Battle of Valenciennes
A Centenary Action

Battle of Valenciennes
November 1-2, 1918

After a general retreat through October 1918, the German Army decided to make a stand in Valenciennes, a strategically-located city of several thousand French civilians, and the last major French city still under German control. The German commanders believed that the Allies would not bombard a city full of French civilians, and further consolidated their position by flooding the area around the city.

On October 27, General Horne, General Currie and the British 22nd Corps Commander discussed the best way to take Valenciennes. They decided that they needed to take Mont Houy, a fortified hill overlooking the city first. The plan was for the 51st Division of the British 22nd Corps to take Mont Houy and press on to the sunken road (the “Red Line”) on October 28, then the 4th Canadian Division would pass through the 51st and take the “Blue Line” which included the outskirts of Valenciennes. Then on November first, the Canadian 4th Division would take the high ground to the east of the city, to allow the rest of the Corps to cross the Escaut canal and take the “Green Line”, which included the city.

On October 28, the 51st Division failed to reach the Red Line in the face of strong German opposition, but by night they held most of the southern slope of the hill, le Poirier Station and the village of Famars. As a result, the plan to take Valenciennes had to be revised, and quickly, since the city was a key point in the left flank of the major British offensive scheduled for Nov. 3. The Blue and Green lines were thus merged into one operation for the 10th Canadian Brigade, backed by mass artillery and supported by the 49th British Division on the right. The Brigade would assault Valencinennes from South to East, and the 12th Canadian Brigade would do the mopping-up after crossing the Canal de l’Escaut. The new plan was set for November 1.

On the night of October 29 the 47th and 44th Canadian Battalions took over the British lines, and sent out battle patrols to reconnoiter enemy positions and barbed wire. In preparation for the battle, the Canadian Corps Heavy Artillery was ordered to bombard the German positions day and night. The 10th Infantry Brigade alone had over 250 field and siege guns in support. One major complication was the presence of many civilians still in the city. The army wanted to spare them from heavy shellfire, and therefore focused on targeted attacks on known German military strongholds, such as the nearby village of Marly.

The first objective was Mont Houy, for which was prepared a unique artillery barrage with frontal creeping barrage, enfilade fire and oblique fire. Also heavy artillery support from across the canal (the pieces could not yet cross). Two machine gun battalions were also in support, while other artillery provided a smokescreen for the attack. The Canadians also invested manpower and almost fifty guns in an extensive counterbattery to find German machine gun nests in buildings in the city and bomb them, and to take out enemy artillery pieces.

The days preceding the attacks, as well as November 1 itself, had terrible weather,and when . the soldiers of the 44h and 46th Battalions started out of their positions at 5:15am on Nov. 1, they did so under the pouring rain. The Canadians advanced quickly behind a rolling barrage, but were forced to put on their respirators due to German gas shells. German artillery fire, however, was weak, both as a result of the effective Canadian counterbattery actions of the previous days and poor quality shells.

 

The first Canadian platoon to enter Valenciennes from the west, advancing towards the Canal. Credit: William Rider-Rider / Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-003377

 

The Red line objective was achieved right on schedule, with the 44th Battalion taking Mount Houy in forty-five minutes. The German soldiers, “stupefied by the overwhelming barrage” began surrendering en masse. The Blue Line objective, in the outskirts of Valenciennes, was taken at 10:20 amby the 46th, despite being outnumbered by two or three to one by the defenders. The 47th Battalion reached the canal at that same time. Soon after, the Canadians started running into stiff resistance in the town of Marly, across the canal, and coming under heavy fire from machine guns in the south of the city. During the morning the 12th Brigade and 3rd Division establish bridgeheads over the Escaut, while the others encircled and pushed into the city. By noon the Canadians had reached the heart of the city

At the end of the day, the Germans were still in some parts of the city, but were pushed out gradually throught the night by the Canadian 12th Brigade. The 54th Battalion attacked the village of Marly on the morning of November 2, but discovered when they reached the village that the German Army had already retreated. By 8:30am, the Canadians were through to the far outskirts of the city and by the end of that day had completely taken the city. .

