Canadians at Mons
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03 min 31 s
Canadian War Records Office, Ministry of Information
This clip begins with a brief segment shot in Valenciennes, France, probably on November 2, 1918, the day the town was captured by the Allied forces. It shows the French President Raymond Poincaré being received by the officers and men of the 4th Canadian Division, who had assumed a leading role in the operation. We also see images of Poincarré delivering a speech. This is followed by a lengthy sequence documenting the Canadian troops’ victory parade through the Grande Place, the main square in Mons, Belgium, on November 11, 1918, the last day of the war.
The Canadian 4th Division was under the command of Major-General David Watson, who we see briefly in the Valenciennes segment of this clip. He’s the smiling officer with a moustache, one of several officers walking toward the camera while reviewing troops. Watson appears in the line just before the French officers enter the frame. In the celebrations that followed the liberation of Valenciennes, the senior British officers refused the Canadian request to be given pride of place in recognition of their role in recapturing the city. Irritated by what they saw as the Canadian officers’ nationalist pretensions, the British dominated the victory ceremonies and Watson would remember the event in his diary as a “frosty affair.”
It was a different story nine days later in Mons, following the success of the 3rd Canadian Division under the command of Major-General F.O.W. Loomis. Here General Currie ordered a victory parade with representation from every unit in the Canadian Corps. One can only imagine the profound emotion and relief among the Canadian Corps as they marched across the town square, marking the end of the most destructive war the world had ever known. The town had enormous significance, as it was in Mons that British troops had fought their first major battle in August 1914.
A large section of this victory parade is documented here. The reviewing officer is out of sight to the left, his presence made clear by the acknowledgement of passing men. The first troops, cyclists from the Canadian Corps Cyclist Battalion, are followed by a detachment of the Canadian Field Artillery. Following the ‘Corps Troops’ — those under the direct authority of the Corps Commander — are soldiers from the Canadian Corps’ subordinate formations, in this case the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division. Leading this section are the 5th Lancers, a British cavalry regiment that had been attached to the Canadians during the capture of Mons. There was also a sentimental reason for their presence, as they were among the British units that had first fought the Germans in Mons in August 1914. Following them are soldiers of the Canadian Light Horse, some carrying dress parade lances and other rifles, either ‘at the ready’ or in their buckets. Following them are the four infantry battalions of the 7th Canadian Infantry Brigade with representative detachments. First is the Royal Canadian Regiment, followed by the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. Following them, in kilts, are the men of Montreal’s 42nd Battalion (Royal Highlanders of Canada), better known as the Canadian Black Watch. The final infantry detachment is from the 49th Battalion, now known as the Loyal Edmonton Regiment. The final sequences show a motorcyclist and an armoured car from the Canadian Motor Machine Gun Brigade, the first armoured unit in the world.
The commander of the 7th Brigade was Brig-General J. A. Clark, who at 32 was one of the youngest Canadian officers. Clark would return to Mons several times in his long life for commemorative reunions.
Pieces of History
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).
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.
Swettenham, John. McNaughton, Vol. I: 1887-1939. Toronto: The Ryerson Press, 1968.
Tremblay, Yves. “Brutinel: A Unique Kind of Leadership.” in Warrior Chiefs. Bernd Horn and Stephen Harris, eds. Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2001.
The Capture of Mons
August 1914, when the small British Expeditionary Force encountered and engaged for one day the advancing German right wing on the Condé Canal before falling back towards Paris and the Marne. For four years Mons had remained in German hands. It was a valuable asset to the enemy, for the finest coal in Belgium was to be found in the nearby mines, which unlike those destroyed or flooded by the Germans on the French side of the frontier, had been kept in vigorous production. This time there would be no siege; Mons was as far as possible to be spared damage. General Currie planned to take the city by an encircling manoeuvre. He ordered the 2nd Division, moving around the southern outskirts, to occupy the high ground to the east, while the 3rd Division captured the northern suburb of Nimy and infiltrated into the heart of the city.
Fighting on 9 November had yielded only scant gains in comparison with the advances of previous days. As the Canadians completed the occupation of one village
they would be held up by machine-gun fire from the next. In their retirement on the night of the 6th-7th the Germans had fallen back to a line running north and south through Mons, and attempts by the 2nd Canadian Division on 10 November to push around the southern edge of the city met spirited reminders that the enemy was still there. Despite prisoners' reports of this intended withdrawal, machine-gun fire was still coming from Mons and the neighbouring villages, and at 10:00 p.m. the Canadian Corps gave instructions that the objectives of 11 November remained the same as for the 10th.
The whole of Mons lay within the 3rd Division's sector, and the task of entering the city was assigned to the 7th Brigade. The difficulty facing both the R.C.R. and the 42nd Battalion was to force crossings over the almost continuous water barrier which the Canal du Centre and the Dérivation de la Trouille formed around Mons, those watercourses having once constituted the moats of the ancient fortress. Enemy machine-guns sited in the outlying houses covered all approaches and made an assault virtually impossible during daylight, for orders from Corps Headquarters expressly forbade any shelling of Mons, not excepting German machine-gun posts. Immediately south of the Condé Canal there was a break in the water barrier, and here the commander of the 42nd Battalion decided to attempt an entry. He planned to work his troops through the city and thus cut off troublesome machine-guns, the majority of which were concentrated on his right flank.
It was about 11:00 p.m. on 10 November when platoons of the 42nd, crossing the railway yards under the covering fire of Lewis guns, entered the city and began clearing eastward. As German machine-gunners on the southern edge of Mons fell back, a second company of the 42nd with an attached R.C.R. company crossed the Dérivation Canal on a hastily improvised plank bridge and moved northward into the town. The third entry of the night was made at 2:00 a.m. by a company of the R.C.R. at the north-west corner of Mons. Farther north on the battalion left another R.C.R. company, having cleared the village of Ghlin and a troublesome nearby mine dump, crossed the Canal du Centre to secure the suburbs of Nimy and Petit Nimy.
By daybreak troops of both battalions of the 7th Brigade had freed Mons of any remaining Germans. At about seven o'clock the 42nd Battalion's pipe band played its way into the city and, according to the unit's war diary, "created tremendous enthusiasm". By eleven that morning the pursuit had carried forward some five miles to the north-east. In the 3rd Division's sector the 5th Lancers - a regiment which had fought at Mons in 1914 - reached St. Denis, while on the right the infantry of the 2nd Division had entered Havre and cleared the Bois du Rapois.
At 6:30 a.m. on the 11th a message reached Canadian Corps Headquarters to the effect that hostilities would cease at eleven o'clock that morning. This information was relayed to subordinate formations and units as rapidly as possible, but in some cases it did not reach the front-line troops until 9:00 a.m. The delay in transmission was of little consequence as there was virtually no fighting after Mons had been cleared.
Adapted and used with permission from : Nicholson, G. W. L., Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1919. Ottawa: Queen’s Printer, 1964 : 480-482.