One of the most terrifying experiences of my life occurred at Vimy Ridge, about 50 years after the famous First World War battle was over.
After fudging my application to say I could actually speak French, I had the profound privilege of scoring a summer job as a tour guide with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the body which maintains the historic site and nearby Vimy Memorial. My Job as a guide was to conduct tourists through a small section of the underground tunnel network that honeycombs the ridge, to give them a taste of the astonishing feat of Canadian military planning, and combat engineering that led to Canada’s battlefield victory in capturing the ridge on April 9th 1917.
Vimy was the first time that all four divisions of the Canadian Corps fought together as a single force under Canadian leadership, and was a seminal event in forging our identity as an independent nation, and I was proud to share the story with the many busloads of visitors we greeted that summer.
Danger – no entry
I was also intrigued to explore, in my spare time, the miles of tunnel that lay beyond the safe, lighted section we walked the tourists through. Every chance I got, I ducked under the ropes with the silly “DANGER – NO ENTRY“ signs on them, and, flashlight in hand, scampered back into the labyrinth.
The limestone tunnels were constructed in order to move troops, under shelter, up to the front lines, and were the temporary home to thousands of men who waited, in the dark, while overhead the largest artillery barrage ever unleashed to that point in world history, rained down upon the German lines.
To explore them was fascinating. Myriad side tunnels led to underground rooms, some still strewn with artifacts, and those tunnels led in turn, to others, leading even deeper underground. The best part of the exploration though, came from reading the tunnel walls.
The troops, as they waited, amused themselves by carving and writing of the tunnel walls, leaving an extraordinary library of graffiti, that ranged from the typical crude and graphic soldier’s fare, to elaborately carved regimental coats of arms, to poetry, and poignantly, since close to 10,000 of them were killed or wounded in the battle, last wills and testaments.
One day, exploring alone deep within the ridge, and further up a series of side tunnels than any sensible person should ever venture, I came across a treasure trove of graffiti, where a troop of brave but frightened men had stood on the eve of battle, signing their names in pencil, and carving bas relief sculpture with the tips of their bayonets. Entranced by my find, I carelessly rushed forward, failing to notice the rubble littering the floor, and ended up sprawled in the dust, my flashlight flying from my hand and clattering down the tunnel floor, where it died.
Alone, in utter darkness, and lost in a subterranean maze, I could feel the rising panic. My heart was pounding, and I started to pant. I was suddenly ice cold, and very afraid. It took an eternity, but eventually I was able to order my thoughts, and control my breathing enough to begin organizing a coherent self rescue plan.
Slowly, painstakingly I began crawling forward, down the tunnel in the direction of the fallen flashlight, orienting myself by the touch of the tunnel wall to my right. Inch by inch I advanced, until finally I could feel it beneath my hand. The lens felt intact, but the flashlight body felt much too light. The flimsy end cap had dislodged, allowing the batteries to spill out.
Hope gives strength, and a small success encourages renewed effort, so in no time at all the constituent pieces of the flashlight were all retrieved and safely in my lap, for a careful re-assembly by touch.
When finally the beam of the flashlight pierced the gloom of the tunnel, the gravity of the situation descended on me again and I started to shake. With my new found fluency in French I shouted at the top of my lungs “MERDE, MERDE, MERDE!”
Carefully re-tracing my steps towards the exit I could only marvel at the courage of those soldiers who had spent long, agonizing hours shivering in these very tunnels, battling not only the darkness, as I had, but the possibility of death or dismemberment. Their bravery was extraordinary, and they deserve to be honoured as the heroes they are.
I commend to anyone a visit to the stark Vimy memorial, possibly Canada’s most important war memorial, and a tour of the nearby Vimy battleground, where the outlines of the trenches can still be discerned snaking across the rolling countryside. Once there, a visit to the tunnels is a must – but do me a favour – don’t duck under that well labelled rope, eh?
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