09 min 36 s
Canadian War Records Office, Ministry of Information
With the Armistice, the brass arrived for their tours of the battlefields. British, French, American, Canadian and Belgian senior officers and politicians visited the trenches or set out to greet the troops. King George V toured the front and watched infantry and tanks stage an exercise. The Prince of Wales reviewed Canadian troops and received endless bouquets of flowers (where did they come from in November 1918 after four years of German occupation?) from children in Valenciennes. The war was over, Germany was defeated, and Canada had lost 60,000 dead. Now the statesmen’s task was to make a peace that would last.
Pieces of History
Patrick H. Brennan
When the Canadian Expeditionary Force began to take shape in the autumn of 1914, the majority of its future commanding officers had been pursuing their business and professional careers only weeks earlier. Even those with some pre-war militia experience were still amateur warriors who would have to learn how to command soldiers while actually fighting a war. Combat would prove a cruel and unforgiving teacher, and the mistakes they made learning how to command would cost men’s lives.
Arthur Currie: the first Canadian to command the Canadian Corps
Arthur Currie began the war in command of a brigade of 4000 men. He had earned his appointment on the recommendation of Garnet Hughes, a fellow British Columbia militia officer who happened to be the son of Canada’s Minister of Militia and Defence, the erratic, meddling and militarily incompetent Sir Sam Hughes. During the early stages of the war, Hughes personally selected almost every senior officer in the army, and far too many of them were friends and political cronies who proved unfit for their commands and ultimately had to be replaced. Nothing in Currie’s background as a school teacher and realtor with a smattering of militia experience made him stand out. Yet he turned out to be a fast learner and superb leader whose military skills quickly blossomed. By 1916 he was recognized as the best of the senior Canadian officers. A year later, he was the obvious choice to be the first Canadian to command the Corps, a responsibility he carried out with distinction through the rest of the war.
As the Canadians desperately struggled to overcome their inexperience, they were fortunate to have the guidance of some very capable British officers such as Lieutenant-General Julian Byng and his chief staff officer, Major-General Percy Radcliffe. First-rate professional soldiers, they identified the most promising Canadian commanders, mentored them, and, when they proved their worth, promoted them to more responsible commands. Consequently, by 1917 the Canadian Corps had assembled a pool of very capable, battle-experienced Canadian commanding officers.
Two of the brigade commanders, Brigadier-Generals James MacBrien and Victor Odlum, were typical of this group. MacBrien was a professional soldier, one of only a handful of such Canadian commanders. After initially serving as a staff officer, Byng gave MacBrien command of the 12th Infantry Brigade in September 1916, just before this untested unit received their first taste of combat.
After serving in the South African War, Odlum had returned to Vancouver where he’d built up a prosperous financial and insurance business. He saw action with the 7th Battalion at Second Ypres, the Canadians’ first battle, taking over command of the battalion when Lt. Col. McHarg was killed. Byng promoted him to the command of the 11th Brigade in July 1916 and like MacBrien, he led his brigade until the Armistice. MacBrien’s style was studious and reserved, and his forte was training and planning. In contrast, Odlum was a dashing, fearless battlefield commander who had the wounds to prove it. Although they displayed two very different styles of command, both were effective.
Unlike earlier wars, the sheer scale of World War I battles and the breakdown of communications during the fighting actually made it impossible for generals to control the attacks they launched. What they could do, however, was utilize the weeks before an assault to prepare for every possible battlefield contingency – in other words, to emphasize thorough planning and training.
From amateurs to an elite force
By the end of 1916, the British Empire forces were adopting new, more effective fighting tactics. This was particularly true in the Canadian Corps, where Byng, Radcliffe and Currie had inaugurated a highly efficient system of “organized learning.” The officers and soldiers doing the fighting now compiled “after battle” reports outlining in detail what had succeeded and what had failed. Whether it was tactics or weaponry, the Corps’ commanders placed a premium on figuring out better ways to fight, emphasizing to every officer and soldier how vital absorbing the lessons of the “battlefield classroom” was to the survival and success of them all. Henceforward, something of value learned by one battalion would be speedily adopted by the rest simply by making it part of everyone’s training. Lessons now learned in an organized way were applied in an organized way, too. More than any other factor, mastering this “learning curve” was responsible for transforming the Canadian Corps from an enthusiastic mob of amateurs into an elite attack force, the “shock troops” of the British Empire. Officers, and especially senior commanders, had played an indispensable role.
