One Man’s Sacrifice: A Pilgrimage to Vimy Ridge

Lugging my suitcase through the Paris Metro, onto the high speed train, down the cobblestone streets of Arras and up four flights of stairs to my hotel room, had seemed like an ordeal. Until I visited the trenches of Vimy Ridge.

canadian trench at Vimy Ridge France

Canadian trench at Vimy Ridge France

“Imagine carrying a 30-kilogram pack on your shoulders and navigating through this tunnel as shock waves of artillery shells pounded the crumbling chalk walls around you,” said Ashlee Beattie, a Veterans Affairs Canada guide, as we walked the Grange subway tunnel at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial Site.

Stretcher Bearers at Vimy Ridge 1917 Library Archives

Stretcher Bearers at Vimy Ridge 1917 Library Archives

Once they arrived at the trenches, soldiers faced fetid water, vermin, stench, enemy fire, gas attack, fear and shell shock. And that was if they stayed below. If they went over the top, they faced the horror of No-Man’s Land, the muddy gap between the German and Allied lines.

sleeping tunnel at Vimy Ridge France

sleeping tunnel at Vimy Ridge France

“Vimy is not just about horror,” said Beattie, “It is a testament to man’s determination, sacrifice and bravery.”

I’m retracing the footsteps of my great-grandfather, Peter Biely, who died on these battlefields. Based on his enlistment documents, we had a lot in common. We both arrived in France during a cold rainy season. He stood 5 feet 8 inches tall, as do I. His complexion was fair, his hair light-brown and his eyes blue – as are mine.

Peter Biely Vimy Ridge France

Peter Biely served in WW1 in France

While we both lugged 30-kilograms of baggage, mine would return home. His would not. It, along with all traces of his body, would remain somewhere on the Douai plains of northern France, just one of 66,655 Canadian fatalities of WWI.

Now, I’ve come to pay my respects – a pilgrimage to the memorial that bears his name.
“Vimy Ridge was a very important strategic site. Rising 61 metres above the plain, it had been held by the Germans since 1914 and protected valuable mining and manufacturing districts,” she explained. “The Canadian Corps’ objective was to seize it.”

Guide at Vimy Ridge trench

Guide at Vimy Ridge trench

Today, the flocks of grazing sheep and green rolling hills present a pastoral scene. The reality is that the hills are actually grass-covered mine craters and, although it is a myth that grazing sheep are regularly blown to bits by buried grenades, an estimated 30 million tonnes of unexploded shells still line the former Western Front.

Arras Battlefield today Credit Derek Hatfield Flickr

Arras Battlefield today Credit Derek Hatfield Flickr (click for link to licence) 

 

“If you see something on the ground, don’t pick it up,” said Beattie. “It may not be inert.”
The Interpretive Centre provides further insights into the soldiers’ experience. Unlike the German army which was comprised of professional soldiers, the Canadian army was drawn of volunteers made up of ordinary Canadians.

My great-grandfather was one of those volunteers. Born in Ukraine in 1881, he had emigrated to Kamsack, Saskatchewan seeking a new beginning. But not well-suited to the rigors of farming, by the second winter, he faced a difficult reality. An infant daughter had already died and it appeared doubtful the family would survive another harsh winter. So, with the prospect of a salary, he enlisted and shipped out with the 44th Battalion, arriving in France on January 14, 1917. He would be dead less than six months later.

Biely Family WW1

The Biely family in WW1. My grandmother is the smallest girl, holding flowers.

The battle itself is described in the Centre’s exhibits. At dawn, on Easter Monday April 9, 1917 through a driving sleet, all four divisions of the Canadian Corps stormed the ridge. Although the German defences were well-fortified, by mid- afternoon the Canadians had taken the crest. Three days later, they seized the rest.

“The victory at Vimy is considered a coming of age for Canada as a nation,” explained Arlene King, Site Director. “It was the first time the Canadian Corps had advanced together and it was a turning point in the war for the Allies.”

