Battle of Arras and Vimy Ridge

The Vimy Memorial Park is as impressive as ever and the monument itself is noticeably spruced up after the restoration. The park and surrounding areas are the best I’ve seen for getting to grips with the war’s impact on the land. The broad treeless avenues of the park and carefully controlled grass and undergrowth beneath the trees reveal the proliferation of craters, the warren of trenches, and the crowded jumble of shell holes rippling the ground like a choppy green sea. The woods adjoining the park to the north (Givenchy) and south (Foret Vimy) are not tended in the same way, but like the woods around the some, even dense tangles of brambles and nettles can’t hide the scars of the fighting. There is also an abundance of land give over to pasture, especially around what was known as the ‘Pimple’, which was not taken on April 9, and down the western slope of the ridge overlooking Zouave Valley. Where flocks have kept the grass low on these slopes the lines of communication trenches and fields of shell holes are easily discerned. Of course, where crops are planted no obvious traces remain – though perhaps hints might be apparent at different times of year or in drought conditions. For all this, what I saw in my tour suggests that on the Somme it is easier to get a sense of the environment as soldiers would have experienced it. This is primarily the consequence of the two motorways that cut through the ridge adjacent to the memorial park. While this is awfully convenient for the typical visitor, the inevitable changes to the topography as well as the noise pollution make it much harder to get a sense of the ‘natural’ environment of the early 20th century even on the smallest cart tracks and hiking paths.

I can strongly recommend the trench and tunnel tour offered by the staff at the Vimy Memorial interpretive centre. While they information provided won’t blow back the hair of many who have studied the great war in any serious way, the experience of walking the reconstructed British and German outpost lines on opposite sides of the Grange Craters can’t be replicated in a book. This is doubly true of the tour through part of the Grange Subway system. This part of the tour has changed somewhat since I visited a decade ago, but my student guide still did an excellent job (in her second language no less). I will say that walking Zouave Valley and seeing where the subways began before taking the tour this time really gave me a much better sense of Grange’s context and of the subway system’s tremendous extent and sophistication. In a weird way this context – and having watched the videos of the Durand Group’s investigations and excavations in these tunnels – makes the part of Grange subway open to public seem somewhat less remarkable; even as touring it makes the system as a whole more remarkable. What’s even remarkable is the thought that many – perhaps most – of these underground galleries and tunnels survive. The whole subterranean world of the Great War is there still. Come to think of it, such tunnels (in un-health and saftied form) are probably the best chance to re-enter the world of British soldier of the Great War. But I don’t suppose any more of it will ever be opened to the public, despite all the investigative work of the Durand Group, who won’t run out of sites to investigate any time soon I’m sure. Perhaps they’d let a historian with archaeological experience have a look?

About cahagerman

Dad, husband, writer, historian, recovering academic, and the Consulting Professor.
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