One group of commanders shared the dual responsibility of preparing their soldiers and then leading them in battle—the commanding officers of the Corps’ 48 infantry battalions. Of the 200-odd men who commanded a Canadian battalion, 22 were killed in action and many more were wounded. Along with the junior officers under them, they were in charge of most of the soldiers’ actual training. They also had the critical responsibility of maintaining the health, morale and unit pride of their men, and often organized sports, concerts and other entertainments with this end in mind.
Battalion commanders were the most senior officers their men actually knew and saw regularly, and who shared their daily risks and grim living conditions at the front. As a result, the men looked to them for inspiration and confidence, and a brave and skilful battalion commander could keep his men going under the most appalling conditions. Lieutenant-Colonel Cyrus Peck was one such officer. He’d enlisted in the 16th Battalion in 1914, fought with it at Second Ypres and commanded it from November 1916 until the end of the war. Although the stocky, walrus-moustached Peck was hardly the most military-looking of commanding officers, he was fearless, and none of his soldiers doubted who ran their unit. During the storming of the Drocourt-Quéant Line on September 2, 1918, such leadership won Peck the Victoria Cross. When stiff German resistance blocked his battalion’s advance, he exposed himself to heavy artillery and machine-gun fire in order to reconnoitre enemy positions, then re-organized what was left of his men and led them to capture and hold their objective.
Armies are hierarchical organizations, and the quality of command plays an enormous role in their ultimate success. Even the bravest and best-equipped troops will fail in battle if they are asked to execute a flawed plan, or if the officers directing them in the heat of combat make poor decisions. As the war progressed, the best commanders worked their way to the top of the Canadian Corps. Consequently, planning was sound, and Canadian soldiers were prepared for battle using the most effective tactics learned from earlier combat experiences. Once the battle began, brave and skilled leadership by battalion commanders and the junior officers who followed their lead contributed mightily to the chance for victory. By the last two years of the war, the quality of commander in the Canadian Corps was outstanding, as an unbroken string of victories attests.
Brennan, Patrick. “From Amateur to Professional: The Experience of Brigadier General William Antrobus Griesbach.” in Canada and the Great War, Briton Busch, ed. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003 : 78-92.
---. “A Still Untold Story of the Canadian Corps: Byng’s and Currie’s Commanders.” Canadian Military History 11, 2 (Spring 2002): 5-16.
Brennan, Patrick and Thomas Leppard. “How the Lessons Were Learned: Senior Commanders and the Moulding of the Canadian Corps after the Somme” in Canada and War: 1000-2000, Yves Tremblay, ed. Ottawa: Canadian War Museum, 2001.
Dancocks, Daniel. Sir Arthur Currie: A Biography. Toronto: Methuen, 1985.
Hyatt, A.M.J. General Sir Arthur Currie: A Military Biography. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987.
McCulloch, Ian. “‘Batty Mac’: Portrait of a Brigade Commander of the Great War, 1915-1917.” Canadian Military History 7, 4 (Autumn 1998): 11-28.
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Tremblay, Yves. “Brutinel: A Unique Kind of Leadership.” in Warrior Chiefs. Bernd Horn and Stephen Harris, eds. Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2001.
Canada's Mounted Troops
Major Michael R. McNorgan
Instructor, Royal Military College, Kingston
At the beginning of the First World War, horsed cavalry was still an army’s principal mobile arm. However, after the onset of static trench warfare on the Western Front in late 1914 – with thick barbed wire barriers and large numbers of machine guns protecting defensive works – the battlefield utility of cavalry was greatly diminished. Cavalry was nonetheless retained in large numbers because of the perennial hope of breaking through the enemy’s line and rolling up his defences from the rear. Thus, for virtually every major offensive operation during the war, cavalry divisions were kept in reserve.
Canada contributed two distinct groups of cavalry during the War – the Canadian Cavalry Brigade and an independent cavalry regiment known as the Canadian Light Horse.
