22 March – 5 April 1918 – Villers-Bretonneux
A Centenary Action

On 21 March 1918, General Ludendorff launched Germany’s massive Spring Offensive, “Kaiserschlacht” (Kaiser’s Battle), on the Western Front.  The first phase, Operation Michael, involved thousands of troops, artillery, and poison gas, and the Germans quickly advanced deep into the British lines, causing catastrophic losses in both men and ground to the Allies. While the Canadian Corps was not directly affected by Operation Michael, the Canadian Cavalry Brigade and the Canadian Motor Machine Gun Brigade would soon be pulled into the chaotic fighting around Saint-Quentin.

The Canadian Motor Machine Gun Brigade at Villers-Bretonneux – 22 March – 5 April 1918

As the Germans hammered the British Fifth Army lines around Villers-Bretonneux during Operation Michael, the Canadian Motor Machine Gun Brigade (CMMGB) would quickly gain widespread attention during this critical period of the fighting. Along with the Canadian Cavalry Brigade, the CMMGB would be sent out to harass the advancing Germans and prevent a breakthrough at any cost.

Collar Badge of the 1st Canadian Motor Machine Gun Brigade.
Credit: CWM 19750556-175.

Raised in 1914, the CMMGB was the brainchild of millionaire Raymond Brutinel, a former French army conscript and successful Canadian business man. Brutinel realised that mobile units, using the latest machine gun technology, would be important in the coming war, and worked to personally fund and supply the 1st Canadian Motor Machine Gun Brigade. The Brigade eventually grew to include the Eaton, Borden, and Yukon batteries, which were sponsored by more private funds, including the Eaton family and Klondike millionaire Joe Boyle.

The Brigade was used sporadically during the first years of the war, and usually moved on foot, since trench warfare did not lend itself to the use of the armoured cars; however, as with the Canadian Cavalry Brigade, the situation that arose from Operation Michael was a perfect staging ground to demonstrate the use of armoured, motorised units.

22 March 1918|

On 22 March 1918 the CMMGB was urgently sent from Vimy Ridge to support the besieged British lines around Villers-Bretonneux. Arriving with 40 machine guns and 8 armoured cars, under Lt. Col. W.K. Walker, the Brigade roamed the lines around Villers-Bretonneux, harassing the advancing Germans with automatic fire, passing messages, and rushing to fill gaps in the line (Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force – 1914 – 1919, p. 371).

“Canadian armoured motor car carrying machine guns. April, 1918.”
Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-002614.

24 March 1918|

On 24 March 1918, with the Germans threatening a breakthrough near Cléry, “C” (Borden) & “B” Batteries entered the fray and managed to hold up the German advance for eight hours. Later in the day they fell back while covering the withdrawal of an infantry unit. By evening, only two machine guns were left in action, “manned by one officer and a small handful of men. Their casualties for the day numbered 47 all ranks.” (Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force – 1914 – 1919, p. 371)


For its part in holding the line, the CMMGB was praised in the Times, which noted that ‘everywhere they went they steadied the line’. General Sir Arthur Currie also commended the bravery of the Brigade in his message to Canadian troops in March 1918.

The fighting at Villers-Bretonneux was not without cost for the CMMGB, which suffered 37 killed, 116 wounded, and 11 missing. The success of the CMMGB led to the equipping of a second Motor Machine Gun Brigade in May 1918, and the two brigades continued to play an important role during the mobile warfare of the Hundred Days.

Technological Advances|

-Operation Michael saw the first deployment of the CMMGB as they were meant to be, a fast-moving armoured unit with a distinct role to play. Up until that point, members of the brigade had fought largely on foot, or had been stationary

-The success of light armoured cars and the concentration of machine guns continued through to the Hundred Days and foreshadowed the increased role of both in the Second World War


Raymond Brutinel, a former soldier and mysterious figure, Brutinel emigrated to Canada before the First World War, living first in Edmonton and later Montreal. He made a fortune in agricultural speculation and used his political connections to advocate for the formation of a motorised machine gun unit at the outbreak of the war. Brutinel was promoted to Brigadier-General of the re-organised Canadian Machine Gun Corps in 1918.

#OTD – 21 March 1918 – Kaiserschlacht

“Captured British Mark IV tank (named “Fritz”) being used by the Germans to support an attack, probably during the Spring Offensive. Note a line of German stormtroopers moving alongside in a trench.”
© IWM (Q 45348)

On this day in 1918, General Ludendorff launches Germany’s massive Spring Offensive, “Kaiserschlacht” (Kaiser’s Battle), on the Western Front. The first phase, Operation Michael, involved thousands of troops, artillery, and poison gas, and the Germans quickly advanced deep into the British lines, causing catastrophic losses in both men and ground to the Allies. While the Canadian Corps was not directly affected by Operation Michael, the Canadian Cavalry Brigade and the Canadian Motor Machine Gun Brigade would soon be pulled into the chaotic fighting around Saint-Quentin.

February 1918 – “Battle Hymn of the Republic” tops American Music Charts

In February 1918, the classic Civil War anthem, “Battle Hymn of the Republic”, topped American music charts for six weeks, spurred on by widespread patriotism as the country prepared to send thousands of more men to Europe. Below is the version released in 1918 by the Columbia Stellar Quartet & Charles Harrison :

18 January 1918 – Writing Home

“Canadian writing home from the line.”
Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-001388 (modified from the original). Colourized by Canadian Colour.