Although the 91-hectare site has much to offer, most of the 750,000 annual visitors head to the Canadian National Vimy Memorial. Unveiled in 1936, it continues to hold a haunting power. Towering limestone sculptures such as “Canada Mourning Her Fallen Sons” are moving tributes to sorrow. Considered one of the most beautiful war memorials ever created, time, wear and weather have resulted in significant damage.

Vimy Ridge Memorial Credit Andy Hay Flickr

Vimy Ridge Memorial Credit Andy Hay Flickr (click for licence)

Thanks to official designation as a Canadian National Historic Site in 1996, it received the bulk of a $31 million injection of cash for restoration. Shrouded in scaffolding for several years, construction was completed in April 2007 to commemorate Vimy’s 90th anniversary.

Restoring it in a manner that respected the integrity of architect Walter Allward’s original design, presented many challenges.

“The most significant problem was water damage caused by the freeze/thaw cycle. It obscured many of the names inscribed on the memorial,” explained Peter Craven, Senior Technical Advisor on the Canadian Battlefield Memorials Restoration Project. “Because the names flow continuously in alphabetical order across mortar joints, special masonry techniques were needed.”

Vimy Ridge Memorial Photo by Guillaume Flickr

Vimy Ridge Memorial Photo by Guillaume via Flickr (click for licence)

My great-grandfather’s name is inscribed on the Vimy Memorial as he perished two months later during offensives intended to consolidate Vimy’s gains.  His commander, Lieut-Colonel Davies, reports in the war diary:

May 7th: Troops at rest. Some accidental wounding by snipers.

May 8th: Clear day. Light wind. Front and support line are constantly shelled by the enemy. 

May 9th: Enemy still very troublesome. Decided to extend trench positions to connect with nearby trench. Very successful but heavy casualties.

May 10: Enemy shelled during day and made extensive use of grenades and gas shellers;

May 11th: Battalion experienced highest casualties since Oct. 1916

May 12-19th: Relieved for R & R at ( concerts and entertainment) Chateau De la Haie

May 19th to 31st: Returned to trenches. Shelling continued.

May 31st: Battalion moved forward to carry out order # 58      

 The diary of Order #58 reads: 

  “On the evening of June 2nd, assembly of the troops was completed at 11:50 p.m. All companies in position but very crowded. Companies moved out after gas bombardment of German positions by over 600 projectors. Company “B” was badly cut-up by machine gun fire and became disorganized but were rallied and gained brewery with very reduced numbers. Support Company was held up by strong German positions in the gunpits but carried on and lost 30 men at the enemy front lines. Right assault Company “C” occupied La Coulotte but lost contact with Left Company and were surrounded by the enemy at 1:00 am. They maintained their position until dawn when they withdrew having lost 78 men. Left Assault Company “D”, nearest to the Avion Enemy Trench  were caught by severe machine gun fire from all sides and no trace of its officers or ordinary rank could be found. Only two wounded  men returned and could give no clear story of what happened.” 

 Apparently, the village of La Coulotte was occupied by a strong enemy garrison. Private Peter Biely was reported as Killed in Action, along with 75 other ordinary rank infantry, in what became known as “The Affairs South of the Souchez River.”

 The time from when he touched French soil to his death was less than six months. No trace was ever found.

Wanting to stand on the ground where he stood his final moments, I headed to the village of La Coulotte. Today, a quiet French town, it was once the epicentre of heavy fighting.

Isolate grave at battle site Library Archives

Artists rendition of isolated grave at battle site Library Archives

“Sometimes there was nothing left to recover,” explained Jean-Marie Prestaux, Director of Tourism for Arras, itself the site of heavy battles “Artillery shells could reduce men to nothing. In battlefields like this, what did remain was ploughed back into the earth and gone forever.”

