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.