Mikaela learned about WWI in a fairly traditional way before the trip: names of leaders, important battles, weapons development & new inventions, significant dates. But Katrianna hadn't formally studied WWI yet, so (unconstrained by the rigorous course requirements self-imposed by her 9 year old sister) her flights of fancy soared to WWI aircraft. She made every model in a vintage (cardboard) airplanes kit and knew the characteristics & insignias of Allied and Central combatants. Of course, there was also what she'd gleaned from the battles of the famed WWI flying ace, Snoopy... which led, to my surprise, to M&K memorizing every trivial detail about the real Red-headed Baron and his legendary dogfights (even those that weren't against a beagle).
Both girls recited "In Flanders Fields" and fashioned paper poppies. And our whole family watched "What Have We Learned, Charlie Brown?" which is Charles Schultz' award winning cartoon salute with many Memorial Day facts interspersed with the Peanuts gang's car troubles (a classic, crank start automobile that repeatedly thrilled K - "Look, Snoopy's car!" - on our visit).
We began very early on a chilly morning in Albert, fog obscuring the view of Mary & Jesus who stood atop the Notre Dame de Brebières. The compact town centers around its fountain and the quiet town square across from the basilica. Many of the original buildings had been destroyed in the war and were rebuilt in the art deco style, but the church was restored faithfully and turned out to be my favorite in all of France. It is not very big or imposing and has little of the gilding or ornateness of France's famous cathedrals. But, it is airy, serene and beautiful in its simplicity and its soothingly fanciful interior design.
It is also the setting for a salient WWI story. The church and its steeple served as an important landmark and base for soldiers who could see the Virgin from miles away, took up their stations under her gaze or passed by her on their way to the front lines. She loomed above as a symbol of sanctity and refuge until 1916, when Germans shelled the basilica, knocking over the statue but not fully dislodging it. Divisions grew among the troops as to the portentous meaning of God's divine hand holding the "Leaning Virgin" so precariously over their horrific conflicts. Ultimately, however, they seemed unified in their conclusion that the war would surely end when Mary joined them on the ground. So, in a truly ironic act combining both their hope and despair, all sides proceeded to take potshots at her golden likeness for months. The Germans, after being unsuccessful in toppling her but then taking possession of the cathedral themselves, even promoted a new rumor that whoever shot her down would lose the war. Finally, in 1918, British forces came under heavy artillery fire emanating from the basilica's tower. A colonel sent immediate orders to defy a newly instituted army order to spare all buildings and "blow the place to blazes." Fearful of reprisals from his superiors, a young captain - who was left in charge in the temporary absence of a general and his brigade major - hastily drew up plans of "imaginary trenches" that lay just beyond, but directly in the line of, the basilica and then commanded the battery officer to fire hundreds of rounds at those strategic trenches. Aided by such worthy accomplices, Mary did fall that day and, within months, so did the Central Powers.
After some time talking with Albert's welcoming greeters at the small but interesting visitor center-museum, we set off uncertain of what we'd find along the Circuit road. We're not war buffs and I'd had to do a lot of research beforehand only to find that there is not much to see in terms of intact WWI era sites. Development had occurred, the landscape had changed and we weren't going when the archetypal poppies would be in bloom. But, we drove down tiny villages' narrow streets lined by stucco houses and dilapidated barns, past farmers out plowing their fields and through the bucolic countryside that had once been overrun with soldiers and destruction - really, unable to reconcile the peaceful and colorful present images with the stark black & white war photos we'd studied. Then again, we couldn't help but wonder if that old stone farmhouse across the meadow was the very one Snoopy had crawled through enemy lines to get to so he could order a root beer. . . But, the most poignant symbol throughout the journey was the recurring cemeteries and their low walls concealing white crosses. The highway runs beside them, sometimes takes abrupt 90 degree turns right about them, and constantly provides glimpses of distant vistas and fields planted in furrows which skirt around scattered, small plots on the horizon.