According to Commonwealth tradition, soldiers were buried where they fell. More than 7,000 are buried in 30 cemeteries within a 16-kilometre radius of the Vimy Memorial. In sharp contrast to the stark, sombre black crosses in the German mass cemeteries, the graves are clustered in small intimate gardens, carefully tended by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Many white crosses bear names and moving inscriptions. Others, representing unidentified soldiers, read only “Known unto God.”

Some, like my great-grandfather, have no grave stone at all. For those 11,285 soldiers, the Vimy Monument serves as a focus for contemplation. The site itself enables people to connect with the soldiers’ experience on a personal level. As I did.

Private Peter Biely, soldier at Vimy Ridge

Memorial created by my mother for her grandfather, Private Peter Biely, soldier at Vimy Ridge

May He Rest in Peace.

Travel Planner

Canadian National Vimy Memorial Site: For detailed information visit Veterans Affairs Canada at  The tunnels are open May – November. Visitors wishing to view them should pre-book tours by contacting the Interpretation Centre at Vimy: Tel: 011-333-21-50-68-68

Where to Stay: Lens and Arras are the closest towns. Arras, located 8-kilometres from Vimy, offers a historic square flanked by fascinating Flemish-Baroque row houses, a war museum and its own underground tunnels. Official Arras Tourism site: www.ot-arras.fr Hotel Diamant in Arras is well-located, reasonably priced and has helpful English-speaking management.

Transportation: Arras is 11.5 hours from Paris by car or 50 minutes by TGV high speed train. Inter-city buses, rental cars or taxis are also available for transportation from Arras to the Vimy memorial. See RailEurope.com

Official Website for France Tourism:   http://in.france.fr/

Before You Go: The Canadian War Museum in Ottawa presents exhibits and artefacts on Canada’s military history. The Library and Archives Canada’s Genealogy Services consultation room is located on the 3rd floor at 395 Wellington Street in downtown Ottawa, Ontario. 

In 2017, on the 100th anniversary of Vimy Ridge, I plan to return to the Vimy Ridge Memorial Site and La Coulotte, France  accompanied by one of my grandchildren, my 11 year old grandson Jaden Gonsalves, Peter Biely’s great-great-great grandson.

I am very grateful to Veteran Affairs Canada, Library and Archives Canada, France Tourism, Arras Tourism, Rail Europe and the staff at Vimy Ridge Memorial who assisted me with the research for this story. Particular thanks to Lt. Col Phillip Robinson for his invaluable assistance in helping me to understand the War Records. Thank you sincerely.



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Showing 22 comments
  • esperanza
    Reply

    Still so touching. You did a marvellous tribute to your G-G and he would have been proud of you as are we. Love, Mom XXX

  • Patti
    Reply

    What a gift you gave yourself by visiting this historical site, Vimy Ridge, in remembrance of your grandfather and by returning with your grandson you can now pass on the story/memory to your grandchildren. I love the old black/white photos of your family. I have a few of my distant relatives captured in black/white and they are treasures.

  • Janice Chung
    Reply

    Absolutely lovely tribute to your great grandfather. I have been to other war memorials in France, but haven’t yet made it to Vimy Ridge. Thank you for sharing the story and the travel information. I’ve bookmarked it for when I go to visit.

  • Culture Tripper
    Reply

    A very moving story, I hope someday to visit Vimy Ridge. Yesterday the television news in Toronto covered a memorial service organized by Canada’s Ukrainian community for Ukrainian-Canadian veterans and those killed in battle. Many, many served and sacrificed and are not forgotten.

  • Billie Frank
    Reply

    What a lovely tribute to your great-grandfather who gave his life during WWI. Was just reading something about the trenches. What terrible conditions these brave men fought under. My husband’s father was shot down during WWII- his remains weren’t found until 1957. He’s buried in a grave with five others from his plane at the National Cemetery in Santa Fe, which is where coincidentally, we now live. It’s always emotional when we go visit. Sad to lose these young men.

    • Michele Peterson
      Reply

      Yes, those trenches sound like they were hell on earth. Your own family wartime remembrance is equally touching. How incredible that you are now living near his grave.

