Return to Vimy

Back Row – Capt Watters, Bdr O’Dell, WO Hayes, MBdr Lavigne, Bdr Hanrahan, Bdr Caines, Lt Guthrie, HCol Irving Fronyt Row – CWO Louvelle, Sgt (ret) Sleep, MCpl Flanagan, MwO Grant, Bdr Brooker, Bdr Hovey, Sgt Smith

3rd Field Regiment (The Loyal Company)

The 100th Anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge

It was decided early on, that 3rd Field Regiment would like to send a contingent of soldiers to northern France to take part in the 100th Anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge.  It was known that there would be a ceremony held at the National War Memorial to mark the event.  It was also known through the research done in the Regiment’s recently released history book, that many gunners left from The Loyal Company, and from New Brunswick in general, to take part in the Great War.  It was our intent to take part in these ceremonies, as an act of remembrance to those gunners who came before us.

We would take part in a ten day battlefield tour hosted by the Royal Canadian Artillery Association, who would be sending 100 gunners to France.  3rd Field Regiment would be sending 11 gunners to represent the Loyal Company, and the Batteries were asked to forward nominations for the trip.  The following were chosen from the Regiment:

Lt Guthrie, WO Hayes, Sgt Smith, MBdr Lavigne, Bdr O’Dell, Bdr Hanrahan, Bdr Caines,                 Bdr Brooker, Bdr Hovey, MCpl Flanagan, Sgt (R) Sleep with CWO Louvelle and MWO Grant on their own dime.

Our Honorary Lieutenant- Colonel, Jim Quinn along with LCol (ret) Steven Strachan, spearheaded the fundraising campaign, to raise the needed funds to send our group of soldiers on the Return to Vimy 2017 Tour.  A Fundraiser Gala dinner was held on Nov 5th, 2016 at the Marco Polo Cruise Ship Terminal, in Saint John.  The dinner was hosted by the Honorary Colonel and Commanding Officer, and was attended by local dignitaries, sponsors, media, tour participants, and other members of the regiment.  We started off the evening with an official meet and greet, where the visiting VIP’s and sponsors had the opportunity to meet the tour participants, and media interviews were given.

Our tour started with a sendoff party at the Officer’s Mess in the Barracks Green Armory, on March 31st.  All tour participants attended, as well as Hon Col Irving, and our former Commanding Officer, Stephen Strachan Lt Col (R).  We found out at this time that our previous RSM Michael Louvelle, and the BSM of HQ Battery, MWO Grant had also secured seats on the tour.  This brought the Regiment’s total participating members to thirteen.  Hon Col Irving, along with his son William, and the Adjt. Capt Watters would be joining us in France during the tour for a dinner, and to attend the Vimy Ridge ceremony.  We had drinks, food, and good company, before retiring to the hotel for the night.  There was a flight to France to catch in the morning.

On April 1st our flight left Saint John for Paris, via Toronto.  There was a four hour layover in Toronto, before the eight hour flight to Paris.  For some of us, it was the first time flying internationally, or our first trip to Europe.  Luckily, international travel has come a long way in the hundred years since the Great War, and instead of three weeks on trains and ships, we made Paris in a single day with the latest movie releases to keep us occupied.  We had a cup of juice or coffee and a slice of sweet bread for breakfast, as supplied by our flight, and arrived in Paris at 8:30am local time.

It was now April 2nd and we were at the Paris airport meeting our tour guides.  The tour group was to be divided into two buses; Gunner 1 and Gunner 2.  Gunner 1 had all of the older, retired gunners, while Gunner 2 had all of the younger, active gunners.  Most of our members were with Gunner 2; the lone Gunner 1 member was our former RSM.  We met our tour guide Brian Reid, loaded onto our bus, and departed the airport at 11:00am.  We had a bag lunch as we travelled to Caen; baguette sandwich, bag of potato chips, bottle of water, and an apple.  Little did we know at the time that the baguette sandwich was a main staple of French cuisine.

On our way to Caen we took a couple of wrong turns, and ended up getting a wonderful tour of the French countryside.  We visited a quaint, unknown village in the bottom of a ravine, and nearly lodged our bus between the ivy covered trees and the hair-pinned turns of the valley.  Eventually our path took us back to the highway, we were able to backtrack, and arrived in Caen.  Lesson learned: if you find your tour bus travelling along a single lane, dirt road surrounded by farmer’s fields in the French countryside; chances are, you’re lost.

