September Offensive 7
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02 min 31 s
Topical Film Company
Unedited film in the wake of the British forces in the Advance to Victory, possibly Villers-Bretonneux, Western Front, September 1918. A pan over a ruined village, Villers-Bretonneux (?) filmed from a church tower, showing British troops and transport moving in the streets below. Two soldiers look out through the crenellations of the tower, filmed from behind and caught in silhouette against the sky. The same damage from ground level; two Highlanders, possibly of 51St (Highland) Division, wave at the camera. French soldiers clear debris from the railway tracks.
II. A religious service at No 2 Aeroplane Supply Depot RAF, France, 1 September 1918. Mechanics and other ranks, mostly still wearing RFC uniform and badges, march out on parade led by their band and form a hollow square around an FE2d night bomber. The base chaplain uses the observer’s front cockpit of this pusher aircraft as his pulpit to deliver a sermon, after which the band plays a hymn and marches away.
Ill. British wagons passing over a bridge, temporarily repaired by the Royal Engineers, across the Somme River, Monchy-Lagache, Western Front, probably 1 September 1918.
Pieces of History
The First Air War
Hugh A. Halliday
Historian and author
During the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) experts noted that smokeless powder, rifled artillery, machine guns and barbed wire had turned battlefields into vast wastelands where armies hid from their opponent’s shells. Cavalry—the traditional form of reconnaissance—could not manoeuvre . Ten years later, aircraft made stalemate even more certain. In August 1914 aerial reconnaissance enabled the Allies to counter-attack against German armies invading France. Thereafter, with few exceptions, aerial observers forecast an enemy’s offensive and thus assured its failure (or success, at appalling cost).
The power of aerial observation went further. With armies driven into complex trench systems, artillery came to the fore as the deadliest weapon of the war. The great guns of the Western Front were the primary killing machines of what had become industrialized warfare—65 percent of all deaths and wounds were attributable to artillery fire, which delivered awesome weights of shell and shrapnel.
Days before his death by artillery fire, an American soldier wrote, “This is a cowering war—pygmy man huddles in little holes and caves, praying to escape the blows of the blind giant who pounds the ground with blind hammers.” But the hammers were not blind. Their targets were mapped by men in aircraft and balloons, their fire was directed from aircraft and balloons. The aerial observer was the most important airman of the war; his role today has been assumed by others, including the aerial spy satellite.
The courage of these men defies imagination. Balloon observers ascended under gas bags filled with flammable hydrogen, vulnerable to fighter aircraft determined to shoot them down. The men in the balloons at least had parachutes, if time permitted them to escape. For most of the war, pilots and airplane crews had no such equipment; fire in the air was the most dreaded fate of all, and many men carried pistols to shoot themselves rather than suffer agonizing deaths. In June 1918 German aircrews were issued parachutes; even these failed to deploy about 25 percent of the time.
Given the importance of aerial reconnaissance and artillery direction, it is puzzling to find so much attention being devoted to fighter pilots, these “knights of the air.” Fighter pilots and tactics evolved from 1915 onwards, but their task was always secondary to that of the observation crews. It was a fighter pilot’s job to shoot down enemy observation aircraft and protect his own observation aircraft. Nevertheless, propagandists trying to divert attention from the awful slaughter on the ground fastened upon the fighter pilots as men engaged in single combat, man-to-man, with the high-scoring “ace” as the centrepiece of the narrative. Never mind that the fighter pilot’s objective was (preferably) to surprise an opponent and shoot him in the back. Chivalry there might be—a decent burial for a fallen enemy, a toast with a captured foe—but in the heat of battle there could be only one rule: kill or be killed. At the heart of everything else, that was a fighter pilot’s job description. It is a measure of the propagandist’s success that, 90 years later, the public knows more about the First World War fighter pilots than the men they were actually protecting.
Airplanes were used for many other tasks—anti-submarine patrols, trench strafing, communications and bombing. Indeed, aircraft performed almost every task in the First World War that they would later execute in the Second World War. The one exception was the aerial delivery of soldiers. Even so, aircraft were used to place spies behind enemy lines and drop supplies to isolated troops. Nevertheless, in most roles the airplanes of 1914-1918 only hinted at what was to come. Only one submarine was sunk by aircraft during the First World War; at least 400 submarines on all sides were destroyed by aircraft during the Second World War. Aerial bombing between 1914 and 1918 inflicted only modest devastation (although its psychological impact was very great at the outset); the bombing campaigns of the Second World War were horrific both in physical impact and subsequent moral outrage.
