More background info:
For info about the Battle of Arras
in general see under Wellington Quarry
The Battle of Vimy Ridge started at the same time as the Battle of Arras further south, namely at just before dawn on 9 April 1917. The attack had been carefully prepared for and planned for months, including the digging of tunnels both as “subways” i.e. for soldiers to move under cover towards the front, as well as for the planting of mines underneath the German lines.
All four divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force
fought together for the first time. They stormed the Ridge supported by advance shelling in so-called “rolling barrage”, i.e. rounds of shelling moving ever further forward in increments according to a strict timetable. So shelling was ahead of the advancing infantry and forcing the defenders to stay under cover. Within the first day, the first German line had been taken, the rest of the Ridge the next day, by 12 April the battle was over and the Germans had retreated to behind their third line. The Canadians
Vimy Ridge, a high elevation affording strategically important views over the surrounding plains, had been the target of Allied, especially French, attacks before, ever since Germany
had occupied the Ridge from October 1914. In 1915 great efforts by French troops were made to retake the Ridge but (unlike at Notre Dame de Lorette
) failed, with huge numbers of casualties. So the Canadian achievement of April 1917 should not be underestimated.
Since the success at Vimy Ridge quickly became the source for great pride in Canada
, it was decided to pick the site for a grand memorial monument
. A design
competition was held in 1920, and the winner was the design by Canadian sculptor and architect Walter Seymour Allward. It consists of two 90-foot (27m) high pylons (standing for France
) clad in white limestone sourced from a quarry in what today is Croatia
. The monument stands on a base of over 10,000 tons of reinforced concrete.
The “front” of the monument overlooks the surrounding plain. The intermediate level features a wall with engraved names of over 11,000 Canadians who went “missing in action, presumed dead” and have no known grave (another ca. 7000 missing Canadians have their names on the Menin Gate
). In total, some 66,000 Canadians lost their lives in WW1. And the Vimy memorial complex is dedicated to all of them.
On the front balustrade stands a lone sombre-looking female figure representing Canada
as a mourning nation (“Mother Canada”). A good dozen further statues are incorporated into the monument standing symbolically for concepts like “honour”, “faith”, “sacrifice”, “peace” and so on.
In 1922, France granted the land around the Vimy monument to Canada in perpetuity. Construction of the main monument took until 1936. Its inauguration was headed by King Edward VIII and was attended by tens of thousands.
Much of the battlefield was left as it was, so you can still see many craters from shelling and mines (now covered in grass not mud, though). In 1925-27 some original trench lines were reconstructed.
A first visitor centre opened in 1997 and a stretch of the “Grange subway” tunnel was made safe for visitors (originally it had been 0.8 miles/1.25 km long).
Between 2001 and 2006 extensive renovation work on the main memorial was undertaken that involved not only cleaning but also replacing some parts of the memorial monument and re-engraving names on it.
For the centenary of the Battle of Vimy in 2017 an all-new Visitor Education Centre was added and it was inaugurated by Queen Elizabeth II exactly on 9 April (the date of the start of the battle a hundred years before).
Also new for the hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Vimy is a “Centennial Park” north-west of the main monument, consisting of a circular area with newly planted trees, benches and a bugler statue facing the monument.
Since only parts of the battlefield on and around Vimy Ridge were fully cleared after the war, there are large areas where unexploded ordnance (UXO) has to be expected to be still in the ground between the trees of the forest that has regrown since the war. Hence these areas are off limits, marked by red UXO warning signs. The grass in these areas is kept short by a flock of some 400 sheep.
The official name of the complex is “Canadian National Vimy Memorial” and it is one of only two Canadian “National Historical Sites” outside Canada (the other one being the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial in the Somme).
Hundreds of thousands of visitors come here every year, making this one of the most popular WW1
sites on the Western Front in France
What there is to see:
When I visited Vimy in the summer of 2016 as part of a long trip across Europe (all the way east-west from Minsk
) I was under a little time pressure, because I had four other sites on my itinerary that day. That is why I gave inspecting the main monument
up close a miss (for a description see above
), just photographing it from a distance, and rather concentrated on the visitor centre, the Grange tunnel and the battlefield with reconstructed trenches.
The main thing for me was to get on a guided tour of the underground tunnels, which I managed (there is a maximum number of 25 participants, so better sign up early or come with some time flexibility, especially in peak season). These tours are led by Canadian students who come here on special volunteer missions. Having a narration in Canadian English added an extra element of authenticity!
The tunnel is primarily a stretch of the so-called “Grange subway”, so it was primarily a tunnel for troops to advance to the front line in, safe from above-ground shelling. There were also some tunnels branching off to the sides, some still with tunnelling equipment inside them. A stretcher indicated that the tunnel systems also had dressing stations if not even full field hospital wards (cf. Wellington Quarry
The tunnels are ca. 26 feet (8 m) under the surface and in part quite narrow (under 4 feet (1m) and generally dank, but at least there’s electric light. Yet it’s not for claustrophobia sufferers. Children under 12 are only allowed in under individual supervision of an adult (one adult per child).
Back above ground I walked to the two trench systems opposing each other with a part of former no man’s land in between. The trenches are said to be close to the original, but I found them very artificial. They are lined with “sandbags” made of concrete. That makes them sturdy against the elements, for sure, but it very much looks and feels like a not fully authentic replica. There is also a small concrete bunker and a couple of mortars painted dark green.