We took a quick trip to Juno Beach that afternoon, and saw Canada House.  Juno Beach was the objective of the Canadians during D-Day operations of June 1944, and the Canada House is a home located just off the beach.  It was quite possibly the first house liberated by the Allied forces of WW2.  Standing on the beach that clear day, it was impossible to imagine the beach as it was in June 1944, with transport ships landing soldiers into machine gun and artillery fire.  Juno Beach today is just that, a beach with locals playing in the sand and waves.  There is however memorials overlooking the playground, skate park, and beach sheds; a reminder that men gave their lives there.

April 3rd found light showers over Caen, which quickly gave way to a beautiful day.  The hotel had a wonderful breakfast laid out, and our tour was soon heading to the Juno Beach Center.  We toured the beach, bunkers, and the Center.  Walking through those places will never be able to re-create what those who served there must have felt, but at least we are still able to walk through history, and have it imprinted in our memory.

After leaving Juno, our tour group attended a wreath laying ceremony with the Signalers, at the Beny-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery.  For many of us, this was our first visit to a war cemetery, and it was hard to believe that we walked over the graves of more than a thousand Canadian soldiers who died in that area in the summer of 1944.  The ceremony included the playing the last post, a moment of silence, the lament on bagpipe, and the revelry.  Wreaths were laid at the central monument by both the gunners and signalers, and everyone in our tour group placed an RCA flag at the grave of a fallen gunner.

Our next stop was at the Ardenne Abby; a beautiful cathedral, and enclosed compound that are mostly in decay, with sections that have been restored.  In 1944, this compound was used as an HQ for the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend, under the command of Kurt Meyer.  The Canadian connection to this place is dark: 27 Canadian soldiers were captured, and unlawfully executed behind the Abby.  Their bodies were buried in shallow graves in a local garden, where a small memorial is located.

We left Ardenne, and moved on to the D-Day Academy: a personal collection of WW2 memorabilia including weapons, vehicles, equipment, clothing, and everything else.  The owner was very welcoming, and we were able to physically touch history at this place.  We handled the weapons, sat in the trucks, and felt the heavy wool of the uniforms.  The owner gifted our guide Brian with an RCA cap badge recovered from the fields of Normandy.

The last stop of the day was on Verrieres Ridge at Point 67, the scene of a large battle for the control of Normandy.  A simple memorial is located at the top of the ridge overlooking the valley below.  A poignant quote is there on the monument:

“WELL MAY THE WHEAT AND SUGAR BEETS GROW GREEN AND LUSH UPON ITS GENTLE SLOPES, FOR IN THAT HALF-FORGOTTEN SUMMER THE BEST BLOOD OF CANADA WAS FREELY POURED OUT UPON THEM”

We loaded onto the buses the next morning, and headed for Dieppe.  We arrived in that port city at noon.  Brian gave us a general layout of the area, and then we toured the gravel beach, before checking into our hotel.   We all then went up the hill to the Canadian War Cemetery, which had been started by the Germans following the Dieppe Raid.  The original graves in the cemetery are buried head to head, after the German tradition.  There were a lot more unidentified graves in this cemetery; apparently many bodies had been damaged beyond all recognition.

A group of us from 3rd Field headed across the harbor that evening before dinner, and made our way up to the Chapelle Notre-Dam de Bonsecours.  We had to navigate through the winding streets and stairs, and followed a trail up the cliffs to reach the place.  It’s an old church at the top of the cliffs, and overlooks the city and beaches.  There were remnants of old, concrete bunkers there as well.  We got a wonderful group photo there, while we displayed Canada, New Brunswick, and RCA flags provided by Bdr O’Dell and Bdr Caines.

After dinner, some of us ventured down to the Chateau du Dieppe: an old, medieval castle that overlooks the city and bay.  Unfortunately, the castle was closed for the night, but we could see the arrow slits in the stone walls, and tried to imagine attacking that stronghold.  It struck us then that people had been dying on the beaches of Dieppe for hundreds of years.

We visited the Passchendaele War Museum and the Tyne Cot Cemetery today.  Tyne Cot is the largest British cemetery with 12,000 soldiers buried there.  There are also 35,000 names listed on the memorial: men who have no graves.  The reality of the Great War begins to sink in: a great many of the graves are unidentified, some marked as “A Soldier of the Great War”, and nothing else.  Not enough left of the body to identify, his rank, or unit, or country of origin.  Some graves were marked as having multiple bodies, because they couldn’t tell which part belonged to whom.  This was our first experience with a First World War cemetery.