Aircraft affected the conduct of the war, and war influenced the technological development of aircraft. For example, engines increased from an average of 80 horsepower (1914) to 350 horsepower (1918), while speeds of 110 km/h had risen to about 200 km/h. Yet if the war had not taken place, it is conceivable that commercial incentives might have produced similar results. The first four-engine airliner had flown in Russia in 1913. Might not development have taken place along civilian lines ? Five years later, France and Britain initiated civilian air transport services using modified bombers that carried fewer passengers than their Russian predecessors of 1913.
Whether or not it was due to war, a radical transformation occurred between 1914 and 1918 that involved the attitudes of aviators themselves. Even among the select circle of 1914 pilots, flying was considered hazardous,, and training methods reflected this. At the time, no aircraft had been designed specifically for training; throughout the war most training aircraft were machines like the RE.7 and Farman Shorthorn, which had been retired from front-line duties to rear echelon tasks. The Curtiss JN-4 broke this pattern.
The most radical change, however, involved the training syllabus itself. Early flying instruction covered the basics of flying but emphasized dangers to be avoided, particularly stalls and spins. By 1916, however, the dynamics of flight controls were more fully understood, and recovery from spins could be practised. New systems of instruction emphasized the theory of flight and explained exactly how manoeuvres could be executed, thus encouraging intelligent aerobatics. Instead of being regarded as a threatening mount, the airplane came to be seen as an even-tempered, reasonable machine. Previously, students had been taught what to avoid; the new methods instilled confidence. By the end of the war, pilots had become enthusiastic about the potential uses of aircraft and convinced of the fundamental safety of their machines. Confident prophets inspire confident converts.
Canada’s role in these developments was insignificant in some ways, crucial in others. Before the war the government studiously ignored aviation, and only in 1918 did it take steps to form distinct Canadian air force units. On the other hand, it assisted the British flying services, which recruited in Canada and trained personnel in this country. Thousands of Canadians enlisted in the British flying services, either directly or by transferring from the Canadian Expeditionary Force. No one really knows just how many joined; the lowest estimate (13,160) seems too modest, but the highest guess (22,812) cannot be documented. It is generally believed that, as of 1918, about one-quarter of all members of the Royal Air Force were Canadians. The most famous were aces such as Raymond Collishaw and William Barker, but they included many other fascinating individuals. In 1915, Redford Mulock had been a trooper transferring from the cavalry to the Royal Naval Air Service. As of November 1918, he was a decorated colonel commanding heavy bombers that would have raided Berlin if the war had lasted only two weeks longer.
Chajkowsky, William E. Royal Flying Corps; Borden to Texas to Beamsville. Cheltenham, ON: Boston Mills Press, 1979.
Costello, W. Brian. A Nursery of the Air Force. Carleton Place, ON: Forest Beauty Products, 1979.
Dodds, Ronald. The Brave Young Wings. Stittsville, ON: Canada's Wings, 1980.
Drew, George. Canada's Fighting Airmen. Toronto: Maclean Publishing, 1931.
Ellis, Frank H. Canada's Flying Heritage. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1954.
Fuller, G.A., J.A. Griffin and K.A. Molson. 125 Years of Canadian Aeronautics: A Chronology,1840-1965. Toronto: Canadian Aviation Historical Society, 1983.
Goodspeed, D. J. The Armed Forces of Canada,1867-1967. Ottawa: Canadian Forces Headquarters, 1967.
Greenhous, Brereton. The Making of Billy Bishop. Toronto: Dundern Group, 2002.
Greenhous, Brereton and Hugh A. Halliday. Canada’s Air Forces,1914-1999. Montreal: Art Global, 1999.
Halliday , Hugh A. Not in the Face of the Enemy: Canadians Awarded the Air Force Cross and Air Force Medal,1918-1966. Toronto: Robin Brass Studio, 2000.
Jones, Neville. The Origins of Strategic Bombing. London: William Kimber, 1973.
Milberry, Larry. Aviation in Canada. Toronto: Canav Books, 1979.
---. Canada’s Air Force at War and Peace. 3 vol. Toronto: Canav Books, 1999 to 2001.
Rimell, Raymond Laurence. Zeppelin! A Battle for Air Supremacy in World War I. Stittsville, ON: Canada's Wings, 1984.
