Finally, I'm back. Well, okay, I've been back from France since Sunday night, but time with my family and time decompressing (not to mention readjusting to this time zone) has meant I had no opportunity to blog until now.
It was an incredibly busy couple of weeks overseas. My first six days, from the 2nd through the 6th, revolved around the case of Private Herbert Peterson, 49th Battalion, CEF - the discovery of his remains (and those of his fellow, as yet unidentified, soldier), an examination of the battlefield on which he died, his funeral service and interment in La Chaudière Military Cemetery south of the city of Avion. I spent a lot of time at the site where his remains were found, attempting to piece together the circumstances of what had happened to the two Canadians. It wasn't easy and I'm not entirely happy with the results. Urban sprawl (although it was the cause of the discovery), continued industrial expansion (there's a huge coal slag in the midst of the 49th Battalion's battlefield), 1917 maps which don't necessarily agree with one another, and 1917 narratives which also conflict with the ground all combine to confuse the situation. Nonetheless, there is everything to be said for seeing the ground upon which the history is written in order to gain the best possible understanding of what happened. Walking along the still-evident trench line - what I believe is the final objective of the battalion that night - and the communication trench with which it intersects - left an amazing impression. Over the next few days I revisited the site several times for media interviews and filming by a documentary crew (I told them I have a face for radio, but nobody listened). I also had the honour of meeting with the family of Private Peterson at the site, as they wanted to know what I could tell them about where Peterson had died, and under what circumstances.
April 7th revolved around the actual funeral for Peterson. It began at the tiny Saint Louis Chapel within the walls of the Citadel in the city of Arras. There, a private funeral service was held by the family, with VIPs invited. A few others, like myself and other members of the team who identified Peterson, were also fortunate enough to attend. It was an incredible setting and a very moving ceremony. The casket was then placed back in the hearse for the journey to La Chaudière Military Cemetery. The interment ceremony at the cemetery was also extremely well attended, with VIPs, a veterans' contingent, the entire Canadian Forces' contingent from the Vimy commemorations, media, and the public on site. Again, another very moving ceremony. I understand that seeing Peterson placed in the cemetery provided a sense of closure for his family, and for me as well. Having him buried in a cemetery alongside fourteen other members of the 49th killed that night seems to set some cosmic sense of balance right.
I missed the Freedom of the City ceremony on April 8 in the city of Arras. I needed to prepare (cram, if you like) for battlefield tours which DND historians were tasked with carrying out of the Vimy Ridge battlefield for members of the CF contingent. I hadn't originally been assigned this duty, but I was asked to help out, and was certainly eager to do so. I was comfortable with the prospect having helped carry out battlefield tours in the Netherlands in 2005.
April 9th was the big day for the commemorative activity - the main event - at the Vimy Memorial. Broadcast coast to coast, I'm sure I don't need to say much about what happened. My only role was as a spectator, and was just glad to be there for the event.
I carried out two battlefield tours on April 11. The full tour - designed by Steve Harris and Jean Morin from the Directorate of History and Heritage - lasted about six hours and stretched from the 1st Division memorial to the south to Notre Dame de Lorette in the north. Tour stops included the 1st Division memorial, the artillery memorial, Arras Road Military Cemetery, the centre of the artillery concentration (near La Targette), the 3rd Division memorial, the trenches and tunnels in the Vimy Memorial Park, the Vimy Memorial, a drive around the pimple, Notre Dame de Lorette French military cemetery, Cabaret Rouge Military Cemetery, and the Neuville St. Vaast German military cemetery. A long day, but well worth it, and I think the troops got a lot out of it. If nothing else, we were able to impress upon them that the battle was more than just the fight for Hill 145, and was a varied and complex operation very much worth our attention. Jean carried this tour out on four occasion, Steve twice. Steve also led two tours to Dieppe, one of which I was fortunate enough to go on.
I finally had a break on the 12th and an opportunity to go off on my own (albeit without a car). I hopped a lift on the tour bus to Vimy to near La Chaudière where I visited the cemetery and took photos of Peterson's now installed headstone and grass-covered grave. Then I walked along the road to Givenchy-en-Gohelle and up the north end of the ridge to the Vimy Memorial. Along the way I wandered down the path to the Givenchy-en-Gohelle Military Cemetery, a small site but one with several members of the 38th Battalion, CEF, whose history I am writing in my spare time. I was finally able to spend some time at the Vimy Memorial itself, pretty much only having seen it from afar up to this point. I also had a chance to visit Canadian Cemetery No. 2 and Givenchy Road Cemetery before getting a ride back to our location in Lille.
All in all, it was an incredible experience, something my words might fail to convey.