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Canada in the First World War - The Last Hundred Days Part 2
From the Hindenburg Line to Mons
Canal Du Nord
The Germans now retreated behind the Canal du Nord, an uncompleted canal that had been incorporated into the Hindenburg Line. This was the Germans last line of defence in France.
The replacements now arriving in the Canadian front lines were conscripts, the results of the Military Service Act. Officers were replaced by NCOs’ but those men were lost to their units while they went through Officer Training. This time the Canadians had a month to prepare for their next battle. During this quiet time they suffered almost 100 casualties a day.
The assault facing the Canadian Corps was a difficult one. The Hindenburg Line in front of them was composed of the Canal du Nord, two trench lines (the Marquion and the Marcoing), the Canal de l’Escaut, and the city of Cambrai. This was the same city captured by the British in the famous tank battle in 1917 and subsequently retaken by the Germans. It was a major road and rail hub for the German defences. To defend this area the Germans had three divisions in the line and five divisions in reserve.
General Currie’s plan was to attack across a dry section of the canal. This allowed for only a narrow front 4 battalions wide. Through this hole the remainder of the Canadian Corps would follow with the addition of the British 11th Division. General Horne, commander of the First Army was alarmed at the plan, he tried to dissuade Currie and when he could not called in Field Marshal Haig, commander of the BEF. When Haig could not dissuade Currie he called in General Byng, the former Corps commander, who also could not dissuade Currie. Currie’s plan was approved, though with great trepidation. The movement of three British armies was dependent on its success.
On September 27th at 5:20 A.M the attack began, a little after 6 A.M. German prisoners began arriving in the Canadian rear areas. General Currie’s unusual plan had worked and by the end of the day the Marquion Line had been broken. The Germans brought up another 7 divisions to contain the Canadian Corps (3 Canadian + 1 British Division). The gains on succeeding days were less as the forward units suffered continuing casualties and moved beyond artillery range. The British divisions on the flanks were unable to keep up with the advance of the Canadians and left them open to enfilade fire from unsuppressed German positions.
While the Canadians had kept pushing the Germans back the gains did not support the amount of casualties being suffered. On Oct. 1st , without capturing Cambrai, the Canadian Corps went to the defensive. They had captured over 7,000 prisoners while suffering over 10,000 casualties. Since the start of offensive operations on August 8th, the Canadian Corps had taken over 30,000 casualties. The only good news in that number was the ratio of wounded to dead was increasing. More casualties were being caused by machine guns than shrapnel, and that allowed more of the casualties to survive.
All of the assaults along the Western Front had been successful but costly. The Australian Corps had no replacements and with the men ready to mutiny they were pulled out of the line on October 5th. Canadian soldiers resented their place at the front end of the assault, but with conscripts as replacements they were still ready to serve.
Cambrai still needed to be taken and on October 9th a night attack was launched over the Canal de l’Escaut. The assaulting troops found the Germans getting ready to withdraw from the city. The Germans conducted a fighting retreat inflicting severe losses on the cavalry units that tried to chase them. As the Germans withdrew they destroyed the infrastructure of the country behind them, bridges, roads and railways were all damaged and destroyed. At the city of Valenciennes they turned to fight.
Valenciennes was the last city in France held by the Germans, and it was dominated by a hill to the south called Mont Huoy. The British 51st Division, an elite division, was tasked with capturing the hill. On Oct. 28th they sent a single under strength battalion to do the job. While they succeeded in capturing the hill they were driven off by the inevitable German counterattack. As Field Marshal Haig wanted to continue the advance the Canadian Corps was asked to take over. Currie refused. He would do it according to his own plan or not at all.
Currie’s plan was to use a brigade (4 battalions) behind a large artillery barrage. The Canadian barrage was 50% larger than that used by the British. The British Army quartermasters wanted to limit the number of shells used, Currie refused. He would not spend lives instead of shells. Early on the morning of November 1st the attack began. The hill was permanently captured and the Canadians moved on to the city of Valenciennes itself.
The Germans were counting on the Allies not bombarding French cities, but Currie would not risk his men’s lives in such a manner. By November 2nd the city was in Canadian hands and the retreat of the Germans resumed.
On November 5th the Canadians entered Belgium. It was obvious that the war was drawing to a close and no-one wanted to die so close to victory. Field Marshal Haig wanted to keep pressure on the Germans and the Canadians were required to close with the enemy. The next city on their route was Mons. While orders were transmitted all down the line the men at the sharp end were reluctant to press too closely. Infiltration rather than large scale attacks was the method of advance.
As the Canadian Corps was capturing Mons word was received that an armistice would go in to effect later that day. By 9 A.M. all the front line battalions had been informed. A little before 11 A.M. Private George Price stood up and was shot dead by a German sniper. He was the only Canadian soldier killed that day, the last Canadian casualty of the war.
The Canadian Corps was finished fighting the First World War. Since their opening offensive at Amiens they had suffered nearly 46,000 casualties. Nearly 61,000 Canadians were killed during the war, mostly with the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Over 174,000 Canadians were wounded. The casualty rate was 55% of those serving overseas. It would take until May of 1919 before the Canadian Expeditionary Force was returned home and demobilized.