The Capture of Mons and the Armistice
A centenary action

The German government had begun peace negotiations with the Allies on October 4 when it sent a telegram to President Wilson. With its allies dropping out of the war (Bulgaria signed an armistice on September 30, the Ottoman Empire on October 30 and the Austro-Hungarian Empire on November 3), its armies in full retreat and its population starving at home, Germany had no choice but to pursue an Armistice.

However, armistice negotiations take time, and the allies, especially Wilson, refused to negotiate with anything but a democratic government in Germany. Although the Germans hoped for a negotiated peace, it soon became clear that the Allies, especially France, would not settle for anything less than an unconditional surrender.

In the midst of the general rapid German retreat, there were still ambushes, artillery attacks and intense firefights for villages in which German units had decided to make a last stand. The Canadians crossed into Belgium on November 7, and by November 9 they were in the outlying suburbs of Mons.

General Currie had orders to capture the city, so he ordered an attack on Mons on November 10. While Currie knew war would be over soon, he had no confirmation of this, or of the Kaiser’s abdication, by November 10. Nevertheless, this decision has caused much controversy ever since, with some accusing Currie of being a butcher and sacrificing Canadian lives for a symbolic victory when the war was already won.

The city of Mons was symbolic as it was where the British Expeditionary Force had fought their first engagement with the Germans back in 1914. To retake it on the last day of the war was a powerful symbol. It had also been under German occupation for the entirety of the war, and used as a critical logistical centre. Currie wanted to take it to break German morale, and ensure that the Germans did not think they had any pieces for negotiation. While Currie’s senior officers did not protest, the men on the ground were less pleased, but obeyed nonetheless.

The Battle of Mons itself was planned as an encircling maneuver, with the 2nd Division attacking from the South and Southeast, and the 3rd Division attacking from the East. On November 10, the Canadians pushed into the outskirts of the city, with patrol skirmishes but no large-scale assaults on dug-in German positions. There was no massive bombardment of the city, according to orders from higher command.

At around 11pm, platoons from the 42nd Battalion and the RCR made it through the southern defences of the city. From the west, other companies crossed into the city over bridges.  By early morning on November 11, those units were engaged in urban combat, street fighting as they moved into the city. The last of the German defenders were surrendering or dying when, at 6:30am, the Canadian Corps headquarters got the news that the Armistice would begin at 11am. It took time for the message to get across the front, but most units knew by 9am. The Canadians finished pushing the Germans out of the city and pursued them East. The civilian inhabitants of Mons awoke to find themselves liberated.

Fourteen men from the 42nd and the RCR were killed, seventy wounded and two missing during the attack on Mons. Casualties from the 2nd Division’s attack are unknown.

The last soldier of the British Empire to die in the First World War was a Canadian. Private George Price of the 28th Battalion, 2nd Division, was killed by a sniper bullet to the chest at 10:58 on November 11. Two minutes later, the guns fell silent.

During the Hundred Days Campaign, from August 8 to November 11, the Canadian Corps lost over 45,000 casualties. In the entire war, the Canadian Expeditionary Force sent roughly 425,000 Canadians to Europe. The Canadians Corps suffered over 60,000 killed and 172,000 wounded.

Canadians marching through the streets of Mons on the morning of 11 November 1918.
Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-003547. Colourization by Canadian Colour.

 

The Vimy Foundation Centennial Park
November 5, 2018

On November 9, 2018, two days before the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, the Vimy Foundation will open the gates to a modern living memorial in commemoration of the centenary of the armistice of the First World War, the first of its kind. The Vimy Foundation Centennial Park located adjacent to the Vimy Memorial at Vimy Ridge in France will welcome visitors to walk its paths of remembrance surrounded by over 100 Oak trees repatriated back to Vimy from Canada. Centennial benches, built in Canada and placed throughout the park, provide an opportunity for gathering, dialogue, and extended reflection, all essential elements to conflict resolution and peace that the monument inspires.

