02 min 07 s
Canadian War Records Office, Ministry of Information
Canadian troops captured Valenciennes on November 1-2, 1918, taking the city at a cost of 80 killed and 300 wounded, light losses by Great War standards. The Germans suffered more, hundreds killed by artillery fire and, apparently, many by Canadian troops after they had surrendered. The Canadians, so the army’s official history puts it, were angered by the oppression under which the French had suffered during the German occupation. All sides in the Great War frequently took no prisoners.
Once the soldiers’ work was over, the dignitaries took the stage. President Poincaré of France spoke at the city square before an audience of Canadian soldiers and French civilians. There were parades, inspections by Lieutenant-General Sir Arthur Currie, the Canadian Corps’ commander, and bands, with the ruins of the centre of the city clearly visible.
Pieces of History
Patrick H. Brennan
When the Canadian Expeditionary Force began to take shape in the autumn of 1914, the majority of its future commanding officers had been pursuing their business and professional careers only weeks earlier. Even those with some pre-war militia experience were still amateur warriors who would have to learn how to command soldiers while actually fighting a war. Combat would prove a cruel and unforgiving teacher, and the mistakes they made learning how to command would cost men’s lives.
Arthur Currie: the first Canadian to command the Canadian Corps
Arthur Currie began the war in command of a brigade of 4000 men. He had earned his appointment on the recommendation of Garnet Hughes, a fellow British Columbia militia officer who happened to be the son of Canada’s Minister of Militia and Defence, the erratic, meddling and militarily incompetent Sir Sam Hughes. During the early stages of the war, Hughes personally selected almost every senior officer in the army, and far too many of them were friends and political cronies who proved unfit for their commands and ultimately had to be replaced. Nothing in Currie’s background as a school teacher and realtor with a smattering of militia experience made him stand out. Yet he turned out to be a fast learner and superb leader whose military skills quickly blossomed. By 1916 he was recognized as the best of the senior Canadian officers. A year later, he was the obvious choice to be the first Canadian to command the Corps, a responsibility he carried out with distinction through the rest of the war.
As the Canadians desperately struggled to overcome their inexperience, they were fortunate to have the guidance of some very capable British officers such as Lieutenant-General Julian Byng and his chief staff officer, Major-General Percy Radcliffe. First-rate professional soldiers, they identified the most promising Canadian commanders, mentored them, and, when they proved their worth, promoted them to more responsible commands. Consequently, by 1917 the Canadian Corps had assembled a pool of very capable, battle-experienced Canadian commanding officers.
Two of the brigade commanders, Brigadier-Generals James MacBrien and Victor Odlum, were typical of this group. MacBrien was a professional soldier, one of only a handful of such Canadian commanders. After initially serving as a staff officer, Byng gave MacBrien command of the 12th Infantry Brigade in September 1916, just before this untested unit received their first taste of combat.
After serving in the South African War, Odlum had returned to Vancouver where he’d built up a prosperous financial and insurance business. He saw action with the 7th Battalion at Second Ypres, the Canadians’ first battle, taking over command of the battalion when Lt. Col. McHarg was killed. Byng promoted him to the command of the 11th Brigade in July 1916 and like MacBrien, he led his brigade until the Armistice. MacBrien’s style was studious and reserved, and his forte was training and planning. In contrast, Odlum was a dashing, fearless battlefield commander who had the wounds to prove it. Although they displayed two very different styles of command, both were effective.
Unlike earlier wars, the sheer scale of World War I battles and the breakdown of communications during the fighting actually made it impossible for generals to control the attacks they launched. What they could do, however, was utilize the weeks before an assault to prepare for every possible battlefield contingency – in other words, to emphasize thorough planning and training.
From amateurs to an elite force
By the end of 1916, the British Empire forces were adopting new, more effective fighting tactics. This was particularly true in the Canadian Corps, where Byng, Radcliffe and Currie had inaugurated a highly efficient system of “organized learning.” The officers and soldiers doing the fighting now compiled “after battle” reports outlining in detail what had succeeded and what had failed. Whether it was tactics or weaponry, the Corps’ commanders placed a premium on figuring out better ways to fight, emphasizing to every officer and soldier how vital absorbing the lessons of the “battlefield classroom” was to the survival and success of them all. Henceforward, something of value learned by one battalion would be speedily adopted by the rest simply by making it part of everyone’s training. Lessons now learned in an organized way were applied in an organized way, too. More than any other factor, mastering this “learning curve” was responsible for transforming the Canadian Corps from an enthusiastic mob of amateurs into an elite attack force, the “shock troops” of the British Empire. Officers, and especially senior commanders, had played an indispensable role.
One group of commanders shared the dual responsibility of preparing their soldiers and then leading them in battle—the commanding officers of the Corps’ 48 infantry battalions. Of the 200-odd men who commanded a Canadian battalion, 22 were killed in action and many more were wounded. Along with the junior officers under them, they were in charge of most of the soldiers’ actual training. They also had the critical responsibility of maintaining the health, morale and unit pride of their men, and often organized sports, concerts and other entertainments with this end in mind.