Canadian Cavalry Brigade
This Canadian Cavalry Brigade was formed in England in the autumn of 1915, consisting of permanent force units, the Royal Canadian Dragoons and Lord Strathcona’s Horse, along with the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery. In early 1916, The Fort Garry Horse, a militia regiment from Winnipeg, was added, along with a Cavalry Brigade Machine Gun Squadron equipped with Vickers machine guns. The Canadian Cavalry Brigade served as part of a British cavalry division for the remainder of the war. Its first mounted action was at the Somme in the summer of 1916. When cavalry units were not needed as reserves for an offensive operation, they were often employed dismounted to occupy quiet sectors of the front.
The Brigade again saw mounted action in March 1917 when tasked to pursue an unexpected German withdrawal to a new defensive position called the Hindenburg Line. During this pursuit, Lieutenant Harvey of Lord Strathcona’s Horse earned the brigade’s first Victoria Cross for valour during the liberation of a French village. By the time of the Battle of Cambrai in November 1917 – best known as the first major tank offensive of the war – the Canadian cavalry was judged to be among the best brigades in the British Cavalry Corps, and it was tasked to serve in the lead of a large cavalry exploitation force. During this operation, a single Canadian squadron was the only cavalry to penetrate German lines, and Lieutenant Strachan of The Fort Garry Horse was awarded the Victoria Cross for gallantry.
The Brigade served with great distinction during the German’s March 1918 offensive toward Amiens, riding from place to place assisting in slowing the relentless enemy advance. Its final action in this operation took place at Moreuil Wood, where Lieutenant Flowerdew of Lord Strathcona’s Horse won a posthumous Victoria Cross for leading a gallant cavalry charge against German machine guns. After the war, Marshal Foch, the Allied supreme commander, credited the Canadians with halting the German offensive at Moreuil and preventing the separation of the French and British armies. Later in that final year of the war, the Canadian Cavalry Brigade was in action during the great Canadian Corps victory over the Germans at Amiens in August, and it played an important part in following up the German retreat in the last two months of the war.
Canadian Light Horse
Until May 1916, three of the four infantry divisions of the Canadian Corps maintained their own independent cavalry squadron of some 150 all ranks . These squadrons – from the 19th Alberta Dragoons, the 1st Hussars and the 16th Light Horse – were then amalgamated into an ad hoc regiment that reported directly to Canadian Corps Headquarters. In early 1917, this unit was named the Canadian Light Horse.
The Canadian Light Horse first saw action as a mounted unit in the consolidation of the ground captured in the attack on Vimy Ridge in April 1917. The CLH played a major role in the fighting at Iwuy on October 10, 1918, where the last ever swords-drawn charge by Canadian cavalry took place. During the pursuit of the Germans in the final month of the war, CLH squadrons were always well out in front as a scouting force, ensuring that the Canadian divisions would not be surprised by German lay-back patrols. When the war ended for the Canadians in Mons Belgium on November 11, 1918, the Canadian Light Horse was already well beyond the city.
Modern armoured fighting vehicles – tanks and armoured cars – owe their development in part to the stalemate created on the Western Front by the deadly combination of machine guns and thick belts of barbed wire protecting trench lines, along with massive artillery bombardments that could be brought down with great accuracy on an attacking force. The problem of how an attacking force could be strengthened to overcome well-defended trenches had been studied by British scientists since late 1914. They came up with the idea of a ‘land ship’ – a tracked vehicle protected by armour plate, large enough that it could carry guns or machine guns, drive over belts of barbed wire, and crossover trenches. This highly secret vehicle was given the code name ‘tank’.
Tanks were first introduced in limited numbers during the battle of the Somme in mid-September 1916, and the Canadian Corps was given seven (these models were called the Mark I) for its attack on the village of Courcellette. But these early versions were mechanical nightmares; almost all broke down before they got anywhere close to the German lines. Still, scientists kept improving their tank designs. Finally, in November 1917, tanks were used in large numbers in a successful offensive at Cambrai: the era of mechanized warfare had been born. Tanks then played major roles in the Battle of Amiens in August 1918, in the breaking of the Hindenburg Line in September, and in the pursuit of the retreating Germans in October and November 1918.