Casualties: German: 1800 captures, 800 killed. Canadian: 80 killed, 300 wounded. The German killed-to-captured ratio, which was unusually high, has been a matter of controversy ever since the battle. Some say that Canadian soldiers were less willing to take prisoners after 4 years of fighting, and especially after seeing how badly the local French populations had been treated by the occupiers.

Technological Advancements: The main technological innovation was the overpowering artillery barrage which marked the most artillery support for a single Canadian brigade in the entire war.

Strategies: The key strategies that made Valenciennes a success despite the odds were taking the high ground outside the city (Mont Houy) first, and massing the artillery to use for barrage, fire from three sides, counterbattery and targeted strikes. The battle of Valenciennes was also one of the few examples of urban combat during the war. Miltary commanders had been trying to avoid it, with General Currie in particular worried that the Canadian Corps had not been adequately trained for urban warfare.

Notable People: Sergeant Hugh Cairns of the 46th Battalion already had the DCM, which he won at Vimy. At Valenciennes he received Canada’s last Victoria Cross of the war by single-handedly charging two machine-gun nests. He was wounded late in the day on Nov. 1, and died of his wounds the next day.

 

Canadians with French Gendarmes and civilians outside the Hotel de Ville, Valenciennes. November, 1918. Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA0-3445.

 

In Flanders Fields – Armistice 100 YEG

We are proud to have worked with Edmonton, AB’s Armistice100YEG Committee on this beautiful video for the centennial anniversary of the Armistice. They have produced this video to reconnect Canadians to the history of John McCrae’s famous poem In Flanders Fields. 

Through the narration of the poem, and the combination of animated colourized archival images from The Vimy Foundation and Canadian Colour mirrored with contemporary footage, the video offers a dynamic and reflective look into the past, and an opportunity to engage with the history of service and sacrifice of Canada’s military during the First World War.

The French version is in production and we will share as soon as it is completed. // La version française est en production et nous la partagerons dès qu’elle sera terminée.

To find out more about this project, please visit the website: https://www.armistice100yeg.ca/inflandersfields

September 28 – Dr. Lee Windsor on Canada’s Hundred Days
First World War Centennial Speaker Series

First World War Centennial Speaker Series
Dr. Lee Windsor, Gregg Centre, UNB
Fredericton, New Brunswick
September 28, 2018

 

On September 28, 2018, Dr. Lee Windsor spoke with assembled guests at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton, NB about Canada’s Hundred Days campaign and the events taking place in France exactly one hundred years earlier.

After retreating from the Drocourt-Quéant Line, the German Army withdrew to their final defensive lines in the Hindenburg system. The sector along the Canadian front included the city of Cambrai, an important logistical centre for the Germans, the Canal du Nord, and Bourlon Wood, a fortified defense position. For nearly a month after their victory at the D-Q Line, the Canadians waited, while Currie planned how to get the Corps across the canal, through the wood and onward to Cambrai.

Canadian Signal Section laying cable. Advance East of Arras. September, 1918. Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/ PA-003080 (modified from the original).

At 5:20 am on 27 September, the creeping barrage opened up and the initial advance of only four Canadian battalions went forward across the canal du Nord. They reached the other side successfully, and more battalions began to leap frog over their positions, slowly moving forward and fanning out to objectives along an over 9000m front.

Montreal Gazette, Saturday September 28, 1918.

Dr. Lee Windsor takes us through the actions that followed, after the Canadians prepared to dig in for the night:

 

The second day was significantly slower and harder than the first; the Canadian battalions were spread thin trying to control over 10 000m of frontage as they tried to cross the Marcoing Line and reach Cambrai. “Mounting a second and even larger deliberate attack one day after one of the most complicated operations in Canadian military history, after penetrating 5km into a well-defended enemy zone is asking a hell of a lot.”

Watch as Dr. Windsor discusses that first view of the Marcoing Line for the Royal Canadian Regiment, who focused on a direct hit to Cambrai allowed the rest of the Canadian Corps to swing around to the north. He discusses some of the actions of Milton Gregg on September 28, reading excerpts from Gregg’s journal:

 

 

Dr. Lee Windsor continues: “The fight raged all day, but the RCR’s D Company’s actions helped hold open that breach. Gregg and Duplessis had fixed enemy attention on the regiment and all of 7 Brigade’s sector while the rest of the unit swung north through a widening gap on the Arras-Cambrai road. They opened the door to Cambrai. It would take several more days of hard fighting to crack it all the way open but they opened it.”

