German Offensive 4
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03 min 44 s
Topical Film Company
British and French forces on the Amiens Front behind Villers-Bretonneux, Western Front, probably 1-3 April 1918. Filmed on 3 April, the remaining evidence of the famous charge of Lord Strathcona’s Horse of the Canadian Cavalry Brigade, 3rd Cavalry Division, at Moreuil Ridge on 30 March. The dismounted survivors of the regiment (?) come out of line in marching column, wearing greatcoats, caps and helmets (one wears a balmoral). Their horses are led to safety by the ‘number 3s of each group. The dead horses left behind in the charge are still in position. A mixed battalion, possibly pioneers, a day or so earlier, gets up from resting by a tree line and walks uphill into a leafless wood. A few soldiers dig a trench-line in open country. The pioneers emerge from the trees into open country again (possibly near Corbie). Staged meeting between French, probably 29th Division, and British, probably l8th Division, beside their gun limbers. A street damaged by shell fire, with a dead horse and wrecked cart in it and a British cyclist moving past, possibly Villers-Bretonneux.
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).
German Prisoners of War
Jonathan F. Vance
Professor and Canada Research Chair in Conflict and Culture, Department of History, University of Western Ontario
The emotion of fear probably came first since the moment of capture was the most dangerous time for a prisoner. It was a reality of the First World War that the protection given to prisoners under the 1907 Hague Convention was not always observed in the front lines. Throwing aside one’s rifle and yelling “Kamarad” was no guarantee that the plea for mercy would be heeded, particularly if the approaching soldier had seen his unit decimated by enemy fire. By the same token, a platoon that was weakened by casualties and struggling to hold a hard-won position sometimes could not spare a couple of infantrymen to escort prisoners to the rear areas. In such cases, soldiers implicitly understood that the safest option for their unit was to shoot the prisoners and keep it to themselves.
And then there were the rumours that circulated through both sides of no man’s land about a particular battalion that never took prisoners, or about captives who were killed rather than being sent to the safety of a prison camp. A soldier who had been fired up by such stories might well wave aside his enemy’s pleas and pull the trigger instead. The faces you see in these films, then, represent the lucky ones, the soldiers who actually survived to become prisoners.
We should also be aware that there did exist a degree of sympathy between soldiers. Atrocities were committed on both sides, but often the sight of a cowering enemy soldier elicited a feeling of pity in the attacking soldier. This is not the demonic Hun depicted by the propagandists, he might think; this is a man like me, with a family, perhaps a wife and children. We are both caught in a war that is not our doing; I will treat him as I hope he would treat me, with kindness and consideration.
The exhausted Canadian sharing coffee and hardtack with a captured German became a stock propaganda image, as a way to demonstrate the kindness of our Canadian boys overseas. But just because they were propagandized does not mean such situations did not take place. On the contrary, many a soldier would share with his prisoner a water bottle, a packet of rations or a cigarette, because the fact that he was a fellow soldier was now more important than the fact that he was an enemy. There is genuine good humour in the image of the captor clowning with the captive by putting on his cap and pulling a face.
Once the new prisoner made it through the moment of capture and reached relative safety, his experiences in captivity became more typical. The First World War was a very labour-intensive conflict. It was the first truly mechanized war, but much of the heavy work was still done the old-fashioned way – by tens of thousands of men digging, carrying, lifting and moving. Neither side had any scruples about using prisoners as forced labour in or directly behind the front lines. We know that German units used their POWs to dig trenches, move ammunition and carry supplies – all tasks forbidden under international law – and Canadians may well have done the same. But such scenes would never have made it onto film. Instead, a much more common image is of German soldiers acting as stretcher bearers, bringing the wounded, Canadian and German alike, to safety. For the captors, this had the advantage of freeing up infantrymen who had been temporarily co-opted as stretcher bearers – every German prisoner who could carry a stretcher meant that one Canadian could go back to the firing line. But it also had value for the prisoners themselves. Many contemporary accounts tell of new prisoners who were almost pathetically keen to prove themselves useful by helping with the wounded. Carrying a stretcher, after all, was much better than being shot.
