Even for someone immersed in the Second World War, the site of the Vimy Ridge monument in France was a reminder of the tragedy and sacrifice made by thousands of Canadians on April 9, 1917.
Trail native Lorne Doubleday was an aircraft mechanic during the Second World War but on a November day in 1944 he and a friend made a trek to visit the Canadian National Vimy Memorial.
The memorial, which was unveiled in 1936, honours the First World War Canadian soldiers killed or presumed dead in France who have no known grave. The centrepiece of the 250-acre preserved battlefield covers a portion of the ground over which the Canadian soldiers made their assault during the initial Battle of Vimy Ridge.
There are over 11,000 names inscribed on the memorial, which took 11 years to build. And on the day of its unveiling, by King Edward VIII, over 50,000 people were on hand.
There were few people there on the day Lorne Doubleday made his visit in 1944 but in an eloquent letter home to his mother Annie Doubleday, who lived on McAnally St. in West Trail, the 21-year-old soldier vividly described his emotions as he toured the site highlighted by the 90-foot twin towers that represent Canada and France and the unity and sacrifice both countries made.
Lorne’s sister Sybil Cowlin shared the heartfelt letter, dated Nov. 7, 1944, with the Trail Times on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge.
“I could hardly hold back the lump in my throat,” Lorne wrote.
“There is something about this place … that fills a person with awe. Since I have been over in France and Belgium, I have seen places where grim and bitter fighting has taken place, but it had never affected me quite like this moment.
“It is hard to explain the beauty and grandeur of that huge white monument. Words just don’t seem to find their place in trying to draw you a picture of our day up there.”
Doubleday described the statues meticulously crafted to the point where “a person almost expects them to talk.”
Yet even in silence, he felt the presence of the soldiers who gave their lives on that day.
“Inscribed in granite are the names of the sixty thousand Canadians who fell in the last war. As we read the names in the rock, it made us wonder just why people could forget so easily and allow another war to spring up at us.”
Doubleday described the landscape near the monument that had “been churned up by thousands of shells and mortars.”
And while grass had begun to cover much of the damage, the impact still reverberated.
“Only the grass that has grown covers the grim scene that must have met the eyes of anyone,” during that battle.
They visited a Canadian cemetery nearby and were reminded of the 1915 poem “In Flanders Field,” by Lt. Col. John McRae.
“The poem about the crosses row on row, tells the story, but if a person sees it for himself, it is more vivid,” wrote Doubleday.
He was struck by the proximity of the front lines, when hand-to-hand combat was part of the battle.
“What amazed me was the distance, or should I say lack of distance that separated the two armies. The front line position of the Canadians was only about 25 yards from those of the Germans.”
There was so much to absorb that day, said Doubleday but he had one thought as he and his friend headed back to their base.
“I think all of us had the same thought in mind when we left that historical Ridge, and that was that although monuments are beautiful and awing [sic], they can’t replace the men who died on the battlefield and we hope they won’t forget and let another war ever threaten us again.”
According to his sister Sybil, Lorne returned from the war and lived in Vancouver and eventually settled down in Kamloops serving as a carpenter helping war veterans build homes. He passed away in 1996.
Lorne Doubleday’s letter:
Lac Doubleday L.S.
I have just finished writing you an air letter , but as I had some more news to tell you, I decided to write this too.
Your mail has been coming through very well lately and it sure is swell too. I seem to get all my mail in bunches. I will get 7 or 8 letters one day and then I will go another week before I get any more. Don’t think I am complaining, because I am not.
The other day Gris and I went to Vimy and saw the Canadian War Memorial of the last war. Although we had been planning to get there for quite some time, this was the first chance we had, so naturally we took it. As I drove up that road leading through thick wood now turning with the approach of autumn, I could hardly hold back a lump in my throat.
There is something about the place around there, that fills a person with awe. Since I have been over in France and Belgium, I have seen places where grim and bitter fighting has taken place, but it had never affected me quite like this moment.
I jumped out of the truck, camera slung over my shoulder and made my way over the grass covered hill to the huge monument which stands on the top of the Ridge overlooking the quiet country below. Although the weather wasn’t at its best, we soon busied ourself by taking pictures. It is hard to explain the beauty and majestic grandeur of that huge white monument, words just don’t seem to find their place in trying to draw you a picture of our day up there. The statues on the sides of the monument are so realistic that a person almost expects them to talk as he is walking by. At the base, inscribed in the granite are the names of the sixty thousand Canadians who fell in the last war. As we read the names in the rock, it made us wonder just why people could forget so easily and allow another war to spring up at us.
We took several pictures around the monument itself. Just as we were leaving, the sun broke through the clouds, and the two huge pillars glistened in the morning sun.
From the monument, we went to one of the Canadian cemetaries. On the way we passed through ground that had been churned up by thousands of shells and mortors. Incidentally, I forgot to mention that the Ridge and quite a bit of the surrounding ground has been donated to the Canadian Govt by the people of France. The ground has nearly every square yard turned over by the terrific barrage that was laid. Nothing has been disturbed and only the grass that has grown, covers the grim scene that must have met the eyes of anyone who stood around there in 1918. At the cemetery a beautiful but tragic sight greeted us. The poem about the crosses row on row, tells the story, but if a person sees it for himself, it is more vivid.
We then went to a section of the front lines of 1918. What amazed me was the distance or should I say lack of distance that separated the two armies. The front line position of the Canadians was only about 25 yards from those of the Germans. The trenches themselves have been kept in their natural state, except that instead of sand bags, there are now cement bags piled around the walls.
Both sides had dug themselves well in, and were living deep under the ground. There were tunnels that went for miles, or so it seemed, underground. At the entrances of each tunnel, cemented into the wall, were various weapons used by either side.
After seeing all the sights there were to see, we climbed into the truck and headed back to camp. I think all of us had the same thought in mind when we left that historical Ridge, and that was; That although monuments are beautiful and awing, they can’t replace the men who died on the battlefield, and we hope they won’t forget, and let another war ever threaten us again.
Well Mom, you always taught me to get lots of sleep and seeing as how I will have a hard day ahead of me tomorrow, I think I will close and get some shut eye.
Good nite all.
Love and kisses