Early in 1918 many thought the war might well last into 1919, and the Canadian Army agreed to raise tank units. The 1st Canadian Tank Battalion was recruited from university students, and in June 1918 it was sent to England to begin training at the British Tank School. Despite the general aversion to volunteering at this stage in the war, a 2nd Battalion was also quickly raised. The 1st Tank Battalion had just completed its training and was preparing to leave for the front when the Armistice was declared on November 11, 1918. Thus, while no Canadian tank unit saw action in the war, many Canadians did serve in British tank battalions, and in a number of instances displayed their nationalism by painting maple leafs prominently on their vehicles.
THE MOTOR MACHINE GUN BRIGADE
In 1914, Canada created the world’s first armoured unit. The driving force behind this achievement was Raymond Brutinel, a wealthy engineer originally from France, who had the idea that lightly armoured vehicles designed to carry machine guns would be especially useful. He offered to raise the funds for the vehicles, a suggestion which was readily accepted by the government. Brutinel designed the vehicles, had them built, purchased the machine guns, and recruited the soldiers, all within two months. His new unit was given the name ‘Automobile Machine Gun Brigade No. 1’. In the next few months three other mobile machine gun units were raised, all paid for by private subscription – the Eaton Battery, the Borden Battery and the Yukon Battery. All four units found their way to France where, in 1915, they were amalgamated under Brutinel’s command as the Canadian Motor Machine Gun Brigade.
Brutinel’s Motors came into their own in the last year of the war, when the stalemate of trench warfare had been broken. This highly mobile force played an especially important role in stemming the onslaught of the Germans’ March 1918 offensive, and a second similar brigade was formed. The Motors were a valuable part of a composite formation of cavalry, armoured cars and cyclists, termed ‘The Independent Force’, during the Battle of Amiens in August 1918. Between September and November this force led the Canadian Corps from one victory to another during the pursuit to Valenciennes and finally to Mons on November 11, when the war ended.
At the beginning of the war, each Canadian division had its own company of cyclists – troops equipped with sturdy bicycles whose tasks included field security and aspects of military intelligence. In the static conditions on the Western Front, they were not very useful, so they tended to be used as guards or labourers. In May 1916 the four companies were amalgamated as The Canadian Corps Cyclist Battalion. In 1918, the battalion was included in Brigadier-General Brutinel’s ‘Independent Force’, and there they served valiantly at Amiens and in the Pursuit to Mons as a form of mounted infantry – riding to the scene of action, dismounting and then fighting as infantry.
Ellis, W.D., ed. Saga of the Cyclists in the Great War 1914-1918. Toronto: Canadian Corps Cyclist Battalion Association, 1965.
Lynch, Alex. Dad, the Motors and the Fifth Army Show: The German Offensive, March 1918. Kingston, ON: Lawrence Publications, 1978.
---. The Glory of Their Times : 1st Canadian Motor Machine Gun Brigade, March 1918. Kingston, ON: Lawrence Publications, 2001.
Marteinson, John and Michael R. McNorgan. The Royal Canadian Armoured Corps: An Illustrated History. Toronto: Robin Brass Studio, 2000.
Mitchell, G.D., Brian Reid and W. Simcock. RCHA - Right of the Line : An Anecdotal History of the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery from 1871. Ottawa: RCHA History Committee, 1986.
Wallace, J.F. Dragons of Steel: Canadian Armour in Two World Wars. Burnstown, ON: General Store Publishing, 1995.
Williams, S.H. Stand to Your Horses : Through the First World War, 1914-1918 with the Lord Strathcona's Horse (Royal Canadians). Winnipeg: Lord Strathcona's Horse (Royal Canadians) Regimental Society, 1999 (1961).
Life in the Trenches
Historian, Canadian War Museum
From Switzerland to the North Sea, some 500 kilometres long, soldiers on both sides carved out ditches in the ground that, over time, were expanded in complexity and depth. By 1915, vast underground cities housed the soldiers, as the opposing armies faced off against each other across no man’s land. Along this continuous line of trenches, offensive operations degenerated into frontal assaults, which were usually stopped dead by concentrated fire.
The Western Front, as it was called, consisted of a series of trench systems in depth. The front lines were held in strength, but behind them, joined by a series of communication trenches that ran perpendicular to the front, were support and rear trenches. Deep protective dugouts were situated along the front and rear trenches to provide some degree of safety against all but direct hits from artillery fire. Saps and listening posts were pushed into no man’s land, where soldiers were positioned to provide advance warnings of enemy attacks.