Shores, Christopher, Norman Franks and Russell Guest. Above the Trenches: A Complete Record of the Fighter Aces and Units of the British Empire Air Forces, 1915-1920. Stoney Creek, ON: Fortress Publications, 1990.
Sullivan, Alan. Aviation in Canada,1917-1918. Toronto: Rous and Rous, 1919.
Wise, S.F. Canadian Airmen and the First World War. Ottawa: Department of National Defence, 1982.
The following Web site has a section "Honours and Awards" and a subsection dealing with Canadians in the British Flying Services during the First World War: http://www.airforce.ca/.
Engineers on the Western Front
Historian, Department of National Defence
The Western Front made huge demands in matériel, lumber being an excellent example. Wood was needed to revet trenches, support the roofs of dugouts, for plank or corduroy roads, and as sleepers for tramways and railways. These tasks became the responsibility of the military engineers, specialized forestry units being formed for the purpose. Lumberjacks, graders and other skilled men from within the lumber industry were recruited. They cut timber and ran their own sawmills to provide a finished product.
The first forestry companies in the war were formed in 1915, in France. More units were created in England to harvest the island’s local resources. All of these were gathered into a corps in 1916 that eventually comprised 43 companies, and was of such a scale as to require its own hospital system. The men received more than the normal food rations, considering the fact that they were engaged in continuous hard labour.
Their work, in Britain and France, saved huge amounts in shipping costs, not to mention freeing up lumber supplies for such industrial endeavours as shoring up mines and building trawlers and other vessels. Nor did the forestry corps limit its work to cutting and preparing wood. Many of its units supported the Royal Air Force by clearing, draining, levelling and grading sites for aerodromes. By the time of the Armistice 11,750 men worked within its ranks, with another 6000 attached in various capacities.
Closer to the fighting there was a need for heavy-capacity means of transport to get the prodigious amounts of ammunition, food, water and other necessary matériel to the front line. One solution to such an intimidating logistical problem was the construction of tramways with specialized labour, with other specialists maintaining and operating the tractors and rolling stock. The result was a system of transport similar to that of a large North American city run by the Canadian Railway Troops. The troops worked on the Western Front and also in Palestine, the 1st Bridging Company serving there in the last part of the war. The system was, in fact, a merging of two networks, tramways closer to the front operating with gasoline-powered tractors while light railways a little farther behind used steam power, the whole being linked to France’s broad gauge system, which had been built in the decades before the conflict.
In the end, the war became too mobile for railway troops to keep up, and when an Armistice was declared on November 11, 1918, the railways were some 30 kilometres behind the forward troops, in spite of the work of 25,000 railway construction engineers, two-thirds of them Canadian. Still, they had served their purpose in the almost four years of near-static warfare that characterized the Western Front from late 1914 to the summer of 1918.
It became clear in the early months of the First World War that operations above ground were distinctly hazardous, even suicidal, hence the trenches and dugouts in which soldiers took shelter. An obvious course was to begin operating underground, and within the Canadian Corps three specialized tunnelling companies were formed. Recruited in the main among miners and clay-kickers (the latter dug smaller tunnels to run gas and water mains under city streets), they began their work in 1915, and their role was multi-faceted. First, they used the galleries they excavated under enemy lines to listen in on his own work, the aim being to give fair warning if he began to threaten Canadian lines underground. Second, they might pack the galleries with explosives to destroy enemy defences; generally, however, such operations proved disappointing as German forces usually occupied the crater thus created before Canadian or British troops could reach it.
Tunnelling was particularly hazardous. Working underground can release toxic gas capable of disabling or killing, or one could find oneself tunnelling into an enemy gallery, leading to vicious little skirmishes fought with knives and digging tools. When fighting shifted from a mutual siege to more open warfare in 1918, tunnellers applied their skills to other work, disarming booby traps in dugouts and other underground facilities as the Allies advanced towards the German border. In fact, the only Canadian military engineer ever to be awarded the Victoria Cross was Captain C.N. Mitchell, a tunneller who in 1918 removed explosives from a bridge while under attack.