Built on private farmland purchased by the Vimy Foundation, the land has required extensive demining and preparation prior to creation of the park. Through the land preparation process, many artifacts were discovered including shells (some of which were still active), grenades, fuses and communications wires, as well as the remains of soldiers who fought at Vimy Ridge over 100 years ago and who have now been put to rest in an official military graveyard.

As a living memorial and park, the four-acre Vimy Foundation Centennial Park is both a public green space for neighbouring communities as well as a place for remembrance and education. The Park highlights the natural bonds between France and Canada, the desire for peace, our responsibility to remember and was designed by acclaimed Canadian Landscape Architect Linda Dicaire.

Some major components of the Vimy Foundation Centennial Park include, the repatriated Vimy Oaks (picked on the battlefield in 1917 by a Canadian soldier, grown in Canada, and now brought back to France) provided by the Vimy Oaks Legacy Group, and the Bugler Memorial Sculpture designed by renowned Canadian artist Marlene Hilton Moore and gifted by the City of Barrie and the communities surrounding Canadian Forces Base Bordon. The Borden Centennial Bugler is one of two, a twin statue stands at the entrance to CFB Borden. The buglers call out across generations, across geography to each other and to the now-empty trenches that once trained soldiers before they left for battle overseas.

“The Vimy Foundation Centennial Park is a truly unique place of remembrance and reflection on the lasting impact of the war on all the countries and people involved,” says Jeremy Diamond, Executive Director of the Vimy Foundation. “The park will have an impact on all who visit, and thanks to the generosity of our donors, who sponsored the many aspects of the park in remembrance of soldiers who fought for Canada over 100 years ago, it also has a very personal connection for many.”

100 years later, the First World War continues to demonstrate its ongoing impact, scarring the soil of the battlefields. The story of the creation of the Vimy Foundation Centennial Park showcases the devastating impact the First World War had not only for the soldiers and the countries involved, but also on the land where the battles took place.

The Vimy Foundation Centennial Park would not have been possible without the generous support of public and private organizations and individuals from across Canada, in particular lead sponsor The Province of British Columbia, Centennial Flagpole sponsor Molson Coors, and the sponsor of the Bugler Memorial Sculpture, CFB Borden.

Premier of British Columbia, John Horgan:
“It is a privilege to be able to provide a contribution on behalf of the people of British Columbia for the Vimy Foundation Centennial Park. It is a significant way that we can honour the brave Canadians who fought so hard here a century ago in order to preserve our rights and freedoms.”

Fred Landtmeters, President and CEO, Molson Coors:
“As Canada’s oldest brewer and a proud Canadian company, Molson Coors values the importance of paying tribute to Canada’s veterans and honouring the sacrifices of our brothers and sisters in the Armed Forces. By commemorating the service of Captain Percival Molson, M.C. through our donation of the Centennial Park flagpole, the Canadian flag can fly proudly for generations of visitors. We are honoured to play a part in preserving Canada’s First World War legacy.”

Honorary Colonel James G. Massie, CFB Borden:
“The Borden Centennial Bugler honours the 100th anniversaries of Canadian Forces Base Borden, The Battle of Vimy Ridge and the Armistice to end The Great War; recognizing the immense contribution of Canadian Forces Base Borden to the training of the Canadian Expeditionary Force and acknowledges the bonds of service and sacrifice that tie Canadian Forces Base Borden, the City of Barrie and the City of Arras across the great oceans of space and time.”

 Click here to learn more about the Vimy Foundation Centennial Park

October 18 – Sports and the First World War
First World War Centennial Speaker Series

First World War Centennial Speaker Series
Stephen Brunt and Bob Weeks
Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame
Winnipeg, MB
October 18, 2018

On October 18, 2018, Stephen Brunt of Sportsnet and Bob Weeks of TSN spoke with assembled guests at the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame about the important role of sports and entertainment during the First World War.

As a contributor to our new publication They Fought in Colour from Dundurn Press, Stephen Brunt has written:

“Art and sport are part of what defines us as human, even when faced with inhuman conditions. During the First World War, on the front lines and anywhere else where troops were assembled, trained, or taken to heal, games and entertainment emerged organically in the most dire circumstances imaginable. We want to play; we want to sing and dance and be entertained; we want to laugh and cry and cheer and interact as an audience. That’s true even near the battlefield.”