Prisoners were also a valuable source of information. They were searched for maps, papers or anything else that could have intelligence value (or even monetary value – Canadian soldiers were known as tireless souvenir hunters, and quickly stripped any item that could be sold to non-combatant troops in the rear areas. Rifles, canteens and other military equipment were confiscated and sent to salvage dumps. Then, German-speaking officers questioned the men about their unit and the defences on their side of the line. Probably, few POWs were as helpful as some of those who were filmed (including the one who is evidently hard of hearing, likely from artillery bombardment), but the evidence suggests that prisoners were actually forthcoming with information about what was going on in their own trenches.
Finally, the symbolic significance of prisoners should not be underestimated. It was important to depict German prisoners on film because they were very visible signs of success on the battlefield. In the bloodbaths of 1916 and 1917, when success was measured in yards of pulverized earth, scenes of a few bedraggled German soldiers proved that something concrete had been achieved. The Battle of the Somme, for example, was a notorious example of horrific casualties sustained for very little territorial gain, but footage of prisoners being marched away from the battlefield in this clip at least proved that there were a few enemy infantrymen who would never again fire on Canadian soldiers.
In the open campaigns that began in the summer of 1918, prisoners became even more dramatic evidence of success. Now, it was possible to show to Canadians images of long lines of Germans soldiers captured in battle as the Canadian Expeditionary Force swept across northern France. Scenes of POWs being marched away from the battle for Bourlon Wood in 1918, often combined with pictures of rows of captured artillery pieces, confirmed to people at home that the tide had finally turned. The Allies had the Germans on the run, and such images seemed to prove that they were just as happy to surrender as fight.
Statistics on German POWs captured by Canadian troops are far from complete. We know that over 4000 were captured at Vimy Ridge in April 1917; over 5000 on August 8, 1918, the first day of the Battle of Amiens; and roughly 6000 in the three-day battle for the Drocourt-Quéant line in September 1918. But these are only three of dozens of engagements fought by the Canadian divisions, and the total number of prisoners taken may never be known. In any case, the cold statistics tell us less about the experience of captivity than these moving images. The men we see remain nameless, but their faces speak volumes about the impact of war on the individual.
Selective bibliography :
Cochet, François. "Le traitement des prisonniers de guerre en 1914-1918 : le règne de la réciprocité ?", in 14-18, le Magazine de la Grande Guerre, n° 23, Décembre 2003 - Janvier 2004.
Jackson, Robert. The Prisoners, 1914-18. New York: Routledge, 1989.
Morton, Desmond. Silent battle : Canadian prisoners of war in Germany, 1914-1919. Toronto : Lester Pub., 1992.
Moynihan, Michael, ed. Black Bread and Barbed Wire: Prisoners in the First World War. London: Leo Cooper, 1978.
Speed, Richard. Prisoners, Diplomats and the Great War: A Study in the Diplomacy of Captivity. New York: Greenwood Press, 1990.
Vance, Jonathan F., ed. Encyclopedia of Prisoners of War and Internment. Denver, CO: ABC-Clio, 2000.
Vance, Jonathan F. Objects of Concern: Canadian Prisoners of War Through the Twentieth Century. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1994.
Williamson, Samuel R. and Peter Pastor, eds. Essays on World War I: Origins and Prisoners of War. NY: Brooklyn Coll, 1983.
Unending Seige : Amiens
The scene was now set for toppling the German militarism that in various forms had kept Europe trembling for more than 50 years. Over the long, painful weeks the Allies lived through in the spring of 1918, the Canadians had learned much. They had also had time to rebuild their strength after the successful but costly attacks of 1917.
The sector now reserved for them was that around Amiens. To give the Canadians the advantage of surprise, they were taken 60 kilometres north of the city. Accustomed to having the Australians opposite Amiens, the Germans also knew the Canadians, whom they had seen spearheading British assaults. Two battalions and two first-aid stations were set up in front of Kemmel, where constant traffic of assorted messages was set in motion and picked up by the Germans. Between 30 July and 4 August, in deepest secrecy, the rest of the Canadian Corps descended to the south. Their discretion was facilitated by the gloomy weather, which reduced German air sorties, and the fact that only the division commanders knew the assault target. This secrecy caused numerous logistical problems - for example, the artillery would have almost no time to prepare. Opposite Amiens, the Canadian officers studying the terrain fooled the Germans by wearing the trademark soft hat of the Australian soldiery.
