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.