Despite the unsanitary nature of front line trenches, they were areas of safety. The trenches protected against small arms fire, shrapnel bursts and high explosive bombardments. Every day and night soldiers shored up the crumbling walls, filled sandbags, and rebuilt sections that had been damaged by artillery fire. It was not only a war of the machine gun and rifle, but also of the shovel.
Life in the trenches was filled with long periods of boredom interspersed with terror. Much of the time was spent in routine duty. At half an hour before dawn, the infantry was roused from their dugouts or funk holes (small spaces carved into the trench walls) and ordered to ‘Stand-To.’ At the alert, they waited for a possible attack with bayonet fixed. If nothing occurred, and it rarely did, since the infantry of both sides were always at their most prepared at this time, officers inspected the men. Rifles were examined for rust; feet were prodded to ensure that dry socks had been worn to protect against trench foot. The latter being a type of frostbite that occurred from prolonged standing in cold, slushy water, and could, in severe cases, require the amputation of toes or feet. After inspection, soldiers were often rewarded with a small dose of rum, which was much appreciated by the men, who saw it as a form of medicine to help withstand the daily deprivations.
Breakfast, like most meals, usually consisted of canned beef, jam and biscuits. It was a monotonous diet, but soldiers rarely went hungry. For lunch or dinner, soup or stew was brought up from rear areas to offer some variety and warmth. Care packages from home, filled with cheese, bread and sweets, augmented the bland food. During the day, though, the goal of most privates was to avoid the sergeant who assigned trench chores. Most were unsuccessful, with soldiers spending much of their time rebuilding the trenches or standing sentry.
Despite these duties, soldiers had much free time, during which they dreamed of home and of loved ones left behind; worried about children who were growing up without a father; of ailing parents with no caregivers; or of a wife who was trying to feed a family with insufficient funds. Literate soldiers might spend a few hours scribbling letters. Return mail from home was a welcomed treat, with letters read and reread. These exchanges back and forth remained an important life-line to Canada from the trenches. And while they were usually subject to two levels of censorship, by officers at the front and officials in England, soldiers nonetheless tried to share their thoughts with those at home. Civilians could not understand everything, nor could soldiers often capture the full range of their strange experiences in words, but letters remained an important avenue of expression.
Boredom could be kept at bay through gambling, and there was always some rake with dice or cards to fleece his mates. If a soldier had no money, he at least had cigarettes. Soldiers smoked all day long, and cigarettes, which were issued by the army, bought in rear areas, and begged from those at home, were a useful distraction. They helped to calm the nerves, or so soldiers said, and they certainly helped to mask the stench of unwashed bodies.
There were no baths in the front lines and, most soldiers went at least a week, usually longer, without changing their clothes. Dirt and mud were a part of life and, during the winter, helped to insulate soldiers. Far more trying was the infestation of parasitic body lice. The lice lived in the seams of clothing where they feasted on human blood. Soldiers scratched themselves raw to get at their infernal enemies. They learned to defeat their insect adversaries, at least for a time, by taking off their shirts and running a candle over the seams. This drew out the lice that were then squashed satisfactorily between finger and thumb. While soldiers did this, they would sit around, talk, complain and gossip. It was known as ‘chatting,’ and it is just one of many wartime phrases that would enter the English lexicon. But the lice always came back, tormenting the soldiers day and night.
Rats, too, were a constant plague, and because they lived off corpses, they could grow as big as cats. They bit soldiers and scurried over their faces while they slept. The rats were hunted by soldiers and their trench pets, usually fierce terrier dogs, but the rodents lived in and outside of the trenches and were always multiplying. Their squealing movement could be heard throughout the battlefield.
Amidst the mud and slush in the winter, or heat and flies in the summer, soldiers developed their own trench culture. New words sprang up, slang like ‘napoo’ for being killed, or ‘blighty’ that referred to England or home. Artistic soldiers could take spent ammunition and shape it into art. Some soldiers tried their hand at poetry. While most were not as skilled as John McCrae, Wilfrid Owen or Siegfried Sassoon, to name the best-known war poets, the trench poetry or doggerel provided much insight into the soldiers’ front-line experiences. At the group level, some battalions printed trench newspapers. Drawing from their own soldiers in the ranks—men who in civilian life had been editors, journalists and cartoonists—these crude newspapers contained rough humour and wry commentary on the strange, subterranean world of the trenches.
