November 4 – Women in the First World War
First World War Centennial Speaker Series

On November 4, 2018, historian and author Charlotte Gray spoke to attendees in Cobourg, Ontario about “Women in the First World War”.

Women hold bazaar for war aid. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 872. Colourization by Canadian Colour.

She started her lecture by discussing the stories we tell as a country about our own history:

“Aspects of the First World War have passed from history into mythology. The stories we in this country have told ourselves about our national origins evolve with each generation. The re-emergence of Vimy into collective memory is part of one such origin story. And it’s a story that the federal government in fact of the early 20th century promoted: Canada as a warrior nation. This story now runs parallel to other national origin stories.

For instance, in the late 19th century, the story of Canada was seen as the story of the Dominion of entirely British character. This is the imperial story: it’s the colony to nation story. Then, in the mid-20th century, another version of Canadian history surfaced, this one in which East-West links defined the country. First the mighty waterways, then the railroads were the glue that kept this country together. Suddenly it wasn’t history that defined Canada, it was our geography.

Can we separate myth from history in this post-truth era? Most of us have actually come to realize that every version of history is laden with value judgments, biases, and assumptions about whose voices should be heard – and particularly, whose voices should be ignored.”

Charlotte then mentions that it is now commonly believed that the Great War revolutionized women’s lives: “It’s always been said that it liberated working class women from the drudgery of domestic service by opening up other opportunities. We also assume that within the limitations of the fiercely segregated gender roles back then, women were all as committed to the national effort as the men.” However, as she will point out, some of the ways that the First World War impacted women’s lives were not as straightforward as we like to assume today. But for women the most radical impact on their lives was that most of them would be granted the right to vote in federal elections.

 

Soldiers are seen off as they leave for war, City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 824. (Modified from the original). Provided by The Vimy Foundation.

 

In this short clip, Charlotte Gray discusses the dilemma faced by suffragists at the outbreak of war in 1914:

What about our traditional understanding of the roles of women during the war?

Margaret Atwood writes in They Fought in Colour about some of the changing roles for women at this point: “Many people had war-connected jobs. Women stepped into jobs that would have been done by men if there had been enough men remaining to do them. Women ran farms, worked in factories making shells and other military equipment, and sewed uniforms and war gear, including the trench coats that became such an important garment for those living in the cold wet mud-tunnels of the front. Women also tended gardens, ran canning clubs to preserve food, sold Victory Bonds, and helped with recruitment drives. They joined war committees, raising money to send care packages to the troops, or to train nurses to serve not only overseas but — increasingly — back home, tending the soldiers who were too mangled to be patched up and sent back to the trenches.”

Women workers at Dr. Alexander Graham Bell’s laboratory, Beinn Bhreagh. Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-024363 (modified from the original). Colourization by Canadian Colour.

But even in less-traditional roles, tensions still existed within the women’s movement. Watch this clip of Charlotte Gray discussing the work of women in munitions factories:

Assembly Department, British Munitions Supply Co. Ltd., Verdun, P.Q. Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA- 024436 (modified from the original). Colourization by Canadian Colour.

After years of effort, the right to vote was finally extended at the federal level to (some) women. From Charlotte Gray: “And then, in September 1917, the Union Government led by Prime Minister Robert Borden, passed its Wartime Elections Act. The government’s motivation in introducing this bill was transparent and had little to do with commitment to equal rights or social justice. The government’s preoccupation was its commitment to send yet more men to the front, but the supply of volunteers had dried up.

Conscription appeared to be the only solution but it was deeply unpopular with many groups, particularly within Quebec. The Prime Minister realized he needed to demonstrate popular support for conscription, so he extended the franchise first to nurses, who looked after hospitals in France, and then to the wives, widows, mothers and sisters of soldiers serving overseas. All strongly in favour of conscription. Their boys were in the trenches. They knew they needed help. Many of them had been fighting without any kind of break or relief for more than a year, more than two years. It was unbelievably hard.

But whatever the government’s Machiavellian motivation in 1917, the cat was now out of the bag. There was no way that suffrage at the federal level could be rolled back. It had to be granted more widely. And in May 1918, all women over the age of 21 and not alien-born, and meeting the property requirements of their province, were allowed to vote in federal elections.

However the Act did not apply to all women. Besides the alien-born, women from minority groups, including women from Asian backgrounds, were not granted voting rights. And it would be another 42 years before indigenous women, alongside men, got the unconditional right to vote.”

