Growing up in Canada, Vimy Ridge is a name that all students come across in our history textbooks. I will confidently assume that a majority of Canadians will recognize and remember its name. They might not remember any details or they might not even remember why it’s important to Canadian history in the first place. BUT they will remember the name. To the extent that when I was telling people I was moving to Lille (a city most Canadians are unfamiliar with) I would say that it was about a 40-minute drive away from Vimy Ridge. Everyone would immediately have an idea of where in France I was referencing.
But what was surprising to me was that the name Vimy Ridge was not familiar to many French people I met when I finally arrived in France. Not many Northerners know about it; most had never even heard of it. But for me, I knew I needed to make a trip out to visit Vimy Ridge. It’s almost like a patriotic obligation. And I made sure to take my French boyfriend along with me so he could spend some time learning about Canadian history in his own country.
Vimy Ridge is a wonderful day trip to make when you’re in Lille. I invite you to continue reading to learn a little bit more about it to hopefully convince you to stop by!
“Maintain peace. Nothing can be gained by warfare. Settle disagreements rather than go to war over them because one war brings on another…”
Harry Boyce – a Canadian Veteran
What is Vimy Ridge?
First of all, let’s address a pressing question: what even is Vimy Ridge? To be clear, Vimy Ridge is an escarpment where the Battle of Vimy Ridge took place during the First World War. So today, you can visit the Canadian Memorial, the visitor centre, the tunnels as well as the grounds.
I won’t go into the details of what necessarily took place during the battle (since you can learn about that at the site). I will mention, however, that it was a group of 4 Canadian divisions that succeeded in taking back the ridge. This was an incredibly significant moment in Canadian history and is why a majority of Canadians remember its name. It was one of the first times that Canadian forces were united, separated from Great Britain, and achieved great success, despite the terrible losses. It is believed to be one of the moments that shaped the national identity of Canada in the international community.
As I said earlier, most Canadians might not remember why they know the name Vimy Ridge but they will know it was an important aspect of our history. And I must say, I was shocked to learn that most French people I have met, didn’t even know that Canadians played a part in the war, let alone have a giant memorial on French soil. If this statement applies to you, I highly recommend taking the time to go visit Vimy Ridge!
Where is Vimy Ridge and how do I get there?
Vimy Ridge is south of Lille towards Arras, roughly halfway between Lille and Amiens. By car it is incredibly simple; it is about a 40-minute drive along the A1. Sadly, it is very difficult to visit Vimy Ridge by transit from Lille or even from Arras. My best suggestion would be to visit by car. Or if you’re able to, it is about a 40-minute bike ride from Arras.
If arriving independently is not accessible to you, various companies organize tours to several important battlefields, including important Australian sites, in the area. They tend to be a bit more expensive because they will take you to multiple sites, however, it is an option if you do not have access to a car.
What to do at Vimy Ridge?
Stop by the visitor’s centre
Even though I knew what Vimy Ridge was, I didn’t necessarily know what to expect when arriving at the site. Was it mainly a memorial? Is there a museum or exhibition? I wasn’t necessarily sure how we would spend our time.
First of all, driving up to the site there were many Canadian references. There were maple leaves as decorations and the road is even called “Chemin des Canadiens”. For me, it was such a cool feeling; feeling just a tad bit closer to home.
We parked at the visitor’s centre and started there. We were greeted by several cheerful, bilingual Canadians all ready to welcome us and explain the site to us. In the visitor’s centre, you have access to memorabilia, pictures, videos and personal stories. We spent a significant amount of time listening, watching and reading the information. My boyfriend, in particular, was very impressed and moved by what he saw. There is plenty of stations explaining the events leading up to this particular battle, as well as the greater context of the war itself. I think it is a good place to start your visit to get some insight before exploring the grounds. Make sure to grab a map while you’re there too!
They also explained to us that we could sign up for a free guided tour that takes place several times throughout the day in either English or French. If you’re interested, they will give you a time slot for the next available tour in your language!
For more information about the visitor’s centre, such as their opening hours, visit their website here!
Vimy Ridge Memorial
We next walked from the visitor’s centre towards the monument; it’s roughly a 20-25 minute walk along the road. But if I am honest, this was probably one of my favourite, most shocking moments from our visit. They have preserved the grounds of the site exactly as it was from the war. What I mean by that is there are craters everywhere left behind from explosions and artillery fire. This was really extraordinary to see. There are even signs posted all around the site that there are still undetonated explosives on the grounds.
The Canadian National Vimy Memorial is massive and is located on the top of the ridge itself. It has a nice view of the surrounding area and on the walls of the monument, you can find names of unfound Canadian soldiers. To really get the most out of your visit to the memorial, I personally recommend grabbing the pamphlet and map of the grounds before heading over. The pamphlet provides insight into all of the details of the memorial itself. There are several figures carved that all have different meanings and representations. These details I would never have noticed or fully appreciated without this insight.
Free Guided Tour
On my first visit to the memorial, we didn’t have time to do the guided tour. So, I made sure to do the tour on my next visit! The tours are hosted by Canadian students on a work abroad program that are living in France for the summer. The tour was SO worth it. I find guided tours to be the best way to get the most out a visit because you have to chance to learn more detail than you would independently.
The tours start above ground and go over the history of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. You are then taken through the underground tunnels. These were the tunnels were used to move supplies, communication and people. It is also where 1,000 soldiers spent at least 36 hours sitting in pitch darkness waiting for the battle to begin. Note to future visitors: you cannot access the tunnels without a guide. So more of a reason to take the free the tour to get the full experience! After the tunnels, you are then taken back up to the trenches.
Explore the trenches
The trenches were restored in 1925 and allow you to walk in the steps of history. This is a type of experience I have always loved. For me, it was shocking to see how close the enemy trenches were to the Canadian ones (at some points only 25 meters apart)! They have various spots along the trenches for people to reflect and understand what life might have been like in the trenches. Such as monitoring the enemy, hygiene for soldiers and of course the eeriness and threat of no man’s land.
Before heading out, we made sure to stop by and pay our respects at the Canadian Cemetery which is also located on-site.
Is it worth it?
I might be a bit biased, but I really enjoyed our visit to Vimy Ridge. We spent over 2 hours in total exploring the site, the visitors centre and taking the free tour. The staff were very helpful, and the grounds were very easy to navigate. I wasn’t sure what to expect when visiting, but it definitely blew me away!
Of course, the World Wars are a big part of the history of the north of France so I think it is important and worthwhile to take the time to explore and remember that part of history. Vimy Ridge is a great place to do that! It is a shame it isn’t accessible by public transit however if you have the time and means to visit, I highly recommend doing so!
If you’re looking for more tips and ideas of how to spend your time in Lille, check out my Lille travel guides on Thatch! And if you’re visiting Lille for a few more days, why not take some more day trips? Check out my blog post on some of the best day trips from Lille to Belgium (all train friendly)!