Vimy Ridge, or Hill 145, was the scene of some of the fiercest trench warfare of World War I: almost two full years of battle, culminating in its capture by the Canadian Corps in April 1917. It’s a vast site, given in perpetuity by the French to the Canadian people out of respect for their sacrifices, and the churned land has been preserved, in part, as it was during the conflict. Of all the battlefields, this is the best place to gain an impression of the lie of the land, and to imagine how it may have felt to be part of a World War I battle.
Near the visitor centre, long veins of neat, sanitized trenches wind through the earth, still heavily pitted by shells beneath the planted pines. Under the ground lie countless rounds of unexploded ammunition – visitors are warned not to stray from the paths. Free guided tours of the trenches are run by friendly, bilingual Canadian students, who supervise the visitor centre. An exhibition in the centre illustrates the well-planned Canadian attack and its importance for the Canadians: this was the first time they were recognized as fighting separately from the British, which hugely influenced their growing sense of nationhood.
On the brow of the ridge to the north, overlooking the slag-heap-dotted plain of Artois, a great white monument reaches for the heavens, inscribed with the names of 11,285 Canadians and Newfoundlanders whose bodies were never found. Back from the ridge lies a memorial to the Moroccan Division who also fought at Vimy, and in the woods behind, on the headstones of another exquisitely maintained cemetery, you can read the names of half the counties of rural England.