The most versatile of the engineers operated on the front line. Originally organized in field companies of a hundred men or so, in 1918 they were reorganized into larger battalions and even brigades. Regardless of how they were administered, their tasks were widely varied. Just behind the front line they were responsible for building and maintaining roads, as well as providing water for humans and animals, the latter task requiring some of them at least to possess knowledge of how to locate and test the precious liquid. To give just two examples, part of the preparations for the assault on Vimy Ridge included laying over 40 miles (65 km) of four-inch (10 cm) pipe, with five pumping stations and a total storage capacity of 560,000 gallons. Following the successful advance at Amiens in August 1918, one of the deepest penetrations achieved on the Western Front, the Canadian Corps and its allies found itself in the midst of a plain scorched dry by the summer sun, but engineers needed only two days to locate sufficient water to keep forward troops satiated.
In the front lines proper, sappers, as they were called, dug trenches, or oversaw this work done by the infantry work parties, and prepared defensive positions with the copious use of barbed wire. On occasion, as for a trench raid, for example, they were called upon to destroy such wire, using long cylinders filled with explosive called ammonal tubes or bangalore torpedoes. When that front line advanced, as in 1918, bridging became a most crucial sapper task, as forward movement could not be maintained without ammunition, water, food, and the other necessities of making war, all of which needed to be transported forward on roads or railways, both of which needed bridges to get across rivers and other, similar obstacles. Small structures made of cork sufficed to get the infantry across, while prefabricated materials called Inglis bridges carried heavier loads.
At the time of the Armistice what could be called field engineers (as opposed to railway and forestry troops) could count 14,285 men within their ranks, with responsibilities only somewhat less diverse than their numbers.
Kerry, A.J. and W.A. McDill. The History of the Corps of Royal Canadian Engineers, Volume I (1749-1939). Ottawa : Military Engineers Association of Canada, 1962.
Chaplin-Thomas, Charmion, Vic Johnson and Bill Rawling. Ubique! : Canadian Military Engineers : A Century of Service. Burnstown, ON: General Store Publishing House, 2003.
Artillery: The Great Killer
Historian, Canadian War Museum
In 1914 and 1915, artillery proved it was the great killer. For those caught in the open, shrapnel and high explosive shells wreacked havoc. Thousands were left rotting on the battlefields. However, artillery guns were vulnerable to small arms fire, and they could be driven away from the front. But the guns were soon firing indirectly from hidden positions several kilometeres to the rear, still causing terrible damage. Soldiers were forced to find safety in trenches, digging beneath the ground to escape the murderous fire.
As trenches were strengthened with barbed wire, deep dugouts, and machine -guns, an enormous weight of fire was needed to smash the enemy defences and support the infantry. But there were not always enough shells in the early years to feed the guns. And so the infantry were killed in the tens of thousands as they attacked undamaged enemy trenches in frontal assaults. As the war lengthened, artillerymen received nearly unlimited supplies of shells through the enormous production of munitions factories. New tactics were also developed to improve the accuracy of the guns.
Artillery shells contained high explosives, shrapnel, and, later in the war, poison gas and smoke. Both the high explosive and shrapnel shells were timed to detonate in the air above a target. High explosive shells blasted holes in the trenches and the concussion alone could kill, as lungs collapsed under the force of the explosion. Shrapnel shells were equally deadly, consisting of more than 300 rounded metal balls that exploded downward in a cone-shaped rain of whirling metal. As well, the casing of the shell was designed to explode outward, creating jagged, uneven shards of steel that tore through flesh.
By 1916, commanders believed that massive artillery shoots, involving hundreds of thousands of shells, would annihilate the enemy defenders. This would allow the infantry to punch a hole through enemy lines and restore mobility on the Western Front.
However, it was often hard to hit, and then destroy, the narrow and well-fortified trenches. The problem also lay in the shell fuses. Earlier types were not sensitive enough to explode on contact, especially with shells tasked to clear barbed wire. As a result, many of the shells exploded in the ground, killing very few of the enemy, leaving the infantry to fight their way through defences-in-depth. By the end of 1916, newer, sensitive fuses that exploded on the slightest contact harnessed the destructive power of the artillery and, equally important to the infantry, cleared barbed wire from in front of enemy trenches.
Tactics again changed during the later phases of the bloody battles of the Somme in the last half of 1916. The gunners would never be able to destroy all of the German defences, and even one machine -gunner could kill hundreds of attacking infantry. Instead, the artillery sought to suppress enemy fire through a “creeping barrage,” and give their own attacking infantry enough time to cross the killing zone of nNo Mman’s Lland.