Following the many battles of 1917, the winter months of 1918 provided a brief respite for the Canadian Expeditionary Force as it settled into the “relatively quiet Lens sector” (Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919, p. 338). Without scheduled attacks, save for the nightly raiding parties, some Canadians took the time to step back and reflect on what they had just experienced. On 18 January 1918, one soldier’s letter home was published in a local newspaper :

“Any person who went through that Passchendaele Advance can safely say we went through more mud and shell fire, than was ever experienced in this God-forsaken hole called Europe… it is impossible to imagine what the Germans had to contend with… One prisoner who was captured said the Germans thought the Canadians were superhuman, and would not face them at all. It certainly looked like it, the way they disappeared when we started after them.”

– Lieutenant D. Lynn Dudley, 4th Canadian Trench Mortar Battery, private letter published in The Cobourg World, Friday, 18 January 1918, Page 5:3. (Climo, Let Us Remember – Lively Letters From World War One, p. 269).

Epitaphs of the First World War

“Faithful Unto Death”

Epitaph of Private John Derry, Service Number 2005364, of the 78th (Winnipeg Grenadiers) Battalion. John Derry was married and working as a teamster when he enlisted in Regina, Saskatchewan with the Canadian Engineers in January 1917. On 29 December 1917, he joined the 78th Battalion in the field as a reinforcement. He died of shell wounds to both thighs just 18 days later on 16 January 1918 and is buried in Anzin-St.Aubin British Cemetery, France.

Image Courtesy: Commonwealth War Graves Commission, 2018.

Epitaphs of the First World War
Part VII

Reginald and fellow members of D Company, 2nd Battalion pose for a portrait in the Holloway Studio, St. John’s, Newfoundland.
Credit: The Rooms. Series, Item B 5-157, 11 Sept. 1916. Holloway Studio (St. John’s, N.L.)

“Until the day dawn Jesu mercy”

Epitaph of Sergeant Reginald Bayly White, Service Number 3048, of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment. Reginald died on 9 January 1918 of tubercular meningitis and is buried in Etaples Military Cemetery. He was the son of Canon William Charles White, the first native-Newfoundlander to become Bishop of the Church of England for the Diocese of Newfoundland.

Following Reginald’s death, his parents requested that a parcel of skin boots recently sent to their son be distributed to a deserving NCO or Private of the Regiment.
Credit: Provincial Archives Division, The Rooms Corporation of Newfoundland and Labrador. Sourced from Library and Archives Canada, Reference: RG38-A-2-e, Finding Aid 38-27, Reel T-18184, Volume 632, Item Number: 655225, Record Group: Royal Newfoundland Regiment and Forestry Corps, p. 16.

8 January 1918 – #OnThisDay
Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points Speech

Credit: Pach Brothers, c1912 Dec. 2, Reproduction Number LC-USZ62-249, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA.

On this day in 1918, President Woodrow Wilson delivers his Fourteen Points speech to the United States Congress. Initially greeted with sweeping enthusiasm, the Fourteen Points would create substantial complications and diplomatic tension at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. (See MacMillan, Paris 1919 – Six Months That Changed The World).

4 January 1918 – #OnThisDay

On this day in 1918, thousands of kilometres from the front, four men of the Canadian Railway Troops and Service Guard die in Montreal. Unfortunately, their personnel records provide little details of their service, and it is only known that all four died of “accidental injuries” suffered on 4 January 1918. Privates Thomas Kelly and Delore Lalonde are buried in Notre-Dame-des-Neiges Cemetery and Privates Andrew Hunter and John Mackie are buried in Mount Royal Cemetery.

Credit: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1983-28-867.

The Judicial Inquiry of the Halifax Explosion

Did you know that the judicial inquiry into the Halifax Explosion began on 13 December 1917? Made into scapegoats, the Mont Blanc’s captain, Aimé Le Médec, the harbour pilot Francis Mackey, and Frederick Evans Wyatt, the chief examining officer of Halifax harbour, were found wholly responsible and were subsequently charged with manslaughter. However, all attempts to bring them to trial failed due to lack of evidence. In 1919, the initial inquiry’s ruling was appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada and overturned. In the end, both ships were found to be equally at fault.

When interviewed by the CBC fifty years later, harbour pilot Francis Mackey still maintained that his ship had the right of way: http://www.cbc.ca/archives/entry/mont-blanc-pilot-francis-mackey-recalls-halifax-1917-explosion

17 December 1917 – The Halifax Explosion Funeral

“Argyle Street at the corner of George Street, Halifax, showing pine coffins supplied to Snow & Co., Undertakers, second building from right, for victims of the explosion”
Credit: W.G. MacLaughlan, Halifax Relief Commission, Nova Scotia Archives, accession no. 1976-166 no. 64 / negative: N-4273.

On this day in 1917, a funeral is held in Halifax for the remaining unidentified bodies following the explosion. Some bodies can never possibly be identified; others have no living relatives left to claim them. They are buried in a plot at the Fairview Lawn Cemetery, the same location of 121 victims from the Titanic.

“Public funeral of unidentified dead – Monday, December 17th: services by all denominations”
Credit: Nova Scotia Archives, from Devasted Halifax (Halifax, 1917), pp. 30-31, Reference no. F107 H13 Ex7 no. 5.