On the final day of our tour Mr Tilbrook led us to two key sites which left an imprint upon the memory long after we had departed from Flanders and northern France.
The French cemetery of Notre Dame de Lorette was the site of three key battles for Artois between 1914 and 1915, which were strategically important in the ‘race for the sea’ which Mr Tilbrook explored with us on the previous day. The battles came to focus on the church which is the site of the present-day basilica built by Louis-Marie Cordonnier and his son Jaques, between 1920 and 1927. The battles for the high ground at Artois were as costly to the French as the better known battle for Verdun. The French lost 4% of its population during the Great War (compared with British losses of 1.4%), a deficit from which it has never completely recovered in numeric terms alone. As Mr Tilbrook suggested, memorials like this help explain French reactions to German invasion in 1940.
The final visit of the expedition was perhaps the most memorable. If much of our journey had, until this point, been concerned with loss, the last part of our visit was concerned with victory and the reasons for it. The bunkers and tunnels of Vimy Ridge with its honeycomb of shell holes and trees – one planted for each loss suffered by the young Canadian nation in the battle for this area – brought home to us the violence and tenacity with which soldiers fought, sometimes for astoundingly little gain.
Canadian soldiers were motivated by a desire to fight in defence of the old world they left behind – in many cases only shortly before – but in fighting together they became Canadians. The memorial at Vimy Ridge – designed by Walter Seymour Allward and completed in 1936 – is therefore cherished by that nation. From a distance, the size and brightness of the memorial against the sky looked impressive but as we get closer it was not triumph that we found, but grief.
Allward drew upon religious imagery in creating the memorial. The Mother in the photograph is not the Virgin, however, she is Mother Canada and, in another sense, every mother who lost a son in the Great War. She holds, in her right hand, the laurel of victory, but not aloft as we might expect. Instead, it is held loosely and to the side, so that it almost falls out of her hand. After we descend the steps we see that she is looking down upon the tomb of her lost son.
After Vimy Ridge we enjoyed our last lunch on foreign shores, and headed for home. The mood on the way back was somewhat lightened by Blackadder, although appreciated all the more for the greater understanding we had developed over the course of the trip! This was of course all thanks to Mr Tilbrook who designed and conducted the tour. As one student said to me at Vimy Ridge – ‘what a history lesson!’