By mid afternoon, we reached the Vimy Memorial, the most well-preserved site of our WWI expedition. France gave the land to Canada in 1922 in recognition of the Canadians' war efforts and their victory in recapturing the ridge from the Germans in the Battle of Vimy Ridge, April 1917. Almost all of its 220 acres are very hilly, but they are very small hills, like successions of dozens of pitchers mounds covered in short clipped, light green grass. These bumps and lumps of earth had been made as the terrain was exploded, exhumed, shored up or piled into heaps during the war. In other areas, there were large craters, created either by bombs that fell from above or in detonations, accidental and intentional, from interred munitions. Trees had been replanted and grown tall since being leveled during combat, but Katrianna couldn't run through them like she wanted because most of the ground had not been cleared of explosives and there were signs everywhere warning visitors to really "Stay off the grass" or else. The woods and fields were very still and empty with the exception of roaming 'grounds crew' sheep who kept the grass neatly shorn and tread lightly enough to avoid tripping any land mines (ewe, I admit I felt a little sheepish just watching them. . . but, by God's graze, there was no need to pull the wool over our eyes). [Sorry, I'd been pretty restrained up to this point, but still no excuse for that - returning to somber tone now.]
Instead, M&K played hide & seek and eagerly timed their runs through the mazes of trenches, recreated for permanence with walls made from concrete-filled sandbags and brick & metal grating flooring where there once had been streams of running, muddy water. Still, the kids' "war games" stopped every time there was a break in the trench walls for gunner lookouts, where you could stand and see the trench line occupied by the Germans just yards away, or at the numerous, small cubbyholes along the walls where soldiers had kept provisions or had to sleep.
The only way to enter Vimy's Grange Subway, an extensive tunnel system dug by British engineers, was on a guided tour. (Usually, we avoid guided tours, which are generally crowded, sometimes costly and often circumvent all of the fun for M&K, who - in their travel preparations - always call dibs on places we plan to visit and spend the preceding weeks reading up, memorizing facts & anecdotes and jealously guarding the privilege of playing tour guide when we finally arrive.) But, this time, our experience was excellent. The guides are college grads who won fellowships to spend four months showing visitors around the memorial and take their off days to sightsee. Our docent was extremely knowledgeable and fully lived up to the Canadians' friendly reputation, causing M&K to proclaim unequivocally that Vimy's was our very best guided tour in all of Europe.
After descending into the subway (and adjusting for tunnel vision), we noticed telegraph wires tacked to blackened chalk walls, damp with humidity and filled with musty odors. The tunnels were dimly lit, but were not nearly as dark as they had been during the war (pitch black for several yards at a time). We learned that, even inside the tunnels, no one was secure and the Allied soldiers, intent on expanding their own tunnel network, could often hear the digging of Central tunnelers just a few feet away. In fact, one technique was to purposely dig under the other guys' tunnels to set explosives beneath them and carry on the warfare underground.
There were many tunnel offshoots and mysterious barred dugouts that held supplies or ammunition caches (Katrianna likened them to the gladiators' storage rooms we'd seen in Rome's Colosseum). In one area, much of the booty found when reopening the tunnels was heaped into a rusty pile of machine guns, old cans of food, pistols, mildewed uniforms, grenades, wheelbarrows, utensils and unidentifiable rubble. Two weapons-savvy Belgian boys, also in our tour group, were ecstatic to try on helmets, wield hatchets and sip from canteens while M&K watched, mouths agape, from a safe distance.
There were few rooms, all very small, sparsely furnished with wooden slat chairs, cots and a couple of rickety desks in the officers' quarters. Besides the officers, the only soldiers regularly permitted to sleep inside the subway were the runners. Those were the men, required at a moment's notice, who would deliver and receive messages between the commanders below and the officers on the front lines. They had to sprint through miles of dark and harrowing tunnels and then emerge out onto battlefields to dodge sniper fire. Often volunteers from the regular ranks, they had a life expectancy, we were told, of 1-5 days.
Although there was no mention of it in our guide's narrative or the visitor center displays (probably in order to avoid any association with or semblance of bringing him positive notoriety), what made the runners' experiences even more intriguing was that Hitler, as an infantryman, had been a runner in WWI. And, during WWII, the then führer took great pains to protect Vimy from vandalism (even showing up there for a photo op to prove it). Though accounts I read differed, one interpretation was that he had been so impressed with Vimy's authenticity, he ensured its preservation - perhaps as a personal tribute to his early war career or, some say, due to his "soft spot" for fallen WWI soldiers. Another explanation was that Hitler respected it because, unlike other WWI memorials, Vimy did not exult in weaponry paraphernalia or vilify Germany, but stood only in remembrance of the dead. For whatever reason, he stationed Waffen-SS troops to guard the memorial for the duration of WWII.
As it turned out, our "tour of duty" to honor the veterans of WWI made our own world a little smaller, our alliances to others a little stronger and greatly magnified our gratitude to all those who served and brought us peace. Our debt continues to the men and women who do the same for us today, on Armed Forces Day, Memorial Day and always.