Nursing Sisters at a Canadian Hospital voting in the Canadian federal election. Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA- 002279 (modified from the original). Colourization by Canadian Colour.

In summary, Charlotte Gray believes that:  “Despite the appearances, World War One’s impact on women’s lives was less than it has often been painted.”

 

Discussion questions:

– Charlotte Gray quotes Nellie McClung as saying that if women had been in charge of the world, the First World War would not have happened. Do you think this is the case? Are women more attuned to peace-making than men? Do women run countries differently than men? Look at current and past political female leaders around the world as you consider your position.

– We often think of the First World War provided a chance for women to take on new jobs and roles in society. Why would the impact of the First World War on women’s lives have been exaggerated?

– Imagine you are the wife, daughter or sister to someone in an ethnic group who was interned during the war, such as Ukrainian, German, or Polish. Is it fair that you would not have the right to vote at the same time as other women? Describe how you would feel after the Wartime Elections Act of 1917.

– Imagine you are a woman working in a factory during the war, producing munitions for the war effort. When the war ends, you no longer have a job as the returning veterans take up jobs at the factories. How would this make you feel?

– Motherhood is a theme that comes up regularly in discussions about the suffrage movement during the First World War. Why was this so central to debates about women voting?

– Charlotte Gray posits that the voices we exclude from our history stories are just as informative as the voices we include. Are there still voices missing from our understanding of the First World War? Where should we look to fill in some of those voices 100 years later?

– 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.

 

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?

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.

 

Battle of the Canal du Nord
A Centenary Action

The Battle of the Canal du Nord
27 September to 11 October 1918

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 Drocourt-Quéant  Line, the Canadians waited, while Currie planned how to get the Corps across the canal, through the wood and onward to Cambrai.

The canal itself was dry, but still presented a significant obstacle; the banks were several metres high and it was unclear what awaited the Canadians on the other side. The area around the canal had been deliberately flooded by the German Army, leaving a small area roughly 2km wide that was still dry. To cross the canal, the Corps would be squeezed into a small front, and then would have to fan out to secure the rest of their section. Additionally, while tanks and infantry could cross quite easily, the artillery could not; Currie’s plan required the Canadian Engineers to install several portable bridges, likely under heavy fire, to allow the artillery across.

Currie’s plan was ambitious, and he was warned by many, including Byng, that it might not work. However, Haig and Foche wanted to push the German Army as much as possible, to see if they would crack, and an incursion near Cambrai would drain men from the rest of the German lines. At 5:20 am on September 27, the creeping barrage opened up and the initial advance of only four Canadian battalions went forward across the canal. 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.

With the opposite bank secured, the engineers could begin installing bridges, the first guns attempted a crossing at 8:40 am before being pushed back; however, by the middle of the afternoon several were in place and artillery was crossing regularly. By the end of the day, the Corps had secured the canal, Bourlon Wood and the village of Bourlon, before digging in for the night. Massed German attacks were expected for the morning and the Canadian battalions were spread thin trying to control over 10 000m of frontage.

The second day was slower and harder, as the Canadians tried to cross the Marcoing Line, which they did not manage until September 29. 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.

During the Canadian preparations, the German Army pulled out of Cambrai on October 8, leaving behind a burning city, riddled with booby traps and trip wires. The Corps occupied Cambrai and continued to advance carefully, following the Germans as they made a fighting retreat further and further east. Though another stunning victory for the Canadian Corps, the Canal du Nord further depleted their strength; over 10,000 Canadians were killed, wounded, or missing, bringing the total number of casualties for the Hundred Days Campaign to that point to over 42,000.

 

Montreal Gazette, Saturday September 28, 1918.

 

Technological Advancements 

The successful crossing of the Canal du Nord and advance towards Cambrai relied on a strong creeping barrage and the ability of the artillery to continue their barrage as the infantry moved deeper and deeper into German territory. The coordination between the infantry, now moving quite quickly over large distances, and the artillery was a problem that plagued Currie and the Corps throughout the Hundred Days. In the days after the initial successes, the pace of battle slowed or even stopped due to spotty bombardments.

To deal with the problem posed by the canal itself, the Canadian Engineers spent the weeks leading up to the battle building portable bridges behind the lines, which were laid in place once the far bank was secured and allowed the passage of artillery pieces, and the crews that manned them. Placing the bridges was extremely dangerous work, and throughout the day on 27 September, the bridges were frequently shelled. Like at Vimy the year before, the Engineers played a very important role in ensuring the success of the battle; without their bridges, the Corps would have quickly outpaced their artillery and bogged down, costing many more lives that they could not afford to lose.

