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Nov9MonReflections on visiting memorials of the First World War in France. November 9, 2015 by Major Fred Ash
I am driving across the peaceful farmland of France, with my wife and two English friends, taking in the green fields and church spires rising above the houses in the little villages. The land we are driving over was once soaked with the blood of thousands of soldiers, among them many Canadians.
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- Opinion & Critical Thought
I see a gleaming white marker, high on a ridge, perhaps 10 kilometres away. It looks so small. Our car draws nearer; the marker becomes a monument 37 metres high. We ascend 60 metres to the top of Vimy Ridge and stop. From here, anything that moved below would have been a target for enemy guns.
The Canadian flag flutters gently beside the French flag in the warm summer air. In the land around us lie the bones of many unknown soldiers, along with guns, unexploded bombs and mines. The French suffered 150,000 casualties in two failed attempts to take this ridge in 1915. The British tried and failed in 1916. Then in 1917, four Canadian divisions, fighting together for the first time, did what others could not. After four full days of conflict, they achieved their objective, but the cost was enormous: 10,602 Canadian casualties, of which 3,598 were killed. It is not known how many German soldiers lost their lives.
The Canadian National Vimy Memorial leaves me speechless. The monument's twin pylons rise 30 metres above its base. It contains 20 human figures, the most striking of which are the male and female “grieving parents” and the huge “mother Canada” statue that overlooks the plains. In one corner, there is a group of three figures, one of whom is crouching and breaking a sword, an obvious anti-war symbol and perhaps in reference to Isaiah 2:4: “They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.”
Less than 50 kilometres from Vimy Ridge is a monument I had wanted to see since I was a boy—the Newfoundland War Memorial at Beaumont-Hamel.
When I was growing up in Newfoundland, July 1 was always our memorial day. I remember standing at cenotaphs, year after year, listening to the Last Post and joining in singing O Canada, God Save the Queen and The Ode to Newfoundland. The day commemorates the sacrifice of hundreds of Newfoundlanders who fought and died on this battlefield on July 1, 1916.
It was the first day of the Battle of the Somme. After a heavy artillery barrage by the British, the generals thought the way was clear for their troops to advance. But the German soldiers had been in place for almost two years and were well fortified. The British troops on the flanks were stopped, but this information did not reach the Newfoundland Regiment commander and he sent his men straight into enemy fire. They were the only targets on the battlefield. Bullets came at them like sleet. As if walking across the frozen Newfoundland barrens in a snow storm, the 780 men lowered their heads and advanced. In less than 20 minutes, 670 of them lay dead or wounded. Only 60 answered roll call the next morning.
As we enter the memorial park, my eyes are drawn to the large bronze caribou erected on a stone cairn made of Newfoundland granite. The caribou, the symbol of the Newfoundland Regiment, is facing the German lines with its head thrown back in defiance. At the base of the hill is inscribed in bronze the names of 820 Newfoundlanders who gave their lives in the First World War and have no known grave.
I take time to walk through the preserved trenches, to walk across the battlefield and to stop at the “danger tree” where so many died.
A few days later, I attended Boundless, the international congress of The Salvation Army. Some 15,000 members of this evangelical force celebrated 150 years of spiritual warfare without guns. I am reminded of Saint Paul's observation: “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against … the spiritual forces of evil” (Ephesians 6:12). While taking nothing away from the sacrifices of those who fought in the world wars, I do believe that this is the better fight—the fight to which The Salvation Army is called.
Major Fred Ash is a retired Salvation Army officer.