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Pictured above: The Canadians as they enter the city of Cambrai, 1918
Canada was launched into the battle set to end The Great War:
This is Canada’s Hundred Day's
Secrecy In the Corps
In the Spring of 1918, the German Kaiser launched the largest offensive in the campaign. The offensive took over more territory than either side had achieved in the entire war since 1914, setting the allies back in four separate offences.
The Germans knew they had act fast, as by this time, the United States were deploying troops and resources to the allies. As well, the Germans were running out of material and resources themselves. With the Russian surrender on the Eastern front, the German offensive on the western front gained nearly all 50 battalions of soldiers to help in the attack. The Kaiser knew it was a 'now or never' moment. If not now, the war would be lost indefinitely.
The allies had been forced back so far that they knew they needed to gamble on an offensive of their own. The allies looked to the force that they knew had come through time and time again during this war, the force that the Germans had been so careful not to take head on: The Canadian Corps.
Leader Sir Arthur Currie devises a plan for the retaliation and knows if he and his Canadians are to pull off this feat, he would have to do more then just take on the Germans head-on, but by surprise. To start off, Currie chooses the city where the Germans had initially been stopped on their march to the sea - that is the city of Amiens.
The Canadian Corps had been stationed in Vimy, so getting them to the lines of Amiens without alarming the German soldiers would be a difficult achievement of its own. The allies then put together a decoy Canadian army. This decoy force consisted of loud daytime movements with radio communication on a march North, from Vimy towards Belgium. The secrecy of the real Canadian movements was so crucial at this time that the phrase, “KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT” was added to their service and pay book.
While the decoy army would march during the day, Currie and his 100,000 Canadians would march under the cover of darkness in complete silence, on a march South, from Vimy, towards Amiens.
John Harold Becker, a 24-year old soldier with the Corps, recalls - “Not a man in our platoon had any idea where we were, we marched for a long time in a forest, pitch blackness. and finally halted, fell off the side of a narrow road under the trees, and laid down in the rain”.
Troops fallen off a road on the route from Amiens to Cambrai
Taking Back Amiens
The allies, now in position under the cover of night, in a wooded area before Amiens, were ready to start the offensive. The force included more than 600 tanks, super-heavy field guns, howitzers, and 2,000 aircraft.
A Royal Air Force squadron lay smoke screens over the battlefield to hide the attacking Canadians. A heavy mist also concealed no man’s land as the attack grew closer on a moonless night. At 4:20 am on the 8th of August, 1918, the beginning of Canada's Hundred Day Battle would begin. Sweeping forward with the Australians on the left and French on the right the Canadians move out into open country. Unlike earlier attacks in the war, the Amiens assault would not be preceded by bombardment. The war had transformed over 4 years into a new kind of fast-moving warfare - with tanks, aircraft, and field artillery moving quickly forward in an attempt to drive the Germans out of Amiens.
The Germans were not only outnumbered, but were caught completely by surprise. Today, for the Germans, August 8th, 1918, is otherwise known as the "Black Day". In the words of German military chief Erich Ludendorff, the German troops were “Depressed down to Hell”
The first wave of Canadian troops moves so fast it quickly reaches beyond the range of its big guns, and runs into a wall of bullets from German machine gunners. Young and new Canadians soldiers were so optimistic about the outcome of the battle, they were rushing to pass other soldiers to go over the top. "May I go through you sir” - a common phrase on the golf links - was now implanted into the Canadian culture on the battlefield.
For the Allies, August 8th, 1918 was a very successful day. The Canadians captured all their objectives except for 1 - Le Quesnel, France - where troops were gunned down by heavily armed German machine gunners. Many soldiers were stuck to cover in whatever shell holes they could find.
Nevertheless, the Canadians had advanced 8 miles in one day and were ready to make another push while keeping the Germans on their heels.
August 9th, 1918 - the Canadians regroup and push to advance through Le Quesnel village - they advance further another 4 miles, despite a very heavy cost in casualties.
The offensive lasted 11 days in which the Canadians marched forward 24km, recapturing the city of Amiens with a great success. Haig personally congratulates the Canadians but not without feeling a great loss. The Canadians would suffer 12,000 casualties in just 11 days of battle.
The Canadian Memorial located at Bourlon Wood
Following the success in the taking of Amiens, the Canadians were set on to their next task, taking the city of Cambrai. Cambrai wasn’t heavily fortified like some areas that the Canadians were tasked in taking previously, but Cambrai was surrounded by an intimidating, and man-made canal, called the Canal du Nord.
It's September 27th, 1918, and the Battle of Cambrai is about to begin with the crossing of the Canal du Nord. The canal nearly covered all entrances into Cambrai, except for a small section which was still under construction. The small section was a wide 2-mile section and the only place where the entirety of the Canadian Corps could cross.
The allies saw the small section of unbuilt canal and immediately wanted to veto this plan. The soldiers would have to run up to the open section of the canal, scale down the canal wall, run across the wide open area, and then scale up the other side. It seemed to be no more than a slaughter. Currie insisted and devised a plan that the allied forces could no longer disagree with.