The noise of preparations for the largest mechanized battle ever seen up to that time revealed nothing to the enemy. In spite of all the precautions, however, some German units were wondering about the movements they had detected. Some 604 tanks of all kinds and thousands of horses would give the battle an aspect that was both ancient and modern.
The Black Day of the German Army
Just before dawn on 8 August the attack opened with the firing of 2,000 guns. In addition to the tanks, the soldiers could rely on two motorized machine-gun brigades, a battalion of cyclists to serve the Corps and a section of heavy mortars mounted on trucks. A thousand French and 800 British planes took to the air. During this brilliant assault, which would seriously undermine the morale of the German troops, the Canadians advanced 13 kilometres at the head of an immense front more than 30 kilometres wide. Australians, British and French were also in the attack, their role being to keep clear of the advance of the Canadians, who had more ground to cover to reach their objectives. The Canadians lost 1,036 men killed, 2,803 injured and 29 taken prisoner, losses that were largely offset by their remarkable advance, the most impressive on the western front since 1914. The Germans had to accept 27,000 casualties, including 16,000 taken prisoner - 5,033 of them taken by the Canadians, who also seized 161 artillery pieces and a large number of machine guns and anti-tank guns. Though the Allies were left with only 132 tanks to start with the next day, the Germans had lost seven divisions. The confidence of their High Command was shaken by the realization that its war machine was no longer effective.
An interesting experiment that day involved the use of 30 Mark V tanks to transport the troops of the 4th Division to the opposing trenches. However, many men were bothered by the heat and by the exhaust fumes that entered the passenger compartment. A few fainted; others got out and walked. The drawbacks associated with the Mark Vs could not be rectified and these tanks were not used again during that war.
Canadian Corps Advances
During the night of 8/9 August, the British High Command decided to lend its 32nd Division to the Canadians, who wanted to withdraw their 3rd Division from the front. The Canadians of the 3rd Division had already marched about 10 kilometres to the rear when they were recalled, as the British had changed their minds. The men were exhausted on their return. It was therefore decided to use only one of their brigades at the front, which required the 1st and 2nd divisions to expand the sectors they were covering. Under these conditions the attack of 9 August could not get under way until around 11 am, without the element of surprise of the day before. At a cost of 2,574 casualties, the Canadians took 6.5 kilometres of ground.
The pressure continued to mount for several days, but the momentum of 8 and 9 August was indeed lost. The number of available tanks fell to the point where, on the 12th, there were only six left. Despite their 11,725 casualties from 8 to 20 August, the Canadians had sounded the beginning of the end of the German army by advancing nearly 30 kilometres and securing the ground thus taken. In the whole operation, the Germans recorded 75,000 casualties.
A month earlier the French had seized the initiative from the Germans. In this context, the battle of Amiens would have a decisive impact. It shattered the last hopes of the German High Command, along with any confidence they might have had that their troops still wanted to fight. The success of the Canadian troops was based partly on surprise, the concentration of their strength and co-ordination among the various arms (planes, tanks, guns, machine guns).
