Canadians Advance East of Arras 2
06 min 26 s
Canadian War Records Office, Ministry of Information
The Canadian Corps by 1918 was an amazing operation, its ranks containing everything from blacksmiths and signallers to water purification specialists and railway builders. The Corps had thirteen battalions of railway troops, for example, with still others to operate and build light tramways and all the specialists needed to keep the trains running. This was a huge, highly efficient operation, and the Canadians claimed justly that they could out-build the British and French railway units.
This film shows the build up of artillery stocks for the Drocourt-Queant attack and the heavily loaded freight cars suggest how quickly—compared to trucks moving over bad roads—the railway could move supplies forward. As the clip also suggests, the speed of the Canadian advance put some German rolling stock into Allied hands.
Pieces of History
Military Logistics of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914–1919
Canadian military logistics is a dimension of the history of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) that is often overlooked. Yet just a few days after Canada’s entry into the First World War, it was obvious that there was no way of ignoring it. When huge numbers of military and civilian volunteers showed up at Valcartier, near Quebec City, in August 1914, logistical support services, which had only recently been established, were soon put to the test. Clothing and equipping the members of the first contingent turned out to be a real headache. Manufacturers had to be found and contracts drawn up in a hurry for the production of uniforms, boots, belts, weapons, vehicles and so on. From a logistical standpoint, mobilizing the first contingent destined for Europe was a nightmare.
Throughout the Great War, the Canadian Expeditionary Force’s logistical support system was an immense, complex operation. Of all the support services, the Canadian Army Service Corps (CASC) was the most diversified. Its main responsibilities were transporting combat troops, delivering equipment and materials, and providing the troops with fresh supplies. In addition to these essential tasks, the CASC also evacuated the wounded (ambulance drivers belonged to the corps), salvaged equipment that had been captured from the enemy or left behind on the battlefield and delivered mail. The CASC worked closely with the Canadian Ordnance Corps, the Canadian Army Medical Corps, and the Canadian Artillery Corps for the transportation of specialized ordnance.
The CASC operated from seaports located hundreds of kilometres from the battlefield, all the way to just behind the front lines. Its replenishment system could supply not only small groups of just a few men but also formations the size of an infantry battalion (approximately 1,000 men).
Resupplying front-line units was a multistep process. From ports and depots, supplies were first taken by railway to railheads. From there, CASC units were responsible for moving the supplies by truck or light railway to supply dumps. These operations took place in the third line of supply. Thanks to their small size, light railways could run and reach areas closer to the front lines more easily. It was also harder for enemy artillery to pinpoint them. The administrative area behind the front lines was crisscrossed by light rail lines that were built and maintained by Canadian railway troops.
From the supply dumps, the CASC’s divisional train and ammunition supply column, both of which were horse-drawn, were responsible for bringing supplies closer to the front lines, to their respective divisions or individual units. This was the second line of supply.
Lastly, operations to supply front-line units constituted the first line of supply. These units had to come back to the rear to get their own supplies of gear, ammunition, weapons, technical and communications equipment, water, medication and food. These supply expeditions were carried out chiefly at night so that the soldiers could not be seen by the enemy. But assigning combat troops to this task meant that a battalion’s defensive positions at the front would be short of manpower for a time and so vulnerable to enemy attack.
Toward the end of the war, however, a Canadian officer from Montreal proposed using the tumpline system — the method that Canada’s aboriginal people and coureurs de bois had used to carry large loads on foot. Before the introduction of this system, infantryman had to carry supplies in their arms, thus limiting the quantity of materials due to their size and weight. The tumpline system, which involved the use of a head strap, allowed the soldiers to carry more weight and freed up their arms, thus giving them more freedom of movement. With this system, each soldier was able to transport a greater quantity of supplies and so fewer men were required for the job, leaving more troops to ensure the defence of the front lines.
Besides regularly providing drivers and vehicles to other units, the CASC also maintained and repaired its vehicles. It also had to make sure that the troops were fed, which meant that fresh and hard rations had to be allocated and distributed properly; its military cooks oversaw the operation of field bakeries and butcheries.
The CASC was not the only logistical support corps to play a key role in the CEF. The Canadian Ordnance Corps was responsible for procuring, storing and distributing uniforms, boots, equipment, weapons, ammunition and shells to combat troops. Specialized supply depots, located in the second line of supply, helped ensure more effective distribution.
The Canadian Ordnance Corps’ other major role was to maintain equipment in the field. The repairmen in the specialized ordnance mobile workshops could get closer to the deployed units and repair their weapons, both light and heavy, as well as their equipment. If the mobile workshops were not able to do the repairs on site, the weapons and equipment were shipped to heavy or stationary workshops at the rear, where virtually anything could be reassembled or rebuilt. The small detachments of the Ordnance Corps worked closely with the various units of the Army Service Corps.