Gunners fired their shells to create a “creeping” wall of fire that slowly moved forward over the enemy lines at fixed intervals: 50 yards (46 m) every couple of minutes, less for muddy ground, more for open warfare. In effect, it was a screen of fire and explosives. As this moving wall of shrapnel and high explosives chewed up the ground in its path, the infantry were told to “lean into the barrage” and stay as close as possible. Although friendly fire was expected and occurred, the casualties would still be lighter than if the creeping barrage moved off and allowed German machine -gunners, waiting in the safety of deep dugouts, to get to the top of their trenches before the infantry crossed nNo Mman’s lLand.
At the Battle of Vimy Ridge in April 1917, the gunners had perfected the creeping barrage. Yet enemy gunners still took a fearful toll as they laid down their own counter-barrages to catch the follow-on waves of infantry. The enemy guns had to be stopped, or slowed, but it was exceedingly difficult to identify, target, and destroy camouflaged guns several kilometeres away.
Accurate intelligence was essential, and new and refined forms of science aided the gunners. The Canadian Corps was lucky to have Brigadier-General Andrew McNaughton, commander of the counter-battery office for much of the war, who embraced new technology and tactics. A prewar professor at McGill University, he turned to science to save his soldiers lives.
The Canadian Counter Battery Office (CCBO), established in February 1917, gathered intelligence and processed information on the enemy to assist in knocking out his guns. Aerial reconnaissance from the Royal Flying Corps (later Royal Air Force) was of great assistance as airmen photographed the front from great heights. Later in the war, observation aircraft circled the battlefield, passing real-time information to the gunners through letter drops and primitive wireless radio.
As the CCBO developed after April 1917, this information-gathering and target-selection became more sophisticated, with new technology, like sound-ranging and flash-spotting, assisting gunners to find and destroy enemy targets.
Flash-spotting involved the coordination of observers. At least three posts were needed, usually spread out along several kilometeres. When an enemy gun position was spotted by the revealing flash as the shell left the barrel, the observers were telephoned by headquarters to turn their attention to that spot. After studying the flash of the gun, the observers would hit a key that was connected to a lamp at headquarters. From the observers’ bearings, and by triangulating their estimates, enemy guns could be located with high precision.
Sound-ranging worked on a similar principle. Listeners sat two kilometeres behind the line with their microphones. Additional posts were manned well ahead of these positions. As long as there was not more than one shell per second being fired, on hearing the crash of an enemy gun, the forward listening post pressed a key that started an oscillograph, an instrument that recorded on film the sound of the shell in flight as it reached each microphone in turn. The time-intervals between the microphones allowed the CCBO to analyse the information and, if conditions were optimal, pinpoint enemy guns to within twenty-five 25 yards (23 m). All available counter-battery guns would be aimed on that spot to deliver a destructive shoot of 50-100 shells. Chemical shells were also used to kill or force the enemy gunners to wear debilitating respirators that severely affected the rate of fire.
In the last year of the war, artillery had perfected the creeping barrage and was steadily improving its counter-battery work. Further tactical refinement allowed gunners to fire more complicated barrages, like a box barrage. The box barrages set up a wall of fire and explosives around an enemy position —-- usually a trench —-- which effectively isolated it from reinforcements. It allowed assaulting Canadian infantrymen to capture and consolidate a position without fear of immediate counterattack.
By war’s end, 43,914 gunners had served in the Canadian artillery, and 2,565 had lost their lives from disease, injury, and battlefield wounds. They had fired tens of millions of shells, reducing the landscape to a desolate wasteland, and an estimated 60% of all wounds were inflicted by shell fire. The First World War was indeed a gunner’s war.
Cook, Tim. No Place to Run: The Canadian Corps and Gas Warfare in the First World War. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1999.
McNaughton, A.G.L. “Counter-Battery Work.” Canadian Defence Quarterly 3, 4 (July, 1926).
McNaughton, A.G.L. “The Development of Artillery in the Great War.” Canadian Defence Quarterly 4, 2 (January, 1929).
Nicholson, G.W.L. The Gunners of Canada: The History of the Royal Regiment of the Canadian Artillery, Vol. 1: 1534-1919 Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1967.
Rawling, William. Surviving Trench Warfare: Technology and the Canadian Corps, 1914-1918. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992.
Swettenham, John. McNaughton, Volume I. Toronto: The Ryerson Press, 1968.
