Appendix - The First Liberation of 1918. Écourt-Saint-Quentin, France

The First Liberation of 1918
Go to content
Appendix: The First Highway of Heroes, the Arras-Cambrai Road

The Canadian National Memorial Park on Vimy ridge is located in the Department of the Pas-de-Calais in France, between the cities of Arras and Lens. The park crowns the highest point of the ridge and enjoys commanding views of the plain below. Looking to the North, the horizon is dominated by the two massive slag heaps of Loos-en-Gohelle. Their silhouettes mimic the pyramids of the Giza Plateau and act as testimony to the coal mining heritage of the region.

These exceptional views, combined with the serene forests attract local hikers and joggers in great numbers. However, most of the visitors who come to the site aren’t there to admire the slag heaps or stroll on wooded paths. They come to admire the impressive Canadian National Memorial to the Canadian participation in the Great War of 1914-18. The monument has the double function of commemorating the more than 11,000 Canadian soldiers who died in France during the conflict, and who have no known grave.

Vimy ridge, and its neighbour the Notre-Dame-de-Lorette ridge were the most important strategic positions on the Western Front, between the Somme and the Belgian border. The French and the German invaders contested these heights in 1914-15. By the end of 1915 Notre-Dame was definitely in French hands, but the Germans were solidly entrenched on Vimy Ridge. This stalemate persisted into the year 1916, except that the armies of the British Empire relieved the embattled Poilus (French soldiers) who were released for service to other fronts, notably to Verdun. (Verdun is the most famous French battlefield of the war, but the largest French Military cemetery in the world is on Notre-Dame-de-Lorette ridge.) By the end of 1916 the Canadian Corps of four Divisions (which formed an integral part of the armies of the British Empire) set up camp in the Vimy sector. If we exclude the operations at Passchendaele in the fall of 1917, the Canadians remained in the area well into 1918.

The Canadians most famous victory of the war was the capture of Vimy Ridge in April 1917. The famous position was one of many objectives of the greater British offensive remembered as the Battle of Arras 1917. The Canadians captured their objective and achieved a stunning victory. The Ridge remained in Allied hands for the rest of the War.

For posterity Vimy is more than just a battle: It has become a genuine Canadian myth. More than that, Vimy is considered a founding event of the Canadian Nation. The word Vimy stirs patriotic emotions in Canada like La Bastille does in France, Trafalgar in England and Yorktown to our cousins in the United States.

The seeds of this myth were planted soon after the battle, when the first communiques announcing the capture were sent to the international press. The myth became fully entrenched in the national consciousness post-war, when the Canadian government chose Vimy ridge as the spot to erect its main National Memorial to the Great War. The magnificent, moving and now famous sculptures by Walter Alward complement the beautiful panoramas that surrounds it. Frankly, it’s simply breathtaking. Even the most disinterested visitor cannot help but be moved by the statue of Mother Canada mourning her fallen sons. The myth of Vimy will endure. We shouldn’t be surprised that the majority of the Canadian tourist-pilgrims, wishing to connect with the Canadian Battlefields of the Great War, go to Vimy first. In fact, I suspect it is often the only site they visit.

The pilgrims are not only Canadian: Thousands of British tourists take in the site, as Vimy is a regular stop on Great War battlefield tours from the United Kingdom. Vimy gets equal billing with the Menin Gate in Ypres and the Thiepval Memorial on the Somme. Throngs of French school children flock the Ridge to hear the strange accents of the guides from Canada. (The park is manned year-round by guides from the Canadian Veteran’s Affairs and recruited from students at Canadian Universities across Canada, including the author’s daughter. Go Kelsey!)