But just as a soldier might be penning a letter or staring at the blue sky above, the crash of an artillery shell could bring sudden death. The enemy was always there to kill or maim. Snipers skulked into no man’s land, camouflaged and ready to put a bullet through a man’s head should it rise, even for a second, above the safety of the trench parapet. Poison gas was released in the form of gas clouds and artillery shells, and soldiers who could not put on their respirator quickly faced a lingering death as chemicals corrupted and ravaged lungs.
Machine-gun bullets raked the front lines day and night. Yet artillery shells were the greatest killer in the war, accounting for more than half of all deaths. High explosive shells blew deep holes in the ground or wrecked trenches; soldiers were atomized by direct hits. Equally deadly, shrapnel artillery shells rained hundreds of metal balls and jagged steel down on soldiers, shredding through flesh and bone. Steel helmets, introduced in early 1916, helped to reduce casualties, but a unit’s tour in the front lines almost always resulted in a steady hemorrhage of casualties. It was clinically called wastage, and impersonal charts showed that each month the infantry would lose approximately 10% of its strength, even in quiet areas where no operations were carried out. While the snipers and artillerymen did their dirty work, the soldiers could look around and see their best friends killed and maimed.
Yet the soldiers struck back in the form of nighttime raids. Changing into dark clothes, equipping themselves with revolvers, grenades, daggers and clubs, small groups of men snuck past their wire and into no man’s land. Raids were a form of organized mugging, and the goal was to gather intelligence, kill the enemy and grab a prisoner. Enemy sentries were usually the target, but sometimes large groups of raiders slipped into the opposite trenches to wreck mayhem. While Canadian troops acquired a reputation as fierce raiders, these operations were dangerous affairs, and in the confusion of night fighting, casualties were often heavy.
To help relieve the unending pressure on soldiers, they were rotated in and out of the front line. On roughly four- to six-day tours, filthy, verminous, exhausted soldiers passed from front to secondary lines and finally to the reserves. This rotation helped to relieve the strain, but soldiers always knew they would return to the trenches in this maddening cycle.
Endurance was the key to survival and soldiers learned to cope with the inhuman conditions. Some developed fatalistic attitudes, believing they would be killed ‘when their number was up’; others lived in terror all the time; a few hoped for a blighty wound, a bullet through the hand or leg that would take them away from the horror and back to a clean hospital in England. Thousands suffered mental breakdowns, known as shell shock, but hundreds of thousands more of the ‘poor bloody infantry,’ as the soldiers liked to call themselves, learned to withstand the strain of the trenches. And it was these survivors who, after four years of bitter fighting, would finally break the static warfare on the Western Front and defeat the German forces.
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Mount Houy and Valenciennes
During this period the 4th Division [CEF] made several attempts to send patrols across
the Escaut by boat, footbridges and over the debris of destroyed bridges. Orders that
Valenciennes itself was not to be bombarded because of the large numbers of French
civilians in the city made it extremely difficult to clear enemy machine-guns and snipers from the houses overlooking the canal. From what probing the patrols could accomplish and from the statements of prisoners it was clear that the enemy was preparing to make a determined stand at Valenciennes. In selecting the city as a key-point in the Hermann Line the Germans had chosen well. The Escaut Canal provided an effective water barrier against attack from the west and the north. The enemy had heavily wired both banks of the canal and fortified the east bank with a well-planned trench system. In addition he had loop-holed the walls of the city's houses and factories and armed them with machine-gun posts. By cutting gaps in the canal dykes and opening sluice gates the Germans had inundated the country on both sides of the Escaut. West and south-west of Valenciennes the flooded area was several hundred yards wide, and to the north, in the wide angle between the Escaut and the Condé-Mons Canals, the water spread over many square miles.
Nature had further favoured the Germans in defending them against any attempt to
capture Valenciennes from the south. The prominent wooded height of Mont Houy, east of the bend in the Escaut, rose to a height of 150 feet above the canal and completely
dominated the southern approaches to the city. Behind it a long ridge overlooking the
valley of the Rhonelle stream reached northward to Valenciennes, and along this the enemy had constructed a line of wire and trenches to add artificial strength to an already difficult natural position.