Again using secrecy and surprise to his advantage, Currie had his Canadians hiding in the wooded areas just outside of the entrance to the Canal du Nord. Half of the troops would attack north to Marquin, and the other half would attack straight across, in the fields to Bourlon. With a large and extensive barrage, the offensive was on. The Canadians ran out of the woods, storming their way through the canal opening, as the offensive barrage forced the German defenders down into their dugouts.
This first stage of the battle had been a success, and now Canadian troops were able to funnel through the opening in the canal. By the end of the first day, the Canadians had successfully moved across and captured the canal, along with Bourlon Wood, and the grateful townspeople of the Bourlon Village.
With the speed of the advance, once again, the Canadians ran into a problem - their advance had outreached the limitations of their big guns and artillery. The Canadians were being held up by tough German defences, and they would take heavy losses in the days to come.
Another 11 days of consistent and stiff fighting slowly pushed the Germans back through the suburbs of Cambrai. Eventually, the Canadians would successfully defend against their heavy German counter-attacks, and finally, on the 11th of October Cambrai was officially captured and liberated.
This push by the Canadian force was a huge success for the allies, effectively pushing the Germans back closer to their objective of Mons and the Rhine River. The costs however, were again, horrendous. A recorded 13,600 soldiers were killed or injured during the 6 days in taking the Canal and its heights around Cambrai. The Battle of Cambrai itself, resulted in more than 30,000 men injured missing or killed.
Flesquières Hill British Cemetery located just outside of Bourlon Wood (seen in background)
Ending Where It Began: Mons
As Germany's demise made the headlines in Allied news, it seemed the end of the Great War was imminent. As for the Canadians, their last battle in the First World War was to take place in the city of Mons.
It is almost symbolic that the last battle of the Great War would occur in Mons, as Mons was also the location for the first battle to start the War. The Germans pushed through the British defences in 1914, and Mons had been under German rule ever since.
On the 10th of November 1918, the Black Watch of Canada and the 42nd battalion arrives in Mons. Fighting with the Black Watch was brothers Tom and Jim Mills, and their longtime friend Will Bird. Late in the evening of November 10th the Sargent Major told Bird to gather his men, as they were given the battle order to take Mons. Tom mills is reported to have stood up and says “the war is over tomorrow and everyone knows it”, but nonetheless the order was given and the men continue on and fight for Mons. For the advance, Currie plans an encircling manoeuvre. The Canadians would then enter the town, fighting against stiff German resistance. Enemy prisoners had informed them earlier that the Germans were planning a retreat, but to the contrary, the German machine-gun fire remained constant.The Canadians pressed on nonetheless, and by the morning of 11 November 1918, they had subdued most of Mons without the use of heavy shelling. Although the battle saw fewer casualties than the prior battles in the Last Hundred Days, these casualties are no less important or significant. A recorded 240 men had been injured, and 38 men dead in the very last two days of operations, including Jim Mill's brother Tom. Will bird recalls Jim Mills after the battle saying, “Jim Mills is wild eyed, he is going to shoot who ever arranged to have his brother killed for nothing, he is hoping Currie is coming here (Mons) today, if he doesn’t he is going to shoot the next higher up. He says his brother was murdered, an officer says ‘take Jim and get him drunk, so drunk he won’t know anything for 24hrs, then it will be too late, and he will forget all about it.’”
Despite the continuous effort and skill Canada provided, she is tragically assigned the distinction of losing the last man among British Commonwealth in the First World War. Private George Price was hit in the chest by a sniper in the town of Ville-sur-Haine, near Mons. He died at 10:58 a.m., two minutes before the Armistice went into effect, officially ending the First World War. Private Price is laid to rest in St. Symphorien Cemetery just southeast of Mons.
In the 4 years of fighting the Great War, the Canadian Corps suffers the loss of 60,000 soldiers, dead. In 1914, Canada started out as a naive young amateur, and by 1918, she had developed the most feared army of the Allied forces - Masters of War. Without the fighting superiority of the Canadians in the Last Hundred Days, the Germans may have stood their ground, pushing forward, taking their objectives. But despite this great success and achievement, it was not without great loss and sacrifice that Canada completed this unimaginable task, especially in the Last Hundred Days. Taking into account all reported casualties, approximately 1 in 5 of all soldiers who gave their lives in the Great War were lost in the last 100 days of 1918.
The Black Watch of Canada entering Mons, 1918
Commemorate With Us
With the 100th Anniversary of Canada’s Hundred Days and 100th Anniversary of the Armistice, let us join together, not in pity or shame of what our forefathers had to witness, but in celebration and thanks that they would sacrifice so much for us. In their honour, we remember them by acknowledging the incredible event that took place here, and by keeping their story alive, we aim to never forget.
If you would like to join us on the upcoming program commemorating the 100th Anniversary of Canada’s Hundred Days and 100th Anniversary of the Armistice , or if you would like more information in regards to the events taking place on the Centennial of the Armistice CLICK HERE