The Canal du Nord and Bourlon Wood
On the Corps right, troops of the 10th Brigade, hugging their artillery cover, quickly crossed the canal on a two-battalion front between Inchy and Moeuvres. They overcame resistance from the Canal du Nord Line, and established them selves on Red according to schedule. The 11th and 12th Brigades, leading the 4th Division's attack on the right and left respectively, pushed forward but almost immediately met trouble from the south. Opposing General Watson's formations was the German 187th Infantry Division, with its 188th Infantry Regiment directly west of Bourlon Wood, flanked to north and south respectively by the 186th and 187th Regiments. Farther south was the dismounted 7th Cavalry Division; unused to infantry tactics they were quickly defeated. The 52nd Division, attacking on the Third Army's flank, had not achieved the same initial success as the 4th Division, and as a result the Canadian right suffered many casualties from enfilade fire.
In stiff fighting the 87th Battalion gained an entry into the southern part of Bourlon village by 9:45 a.m., and the 54th, passing through, skirted the north end of Bourlon Wood to reach the far side. The slower advance of the British troops to the south compelled the 102nd Battalion to form a defensive flank beside the Bapaume road and defeated the plan to encircle the wood from the south. This left the 54th in a pronounced salient, suffering mounting casualties. The battalion pushed on towards Fontaine-Notre-Dame, finally coming to a halt about 7:00 p.m. just west of the village, the 75th and 87th Battalions coming up on its left. Farther north the 12th Brigade also had stiff fighting throughout the day. The 85th and 38th Battalions, heavily hit by shelling and machine-gun fire during their advance, cleared their part of the Marquion trench system, allowing the 78th and 72nd Battalions to gain all but the extreme right of its Blue Line objective. It took a fresh attack mounted at 8:00 p.m. by the 78th Battalion to overcome the final pocket of resistance.
In the course of the 4th Division's operations on September 27 two subalterns had won the Victoria Cross. Lieutenant G.T. Lyall of the 102nd Battalion, and Lieutenant S.L. Honey, D.C.M., M.M., 78th Battalion, through their skilful leadership and courage in dealing with German strong points both significantly contributed to the capture of Bourlon Wood. Like many another recognition for brave deeds in the war, Lieutenant Honey's award came posthumously.
On the Corps left the 1st Division's success paid tribute to careful planning and well-directed and determined execution. Two guns of the 1st Battery C.F.A. gave the 1st Brigade a good start by moving in front of Inchy-en-Artois and firing point-blank into enemy positions along the canal. Thus aided, the 4th Battalion, having crossed the dry bed with little difficulty, was able to jump ahead to the north-east and capture its assigned portion of the Marquion Line. Here the 1st Battalion pushed through as planned and secured the Green Line in short order. The 2nd and 3rd Battalions now assumed the lead, only to be stopped by heavy fire from the embanked railway which curved north from Bourlon. With the aid of a timely flanking attack by the 72nd Battalion they overcame this resistance and swept on to the Blue Line. The action of the Commander of the 3rd Battalion's left support company, Lieutenant G.F. Kerr, M.C., M.M., in rushing single-handed a German strongpoint near the Arras-Cambrai road played an important part in the 1st Brigade's advance. Kerr, who captured four machine guns and 31 prisoners, was awarded the Victoria Cross.
The 2nd Brigade's role was to follow the 1st up to the Marquion Line and then extend to the left to capture the central portion of the Blue Line on the divisional front. By two o'clock the 7th Battalion was firm on its objective midway between Marquion and Haynecourt. During the afternoon the 5th Battalion went on to occupy Haynecourt and push patrols almost to the main Cambrai-Douai road. On the left, units of the 11th British Division passed through, headed for Epinoy. By the end of the day (September 27) patrols of the 10th Battalion-which had passed through the 5th just east of Haynecourtwere approaching the Marcoing Line, coming first to a heavy belt of uncut wire covered by enemy machine-guns. With mounting casualties the infantry cut the wire and pushed forward; but confronted by a second wire barrier, which marked the line itself, and with darkness approaching, the battalion consolidated on the east side of the Douai-Cambrai road.
On General Macdonell's left the 3rd Brigade had the important task of driving northward beyond the Canal du Nord and capturing in turn the villages of Sainslez-Marquion and Marquion, thereby freeing the eastern bank to permit crossings by the 11th Division. Leading the 3rd Brigade's advance the 14th Battalion crossed south of Sains-lez-Marquion, and swinging north behind the village, quickly captured its part of the Red Line. Four supporting tanks rendered good service in crushing wire barricades and in mopping up the village, but mechanical difficulties kept them from advancing past the Red Line. From Chapel Corner, south-east of Marquion, the German opposition, which had wavered before the initial rush of the 14th, rallied with heavy fire to stop the 13th Battalion, which was following up the initial assault. It took a joint effort by the 13th and 15th Battalions with tank assistance to clear Marquion. The 15th continued northward across the Arras road, mopping up the area east of the canal. By 2:00 p.m. it was firm at the Blue Line, just south of Sauchy-Lestrée.