When one reads about the battle of Passchendaele, the book always describes the position as a hill, but having been there, it is little more than a high feature, and nothing that a New Brunswicker would describe as a hill.  It’s hard to believe that so many people died on that “hill”.

We then headed into the city of Ypres; we had lunch and toured St Martin Cathedral and the Cloth Hall.  The cathedral was an amazing example of Gothic architectural style, with a beautifully high vaulted ceiling.  Both of these buildings were destroyed by artillery fire during the Great War, and were painstakingly rebuild to their original form following the war.  Some of us also made it to the Menin Gate, which stands nearby.  The Menin Gate was supposed to be the memorial to all of the British and Commonwealth soldiers who died in the war, but at 55,000 names, they ran out of space.  It was then that the memorial at Tyne Cot was planned.

“HERE ARE RECORDED NAMES OF OFFICERS AND MEN WHO FELL IN YPRES SALIENT BUT TO WHOM THE FORTUNE OF WAR DENIED THE KNOWN AND HONOURED BURIAL GIVEN TO THEIR COMRADES IN DEATH”

That afternoon, we returned to the Peace Valley Hostel in rural Messines, and changed into our dress uniforms, before returning to the Cloth Hall in Ypres for a catered dinner.  Both the Signallers and Gunner tour groups would take part in the nightly Menin Gate remembrance ceremony.  Our parade formed up under the arch, and Bdr O’Dell got the honor of laying the gunners wreath with our Colonel Commandant, Brig Gen (Ret’d) Selbie.  Following the ceremony, we had some drinks and laughs with the locals at a nearby bar, before returning to the hostel.  The Peace Valley Hostel was named for the Christmas Truce of 1914 that occurred in the area nearby.

April 6th found our group returning to France, but we made a stop at the St Julien Memorial on the way.  This was the site of the first gas attack by the Germans, and where Canadian forces made a desperate stand to hold the trench.  Many died there, many more died later due to the nature of the gas.

We continued on towards Lille, stopping on the way to tour the Somme battlefields.  We visited Courcelette, the Adanac Military Cemetery, and the Beaumont Hamel Newfoundland Memorial.  The Beaumont Hamel site was particularly impressive, and we were able to walk through the remnants of trenches and see the terrain pockmarked with shell holes.  The Newfoundland objective was clearly visible from the top of the ridge, and you could imagine cresting that ridge into machinegun fire, being silhouetted against the sky, trying to make it down to the ravine.  This site felt like the first clear battlefield that we got to tour.  The site also had a cemetery with many unknown soldiers.

Our last stop of the day was at the Thiepval Memorial and Anglo-French Cemetery, which commemorates the French and British soldiers who died on the Somme.  The large memorial stands in the open, on top of a hill, and the wind blows cold under the shadow of the arches where the names of our dead have been recorded.

On April 7th we had our first distant view of Vimy Ridge from the bus.  The National Memorial looks huge, even from a distance, and dominates the ridge.  We also saw many slag heaps in the distance in the area surrounding Lens; there is a photo in our Regiment’s history book that shows these same heaps from the top of Vimy.

Our tour visited the St Neuville German Military Cemetery, where there were four bodies buried at each cross.  The German cemetery had a very different feel to it: there were no striking monuments, or displays, just row upon row of dark crosses to mark the places of 43,000 soldiers.  In comparison, the French memorial and cemetery at Notre Dame de Lorette was huge and impressive, with its’ tower and church, and the Ring of Remembrance.  There are over 40,000 graves marked at Lorette, and the Ring of Remembrance contains the names of 579,606 soldiers who died in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais during the War.  There are no ranks or nationalities listed, just the names of friends and foes together to show that peace has followed conflict.

We then toured the Lens Museum of War, which is a square built structure, and decorated all in black.  It was a well laid out museum with interactive map displays, and relics from the war.  The last stop of the day was at La Targette, which is a cemetery for French-Polish nationals that volunteered during the Great War.  We held a simple remembrance ceremony, and laid a simple wreath.  We then returned to the hotel for dinner, where we ran into our own Adjutant, Capt Watters, who had recently arrived in France, along with our Hon Col Irving, to take part in the remaining tour events.

April 8th found our tour group in dress uniform for the whole day; if only we would have known how warm it would be in France, more of us would have brought our short sleeve shirts, and spent the day in more comfort.  Our tour was supposed to see the new Hill 70 Memorial, but the Governor General of Canada was inspecting the site at the same time, and the memorial was closed to the public for security reasons.  We did get to see the area where the fighting occurred, where a simple memorial stands, and in proof of the conflict, CWO Louvelle (Ret’d) found an old carrier shell from an 18 pounder in the field next to the memorial.