Battalion commanders were the most senior officers their men actually knew and saw regularly, and who shared their daily risks and grim living conditions at the front. As a result, the men looked to them for inspiration and confidence, and a brave and skilful battalion commander could keep his men going under the most appalling conditions. Lieutenant-Colonel Cyrus Peck was one such officer. He’d enlisted in the 16th Battalion in 1914, fought with it at Second Ypres and commanded it from November 1916 until the end of the war. Although the stocky, walrus-moustached Peck was hardly the most military-looking of commanding officers, he was fearless, and none of his soldiers doubted who ran their unit. During the storming of the Drocourt-Quéant Line on September 2, 1918, such leadership won Peck the Victoria Cross. When stiff German resistance blocked his battalion’s advance, he exposed himself to heavy artillery and machine-gun fire in order to reconnoitre enemy positions, then re-organized what was left of his men and led them to capture and hold their objective.
Armies are hierarchical organizations, and the quality of command plays an enormous role in their ultimate success. Even the bravest and best-equipped troops will fail in battle if they are asked to execute a flawed plan, or if the officers directing them in the heat of combat make poor decisions. As the war progressed, the best commanders worked their way to the top of the Canadian Corps. Consequently, planning was sound, and Canadian soldiers were prepared for battle using the most effective tactics learned from earlier combat experiences. Once the battle began, brave and skilled leadership by battalion commanders and the junior officers who followed their lead contributed mightily to the chance for victory. By the last two years of the war, the quality of commander in the Canadian Corps was outstanding, as an unbroken string of victories attests.
Brennan, Patrick. “From Amateur to Professional: The Experience of Brigadier General William Antrobus Griesbach.” in Canada and the Great War, Briton Busch, ed. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003 : 78-92.
---. “A Still Untold Story of the Canadian Corps: Byng’s and Currie’s Commanders.” Canadian Military History 11, 2 (Spring 2002): 5-16.
Brennan, Patrick and Thomas Leppard. “How the Lessons Were Learned: Senior Commanders and the Moulding of the Canadian Corps after the Somme” in Canada and War: 1000-2000, Yves Tremblay, ed. Ottawa: Canadian War Museum, 2001.
Dancocks, Daniel. Sir Arthur Currie: A Biography. Toronto: Methuen, 1985.
Hyatt, A.M.J. General Sir Arthur Currie: A Military Biography. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987.
McCulloch, Ian. “‘Batty Mac’: Portrait of a Brigade Commander of the Great War, 1915-1917.” Canadian Military History 7, 4 (Autumn 1998): 11-28.
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.
Sir Arthur William Currie
Currie participated in all major actions of the Canadian forces, including Passchaendale, during the war but is best known for his planning and leadership during the last 100 days, beginning August 8 and lasting until 11 November 1918, perhaps the most successful of all Allied offensives during the war. Criticism of this campaign by Sir Sam Hughes in Parliament resulted in postwar controversy and a libel action in 1928 which completely vindicated Currie.
Fighting off bankruptcy, Currie diverted $11 000 of his regiment's money to cover his personal debts. The affair came to the attention of Prime Minister Borden, who refused to consider court-martialling Canada's best soldier. British wartime Prime Minister Lloyd George called Currie a "brilliant military commander," and might have appointed him commander of all British forces had the war continued.
Currie served as inspector general of the militia forces in Canada 23 August 1919 to 30 July 1920, and in 1920 became principal and vice-chancellor of McGill, a position he held until his death. Without benefit of post-secondary education himself, he was extraordinarily successful as a university administrator at a time of particular importance in McGill's development.
Dancocks, D.G. Legacy of Valour: The Canadians at Passchendaele. Edmonton: Hurtig, 1986.
Hyatt, A.M.J. General Sir Arthur Currie: A Military Biography. Toronto: University of Toronto Press in collaboration with Canadian War Museum, Canadian Museum of Civilization, National Museums of Canada, 1987.
Urquhart, H.M. Arthur Currie: The Biography of a Great Canadian. Toronto: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1950.
Author A.M.J. HYATT
Reproduced with permission from The Canadian Encyclopaedia, Historica Foundation of Canada
Mount Houy and Valenciennes
During this period the 4th Division [CEF] made several attempts to send patrols across
the Escaut by boat, footbridges and over the debris of destroyed bridges. Orders that
Valenciennes itself was not to be bombarded because of the large numbers of French
civilians in the city made it extremely difficult to clear enemy machine-guns and snipers from the houses overlooking the canal. From what probing the patrols could accomplish and from the statements of prisoners it was clear that the enemy was preparing to make a determined stand at Valenciennes. In selecting the city as a key-point in the Hermann Line the Germans had chosen well. The Escaut Canal provided an effective water barrier against attack from the west and the north. The enemy had heavily wired both banks of the canal and fortified the east bank with a well-planned trench system. In addition he had loop-holed the walls of the city's houses and factories and armed them with machine-gun posts. By cutting gaps in the canal dykes and opening sluice gates the Germans had inundated the country on both sides of the Escaut. West and south-west of Valenciennes the flooded area was several hundred yards wide, and to the north, in the wide angle between the Escaut and the Condé-Mons Canals, the water spread over many square miles.
