January 27, 2009

Vimy Ridge
Robert Rogge

The war was delayed. Frantic retreat and pursuit ceased, and the armies caught their breaths. The regiment moved into divisional reserve and, company by company, to Arras.

Arras was an ancient town famed for its fragile lace; at least that was the town their fathers knew when its medieval glories were blown to bits. The Arras Ian saw was a new town, twenty-six years old.

But Vimy Ridge was ancient. Their fathers had fought there.
Ian came with his company in thirty-hundredweights that spilled a flood of khaki, kilts, and Glengarries over the tailgates and into the town. Noncoms warned: the last lorries would leave at twenty-one-hundred hours. Anyone, drunk or sober, not back would walk fifteen miles to camp.

The uniformed men fanned across the cobbles to the pubs and into the side streets where hard, painted women waited.

Taxis took them to the Ridge. Short days ago, the same taxis had trundled feldgrau youths to the Ridge. Now the Jerries were gone, and these new men had come to see where their fathers had fought.

Vimy Ridge rose stark and long and, to the soldier's eye, was awe-inspiring. It tyrannized the countryside, the object of uncounted deaths. Men from the Maritimes to the Rockies had conquered the Ridge. White-crossed acres ranked their graves. And, later, a humble and grateful nation raised the beautiful monoliths.

A new generation of trees and growth covered Vimy's flanks, but the crest grew only grass and clipped hedges. The Memorial was there, and it held their breaths.

Slender Canadian marble spires reached to the sky and held the eye with their simple, clean beauty. The broad stone base anchored the ridge and they pulled off their Glengarries and stared. A slant of sun struck the shafts, highlighting the graven, sorrowful Motherhood kneeling over its fallen sons.

Old sweats who had served in the Great War paced the concreted trenches where once they had crawled, and remembered. Green grass carpeted the folds where once men had sprawled in fear and death. And only the measured tread of hobnails remained to echo the guns. Perhaps it was the sun's shafts that made them turn away and blink.

Or perhaps it was the names, row upon row, etched into the marble. The Missing. Casting back across the years, some found names dimly remembered. The new men could only stare dumbfounded at the awful reality. They were only names, but so many.

They looked to the east where Jerry waited and knew that they, in turn, would walk the Valley of their fathers.

In the evening the lorries rumbled them away. In the summer's distance, the spires on the ridge, clear in the afterglow, touched the sky.

—from Fearsome Battle


Robert Rogge, an American, fought with the Canadian Army in World War II. He wrote of his experiences in Fearsome Battle. Under the pen name, Robert Elliot, he is also author of The Eagle's Height, a novel of air combat in World War I.

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