Excerpted from : Canadian Military Heritage. Volume 3 : 1872-2000). (http://www.cmhg.forces.gc.ca/cmh/en/page_631.asp)
Reproduced with permission from the Department of National Defence
In the meantime Allied plans on the Western Front were undergoing revision. As early as the evening of August 11, as German resistance stiffened, Marshal Foch had shown himself willing to modify objectives and consider alternatives to further offensive operations on the Amiens front. At that time large-scale operations were due to be resumed on the 15th. But on the 13th General Debeney asked for and received a day's postponement of the assault by his army; and next morning General Rawlinson was given the same extra time in which to complete his preparations. Sir Douglas Haig has revealed in his diary that he shared Rawlinson's misgivings about attacking the well-prepared Roye-Chaulnes defences and that he was resolved that the French First and British Fourth Armies should merely "keep up pressure on that front" in order to hold the enemy's attention, while he prepared to strike elsewhere with the British First and Third
There is no doubt that Rawlinson was considerably influenced by representations made to him by General Currie, upon whose forces the burden of a major share of a renewed offensive must fall. At a meeting on the morning of August 14 the Army Commander showed Haig a letter (accompanied by air photographs taken the previous day of the German positions) in which Currie set forth the arguments against renewing an operation which would "cost a great many casualties" without obtaining adequate results. He suggested that if the attack were found to be absolutely necessary it should be postponed in order to allow time to "recover the element of surprise." He recommended that an alternative, and better, course would be to withdraw the Canadian Corps from the line, and after resting it for a few days employ it on the Arras front in a surprise attack in the direction of Bapaume. An advance in this sector coupled with an attack by the French from their present line, might well force the enemy to abandon his positions west of the Somme without the necessity of a frontal assault.
This last suggestion was in keeping with Haig's own ideas. An exchange of letters with Foch on the 14th brought no agreement about postponing operations at the Somme, and that evening a telegram from the Generalissimo asked Haig "once more to maintain the date already set." The Field Marshal, however, had made up his mind to limit the Somme attack to a series of set stages, and on the afternoon of the 15th he pressed his arguments at Foch's advanced headquarters at Sarcus (twenty miles south-west of Amiens). "I spoke to Foch quite straightly", his diary records, "and let him know that I was responsible to my Government and fellow citizens for the handling of the British forces." Foch's resistance had already been weakened when he learned from General Debeney that morning that the projected attack on Roye "would certainly be difficult", and even if mounted would leave the French forces too weak to maintain it. "I definitely came around to the opinion of Field-Marshal Sir Douglas Haig", he wrote in his Memoirs, and he agreed that the Amiens offensive should not be pressed.
A new operation order issued by British G.H.Q. directed the Third Army, which was holding a nineteen-mile front north of Albert, without delay to "press the enemy back energetically in the direction of Bapaume"; the Fourth Army while continuing its preparations for an attack would be prepared to follow up any German withdrawal towards the Somme. Farther north the First Army would take advantage of any German retirement to exert pressure south-eastward from the Arras sector; under favourable conditions, it would attack Monchy-le-Preux and Orange Hill.
In a letter confirming his acceptance of Haig's proposals Marshal Foch made it clear that he was depending on the British operations to be developed with sufficient impetus to ensure a resumption of the thrust south of the Somme. He went on to thank Sir Douglas for his cooperation, which had completely freed the Amiens area and the Paris-Amiens railway. For an offensive north of the Aisne he was now going to transfer the French First Army from Haig's command back to Pétain's group of armies. Accordingly the Franco-British boundary was shifted northward to the Amiens-Chaulnes railway, and the relief of the Canadian Corps by French troops began on 19 August.
On the night of August 19-20 the 2nd Canadian Division began moving northward by bus and train to rejoin the First Army in the Arras sector, followed the next night by the 3rd Division. A number of days were to elapse before the 1st and 4th Divisions made the move. General Currie closed his Headquarters at Dury on the 22nd. During the day he called on a number of senior commanders and had the satisfaction of being told by General Byng that the Canadian performance at Amiens was "the finest operation of the war".
Adapted and used with permission from Nicholson, G. W. L., Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1919. Ottawa: Queen’s Printer, 1964, p.396-398.
The Expanding Allied Offensive
The first move in the Allied scheme to extend the stalled Amiens offensive on both wings was made on the southern flank on August 20 1918, when the French Tenth Army of General Mangin struck northward from the Aisne between Compiègne and Soissons with twelve divisions. An advance of nearly five miles in two days carried the assault to the river Oise between Noyon and Chauny. On the 21st the French Third Army (General Humbert) on Mangin's left resumed operations with some success, while on the same day north of Albert the British Third Army initiated Sir Douglas Haig's share in the renewed offensive. General Byng's forces struck a telling blow on the 23rd, when a two-mile advance towards Bapaume netted 5000 prisoners from General Otto von Below's badly shaken Seventeenth Army. This achievement was matched on Haig's right flank, where the Fourth Army had taken up the battle astride the Somme and the 1st Australian Division had shattered two German divisions on the southern bank. The next two days saw some slight progress on both the Third and Fourth Armies' fronts, and on August 26 an expansion of the battle into the First Army's sector brought the Canadian Corps once more into action.
