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.