Currie also employed a creeping barrage that moved in two directions, both forward and back. As the Corps reached their objectives, the barrage could jump forward like it usually did; however a backward moving barrage would give German gunners the impression that they were firing on their own positions. As usual, Currie also employed counter battery work to pick off German guns in advance; in total 785 guns were used on the first day of the Canal du Nord battle, most of which would follow the infantry on to Cambrai.

 

Notables

Like the previous Hundred Days battles the fighting at the Canal du Nord was hard and required a considerable amount of personal bravery. Canadians were awarded eight Victoria crosses during the fighting; the recipients are:

Lt. George Fraser Kerr, 3rd Battalion

Lt. Graham Thomson Lyall, 102nd Battalion

Lt. Samuel Lewis Honey, 76th Battalion

Lt. Milton Fowler Gregg, RCR, later a politician and Minister of Veterans Affairs

Capt. John MacGregor, 2nd Mounted Canadian Mounted Rifles

Sgt. William Merrifield, 4th Battalion

Capt. Coulson Norman Mitchell, 1st Tunneling Company, Canadian Engineers

Lt. Wallace Lloyd Algie, 20th Battalion

 

 

Battle of the Drocourt-Quéant Line
A Centenary Action

The Battle of the Drocourt-Quéant Line, 2 September 1918

Known by the German Army as the Wotung Stellung, the Drocourt-Quéant defensive system posed a significant obstacle to the Allies as they attempted to push their offensive further eastward. The rush of the Arras battles had pushed the Corps to the D-Q Line, but they had little time to prepare and Haig was not able to provide extra artillery or tanks. In fact, there was doubt amongst the Corps commanders that the attempt would succeed at all; the survivors of August were worn out, and the new reserve troops, many of whom were conscripted, had little combat experience. Nonetheless, for the French Army to move forward in the south, the D-Q Line had to be broken.

The original plan called for the Canadians to break through the D-Q Line, then a swift advance to the Canal du Nord using Raymond Brutinel’s group of armoured cars, all within a single battle. As Currie and the 1st and 4th Division found out, this was not possible. The two divisions did take the D-Q Line, after a day of tough fighting; however, the armoured cars were unable to advance as quickly as needed and artillery support was very thin. The Corps dug in for the night, expecting a counter attack, which in the end never came. As at Amiens, the troops advanced behind a concentrated artillery barrage and was faced with lines of machine gun nests, fortified bunks and barbed wire, much of which had to be taken out in hand to hand fighting.

The victory at the D-Q Line, though unexpected, was another mark for the Corps very successful Hundred Days. Currie believed the fighting during the Arras battles to be the most difficult that the Corps had ever faced; however, the pace would not be slowed. Canadian losses for the D-Q Line fighting were 5 622 killed or wounded on 2 September alone, German losses are not known.

Canadian Stretcher bearer redressing a wound. Advance East of Arras. Aug. 1918. Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-003179.

Technological Advancements

Currie’s original battle plan called for the use of the Canadian Motor Machine Gun Brigade, organised and commanded by Raymond Brutinel. The CMMGB had been raised in 1914 but had rarely been used in a battlefield setting until the Hundred Days, since the conditions of the fighting area in the early years had not been suited to vehicles. The cars of the CMMGB went into battle at 8AM on the morning of 2 September, through a 900m gap in the creeping barrage and failed to break through. Their cars were not able to negotiate the rough terrain, and many fell under the hail of machine gun and artillery fire from the enemy lines.

Notables

Seven Victoria Crosses were awarded to Canadian soldiers for their bravery on 2 September 1918: Bellenden Hutcheson, Arthur George Knight, William Henry Metcalf, Claude Nunney, Cyrus Wesley Peck, Walter Leigh Rayfield and John Frances Young. Read more about them from Veterans Affairs Canada. 

Brig. General Raymond Brutinel was a French  business man and journalist  who settled in Western Canada before the war. Brutinel believed that armed motorised vehicles were the future of modern warfare and when the war broke out raised one of the foundation motor machine gun groups that eventually formed the Canadian Motor Machine Gun Brigade. Brutinel commanded the brigade and was involved in their actions during the German push in March 1918,  as well as the Hundred Days.

Photo of the motor cars:

Canadian armoured cars going into action at the Battle of Amiens. Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-003016