The final two weeks of October 1918 had seen substantial gains by Allied armies along the entire front. Never in the war were the advances so swift, the distances so far. What had been a war of trenches was transformed to a war of movement. On one day alone, east of Cambrai, the Canadian Corps at the spearhead of the advance pushed 11km, liberating 40 villages. But the advance came to a halt near the French city of Valenciennes. There the Germans had driven a stake in the ground, and Valenciennes was a formidable obstacle. They had flooded the Canal de L’Escaut and a vast swath of land to the west and north of the city was inundated. The southern approaches were guarded by the heights of Mont Houy. Three divisions had already mercilessly rebuffed a British attack there. General Currie’s response was to send his forces swinging around the north to encircle the city. The other prong he pointed at Mont Houy. On November 1st at 5.15 a.m., a barrage unprecedented in its firepower fell upon the German defenders, and the infantry surged forward in its wake. By day’s end the German defences were crumbling. By the 2nd of November Valenciennes was liberated. The advance to Mons, and Belgium, lay ahead.
Cambrai, 9th of October 1918
My Hundred Days of War, the sequel to Malcolm MacPhail’s Great War, was published today. The jacket illustration comes largely from this shot, taken 100 years and 7 days ago in the northern French city of Cambrai by a Canadian Army photographer.
Available at fine book retailers most everywhere.
To the weary troops, the very name Cambrai was special: the largest French city awaiting liberation, and visions of its grandeur flowed. Early on the morning of October 9th 1918 the first Canadian troops tentatively entered the city. The battle to control it had ended a week earlier, but Allied generals were understandably wary of entering into fierce street-to-street fighting. A bombardment was strictly prohibited. As dawn approached and small patrols crossed the Canal de l’Escaut which ringed the city, and edged into the town centre, the sound of explosions could be heard. The air was thick with smoke. The explanation soon came: German troops had fled and left in their wake a looted, burning and demolished city. By noon the city was occupied without a shot fired. Canadian soldiers soon met English patrols entering from the south. With the capture of Cambrai and successes elsewhere, the German armies fell back across the entire front. The only question was: would the retreat continue, or would they turn and make a stand as they had so often before?
By the 28th of September 1918, if ever thoughts arose that the German army was on its last legs, the battle of Cambrai soon dispelled them. This northern French city, an ancient capital, had been in German hands since 1914, its roads and railways a key logistical hub linking north with south, and east to Germany. General Ludendorff was of no mind to lose it. On a broad high plateau to the north and west of the city he massed his battalions. Into the last of the prepared trenches, hidden in ravines and hollows, in shell-holes and behind lines of wire they flooded. Against them were ranged the four divisions of the Canadian Corps, the 11th British alongside. It was to be what one battalion history described as “the most desperately fought engagement of the war”. Five long days of bitter fighting ensued, attack followed by waves of counter-attacks. Artillery roared night and day. By October 2nd division after enemy division had been thrown into the breach, an astounding 13 in all. To no avail. The Allied encirclement of the city was virtually complete, the German defenders beaten and exhausted. Cambrai itself still loomed, but the heart of the German line on the Western Front was pierced for good, the mighty Hindenburg Line turned from the north and an iron wedge thrown between his forces north and south. Perhaps more than any other, this second battle of Cambrai was the one that convinced Germany’s generals of the need for peace. But to the desperately weary soldiers, mourning the thousands of their fallen comrades, the war went on and they girded themselves for the next battle.