Both Canadian divisions had received useful help from the tanks-each being supported by a company (of eight tanks) from the 7th Tank Battalion. The four allotted to each assaulting brigade successfully crossed the dry canal under cover of an artillery smoke-screen. Later they contributed to their own concealment by means of smoke dischargers fitted to their exhausts. During the day they gave good service in crushing wire entanglements and silencing with their fire enemy machine-gun posts. Of the sixteen tanks engaged in the first phase of the operation five fell victim to German fire.
About midday, when the 3rd Infantry Brigade had completed its assigned task of clearing the east bank of the canal, units of the 11th Division crossed at four places between Sains-lez-Marquion and the highway and moved smoothly into place on the left of the 1st Division to start the second phase of the attack. The advance to the north and north-east continued without serious interruption, and by dusk Epinoy and Oisy-le-Verger were in British hands.
Adapted and used with permission from Nicholson, G. W. L., Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1919. Ottawa: Queen’s Printer, 1964, p.419-422.
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.
Assault and Capture of the Drocourt-Quéant Line
On the Corps' southern flank three battalions led the 1st Division's attack- the 16th and 13th Battalions on the right opposite Cagmcourt, with the 7th Battalion of the 2nd Brigade on their left. The two 3rd Brigade units pushed forward quickly up the long slope to the enemy wire. They met little resistance at first, the Germans surrendering in large numbers. By 7:30 a.m. the 13th Battalion had captured its section of the D-Q support line. Shortly afterwards the 14th Battalion passed through to take Cagnicourt, where it surprised and captured in the village cellars enough Germans to make a full battalion. The men of the 14th then seized the Bois de Loison east of the village and in a quick dash across 2000 yards of open country reached their final objective in the Buissy Switch directly in front of the village of Buissy.
On Brig.-Gen. Tuxford's right progress was slower. The 16th Battalion, suffering heavily from machine-gun fire coming in across the open southern flank, lost the supporting barrage and had to storm weapon posts which the enemy was quick to re-man in his front line. Among many acts of bravery performed that day two stood out at this stage of the operations. Lance-Corporal W.H. Metcalf, M.M., an American serving with the 16th Battalion, calmly walked across bullet-swept ground guiding a tank and directing its fire against German strong points which were holding up the infantry's advance. Later, after the battalion had broken through the main D-Q position, only to be halted in front of the support line, the Commanding Officer, Lt.-Col. Cyrus W. Peck, went forward through bursting shells and withering machine-gun fire to make a personal reconnaissance, and to compel roaming tanks to protect his open flank. He then reorganized his battalion and led them on to their objective. Both Metcalf and Peck won the Victoria Cross-one of the very few occasions in the war when a battalion twice earned the coveted award in a single day. Pushing through the 16th Battalion at the Red Line, the 15th, suffering crippling casualties, fought slowly forward to the Bois de Bouche, some 3000 yards short of the Buissy Switch, which here angled sharply to the south-east. Here the survivors consolidated as the 3rd Battalion came up from reserve. At 6:00 p.m. British infantry finally arrived to seal off the open flank which had proved so costly to the Canadians.
On the 2nd Brigade's front the 5th Battalion was still engaged in hand-to-hand fighting for the jumping-off line when the 7th Battalion passed through to assault. Aided greatly by the shrapnel barrage and the supporting tanks the 7th had little difficulty in capturing and mopping up the D-Q line in its sector. At eight o'clock the 10th Battalion took over the lead at the Red Line. Up to this stage the tanks had kept well to the fore, knocking out one enemy post after another. East of the D-Q Line, however, they began falling victim to the German artillery fire. Soon the 10th Battalion was halted by the intense fire that came from machine-guns and trench mortars in the Buissy Switch in front of Villers-lez-Cagnicourt. In dogged fighting the battalion had by late afternoon established a line east of the village. One more effort was to be made. An artillery barrage called down at 6:00 p.m. on the German positions eased the situation, and the weary Canadians pushed forward again to capture the Buissy Switch by 11:00 p.m.
