In the summer of 1989, right after finishing my first year of university, I went to France. Not to backpack around the country, nor to soak up some culture and inhale bread and cheese until I could no longer fit in my clothes, although I ended up doing all those things, too. No—I was there to work as an official guide at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial.
The memorial is built on what is still considered, by many Canadians, to be hallowed ground. It had been there, at the great crest of land looking out over the Douai Plains, that Canadian forces triumphed against German forces in the Battle of Vimy Ridge in April 1917. Although the land they won was lost in later offensives, the Canadian victory in that battle was one that resonated in my young country for many generations.
As a guide at Vimy, I spent my days at two sites at the memorial park: either at the memorial itself, which stands at the very edge of the immense ridge and can be seen for many miles; or at the park’s reconstructed system of trenches and tunnels. That summer—so long ago, and yet so clear in my memory—we were honored by the visits of a number of veterans of the Great War.
One day, I recall, an entire busload of British veterans arrived, and delighted us with their recollections of the war. They were all in their nineties, some even older, and of course they are all gone now. Yet my memories of those remarkable men, their reaction to seeing the rebuilt trenches, and their emotions upon recalling the loss of friends and the horrors they experienced—all those moments are so clear to me that they might have happened yesterday.
It’s true that the war began a century ago. It’s true that living memory of those years is all but gone. But it doesn’t seem distant to me. I shook their hands, you see. I shook the hands of the veterans I met that summer, and I looked them in the eye, and I thanked them. I promised I would never forget.
I’ve been asked, many times now, why I write about the First World War. I think, in some ways, it was inevitable. I grew up in a house where it was a constant subject of conversation—my father, a university professor, taught its subject for many years, and at his suggestion I read the poetry of Wilfred Owen, and the memoirs of Vera Brittain, when I was still in my teens.
But it was only when I went to Vimy, and saw its beautiful memorial for the first time, that I truly began to understand. There are 11,285 names engraved on the memorial—the names of every Canadian, as far as could be determined, who was killed in France during the war and who had no known grave. Take a moment, now, and think of that: more than eleven thousand men who disappeared. Some of them are certainly buried elsewhere, under a headstone that reads “Known Unto God” or “A Soldier of the Great War,” but many of those men simply vanished into the mud, muck, and devastation of the battlefields. For their families, the Vimy Memorial was, and is, their personal memorial.
And that is why, when I observe the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War this August, I won’t be thinking about how long ago it took place. I’ll be thinking, instead, of how I am connected to it by something as simple as a handshake, given to me by men who once stood on Vimy Ridge when it was a battlefield, and my promise that I would never forget.
Writing Prompts Crew would like to thank author Jennifer Robson for allowing us to post the above article.
She took the time out of a very busy schedule to provide this.–Thanks, Jennifer!
Jennifer Robson is the international bestselling author of Somewhere in France, as well as the forthcoming After the War is Over (William Morrow/HarperCollins, January 2015). She lives in Toronto with her husband and young children. To learn more about her work, visit her website at www.jennifer-robson.com or her Facebook page at www.facebook.com/AuthorJenniferRobson.
Photo of Jennifer Robson: Natalie Brown/Tangerine Photography