The successes throughout the Hundred Days campaign came at a heavy cost for the Canadian Corps, incurring over 10,000 Canadian casualties in the Battle of Canal du Nord and the advance on and liberation of Cambrai.

Canadian wounded enjoying a cup of tea at Advanced Dressing Station. Advance East of Arras. October, 1918. Library and Archives Canada/ PA- 003192 (modified from the original).

We remember the actions of Milton F. Gregg, VC during the Battle of the Canal du Nord. “The outstanding valour of this officer saved many casualties and enabled the advance to continue.” Read the full citation of his Victoria Cross. Find his attestation papers at Library and Archives Canada.

Milton F. Gregg, VC. Photo: Library and Archives Canada PA-004877.

 

Discussion questions:

– The actions during the Hundred Days Campaign and particularly here on September 28 are described as happening very quickly. The Canadian Corps is moving forward without much time to plan, prepare, and bring supplies. How did this differ from other battles of the First World War?

– At Vimy, soldiers waited in chalk tunnels underground prior to the battle; here, we hear how soldiers ‘rested’ in mud holes, waiting to attack. What do you think was running through the soldiers’ minds at night?

– This page contains two photos that have been colourized. Use the Vimy 100 in the Classroom guide on ‘Photography in the First World War‘ to analyze the photos and the addition of colour.

– When studying the First World War, students generally encounter the same four battles: Ypres, the Somme, Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele. While each was certainly critical to the war in its own way, Canadians served and made sacrifices in other, lesser-known battles, like at Canal du Nord and Cambrai. Use the Vimy Foundation’s resources from “Canada’s First World War Battles” and make a case for which battle was the most significant for Canada.

– Milton Gregg was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions during this period, the highest award in the whole system of honours and awards in the British Empire. Do you think it was deserved? Why or why not? Find the full list of Canadians who have received the Victoria Cross at Veterans Affairs Canada.

– The Victoria Cross belonging to Milton Gregg is now on permanent loan at the Royal Canadian Regiment Military Museum. In Canada, military medals and decorations are bought and sold regularly and there are no rules against it. Is this practice wrong? Why or why not?

 

 

Capture of Cambrai
A centenary action

The capture of Cambrai
October 9, 1918

After the success at Canal du Nord, the Canadians faced their main objective, the city of Cambrai. Cambrai was a key railway centre for the German army, and the site of a bloody battle the year before that saw the first major use of tanks. Now tanks were once again rolling towards the town.

By September 30, the 3rd and 4th Divisions had reached the outskirts of Cambrai, though efforts to capture the city stalled as the Corps circled it and Currie tried to work out a plan to take the city. Urban warfare was not something in which the Canadians, or most of the Allied armies, had experience, and fighting the German Army house-to-house was going to be not only extremely difficult, but also likely to result in very high casualties.

Canadians entering Cambrai. Advance East of Arras. October 9, 1918. Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA- 003270.

 

Cambrai itself was very lightly defended as German troops were pulled out to reinforce other areas, but the Canadians still had to contend with land mines and booby traps left behind. The city was liberated by the Allies on October 9, 1918. The Canadian Corps incurred over 10,000 Canadian casualties in the advance on and liberation of Cambrai.

 

Winnipeg Tribune, October 9, 1918.

 

Notable participants: 

Late at night on October 8th, 1918, Coulson Mitchell of Winnipeg saved a bridge from demolition during the Battle of Cambrai. The bridges across the Escaut Canal were key crossing points for Canadian soldiers and artillery, but the Germans had been blowing them up to slow the Allied advance. In a midnight patrol, Mitchell cut demolition wires and fended off an enemy attack, saving a key bridge. For his heroic actions, he was awarded the Victoria Cross.  Read his full service file here: http://central.bac-lac.gc.ca/.item/?op=pdf&app=CEF&id=B6248-S044.