In the meantime the 4th Canadian Division was fighting its own hard battle. At the start the 12th Brigade on the right had to contend with an enemy pocket along the Arras-Cambrai road; and its supporting tanks arrived too late to help here. The leading battalions-from right to left the 72nd, the 38th and the 85th - found the D-Q trenches, as expected, heavily wired and strongly garrisoned. Nevertheless the Red Line, east of the support line, was reached on schedule. But as the 72nd and 38th Battalions crossed the long, exposed crest of Mont Dury they met the full force of the German machine-gun fire. From the objective, a sunken road joining Dury to the Cambrai road, German reinforcements swept the bare slopes with bullets, while on the right the 72nd Battalion was also caught in enfilade fire from the direction of Villers-lez-Cagnicourt. In spite of mounting casualties the Canadians, aided by good work on the part of the tanks, pushed on grimly and by mid-morning they had captured and cleared the sunken road.
The 10th Brigade's initial assault on the divisional left was led by the 47th and 50th Battalions. Wire, largely intact, imposed serious delay as it had to be cut by hand. The two battalions occupied the main line trenches, allowing the 46th Battalion to leapfrog them and advance on the support line, which ran through the centre of Dury. There was particularly vicious fighting for the village, which was taken only after a flanking movement by the 46th had overcome a strong point on the southern outskirts, capturing some 120 prisoners and nine machine guns. With the fall of Dury, the brigade's objective line at the sunken road was secured by 7:30 a.m.
The second phase of the attack began soon after eight, when the 78th Battalion, until now held in reserve, attempted to push forward on the right of the 10th Brigade. But it could make little headway against the storm of machine-gun fire coming out of Villers-lez-Cagnicourt and from a sugar-beet processing plant at the crossroads north-east of the village. A mile east of the sunken road, on a ridge extending from Buissy to Saudemont, German artillerymen were firing over open sights. By nine o'clock the 78th had been brought to a halt 200 yards east of the sunken road. Attempts by the 11th Brigade to exploit the 12th Brigade's gains east of Mont Dury were equally fruitless. By mid-afternoon all brigades on the divisional front reported their advance held up. Armoured cars from the Independent Force made several unsuccessful attempts to reach the lateral Villers Saudemont road; the Force had to confine its efforts to firing at enemy positions with machine-gun detachments posted on either side of the main Cambrai road. On the Canadians' left the 4th British Division was able to capture its part of the D-Q system, but did not take Etaing until the following morning.
Although the Canadian Corps had not achieved all the objectives set (rather optimistically) for the attack, the results of September 2 were nevertheless eminently satisfactory. The Drocourt-Quéant Line had been assaulted and overrun on a frontage of seven thousand yards. In addition, the 1st Division had captured the Buissy Switch and the villages of Villers-lez-Cagnicourt and Cagnicourt. Some German formations in the forward line on September 2 had yielded quickly, but the Canadians had met resolute opposition from regiments of the 1st and 2nd Guard Reserve Divisions and the 3rd Reserve Division.
That evening General Currie issued orders for the three divisions under his command to continue the advance on the 3rd, in order to gain direct observation of all bridges over the Sensée River and the Canal du Nord.68 During the night, however, the enemy withdrew on a wide front. Air patrols flying over the enemy lines on the morning of September 3 saw no Germans between the Cagnicourt-Dury Ridge and the Canal du Nord. At the same time the Third Army reported that it had occupied Quéant and Pronville without fighting and that everywhere the enemy was falling back. By noon the entire Canadian Corps front was in motion as a general advance began to the Green Line. Except for artillery fire, resistance was practically negligible. By evening the 1st Division, having occupied Buissy and Baralle, had swept across the open fields to the west bank of the Canal du Nord. The 4th Canadian Division pushed quickly ahead, liberating the villages of Rumaucourt, Ecourt St. Quentin, Saudemont and Récourt. It reported the east bank of the Canal strongly held and all bridges destroyed. The 4th British Division cleared along the Sensée Canal, occupying the village of Lécluse. By nightfall the Canadian Corps controlled all ground west of the Canal du Nord between Sains-lez-Marquion and the Sensée. The formations which had broken the D-Q position had earned their relief, and during the hours of darkness the new line was taken over from north to south by the 1st British and the 3rd and 2nd Canadian Divisions.
Adapted and used with permission from Nicholson, G. W. L., Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1919. Ottawa: Queen’s Printer, 1964, p.410-413.