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What to feel at the Vimy Monument

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We parked, my two young sons and

In a modest lot below the hill,

Not half-filled, and climbed the shallow lift

The two columns (prayerful hands) rising

Into a grey morning sky.

“Ridge” conjures a cliff or crag

Vimy is a hill, a feature on an alluvial plain

You might see the same near Winnipeg.

“Your grandfather was at Vimy Ridge,”

My father would say in his stentorian tone.

He spoke of his father-in-law, the short,

Patient, 19th-Century man, my camping companion,

Into whose bed I climbed when scared, 

Whose snores could be stopped

By a gentle tap on the iron bedstead.

The French and Brits had sacrificed

Tens of thousands trying to dethrone

The German castle kings, and then 

Our wild colonial boys were charged 

With its taking in the spring of ’17.

The Canadian approach was new, they

Perfected night raids, made Jerry afraid,

Captured prisoners, collected data

Had one major setback, “a raid in force” 

With gas, gassing themselves instead. 

Currie, the real-estate failure from Victoria

Plodding organizer, unlikely General

Who’d rather spend munitions than his men

Put Jerry’s head down with mass barrage

And gave our boys a plan that could succeed.

And ninety years on, we climbed ground

Where Grampa’s regiment had mucked

The Royal Winnipegs, whose motto

Nomine Hostie Aciea means

“named by the enemy in battle.”

The Monument: what a shock to find

Not one image of Victory carved

Into the yielding stone, rather

One is met with half-naked figures

Personified pure grief.

No rifle, no machine gun or cannon

Adorns the work, its theme

Not “we won,” but merely loss:

Woman longs for son or lover,

Man for son or friend or youth’s end.

My stooped, pipe-smoking grandfather, 

Who at eighty could out-march me,

Knew what such mourning was,

Never out-marched the grief of losing

His whole platoon upon that hill.

And as I stood weeping, my two boys

Felt awkward, came and touched my hand;

This is what to feel at Vimy Ridge,

This small hill drenched in needless blood:

Commemorate not Victory, but loss.

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