He spoke to guests at our event about why the military would have encouraged soldiers to play sports and games while they were overseas:

And they played many different types of sport while in the military. A makeshift game of cricket, a rugby match: these were common for many of the British troops and Canadians at the time. Football (soccer to most North Americans these days) was the most popular pastime on both sides of the lines, and only needing a ball and some goal posts certainly made it easy to create a match.

Brunt writes: “The Canadians and the Newfoundlanders were certainly familiar with those British games, but they also brought with them sports that were distinctly North American — baseball, whenever someone could round up a ball and bat and gloves, and in wintertime, if there was ice, if there were skates, a game of shinny would inevitably break out, providing both some much-needed fun and a reminder of home.”

Nova Scotians returning to camp after a game of baseball, Feb 1918. Library and Archives Canada / PA-002464. (modified from the original). Provided by The Vimy Foundation. Colourization by Canadian Colour.

Many Canadian athletes of the early 20th century enlisted with the Canadian Expeditionary Force and went overseas to join the fight. Six of these outstanding athletes had already represented Canada in the Olympic Games by the time the war broke out. Bob Weeks discussed their potential motivation and highlights Alex Decoteau in particular:

 

Learn more about Alex Decoteau in reading his service file from Library and Archives Canada.

Alex Decoteau, courtesy of the Saskatchewan Public Archives.

On Dominion Day during the last year of the war, fifty thousand Canadians assembled for sporting events at Tincques, fourteen miles west of Arras, in northern France. It was the Canadian Corps Championships of July 1, 1918.

A view of the grounds from an aeroplane, Tinques. Canadian Corps Sports, France. July, 1918. Library and Archives Canada / PA-003237

Engineers had put together a stadium, VIP platform, and theatre stage. Many distinguished guests attended, including Sir Robert Borden, General John J. Pershing (Commander-in-chief, American Expeditionary Forces) and the Duke of Connaught, with Lt.-Gen. Arthur Currie as the Honorary President of the event. The Canadian YMCA provided the equipment and décor, and catered the refreshments for the non-officers. The events of the day included more traditional sports competitions – foot races, baseball, boxing, lacrosse and tennis – as well as more unusual and fun events: pillow fighting, sack races, and tug-of-war.

The winners of the baseball game, Canadian Sports Championship Meet. July, 1918. PA-002836 Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada.

Stephen Brunt looks at other forms of entertainment during the First World War as well, writing:  “Music was also an important diversion for troops during the war. In addition to the formal military bands, if a soldier could play an instrument or was blessed with a fine singing voice, his comrades would call out for a tune. As with athletes, some of the best professional musicians were in uniform during the war, and their talents were particularly sought out.”

“In 1917, near Vimy Ridge, ten members of the Canadian Army 3rd Division got together under the direction of Mert Plunkett, and “The Dumbells” were born. The name came from the 3rd Division’s emblem, a red dumbbell symbolizing strength.”

The Dumbells entertained Canadian troops during war with music and comedy, and enjoyed such popularity that they continued touring for years after the war ended as well. You can catch a glimpse of what their musical comedy entailed by watching a tribute performance from Soldiers of Song, based on the original works of the Dumbells.

Discussion questions

– The Olympic Games is mentioned multiple times here. Athletes would have travelled to other parts of the world to compete against other countries in sports. Contrast this with their experiences travelling overseas to fight a war. Both war and the Olympics are often discussed through a lens of ‘nationalism’. Would there be a similar pride in one’s country? How would this change from a sporting competition to a war?

– Do you agree with Bob Weeks’ suggestion that athletes enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force to be heroes? Why or why not? What does it mean to be a hero in wartime? What does it mean to be a hero in times of peace?

– This page contains 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.

– Sports helped keep soldiers in good physical condition, and helped with physical therapy as they recovered from injuries. Why would music and comedy have been important to soldiers?

– Why was it so important to his fellow soldiers that they recover the silver watch of Alex Decoteau? How do you imagine that they felt being able to send it home to his mother?