Wednesday, August 28
It rained in the night, but the clouds appeared to be dispersing in the morning. We welcomed the cooler temperature. By 9:30, we were packed up and on our way to Honfleur in France with a side trip to Vimy Ridge. Not long after 11:00, we arrived at the Vimy Ridge Memorial, a gleaming white monument on a ridge rising above the farmland. It dominates the countryside and we could see from kilometres away as we drove towards it. In April of 1917, Vimy Ridge was the site of the first battle in which all of Canada’s four divisions fought together as part of an attack of British forces against the Germans who were entrenched on the advantageous high ground. The Canadians took “their” ridge, Hill 451, at the cost of thirty-six hundred dead and seven thousand wounded men. Canadian pride in the achievement of their men fostered a new sense of nationhood that eventually resulted in Canada becoming a country independent of Britain. After the war, France donated the land to creat a park and in the 1930s, the Canadians built the impressive monument that stands today.
We visited the monument, then proceeded to the information centre where there are displays and information about the Canadian war effort. As we walked there, we passed fields pockmarked with hillocks and craters that were created by the explosions of one hundred years ago. Sections were roped off as too dangerous because of unexploded armaments. Sheep graze the roped-off sections to keep the grass trimmed; no sheep were harmed by detonated explosives while we were there.
We went on a “Tunnels and Trenches” tour, which took us into a reconstructed section of tunnel, a very small part of the six kilometres of tunnels dug by hand by the Royal Engineers to provide troops safe access to the front lines. They also tunnelled to plant explosives under the German lines. Standing in the tunnel, imagining hundreds of young men standing in the darkness (a dim light every 20 metres was the only illumination) and the cold (a steady twelve degrees that far underground) waiting to climb up into the thick of the battle was a very moving experience. Emerging into the sunshine, we then proceeded through a section of rebuilt trenches, that, at the time of the battle, were filled with knee-deep mud and only twenty metres away from the German lines. The trenches twist and turn to prevent an enemy from jumping into the trench and having a clear line of fire in both directions. The turns also limit the damage that artillery could inflict, confining the extent of the explosion. After the tour, we drove to the nearby military cemetery for British, including Canadian, soldiers; many headstones were inscribed “Unknown Soldier” or “Known only to God.”
We left Vimy and drove towards Honfleur, our next destination. On the way, we stopped for lunch at an “aire”, a roadside complex providing fuel, food, restrooms, picnic areas and even shower facilities for travellers. Aires are dotted along the highways every 20 kilometres. Along the freeway, we frequently encountered toll booths charging from eight to thirteen dollars (about forty dollars for our three hundred kilometre trip). We checked into our hotel without problems, but after Marilynn and I had been relaxing in our rooms for about half an hour, a man and his daughter came to our door, very puzzled about why we were in their room. It turned out to be a double-booking mistake by the hotel and we were allowed to stay in the room, for which we were grateful because we really didn’t want to pack up and haul our suitcases elsewhere.
We ate dinner at the hotel restaurant. The three of us who order risotto de poulet (chicken and rice) enjoyed our meal very much; Marilynn’s fish and chips were so-so. One item on the menu that caught our eye was steak hache de cheval; since cheval means “horse”, we were speculating about the source of the meat, but it turns out it just means hamburger with egg on top.
After our return to the rooms, two of us decided to go for a walk; the other two declined their invitation to join them. The names cannot be disclosed for the protection of the lazy.