Canada's Last Hundred Days

Canada — The Last Hundred Days of the First World War

8th August to 11th November 1918

On 8th August 1918 the Canadian Corps attacked to the right of the Australians at Villers-Bretonneux on the first day of the Battle of Amiens that General Erich Ludendorff described as the "Schwarzer Tag des deutschen Heeres", the black day of the German Army. In the hundred days that followed they would push the German Army back before them as they fought in the Battle of the Scarpe, the Battle of Cambrai 1918, the Battle of the Selle, the Battle of Valenciennes and finally the Battle of Mons where they ended the War by retaking the city that has been lost by the British at the beginning of the First World War on 24th August 1914. Theirs was an epic battle, one that won the Canadian Corps great distinction, and set the seal on Canada's place at the table for the Treaty of Versailles.

Battle of Amiens

Canada's Last Hundred Days began with the Canadian Corps taking a prominent part in the Battle of Amiens, also known as the Third Battle of Picardy, when they advanced alongside the Australians on 8th August 1918 in what the German General Erich Ludendorff described the first day of Amiens as the "Schwarzer Tag des deutschen Heeres", the black day of the German Army.

The Australians and Canadians advanced quickly in the centre from their start line near Villers-Bretonneux, pushing back the Germans some 4.8 km (3 miles) by 11:00 am. The speed of their advance was such that a party of German officers and some divisional staff were captured while eating breakfast and by the end of the day a gap 24 km (15 miles) long had been punched in the German lines south of the Somme.

The advance continued the following day, but with much less success and in the Canadian sector the congested roads and communication problems prevented the British 32nd Division from being pushed forward swiftly enough to maintain the momentum of the advance.

On 10th August, there were signs that the Germans were pulling out of the salient they had created in Operation Michael, the first part of their Spring Offensive, and, according to official reports, the Allies captured nearly 50,000 prisoners and 500 guns by 27 August 1918.

Six Canadians were awarded the Victoria Cross as a result of their actions during the Battle of Amiens: Corporal Alexander Picton Brereton of the 8th Battalion (90th Winnipeg Rifles), Lieutenant Jean-Baptiste-Arthur Brillant of the Royal 22e Régiment [aka The Van Doos], Corporal Frederick George Coppins of the 8th Battalion (90th Winnipeg Rifles), Private John Bernard Croak of the 13th Battalion (Royal Highlanders of Canada), Private, later Lieutenant, Thomas Fasti Dinesen of the 42nd Battalion (Royal Highlanders of Canada) and Corporal Herman James Good of the 13th Battalion (Royal Highlanders of Canada).

Battle of the Scarpe

On 26th August 1918 the Canadian Corps advanced over 5 km (just over 3 miles) capturing the towns of Monchy-le-Preux and Wancourt. Heavy rains during the night resulted in slippery ground, creating difficulties in assembling troops that delayed the continuation of the assault. They met stiff resistance from the enemy in their heavily defended positions, which limited the Canadians gains to around 3 km (just under 2 miles).

After three days of intense fighting, the 2nd and 3rd Canadian Infantry Divisions finally seized the important portion of the German Fresnes-Rouvroy defence system on 28th August 1918. The total Canadian casualties reported were 254 officers and 5,547 other ranks and they captured more than 3,300 prisoners, 53 guns and 519 machine guns.

On the 29th and 30th further gains were made and the Canadians established positions along the River Scarpe clearing portions of the Fresnes-Rouvroy trench system, including Upton Wood.

On the morning of 2nd September the Canadian Corps attacked the Drocourt-Quéant line, which was the forward edge of the Hindenburg Line, and overrun a 6,400 m (7,000 yards) portion of the German line. A number of German units in the forward lines quickly surrendered, but as the advance continued the Canadians met more resolute opposition from regiments of the German 1st Guards Reserve Division, 2nd Guards Reserve Division and the 3rd Reserve Division. An attack was scheduled the following day to gain direct observation of all bridges over the River Sensée and the Canal du Nord, but the Germans withdrew along a wide front.