The plan for taking Mont Houy and Valenciennes had been revised. Orders from
G.H.Q. called for the Fourth, Third and First Armies, in conjunction with the First French Army, to be prepared to resume the main offensive on 3 November, and it was urgent that Valenciennes should be captured in order to secure the left flank of this large-scale operation. The capture of the Blue and subsequent exploitation to the Green line was now to be carried out as a single operation with massive artillery support, the 10th Canadian Brigade cooperating with the 49th Division on the right. While the 10th Brigade (commanded since 28 October by Brig.-Gen. J.M. Ross) assaulted Valenciennes from the south and moved around the east side, the 12th was to establish bridgeheads over the Escaut from the west and mop up the city. Farther to the north the 3rd Division prepared to cross the canal at the same time. The new plan was geared for an assault early on 1 November.
Arrangements for the attack were complicated by the many civilians remaining in Valenciennes. As far as possible the city was spared from heavy artillery fire, and only such defended positions as the industrial centre of Marly and its steel works, which were known to be full of enemy troops, came under bombardment.
The weather, which seemed constantly to be in opposition to Canadian plans, held true to form. Throughout the preceding night and the day of attack, frequent showers caused the soldiers much discomfort. There was no preliminary bombardment on the morning of 1 November, and promptly at 5:15 a.m the infantry of the 10th Brigade began to advance behind a deluge of shrapnel, machine-gun bullets and high explosive shell that swept down on the enemy from front and flank and rear. The German artillery was prompt to retaliate, but its fire rapidly dwindled under the accurate counter-bombardment of the Canadian guns.
Encirclement of Valenciennes and penetration into the city continued. During the morning of 1 November the 12th Brigade and the 3rd Division had both established bridgeheads over the Escaut, the infantry crossing by means of collapsible boats and cork float bridges. By noon the 12th Brigade, on the immediate left of the 10th, and the greater part of the 38th and 72nd Battalions east of the canal and patrols had pushed well into the heart of the city.
On 2 November General Currie recorded in his diary: "The operation yesterday was one of the most successful the Corps has yet performed." The capture of the Mont Houy position and the advance on Valenciennes had been skilfully planned and well executed. Though the enemy still clung to the city and held firm his strong position near Marly, the day for him was one of disaster. The Canadians had taken nearly 1800 prisoners, and more than 800 enemy dead were counted in the battle area. Canadian losses numbered 80 killed and some 300 wounded. Careful coordination in employing a tremendous weight of artillery in very close support of minimum numbers of infantry had achieved victory at a very low cost.
During the night of 1-2 November the 11th Brigade relieved the 10th. The 54th
Battalion attacked Marly before dawn, only to find that most of the Germans had withdrawn from the village. During the night the two battalions of the 12th Brigade, which had met strenuous opposition during the afternoon, were able to push through Valenciennes with no great difficulty as the Germans evacuated the city. Both units reported themselves on the eastern outskirts by 8:30 a.m. By nightfall on the 2nd the Brigade had secured St. Saulvé, a mile up the Mons road. On the Canadians' right a determined German garrison in the steel works held up the 49th Division until mid-afternoon of the 2nd, when a battalion of the 148th Brigade successfully rushed the position.
Sir Douglas Haig had postponed by one day the set-piece attack by the four Allied
Armies ordered for 3 November. On the morning of the 3rd, however, when it was clear that the enemy had retired from the Escaut leaving only weak rearguards, he cancelled the offensive. He ordered a general advance, telling divisions to act vigorously on their own initiative so as to keep the Germans from establishing a firm line. The 22nd Corps was given an initial objective ten miles away, and the Canadian Corps ordered to cover the British left. By nightfall on the 3rd, Canadian patrols of the 4th Division had pushed forward to the Estreux-Onnaing road, three miles east of Valenciennes, without making contact with the enemy.
The battle for Valenciennes was the last major prearranged attack in which the Canadian Corps was engaged. The week of campaigning that remained was to see no large action, as the enemy was kept continually on the move. Only twice was the daily advance less than a mile.
Adapted and used with permission from Nicholson, G. W. L., Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1919. Ottawa: Queen’s Printer, 1964 : 470-475.