Eight kilometres north of Arras on the D49, Vimy Ridge, or Hill 145, was the scene of some of the worst trench warfare of World War I: almost two full years of battle, culminating in its capture by the crack Canadian Corps in April 1917. It's a vast site, given in perpetuity to the Canadian people out of respect for their sacrifices, and has been preserved, in part, as it was during the conflict. There's an information centre (tel 03.21.50.68.68, www.virtualmemorial.gc.ca; daily 10am5pm) supervised by bilingual Canadian students, who run free guided tours (AprilNov daily 10am5.30pm) and can fill you in on all the horrific details. You really need your own transport to get there, as the nearest bus stop is forty-five minutes' walk away.
Near the information centre, long worms of neat, sanitized trenches meander over the now grassy ground, still heavily pitted and churned by shell bursts beneath the planted pines. There are examples of dugouts hideous places where men used to shelter during heavy bombardments and where makeshift hospitals were set up. Beneath the ground lie some 11,000 bodies still unaccounted for and countless rounds of unexploded ammunition. Signs are still required to warn people against straying from the directed paths.
On the brow of the ridge, 1500m north of the information centre, overlooking the slag-heap-dotted plain of Artois, a great white monument towers, like a giant funerary stele, rent down the middle by elemental force, with allegorical figures half-emerging from the stone towards the top, and inscribed with the names of 60,000 Canadians and Newfoundlanders who lost their lives during the war. It must have been an unenviable task to design a fitting memorial to such slaughter, but this one, aided by its setting, succeeds with great drama.
Back from the ridge, there's a subdued 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.
Pages in section ‘Vimy Ridge’: La Targette.