Two Canadians were awarded the Victoria Cross as a result of their actions during the Battle of the Scarpe: Lieutenant Colonel William Hew Clark-Kennedy of the 24th Battalion (Victoria Rifles of Canada) and Lieutenant Charles Smith Rutherford of the 5th Battalion Canadian Mounted Rifles.

Battle of the Canal du Nord

The Battle of the Canal du Nord took place along an incomplete portion of the canal and the outskirts of Cambrai between 27th September and 1st October 1918. The Canadian Corps led the attack crossing the largely dry canal on a front of 2,500 m (2,700 yards) between Sains-lès-Marquion and Mœuvre at 05.20 hrs on the morning of 27th September. All four divisions attacked under total darkness, taking the German defenders of the 1st Prussian Guards Reserve Division and the 3rd German Naval Division by absolute surprise. By midmorning the defenders had either been defeated or withdrawn, the villages of Marquion and Bourlon had been captured, and Bourlon Woods had been seized thereby opening up the road to Cambrai.

Six Canadians were awarded the Victoria Cross as a result of their actions during the Battle of the Canal du Nord: Lieutenant, later Brigadier, Milton Fowler Gregg of the Royal Canadian Regiment, Captain John MacGregor of the 2nd Battalion Canadian Mounted Rifles, Lieutenant Graham Thomson Lyall of the 102nd (North British Columbia) Battalion, Lieutenant Samuel Lewis Honey of the 78th (Winnipeg) Battalion, Lieutenant George Fraser Kerr of the 3rd (Toronto) Battalion and Sergeant William Merrifield of the 4th (Central Ontario) Battalion.

Battle of Cambrai 1918

The Battle of Cambrai 1918, also known as the Second Battle of Cambrai, took place in and around the French city of Cambrai between 8th and 10th October 1918. The success of the Canadian Corps during the Battle of the Canal du Nord had left the defences at Cambrai weak and the defending German divisions unprepared. On 8th October, the 2nd Canadian Division entered Cambrai encountering sporadic and light resistance. They rapidly pressed northward out of the town leaving the mopping up to the 3rd Canadian Division that followed behind. They advanced 3.2 km (almost 2 miles) beyond Cambrai and captured the French towns of Naves and Thun-Saint-Martin. When the 3rd Canadian Division entered the town on the 10th, they found it deserted.

One Canadian was awarded the Victoria Cross as a result of his actions during the Battle of Cambrai 1918: Lieutenant Wallace Lloyd Algie of the 20th Battalion (Central Ontario).

Battle of the Selle

By 11th October, the British Fourth Army had closed up to the retreating Germans near Le Cateau, where the enemy had taken up a new position immediately to the east of the River Selle. Following six days of the preparatory artillery bombardment the British Fourth Army attacked along a 16 km (10 mile) front south of Le Cateau. The Canadian Corps crossed the Canal du Nord and River Sensée advancing on Denain which they reached on the 19th. The advance by the Canadians on 19th October 1918 of 11 km (6.8 miles) was the largest they made during the war. By the 21st the Canadians had reached the St Amand to Valenciennes road.

To the right of Denain the going had been more difficult and the River Selle was not crossed until the 23rd and by the evening the Canal de 'Escaut had been reached and the Canadian front stretched for 13 km (8 miles) along the canal from their southern boundary to Fresnes where it slanted back towards the village of Odomez, which was still in German hands. Here the battle paused while preparations were put in place to capture the town of Valenciennes.

Battle of Valenciennes

On 28th October 1918 the British XXII Corps advanced to capture Mont Houy to the south east of Valenciennes as a precursor to an assault to capture Valenciennes. The 51st (Highland) Division took the hill in the face of stiff opposition, but the enemy counterattacked and pushed the Highlanders back off. By the nightfall the 154th Brigade of the 51st (Highland) Division held most of the southern slope and the flanks at Le Poirier Station and the village of Famars. Throughout the 29th they fought off repeated German counterattacks and that night they were replaced by the 49th Division.

The main push towards Mons was due to resume on 3rd November and the need to secure Valenciennes was becoming urgent. As a consequence the 10th Canadian Infantry Brigade was ordered to attack Valenciennes from the south while the 49th Division pushed forward once more against Mont Houy with the 3rd Canadian Division crossing the Canal de 'Escaut at the same time.