The period of rest and refitting that would normally follow participation in such extensive operations as the Amiens battle was denied the Canadians; for in these last hundred days of the war each major offensive so rapidly succeeded its predecessor that unprecedented demands had to be made on the stamina of the forces employed. Back under General Horne's command in its former position east of Arras, the Canadian Corps was confronted by a series of formidable defence positions which the enemy was holding in strength. Immediately in front of the Canadians, about Monchy-le-Preux, were the old British trenches lost in the German offensive of March 1918, and to the east of these lay the enemy's former front line. This was backed up, two miles east of Monchy, by the so-called Fresnes-Rouvroy line, which was actually an extension south of the Scarpe of the original line joining Rouvroy (south-east of Lens) to Fresnes (north-east of Arras). Another mile to the east the approaches to Cambrai were blocked by the strongest position of all-the Drocourt-Quéant line (the southernmost portion of the Wotan I-Stellung), which, extending northward from the Hindenburg Line (Siegfried-Stellung) at Quéant, had been constructed by the Germans to contain any Allied advance into the Douai plain. Still farther east, crossed by the main road at Marquion, was the unfinished Canal du Nord, connecting the Somme Canal with the Sensée Canal. Though not yet extensively fortified it formed in conjunction with the Sensée marshes a major obstacle.
On August 22 General Currie outlined to his divisional commanders his plans for an attack eastward astride the Arras-Cambrai road. The Canadian Corps had been given the task of forcing the Drocourt-Quéant line south of the Scarpe and advancing to the line of the Canal du Nord. Having thus broken the hinge of the Hindenburg system the Corps was to swing southward and sweep down behind that formidable position in order to deny the Germans opposing the Third Army a rallying ground. On Currie's right the 17th Corps, operating on the Third Army's northern flank, was under orders to cooperate with the Canadian Corps, attacking south-eastward along both sides of the Hindenburg position.
General Currie's was an important and a difficult assignment. The enemy's main defence positions, supplemented by various subsidiary switches and strong points, were among the strongest on the Western Front. The ground was pocked with the scars of 1917 and early 1918, and in the litter of old trenches and fortifications German engineers had found ready-made positions which they had considerably strengthened. Furthermore, topography was on the side of the Germans. The battle area spread over the north-eastern slopes of the Artois Hills, whose summits about Monchy were over three hundred feet above the valley-bottoms of the Scarpe and the Sensée. The latter river, flowing generally eastward, together with its tributaries had dissected the hills into numerous deep valleys. The intervening ridges and high points, often mutually supporting, the enemy had fortified with a skill that demonstrated his mastery in military engineering.
The Germans' general defensive plan at this time was to give up ground in the region of the Lys and Ypres salients and to fight a determined rearguard action in the Somme area. Ludendorff overruled the views of those staffs (in particular Crown Prince Wilhelm's) that favoured a major voluntary retirement into the Hindenburg and adjoining defence systems. His purpose was by means of a gradual fighting withdrawal to wear out the Allied forces before they reached the Hindenburg position, thus gaining time to reorganize behind that formidable defence line. The defences about the Arras-Cambrai road in the Monchy area would form the pivot of any German retirement south of the Scarpe, while the security of Prince Rupprecht's northern armies also depended on retaining them.
These positions became the initial Canadian objective. With the enemy expecting attack, except for the actual hour of assault, surprise was clearly impossible. It would be a case of launching successive frontal, grinding assaults against well-established lines manned by tenacious, alert troops.
Adapted and used with permission from Nicholson, G. W. L., Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1919. Ottawa: Queen’s Printer, 1964, p.399-401.