In the no man’s land in between and around the trenches you can still see a landscaped churned by shelling, full of craters of varying sizes. Bigger craters are from underground mine explosions. You are not supposed to walk into any of these craters but are to remain on the designated pathways. The woodlands around are also fenced off and lined with UXO warning signs. Only the sheep whose “job” it is to keep the grass short are allowed to wander around freely. Apparently they’re not heavy enough to set off any old UXO.
The visitor centre had a small exhibition about the Battle of Vimy Ridge (and the Battle of Arras), with text panels in three languages (French, English and German) and several artefacts of display, such as rusty tins of food rations, field telephones, machine gun ammunition and so on. Some film footage was also shown.
The new Visitor Education Centre was still under construction when I visited Vimy in 2016 (it opened in 2017), so I can’t say anything about it from first-hand experience. But going by the photos I’ve seen online the exhibition, called “We Will Remember” Exhibit, seems to be a rather interactive affair with lots of touchscreens and audio stations in between the glass display boxes of objects like in the older visitor centre – whether it may even have replaced that older centre entirely, I do not know, but it seems likely. There’s also a space for temporary exhibition on changing subjects.
Also part of the Vimy Memorial Park are two Canadian war cemeteries and a couple more plaques and monuments. One honours the Moroccan Division that in 1915 as part of a French offensive managed to briefly take Hill 145 from the Germans, but could not hold it.
All in all
this is one of the most comprehensive WW1
-related sites on the Western Front, certainly by area size. The most unique element is the guided tours of the tunnel. The trenches feel a bit fake in contrast, but the craters of the former no man’s land partially make up for that. The gigantic main monument is surely impressive by size and its white stone cladding, but the statuary on it I think is a little bit on the over-the-top pathos side of things. The corresponding monuments of Thiepval or the Menin Gate, for instance, manage with much much less symbolic pathos. Still this is a site well worth visiting when travelling in the region, and for real WW1-history buffs it’s an absolute must-see anyway.
ca. 4.5 miles (7 km) south-west of Lens, and a good 6 miles (10 km) north of Arras
, in the Artois region of Pas-de-Calais, north-eastern France
Google Maps locators:
Access and costs: relatively easy only by car; free
Details: To get to the Vimy Ridge Memorial Park you really need your own means of transport (unless you’re on a guided tour, of course) and ideally also a SatNav (GPS). Coming from Lens is easiest, just take the D55 south of the centre and stay on it until you come to the monument and/or the visitor centre further south. There are free parking spaces in various locations in the memorial park.
Coming from Arras
take the D264 (Route de Lens) and then the D63 (Route de Béthune), at the large roundabout take the third exit onto the D937 and at Neuville-Saint-Vaast turn right on to the D55 and carry on until you come to the visitor centre.
The main monument and the memorial park as such (including the trenches) are freely accessible year round (possibly round the clock but at least between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. – sources are not entirely clear on this), although some parts may be closed to the public in adverse weather.
The Visitor Education Centre has the following opening times: in summer Wednesday to Sunday from 10 a.m. to 12.30 p.m. and 1.30 to 6 p.m.; rest of the year from 9 a.m., but closing at 5 p.m.; closed Mondays and Tuesdays according to the centre’s own website, though other sources include both days but with more limited hours for Monday (afternoon only) and also stating slightly varying hours between the winter and summer seasons. To be on the safe side I’d say try to hit a time in the second half of the week and aim at either ca. 10 a.m. or early afternoon.
Guided tours of the tunnels (register at the visitor centre) take place between half an hour after opening until half an hour before closing. Tours last between 20 and 30 minutes. Admission for individuals is on a first come first served basis. Not recommended for people with mobility issues or claustrophobia sufferers.
Admission to the memorial park, including the visitor centre and the trenches and tunnels, is free of charge.
Time required: depends how much of everything you want to see here and how much time you want to devote to the grand monument and the cemeteries. The tours of the tunnels last a maximum of half an hour, the trenches and no man’s land can be done within such a time span too, the visitor centre exhibition may take between another half hour to an hour, so you’ll need a minimum of two hours in total, quite possibly longer.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
The closest major other WW1
site you can actually already see from Vimy Ridge (esp. from the Canadian cemetery) is Notre Dame de Lorette
. It’s a ca. 15-minute drive. And at the foot of the hill that that site is located on you can find the Centre d'Histoire du Mémorial '14-18
(formerly “Lens’ 14-18”).
A little bit further away, but also within easy reach (ca. 20 minutes drive) is the Wellington Quarry
See also under France
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
The region around Vimy and Lens is not regarded as the most attractive in France
. Lens is a mining town and you can see a few high spoil heaps from that dominating the skyline. It does, however, also have a branch of the famous Louvre in Paris
. The landscape around Lens and Vimy is characterized by agriculture, not unpleasant, but not overly scenic either.
- Vimy 01 - Canadian memorial
- Vimy 02 - big monument
- Vimy 03 - UXO warning sign
- Vimy 04 - but the sheep are apparently fine
- Vimy 05 - new education centre under construction
- Vimy 06 - inside the old visitor centre
- Vimy 07 - artefacts on display
- Vimy 08 - old cannon outside
- Vimy 09 - steps down into the dug-outs
- Vimy 10 - inside a communications tunnel
- Vimy 11 - quiet-tunnelling equipment
- Vimy 12 - yet more dug-out tunnels branching off
- Vimy 13 - trench reconstruction
- Vimy 14 - German trenches and bunker
- Vimy 15 - old mortar
- Vimy 16 - Grange trenches
- Vimy 17 - Moroccan memorial
- Vimy 18 - Canadian war cemetery