We carried onto the town of Givenchy, which is nearby to the Vimy Ridge National Memorial.  Kent’s Building Supplies Ltd had supplied 500 Canadian flags to the town as part of their Year of Canada celebrations, and the flags adorned homes and businesses throughout the town.  A display of military uniforms and equipment was on display at the town hall, and was open for viewing.  There was a festive feel to the town, and we had lunch in the town square, and had a group photograph taken with the mayor and locals.

Our next stop was in Thelus at the Gunner Memorial.  Here we took part in the rededication parade; we followed the “Canadian Gunner Road” for what was described as 700 meters.  The rededication included speeches from the RCA Colonel Commandant, Senior Serving Gunner, and the mayor of Thelus.  A great many of the local population came out to watch the parade and ceremony.  There were also eight French re-enactors, who were in period dress, with wool uniforms, packs, and rifles with fixed bayonet.  Anytime we felt bad for ourselves about standing in our uniforms in the heat, all we had to do was look at those poor re-enactors to feel a little better.  The town of Thelus also treated us to cold drinks and snacks following the ceremony, which made everything better on that sunny day.

Then it was back to the hotel, for a quick change into evening wear; a dinner was being hosted in Lille for all of the Gunners on the tour, by none other than Hon Col Irving.  The meal was excellent, with both red and white wine on the table, and in great company.  A small historical book was gifted to everyone in attendance, from the Loyal Company Association, which detailed the events experienced by the 1st Heavy Battery during the Great War.  But the biggest event of the night for many of us was getting to meet Mr. Romeo Dallaire: humanitarian, bestselling author, and retired Senator and General.  He also happens to be one of the best known, living Gunners, and a real global citizen.  It was a great opportunity for gunners of all ranks to meet and get to know one another; as our Hon Col said “We had to have the dinner, or the tour just wouldn’t have felt complete if we hadn’t all come together as a family to mark the event”.

We had now finally made it to the big day: April 9th, the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge.  After our breakfast, we loaded onto the buses for what we knew would be an exciting day.  The event organizers had set aside five parking areas in the towns surrounding the Vimy monument, and had metro buses ferrying spectators into the site.  After arriving at our parking site, everyone had to move through waiting lines for two hours until we could clear security, and head to the memorial site.  The day was sunny and hot, and we began to realize that the heat was going to make for a long day.

The process of getting to the site broke up our group, and we were not able to re-unite at the memorial.  The crowds there were huge, and there never seemed to be a bathroom that was free.  The event had the feel of a rock concert that was about to start.  There was a group of Canadian Gunners  from 2RCHA who were assigned to provide the 21 gun salute with L5 pack howitzers, and the memorial had been closed off for security.  We found spots to sit or stand, and waited for the ceremony to get underway.

The ceremony included a Marching Contingent from the CAF and the RCMP, a 21 gun salute, and fly-pasts by both replica biplanes and modern jets.  There was live music and dancers, and letters that were written home during the war being read by actors.  The speakers included the Governor General and Prime Minister of Canada, the Prince of Wales, and the President of France.  The Last Post and Rouse were played on an antique bugle that had actually been used during the Vimy Ridge battle 100 years before.  Overall it was a wonderful ceremony.  Afterwards, we climbed the stairs of the memorial, and visited the Grieving Lady; we had come a long way to see her.  The National Memorial is huge, and a beautiful work of art.  Hopefully the memorial will stand the test of time.

We still had to make our way back to our buses, and hotel.  It was a late night, and we didn’t make it back until 11:00pm.  Sgt Smith managed to locate a pizza place that was open late and delivered, and we had pizza and cold drinks for dinner, before turning in for the night.  The buses were leaving early in the morning for Paris, and home.

The next morning we managed to make it to the Paris airport on time for our flights to Toronto.  It was time to say goodbye to France, and our tour guides, and bus drivers, and new friends made on the trip.  We had a four hour layover in Toronto, before our flight home.  Our members landed in Saint John at 8:30pm, and we went our separate ways home.  It had been an excellent trip.

As previously mentioned, this article is meant to record the experiences that our members had during the 100th anniversary tour of the Battle of Vimy Ridge.  It is not a detailed historical account of the sites that we visited, but would serve as an excellent base to research from, and I would encourage anyone who is interested in the history of these places to dive into the history books.  Our Regiment’s own history book touches on many of the places that we visited

Ubique

Lt J.A. Guthrie