Today we had the opportunity to see some lesser-known memorials, which provided a strong contrast to the famous Vimy monument of yesterday. This prompted me to question our process of commemoration and try and understand it.
We began at the monument to Hill 70, which now sits beside a highway and roundabout. It’s a simple brick structure, dedicated in particular to the 48th Highlanders. The grass was long around it, and we were the only ones in the parking lot. There was no interpretive centre and no guestbook to say our thanks.
Then we went to the Communal Cemetery at La Tourelles, where commonwealth soldiers are buried in a separate area of a local cemetery. Here again, there were no crowds, it was a quiet, rainy morning and the graves almost seemed as if undisturbed since they were placed there. This was emphasized by the nearby trees that have started to absorb some of the headstones. It made me think of the Anglican burial verse, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” We are all equal in death, however many of these soldiers had even less life than I have had.
From here, we moved onto another communal cemetery at Barlin. Here the graves were in better condition and we laid flags to commemorate Canadian soldiers.
I also had a chance to read some of the epitaphs and was struck by that of Sergeant Wingfield, of the Canadian Field Artillery. “Justice owes him this, that what he died for be not overthrown.” And yet, justice did not prevail. He died on May 15th, 1917. Even in the same war, the ground he had lost his life for was regained by the Germans in the Spring Offensive of 1918. Yes, the war ended that year and there was a peace settlement following that. However, 20 years later, the world was at war again.
Some of the same regions were effected by both wars. Our next stop was the Australian Monument to the missing. This great tower is their “Vimy” and contains the names of those who do not have graves or who could never be found. Even more remarkable, there is shell damage throughout the memorial, as the Germans passed through this area on their way to Paris. To me, this really hit home that the Great War was not the war to end all wars as advertised.
Throughout all its efforts to be billed as a modern war with the advent of mechanized vehicles and aircraft, it also retained vestiges of past eras. We visited the Canadian Calvary monument today and learned about their charge at Moreuil Wood. It was in the middle of the last German push and the Allies needed to regain high ground near Amiens to take it. After the Calvary charge, they did so successfully.
So our day ended by visiting Amiens and the beautiful gothic cathedral there. It suffered damage in the war but remained intact throughout. It was even fortified with sandbags to keep it standing and useful. Although beautiful, it also made me contemplate the fact that the stone church could withstand a war while ordinary man could not. Truly in the end, man returns to dust.
And yet, they left so much behind. Wives, children, parents, stories, letters, and memories. It is up to us to honour them, and that is the purpose of commemoration.
-Laura Blackmore, University of Ottawa