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Gas, guns and even corpses still lie in the fields

Farmers continually find relics from war

From Monday's Globe and Mail

VIMY, FRANCE — When Marcel Vion was harvesting his autumn crop of beets not long ago, the earth suddenly opened up before him, and revealed a lost tableau from 90 years before. Beneath the front wheels of his tractor, and for metres beyond, were the remains of a Canadian underground field hospital, entombed in the earth for generations.

"Sappe," the 69-year-old farmer muttered -- "tunnel" -- and hit the brakes. This was not a surprising occurrence. Two years earlier, a nearby farmhand had been knocked out cold when he'd strolled into a furrow filled with leaking mustard gas. One farmer has been killed in the past decade, and others injured, by the shells of 1916. Such is life in the farmlands below Vimy Ridge.

This town has an active munitions depot, which still receives regular, deadly deposits from the area's farmers, and its own active mine-clearing team. It contains thousands of still-lethal antiques, and its gas-leak alarm still occasionally strikes fear into the town's residents.

Nine decades after the Canadian Corps stormed up Vimy Ridge in a thick hail of heavy munitions, the battle's presence is still felt. The battlefield remains deadly to this day, and a great many of the Canadian soldiers still lie shattered beneath these farm fields. This is a place where this battle, for a myriad of reasons, will never be forgotten.

As Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Queen Elizabeth lead a 90th-anniversary commemoration of Canada's most memorable battle of the First World War in northern France today, the nearby residents will need no reminding.

"It is as if the war is never going to end in this parish -- the Canadians have left their mark everywhere, on every life," says Boguslaw Borzecki, the priest at Vimy's small Catholic church, built in 1777 and rebuilt in 1946, whose stained-glass windows pay tribute to Canadian soldiers. "The people here still remember, every day they remember."

They remember, in part, because they sent an entire generation of their own children to die in these fields. What was left of their own lives, and their town, was flattened and vaporized when hundreds of thousands of British and Canadian soldiers threw themselves at millions of Germans in the years that followed.

And then the Canadians left their own mark: Wielding pickaxes in the cold ground, they chiselled hundreds of kilometres of tunnels and huge caverns into the chalk bedrock, pursuing a carefully planned attack that took place as much underground as it did on the surface. Swinging small shovels, they dug endless, deep trenches across the denuded, deep grey countryside. And firing 1,097 heavy-artillery guns non-stop for a solid week, they pocked the land with thousands of huge craters, most of which remain to this day.

"Every time we go out with the plow, we turn up something from the war," says potato farmer Alfred Ansart, 73, taking a break from washing potatoes in the brick courtyard of his farm just outside the village. His small plot spent decades disgorging deadly shells, bombs and mines; in recent years, it has regularly churned up hundreds of fuses from shells, bayonets, bullets, and pieces of hardware and uniforms.

The metal objects tend to rise to the surface, damaging harvesters and plows. Somewhat lower in the ground are far worse things.

"We all know not to set the tines on our plows too deep," says Mr. Vion, the beet farmer. "If we go below a certain level, we start disturbing the soldiers down there."

Human remains fill the earth in northern France, the bones of young soldiers, their scraps of hair and clothing literally scattered across the countryside. A Canadian documentary team recently hired archaeologists to excavate two small, randomly chosen squares of Vimy land, a couple metres across. They found the remains of at least two soldiers.

Closest to the surface here in Vimy are the 3,598 Canadians who died in the four-day battle, along with the 20,000 Germans who were killed and wounded that Easter holiday. It was a successful battle for the Canadians, one that used novel innovations in artillery, aviation and communications to outsmart a highly entrenched enemy.

Beneath those Canadians and their April, 1917, enemies, scattered downwards for metres, are remains of the British and below them the French soldiers who had tried to take the hill for horrifying months: In total, an estimated 200,000 corpses scattered across this small stretch of countryside, their remains only partially collected. They are joined by macabre bits of the 600,000 men who were injured, many horrendously, in their attempts to take this hill.

At the end of that Easter weekend, after hundreds of thousands of soldiers had fallen, a largely Canadian military force had liberated more than three kilometres of French land from German control.

As scores of townspeople gathered in nearby Arras yesterday to commemorate the battle, there was no need for reminders in this village draped with Maple Leaf flags and undergirded with terrifying and often deadly reminders of the birth pangs of the modern Canadian military.

"All of our families lost in this war, we all lost children" says Mr. Vion, the beet farmer, turning to his wife Marie Madeleine and recalling the horrors he suffered in another war that devastated this region a generation later. "We had only one child, because it seemed certain that if we had two we would have to face losing them both." It seems a perfectly reasonable conclusion, given the reminders of war's cost that appear almost weekly beneath his feet.

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