Nature had further favoured the Germans in defending them against any attempt to
capture Valenciennes from the south. The prominent wooded height of Mont Houy, east of the bend in the Escaut, rose to a height of 150 feet above the canal and completely
dominated the southern approaches to the city. Behind it a long ridge overlooking the
valley of the Rhonelle stream reached northward to Valenciennes, and along this the enemy had constructed a line of wire and trenches to add artificial strength to an already difficult natural position.
The plan for taking Mont Houy and Valenciennes had been revised. Orders from
G.H.Q. called for the Fourth, Third and First Armies, in conjunction with the First French Army, to be prepared to resume the main offensive on 3 November, and it was urgent that Valenciennes should be captured in order to secure the left flank of this large-scale operation. The capture of the Blue and subsequent exploitation to the Green line was now to be carried out as a single operation with massive artillery support, the 10th Canadian Brigade cooperating with the 49th Division on the right. While the 10th Brigade (commanded since 28 October by Brig.-Gen. J.M. Ross) assaulted Valenciennes from the south and moved around the east side, the 12th was to establish bridgeheads over the Escaut from the west and mop up the city. Farther to the north the 3rd Division prepared to cross the canal at the same time. The new plan was geared for an assault early on 1 November.
Arrangements for the attack were complicated by the many civilians remaining in Valenciennes. As far as possible the city was spared from heavy artillery fire, and only such defended positions as the industrial centre of Marly and its steel works, which were known to be full of enemy troops, came under bombardment.
The weather, which seemed constantly to be in opposition to Canadian plans, held true to form. Throughout the preceding night and the day of attack, frequent showers caused the soldiers much discomfort. There was no preliminary bombardment on the morning of 1 November, and promptly at 5:15 a.m the infantry of the 10th Brigade began to advance behind a deluge of shrapnel, machine-gun bullets and high explosive shell that swept down on the enemy from front and flank and rear. The German artillery was prompt to retaliate, but its fire rapidly dwindled under the accurate counter-bombardment of the Canadian guns.
Encirclement of Valenciennes and penetration into the city continued. During the morning of 1 November the 12th Brigade and the 3rd Division had both established bridgeheads over the Escaut, the infantry crossing by means of collapsible boats and cork float bridges. By noon the 12th Brigade, on the immediate left of the 10th, and the greater part of the 38th and 72nd Battalions east of the canal and patrols had pushed well into the heart of the city.
On 2 November General Currie recorded in his diary: "The operation yesterday was one of the most successful the Corps has yet performed." The capture of the Mont Houy position and the advance on Valenciennes had been skilfully planned and well executed. Though the enemy still clung to the city and held firm his strong position near Marly, the day for him was one of disaster. The Canadians had taken nearly 1800 prisoners, and more than 800 enemy dead were counted in the battle area. Canadian losses numbered 80 killed and some 300 wounded. Careful coordination in employing a tremendous weight of artillery in very close support of minimum numbers of infantry had achieved victory at a very low cost.
During the night of 1-2 November the 11th Brigade relieved the 10th. The 54th
Battalion attacked Marly before dawn, only to find that most of the Germans had withdrawn from the village. During the night the two battalions of the 12th Brigade, which had met strenuous opposition during the afternoon, were able to push through Valenciennes with no great difficulty as the Germans evacuated the city. Both units reported themselves on the eastern outskirts by 8:30 a.m. By nightfall on the 2nd the Brigade had secured St. Saulvé, a mile up the Mons road. On the Canadians' right a determined German garrison in the steel works held up the 49th Division until mid-afternoon of the 2nd, when a battalion of the 148th Brigade successfully rushed the position.
Sir Douglas Haig had postponed by one day the set-piece attack by the four Allied
Armies ordered for 3 November. On the morning of the 3rd, however, when it was clear that the enemy had retired from the Escaut leaving only weak rearguards, he cancelled the offensive. He ordered a general advance, telling divisions to act vigorously on their own initiative so as to keep the Germans from establishing a firm line. The 22nd Corps was given an initial objective ten miles away, and the Canadian Corps ordered to cover the British left. By nightfall on the 3rd, Canadian patrols of the 4th Division had pushed forward to the Estreux-Onnaing road, three miles east of Valenciennes, without making contact with the enemy.
The battle for Valenciennes was the last major prearranged attack in which the Canadian Corps was engaged. The week of campaigning that remained was to see no large action, as the enemy was kept continually on the move. Only twice was the daily advance less than a mile.
Adapted and used with permission from Nicholson, G. W. L., Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1919. Ottawa: Queen’s Printer, 1964 : 470-475.