Despite the gradual mechanization of the war, horses remained a vital component of the CEF. The cavalry, the artillery and, of course, the Army Service Corps used huge numbers of horses right up to the end of the war. At one point, Canadians were using as many as 24,000 horses and mules in their overseas operations. Horses could often manage in places where motorized vehicles could make no headway! Inevitably, some horses suffered injuries or fell ill. The Canadian Veterinary Corps operated mobile sections to take care of horses; it also ran veterinary hospitals for horses, advanced remount depots and specialized basic provisions depots.
Other logistical support services also played a crucial role in enabling combat troops to get on with their job. The Canadian Postal Corps, for instance, helped maintain the morale of soldiers at the front, at the rear and also those convalescing in hospitals. Army chaplains, who constituted the smallest organized support group, provided religious services to Canadian soldiers of different faiths and offered moral support at difficult times. Lastly, despite the enemy’s efforts to maintain a naval blockade by submarines, the Canadian Forestry Corps ensured that Great Britain, France and the Canadian Expeditionary Force obtained all the timber they needed to carry out their military operations.
Thousands of men served in these various organizations. The Army Service Corps, for example, counted over 17,000 officers and non-commissioned soldiers in its organization. Even if these units were not combat troops, many of them, including the Army Service Corps, played important roles in all military actions. One hundred and four members of the CASC were killed, and 363 were wounded.
Brown, Ian Malcolm. British Logistics on the Western Front, 1914-1919. Westport: Praeger Publishers, 1998.
Canadian Army Service Corps, 2nd Divisional Train: Record of Service of Officers, 1914-1919. Brian Pontifex, comp. Toronto: Carswell, 1920.
Davies, W.J.K. Light Railways of the First World War: A History of Tactical Rail Communications on the British Fronts, 1914-18. Newton Abbot, UK: David & Charles, 1967.
French, Cecil. A History of the Canadian Army Veterinary Corps in the Great World War, 1914-1919. C.A.V. Barker and Ian K. Barker, eds. Guelph: Crest Books, 1999.
Jackson, H.M. The 127th Battalion, CEF; 2nd Battalion, Canadian Railway Troops. Montreal: Industrial Shops for the Deaf, 1957?.
Johnston, James Robert. Riding into War: The Memoir of a Horse Transport Driver, 1916-1919. Fredericton: Goose Lane Editions and The New Brunswick Military Heritage Project, 2004.
Love, David W. “A Call to Arms”: The Organization and Administration of Canada’s Military in World War One. Calgary: Bunker To Bunker Books, 1999.
Phelan, Frederick Ross. “Army Supplies in the Forward Area and the Tumpline System: A First World War Canadian Logistical Innovation.” Canadian Military History 9, no 1 (Winter 2000): 31-45 [reprinted from the article published in the Canadian Defence Quarterly in October 1928].
To the Thunderer his Arms: The Royal Canadian Ordnance Corps. William F. Rannie, ed. Lincoln, ON: W.F. Rannie, 1984.
Warren, Arnold. Wait for the Waggon: The Story of the Royal Canadian Army Service Corps. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1961.
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.
How We View the Past
Grade Level: Secondary 9-12
Time Allowance: 45 minutes
Films: Canadians on the Western Front 1, August Offensive 2, Canadians Advance East of Arras 2, Bourlon Wood
Summary: Students consider the differing viewpoints of Germans and Canadians on World War I.
World War I generated massive changes. The Russian, German and Austro-Hungarian empires collapsed. Communism transformed Russia into the Soviet Union. Canada moved closer to being an independent nation within the British Commonwealth. Conscription deepened the French-English divide. Women gained the vote at the federal level. The value of Canada’s manufacturing output equalled the value of our agricultural output. Medicine was improved. Radios and cars became common. The United States became the world’s richest nation, and the League of Nations, the forerunner of the United Nations, was created. Most of these changes are indisputable. But how people interpret these changes - how they judge their meaning - varies.
Watch the films. You are employed by the United Nations as a historian who is developing materials to be used in schools in Germany and Canada. Your first job is to determine how each country has interpreted what has been captured on film and what is known about the war in general.
Fill in the chart using the statements below. You may place a statement on one or both sides.
a) Treaty of Versailles, 1919, was humiliating.
b) British blockade preventing food from entering Germany was inhumane.
c) German aggression made war inevitable.
d) Bombing of London by airships was a major atrocity.
e) Treaty of Versailles, 1919, was hard but fair.
f) The Kaiser abdicated; it was right to allow the new government into peace talks in Paris, 1919.
g) Both sides were equally to blame for war.
h) Canada achieved a great victory at Vimy Ridge.
i) Submarine warfare was necessary to stop the blockade.
j) The war resulted in economic advances.
k) The war resulted in economic collapse and misery.
Textbooks often illustrate different viewpoints on history. Write an overview of important events in World War I that includes both German and Canadian points of view.