At 05.15 hrs on 1st November 1918 the 10th Canadian Infantry Brigade began their advance behind a creeping barrage. There had been no preliminary barrage and the attack took the forward German troops by surprise and they surrendered in large numbers. The first real opposition developed as they entered Valenciennes particularly towards their right flank in the vicinity of the steel works near Marly.

The 50th Battalion was pushed forward to support the 46th Battalion and six machine gun batteries were positioned facing Marly but the German resistance remained strong. Throughout the remainder of the day the city became encircled and by noon the 12th Infantry Brigade of the 3rd Canadian Division, which had established bridgeheads over the canal come up on the left, had penetrated into the heart of the city.

During the night of 1st/2nd November the 11th Infantry Brigade relieved the 10th and when they moved forward to secure Marly at dawn they found that most of the enemy had withdrawn during the night.

The battalions of the 12th brigade had continued to push forward during the night and by 08.30 hrs on 2nd November 1918 they had pushed through the city as the Germans pulled back before them. By nightfall on the 2nd the Canadians had pushed as far as St Saulvé further along the road to Mons.

One Canadian was awarded the Victoria Cross as a result of his actions during the Battle of Valenciennes: Sergeant Hugh Cairns of the 46th (South Saskatchewan) Battalion. He was the last Canadian to be awarded the Victoria Cross in the First World War.

Battle of Mons

Following the capture of Valenciennes the Canadians continued to press forward. There were no large engagements as the enemy kept withdrawing and the nature of the terrain changed. Rain fell continually and the muddy roads reduced the distances covered each day. As the towns fell rumours of the approaching armistice began to circulate and after four long years the end looked in sight. By 7th November 1918 the Canadians had crossed the border between France and Belgium along the road towards Mons and by the evening of the 9th, they were closing in on the Belgium city. That night the Canadian Corps issued orders for the city to be taken the following day.

It was at Mons that the first engagement between the British and German Forces during the First World War had taken place and the recapturing Mons before the end of the war was of huge symbolic importance to the Allies. Consequently, the Canadian Corps was ordered to take the city.

Mons was an important city and the plan was to capture it without causing too much damage and amidst rumours of an approaching cease fire the Canadians began the task of forcing the Germans out. During the 10th attempts by the 2nd Canadian Division to push around the southern edge of the city met with stiff resistance. This resistance was being put up by the German rearguard covering their planned withdrawal to a line between Antwerp and the River Meuse. The Germans held on doggedly and by the end of the day the city was still firmly in their hands.

During the night the Canadians entered the city and by the morning of 11th November they had subdued most of Mons without the use of heavy shelling. At 06.30 hrs, General Currie's headquarters received notice that hostilities would cease at 11:00 am. Word spread among the troops that a cease-fire had finally been achieved, though most fighting had already fizzled out.

In comparison with other engagements of the First World War the 280 casualties sustained in the last two days of fighting were slight. The decision to continue with the assault to capture Mons in the light of the pending ceasefire has become controversial and the subject of debate among historians. From a symbolic stance the recapture of Mons before the end of the war is huge, from a humanistic stance is was unnecessary and tragic.

Canada also has the distinction of having sustained the last fatality among British Commonwealth forces during the First World War. Private George Lawrence Price was shot by a sniper in the town of Ville-sur-Haine, near Mons as he stepped out of the house into the street at 10.57 hrs. He was pulled into one of the houses by a young Belgian nurse who ran across the street to try to save him. George died a minute later at 10.58 hrs, just two minutes before the armistice came into effect. He is buried at Saint Symphorien Military Cemetery, in grave V.C.4.

The Canadian troops remained in Europe to share in the Allied occupation. They crossed the Rhine into Germany at Bonn where Sir Arthur Currie was accorded the distinction of taking the salute in honour of Canadian achievements. It was partly in recognition of the Canadian Corps' achievements in the battles of the Last Hundred Days, and indeed throughout the First World War, that Canada gained a seat at the Treaty of Versailles.

Finally, in 1919, the Canadian troops came home where they were greeted by grateful and enthusiastic crowds in cities and villages across the country.

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Last updated: 17th December 2018