Vimy Ridge (Spring battlefields 2017: Day Three) - Kathryn's history blog

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Vimy Ridge (Spring battlefields 2017: Day Three)

We started this morning by driving to Notre-Dame-de-Lorette at the north end of the Vimy Ridge. Here the 1915 battle for the ridge is commemorated, with a large French Cemetery and memorial. There is also a memorial church, built on the site of a previous chapel. Built from a white stone, it stands out brilliantly on the hillside.


Opposite, a new memorial was installed in 2014 called the Ring of Remembrance. I am not a fan of modern memorials and commemorative artwork, but it is nice that this memorial remembers the names of everyone who died in the Vimy and Arras areas, including British, French and German names together, listed alphabetically. The striking thing here were the walls of identical names: the side and a half of Müllers, the three of Smiths.

Just down the road, we next visited Cabaret Route Cemetery, built  on the land from which the Canadian 4th Division attacked on 9th April. The gradient of the ridge is steep here and even after crossing the road and following the track up into the field, it was still impossible to see very far uphill and certainly not to the brow.

Further on, we visited La Targette Cemetery, which was a relatively small Commonwealth cemetery next to a much larger French one. They had been used for the burial of those from the Field Ambulances and later was expanded to include 500 French burials from the Second World War.

Next we headed across the Vimy Ridge to the Canadian Memorial Centre. It was very busy with coach trips, but as at Newfoundland Park, there were extra staff on site who coped well with it. We only needed to wait five or so minutes before we were able to take a guided tour of the tunnels which protected Canadian troops up the final part of the trench system before attack. The Canadian students who guided us were, as ever, very friendly and interesting. 


The trenches here, preserved since the 1920s, are a very good indication of how the trench system worked, and how the lines differed for the attacking British and defending Germans. The whole area is really well cared for and was an interesting visit.

Next we drove east off of the Vimy Ridge to Farbus, to the extent of the British advance at the foot of the ridge. The landscape on this side was very different from the Western side, and it immediately opens up to the flat Douai plain. Although now just open fields, it is clear to see why holding the Vimy Ridge was of such great importance for commanding the plateau. 

Back onto the ridge and round the lanes we came to Lichfield Crater Cemetery. This had been a mine blown during the German counter-offensive in late-April 1917 and was used as a mass grave for British soldiers who fell in the area. It has been preserved as a perfect circle, indented against the surround ground level. This is a less-visited cemetery, in part because of the very rough lane to get to it. However, it isn't peaceful as the motorway runs parallel to it. 

Back on the west edge of the ridge we next visited the German Cemetery at Neuville St Vaast. 44,831 German soldiers are buried here from across the Arras and Vimy area and the cemetery is vast, even with four names to most crosses.
Our final visit of the day was in Roclincourt, where the Canadian Corps' sector met that of the 51st (Highland) Division. It was in this area that Sgt William Gosling of Swindon won his Victoria Cross. In the battle’s preliminary bombardment a faulty sixty-pound cartridge had been fired and had fallen just ten feet in front of the trench. No more shells could be fired from this position while it remained in the ground. Two sergeants tossed a coin to decide who would go to disable the fuse. This risked both entering No Man’s Land and detonating the bomb. Gosling lost the toss and climbed up out of the trench. He survived, having been able to unscrew the fuse and return to his line without raising the attention of the Germans. Two months later he was gazetted with a VC.

From here, returned to the holiday cottage for a much needed cup of tea. I later set out on a 'short' run to visit one of the cemeteries in the neighbouring village of Chérisy. Following the signpost, Sun Quarry Cemetery was much further along the lane than I had thought. Chérisy had remained in German hands until Autumn 1918 and the graves date from that offensive. I continued along, thinking I'd be able to take a track back on my right to where I could see Fontaine-lès-Croisilles Church. Unfortunately, there was no such track and I ended up running into Hendecourt and back up the next lane, almost doubling my intended distance to 8km. Still, it was a good way to see the neighbouring hillsides.

Tomorrow we will be completing our visit of the centenary of the April offensive, by visiting the British front from Arras south.
Kathryn

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