Think about it. Canada at the time had a population of about 8,000,000. Half of these were male, and say another half of those, roughly 2,000,000, of service age. Put another way: over 10% of Canadian male youth was killed or wounded in four years. Mother Canada mourns them still.
For all Vimy’s magnificence, I found its monumentalism impersonal. It was the names on the parapet that moved me with their intimacy, their ineffable sadness, that is lodged in my heart, not the grandness of the memorial.
Again and again we were to be moved by this same strange intimacy as we wandered among the graves of so many young men, their young lives reduced to name, rank, and unit inscribed on a gravestone or memorial somewhere in France or Belgium.
Scarcely 80 kilometres from Vimy, near Ypres, lies the village of Ploegstreet. Driving north out of Ploegstreet on the N365 you come to a narrow track on the right just before the road to Warneton. Follow this track as it winds between farmer’s fields for a kilometre or two and you will come to the small Prowse Point war cemetery. Adjacent to it stands an odd little memorial: a ruptured iron artillery shell casing standing inverted in the ground. On top sits, of all things, an iron soccer ball, and before it a colourful collection of real soccer balls, many with messages written on them.
This marks what is believed to be the site of the famous soccer match played between the trenches in the unofficial Christmas truce of 1914. The scene today is very pastoral. The edges of the pitch are marked on either side by tangles of barbed wire sitting above reconstructed trenches. On the day of our visit poppies grew wildly through the wire.
Fans of Chor Leoni will be familiar with the story of the soccer game from our performances of All is Calm at the Queen E. in 2014 and 2015.
To those of us who performed that work, this is sacred ground.
Lorraine and I sat on that ground and tried to imagine the pathos of that day – a bloom of humanity flowering briefly amid the mud, the terror, the inhumanity. We tried to imagine our own son in such circumstances, and failed. And there we sat; cattle lowed across the road, birds sang from the hedgerows, the air was fragrant with newly sown crops. And us? We wept and wept and still the tears came, came uncontrollably.
Afterwards we walked through the cemetery. Like all Commonwealth War Grave Cemeteries that we visited, Prowse Point is astonishingly beautifully maintained, serene, and utterly, crushingly, sad. There among the rows we came across adjacent graves of two soldiers of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers: Pvt. T. Delaney, killed on December 24, 1914, and Pvt. M. Murphy, killed December 30, 1914, bookending the days of the truce. Did Pvt. Murphy play on that pitch a few days earlier? Might Pvt. Delaney have played had he lived another day? And what of the Germans who shot them? Nothing made any sense. The tears came again.
As we left the cemetery I signed the Book of Remembrance for Chor Leoni:
“We keep your memory alive in song. All is calm.”
Our pilgrimage drawing to a close, we had one act of homage left.
The small village of Souchez nestles in the Pas de Calais region of northern France, quite close to Vimy Ridge. In the early days of the war a small café, Café Rouge, stood on the south side of town on the road from Arras to Béthune. Although within German artillery range, in the early days of the war it was a favourite of Allied soldiers as they came out of the front line.
The café was destroyed in 1915; its site is marked today by the Café Rouge war cemetery.
It was from Café Rouge that the remains of an unknown Canadian soldier were exhumed on May 25, 2000, and transported to Ottawa. There, after lying in state for three days in the Hall of Honour in the nearby Parliament Buildings, they were laid again to rest with full military honours in the Canadian Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on the plaza of the National War Memorial. Soils from each Canadian province and territory, and from the Café Rouge Cemetery, were placed in the grave.
Who knows where this soldier called home, or why he went off to war? Was it adventure? A broken heart? Patriotism? Escape? Who knows whom he loved or who loved him? Who knows which family mourned his loss? Who knows his last thought? Was it of Canada, his family, his unit, his pals? The lice? The mud? The terror? Was it of the bastards trying to kill him? Or what he would to them given a chance? Who knows?
The fact is, of course, that we know virtually nothing of this presence in our midst, not even whether he would have preferred to stay in France with his comrades rather than come “home”.
In the face of this uncertainty, ultimately I retreat into words of Walt Whitman, words sung by Chor Leoni from time to time at our Remembrance Day concerts, and words which I find comforting beyond measure:
Pensive, on her dead gazing, I heard the Mother of All,
Desperate, on the torn bodies, on the forms covering the battle-fields gazing;
Absorb them well, O my earth, she cried—I charge you, lose not my sons! lose not an atom;
My dead absorb—my young men’s beautiful bodies absorb—and their precious, precious, precious blood;
Which holding in trust for me, faithfully back again give me, many a year hence,
In unseen essence and odor of surface and grass, centuries hence;
In blowing airs from the fields, back again give me my darlings—give my immortal heroes;
Exhale me them centuries hence—breathe me their breath—let not an atom be lost;
O years and graves! O air and soil! O my dead, an aroma sweet!
Exhale them perennial, sweet death, years, centuries hence.
Requiescat in pace, our unknown soldier, you and all your comrades.