We spoke of Vimy as having become a Founding Myth for the Canadian Nation. I resisted accepting such a grandiose pedigree to what was to me, only one of many battles involving Canadian troops in the Great War. For the student of the Canadian operations on the Western Front, it is just that: One of many battles. Even General Sir Arthur Currie, commander of the Canadian Corps in 1917-19, testified to the Canadian Battlefields Memorials Commission that he did not feel Vimy was the Canadians’ greatest victory. That said, I have certainly softened my analytical position and become more poetic as I have gotten older. I realize that posterity CREATES myths, or possibly posterity NEEDS myths. Either way the people need myths and Vimy is a worthy candidate for this honour. And why not? At Vimy we saw soldiers who represented all parts of Canada (geographically as well as ethnically) who were united in a common objective of international import. Vimy might have been the first truly unifying endeavour for Canada, and this on foreign soil.

As we have seen, the Vimy Memorial has joined the pantheon of shrines of remembrance and is in good company with Thiepval and the Menin Gate, as well with Verdun, the Chemin-des-Dames and Notre-Dame-de–Lorette. In doing so Vimy has eclipsed other Canadians feat of arms in the Great War. Much less remembered are the Canadian operations in Belgian Flanders in 1915, '16 and '17 and the Somme in 1916. Even more obscure is the urban fighting in Lens in 1917, combat that anticipated the bloody battles of Stalingrad in a later war. Canadian blood was also mixed with the soil of the Santerre, during the fighting to free the Paris-Amiens railway in August 1918. Also foggy is our memory of the great campaign along the road from Arras to Cambrai that raged from August 26 to October 9th, 1918. This narrow battlefield, 30kms long is the setting of this book.

The Arras-Cambrai road is quite ordinary today… We can travel from one end to the other in less than 30 minutes. However, in 1918 getting to Cambrai was not so simple. During six long weeks, Canada sacrificed its industry, treasure and her sons for this provincial road nobody had ever heard of.

All along this old Roman road, the military cemeteries are conspicuous. We spot them in fields beyond each shoulder, and at regular intervals. Like milestones the cemeteries record the progress of the advance of 100 years ago. Once Arras is a few kilometers behind the traveller, the cemeteries become almost exclusively Canadian.

Despite this, on the Cambrai road we must work harder than at Vimy to imagine the great drama that occurred here. There are no surviving trenches, or visitor centers. There is no nationalistic symbols or scripted rhetoric to hear as there are no permanent state-funded guides. Besides the cemeteries the only other reminders of the Canadian’s passing are two modest Canadian National Memorials. We find one by the road at Dury and the other in Bourlon wood. They don’t get much attention and seem to exist out of context. They are much less inspiring or grand than the one at Vimy. Their cube shape is plain and there are no sculptures to inspire the visitor. It’s certainly easier to let yourself be inspired in a mythical place like Vimy or Verdun.

That said, I am a firm believer that obscurity does not reflect the importance of a place or past event. For this reason, I am not shy to refer to the Arras-Cambrai Road as Canada’s Highway of Heroes. It’s a lofty name but I think it deserves it.

On September 6th, 2003, Cyrille Schott, Prefect of Pas-de-Calais, France, said the following of the September 2nd, 1918 capture of the village of Cagnicourt by the Canadians: (Cagnicourt is a village just south of the Arras-Cambrai road and its capture was an important step on the road to Cambrai.)

Not long ago, it was said that today’s Canada was born in the trenches at Vimy in April 1917.

In 1914, Canada entered the war as a colony, a mere extension of Britain overseas; in 1918, she was forging ahead to nationhood.

If Vimy was the first step in this direction, perhaps Cagnicourt was the second.

He could have been talking about Écourt-Saint-Quentin.

The then Canadian Minister of State, Don Boudria seemed taken aback when he heard the Prefect's speech. He told the author at the time that the Prefect represents the French Government, so he can't say just anything...He is expressing the opinion of the French Republic. The Arras-Cambrai Road was a road to Canadian nationhood.
Since I wrote the above, a new generation of French people have taken an interest in the Highway of Heroes. On September 1st, 2018, a road sign was erected on the Arras-Cambrai road in Vis-en-Artois that announces that the traveller is travelling on: Canada’s Highway of Heroes, La Voie Sacrée du Canada. I am happy.
Michel Gravel
August 23, 2018
Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit.
Back to content