Friday 10 April 2015


Vimy is a word that has achieved mythical status among Canadians, a defining achievement in Canada’s path towards nationhood. Writing after the War, General Arthur Currie, Commander of the Canadian Corps in 1917, captured the legend when he wrote that “Vimy Ridge proved, as all other engagements before and since have proved, that, man for man, the Canadian had nothing to fear from personal contact with the enemy. The second battle of Ypres proved that humanity was greater than metal! Vimy Ridge proved that some races of humanity are distinctly inferior to others. It confirmed the conviction of those who before the war believed that the individuality of a peaceful population, strengthened and developed by loyalty, was better fighting material than a military ridden country could ever produce.” 

The battle of Vimy Ridge in April 1917 was a limited tactical engagement, the first assault in a much broader campaign known as the Battle of Arras, that would last for five weeks and end with 84,000 British casualties. The Ridge itself had been controlled by the Germans since 1914 and was heavily defended with bunkers, dug deep into the chalk. Through 1915, while the Canadians were being introduced into the Ypres Salient, the French mounted a number of attacks in an attempt to dislodge the enemy from the Ridge, starting with a major joint French-British attack, the Second Battle of Artois, in early May. 

In September, they tried again and, although they succeeded in getting a foothold on the crest of the ridge, they were soon repelled by German counter attacks. By the time the French turned over the position to the British, in early 1916, they had suffered a 150,000 casualties. Over the next six months the British suffered heavily while trying to wrestle control from the Germans, but by mid 1916 their efforts were focused in the Somme, forty kilometres away.

Cabaret-Rouge British Cemetery with the remains of
7600 men: one of the largest Commonwealth
cemeteries on the Western Front.
Emerging over a slight rise in the road that leads from Lens to Arras, the Canadian monument on Hill 145 stands prominently above the Douai plain. The Seget limestone radiates light from the morning sun and serves as a beacon for the pilgrims. But while the Vimy memorial, still several kilometres away, is the ultimate destination, cemeteries like Cabaret Rouge, and the French National Cemetery at Notre Dame de Lorette, do more to tell the story of Vimy Ridge.

The French National Cemetery of
Notre Dame de Lorette.

Cabaret Rouge, named for a small red brick cafe in the area was started by the British when they took over responsibility for the lines in March 1916.  At the end of the war the cemetery was greatly expanded as smaller battlefield cemeteries in the area of Arras were consolidated. It now mars the graves of 7600 Commonwealth soldiers, predominantly British and Canadian, more than half unknown. Within the cemetery are two soldiers who were executed for desertion; ninety years later, “remembered with honour” by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

The back-to-back crosses in Notre Dame de Lorette mask
the number of French soldiers buried.
Not far away, the commanding heights of Notre Dame de Lorette that were captured by the Germans in October 1914, provide a dramatic panorama of the Douai plain. The relentless effort by the the French to retake these heights, over Christmas 1914 and in the early months of 1915, was a sign of how critical they were to maintaining any control in the region. The French National Cemetery atop the ridge, commemorates the deaths of more than 44,000 French soldiers, including 20,000 individual graves, who were killed in the three successive battles that began in October 1914, and ended with the capture of Souchez, and the area around Cabaret Rouge in September 1915.

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