Bounced from the formidable Drocourt-Quéant Line three weeks earlier, the army of General von Below withdrew behind the Canal du Nord, blowing bridges as it went. The Canal du Nord, 20-metres wide with marshes, trenches and machine-gun nests behind, ran from north to south. It posed what seemed an impossible challenge for Allied generals: to continue the advance on Cambrai was crucial, yet to do so risked a bloodbath. Canadian Corps commander Lt.-General Sir Arthur Currie suggested a plan – one so risky that virtually the entire British High Command hastened to his headquarters to hear him out. Currie’s idea was to secretly assemble, then funnel his hundred-thousand men through a narrow dry stretch of canal bed before fanning out to attack the defenders from the rear. With few options available, Currie’s daring plan was approved. On the morning of September 27th 1918, the troops packed together, waited anxiously – an enemy bombardment would be devastating. But it didn’t come. At 5.20 a.m. 800 Canadian guns roared in unison, one for every 9 yards of front, four shells a minute from each. Behind this rolling storm of smoke, steel and high explosive, stormed the infantry, scaling ladders and ropes in hand. Within an hour the first troops were across. By day’s end the canal defences and trench lines were rolled up, the high ground of Bourlon Wood was in hand, and the city of Cambrai beckoned. The victory had been stunning, but the toughest fighting of the war still lay ahead…
In the fall of 1918 no German position was as strongly held as the Drocourt-Quéant Line. A dozen miles east of Arras, the D-Q Line was the heart of the enemy defences on the Western Front, the lynchpin of the vaunted Hindenburg Line of which it formed a central part. Deep dug-outs and tunnels, countless machine guns poking out of steel and concrete bunkers, preceded by successive lines of trenches and a veritable forest of barbed wire. Eight entire divisions manned it. German High Command, with some reason, believed it to be impregnable. On September 2nd, 1918 preceded by a massive artillery barrage, troops of the Canadian Corps stormed it and took it in a single day. As a battalion history would later write, it was “a red letter day” in the history of the British Army. With its loss went German hopes of holding there for winter; its defenders retreated to the watery barrier of the Canal du Nord. Outflanked, the German armies to the south began a broad withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line itself. In the days thereafter the British Third Army liberated village after village, virtually unopposed.
At 3 a.m. on August 26th 1918, in pouring rain, began one of the most decisive and little-known battles of the war. Today it is called the second Battle of Arras, or Battle of the Scarpe 1918. Confusingly, there are a proliferation of other names, explaining perhaps why it has been so unjustly neglected. Past the twin rises of Orange and Chapel Hills, past the hilltop village of Monchy-Le-Preux – the scene of hard fighting in 1917 – the Canadian Corps battled its way through a veritable maze of trench systems to ground not seen by Allied eyes since 1914. By the morning of August 30th the old British and German trench-lines had fallen, as had the Fresnes-Rouvroy Switch. Even the vaunted Hindenburg Line near Neuville-Vitasse was no longer in German hands. Receiving the first day’s news General Ludendorff was to order a withdrawal of 10 miles on a fifty-five mile front; the gains of the Spring Offensives evaporating. Of the battle itself, Field-Marshal Haig wrote: “it was the greatest victory a British army has ever achieved.” In 3 days of fighting, these 10 miles of wire, trenches and machine-gun nests along the Arras-Cambrai road had cost 5,800 casualties in the 2nd and 3rd Canadian Divisions. And the reputedly impregnable Drocourt-Quéant Line was still to come…
On August 8th, 1918, the most important Allied offensive of the Great War began. A hundred years later, to the day, I am delighted to announce that my new WW1 novel My Hundred Days of War will be released on October 16th. It is a sequel to Malcolm MacPhail’s Great War.
Available in trade paperback and e-book formats as a pre-order at Amazon, Chapters-Indigo, Kobo and many other fine retailers.
Tinques, France, July 1st, 1918
July 1st, 1918 – With the threat of the German offensives beaten off, the Canadian Corps came together in massive numbers to celebrate Dominion Day and the Corps Championships at Tinques France. Dignitaries from far and wide visited. It was to be a last carefree day in the sun when war, for a day, seemed far off. Five weeks later the Corps would spearhead the surprise Allied attack at Amiens together with the Australian Corps.
Happy Canada Day 2018!
March 21st, 1918, 4.40 a.m. Night turns to day as thousands of German guns erupt in an unprecedented barrage. Along the old battlefield of the Somme, Ludendorff had launched Operation Michael, what was to be the first of his spring offensives. Following in the wake of the shells, and through the deep fog that cloaked the battlefield, came the shock troops. Well equipped, and trained, selected from among the best of the German army, they surged through General Gough’s Fifth Army. Within mere days, the hard-fought gains of 1916 were lost, and the front was crumbling.
60 miles to the north,the Canadian Corps, stationed near Lens, was guarding Vimy Ridge: the key to the last collieries still in French hands, and the vital north-south road and rail links. For them there was nothing to do, but dig in, and await the storm.