  • Irene S. Levine
    Reply

    How wonderful that you made this trek back in time and can share it with your own grandchild. I loved your story! The visit must have been quite emotional and you conveyed that to your readers~

  • Kay Dougherty
    Reply

    What a fascinating story and pilgrimage! Your great-grandfather certainly had a difficult life and a brave but tragic end. It’s a great idea to go back with your grandchild – I think something like this will really help him connect to his past in a meaningful way that couldn’t be achieved via any other activity or story.

  • Anita
    Reply

    Beautifully told, Michelle, and a great gift to your own grandchild, as well. Thank you for sharing your moving family story, and enlightening those of us who, like me, were not already familiar with Vimy Ridge.

  • Rachel Heller
    Reply

    What a beautifully-written tribute to your great-grandfather! While I haven’t toured Vimy Ridge, I’ve visited other WWI sites, including a restored trench and a cemetery. Even without a family connection, it’s very thought-provoking to visit these sites and imagine the horror of WWI battlefields.

  • Nathalie
    Reply

    What a great tribute. Thank you for sharing your great grandfather’s story. We were in Arras a few years ago and although we didn’t make it to Vimy Ridge, we did visit the Wellington Quarry just outside of Arras which is also a site filled with history.

  • Laura @Travelocafe
    Reply

    I haven’t been to the trenches of Vimy Ridge. It is worth the visit. Even after all this time we must not forget the past and never repeat the mistakes that we have made.

  • Kristin Henning
    Reply

    How moving for you to make this trip and investigate the battle as well as your great-grandfather’s background. We visit many, many battlegrounds and cemeteries, and whether we have a personal connections or not, it is amazing what an intimate experience it is when you can see the lay of the land.

  • alison abbott
    Reply

    What a wonderful tribute you have given to your great grandfather. I’m sure he would be very proud and you were amazingly brave to retrace his steps. Not sure I could do the same. Hard to imagine being in the trenches of Vimy Ridge. How war has changed (and not) as the horrific events of the weekend have demonstrated in Paris.

  • Lyndall @SeizeTheDayProject
    Reply

    You’re written such a touching tribute – I’m sure your great grandfather would be proud of it. How fortunate you are to have photos of him, and of the family.

  • Jo
    Reply

    Really touching and a wonderful tribute. Plus it was such an interesting post and brought history alive.

  • Jan at retiringNotshy!
    Reply

    Nothing can quite prepare you for a trip to the Somme region. We visited in September this year and whilst I do not have the family connection that you have I was totally overwhelmed by the experience. Thank you for making more people aware of the realities.
    I hope you also had a chance to enjoy some time in Arras, we found it to be a lovely place

  • budget jan
    Reply

    It is hard to think of the soldiers who don’t have graves, whose bodies were ploughed back in. It must have been horrible in the trenches and how the soldiers managed to keep up morale is incredible. Excellent article with lots of info and planning material.

  • Kathy Marris
    Reply

    Such a moving tribute to your Great Grandfather and the horrors of the War. I visited my Great Uncle’s resting place at Lone Pine at Gallipoli a few years ago and it was a very emotive experience. It is hard to imagine the hardships that they endured during wartime. Great post.

  • Life Images by Jill
    Reply

    It must have been an amazing and emotional experience to visit Vimy Ridge and learn more about your Great grandfather, and stand on that some ground. It is hard to imagine what they went through. My great uncle died in the first few days of the Gallipoli conflict. His is one of the unknown graves, but I hope to honour him one day by visiting. You have written a wonderful tribute to your Great Grandfather. I’ve come to you today from Lifestyle Fifty linkup. Have a wonderful weekend ahead.

  • Mar
    Reply

    thanks for sharing this , i’ve always kind known the story but you uncovered some great stuff on great great grandpa! wish i could’ve met him

    • Michele Peterson
      Reply

      Thanks Mario …you’re very welcome to join us when we go to France for the 100th anniversary of Vimy Ridge.

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