Remembrance Day is a solemn occasion, the time to remember the losses and pain suffered by those who fought Canada’s wars and those who waited for them at home. The commemorations of the centenary of the Great War of 1914-1918, beginning next year, will bring that terrible conflict to the public’s attention in a way that will make battles like Ypres, the Somme, Vimy and Passchendaele familiar once more.
One great Canadian campaign, however, remains all but unknown. The Hundred Days, that short period running from Aug. 8, 1918, to the armistice on Nov. 11, saw the Canadian Corps score victory after victory against the toughest German defences on the Western Front. The Hundred Days was unquestionably the most decisive campaign ever fought by Canadian troops in battle, and if we remember the losses and pain on Remembrance Day, we should also remember the Canadian triumphs that dramatically shortened the First World War.
Lieutenant-General Sir Arthur Currie led the Canadian Corps’ four divisions from June, 1917, to the end of the war. Lt.-Gen. Currie had been a militiaman in Victoria, and he proved himself in action as a brigade commander, as commander of the First Division and the Corps, and most definitely as one of the ablest battlefield tacticians of the war. He kept his divisions at full strength and indeed added additional infantry to his battalions, boosted the Corps’ component of engineers and trucks and trained his troops hard. His Corps earned a reputation as shock troops after the victory at Vimy on Easter Monday, 1917, and whenever the Germans learned that the Canadians were in the lines, they feared the worst.
On Aug. 8, 1918, the Canadian Corps had secretly moved into position in front of the French city of Amiens. The German army had been on the offensive since March, and the Amiens sector was rather lightly defended. The Canadians, British and Australians struck this sector a surprise hammer blow in the early morning, a hurricane of artillery fire clearing the way for the tanks and infantry that blasted through the defences. Thousands of Germans surrendered, more were killed and within a few hours, the Canadian advance was almost 15 kilometres. This, wrote the German army’s great strategist, General Erich Ludendorff, was “the black day” of the German Army.
Lt.-Gen. Currie’s troops then moved north to the Arras area, where, at the end of the month, they struck toward and then through the Drocourt-Quéant Line, an immensely strong extension of the Hindenburg Line defended by crack troops. In heavy fighting at high cost, the Corps broke the line, forcing the Germans back behind the Canal du Nord, their last position protecting the key supply point of Cambrai.
The incomplete canal was wide and well-defended, but Lt.-Gen Currie daringly decided to attack across a short, dry portion, knowing that if his plan was discovered, the enemy guns might smash his troops as they formed up. But the Canadian deception plans worked, and the troops and artillery funnelled across the canal, greatly aided by the engineers’ bridges. “Let me tell you,” General Currie wrote, “that those bridges were begun not only under shell fire, but under machine gun fire, and yet nothing could deter the work of our men.” The beaten enemy pulled back through Cambrai, their sappers leaving the city in flames for the Canadians to extinguish.
The Germans now were in full retreat, moving eastward as fast as they could go. The Canadians took Valenciennes, smashing the enemy defences with a massive artillery barrage, and then moved into Belgium. By Nov. 11, they were in Mons, the same small town where the men of the British Expeditionary Force had first faced the invading Germans in August, 1914.
The Canadian Corps, more than a hundred thousand strong, had fought its last battles. As Lt.-Gen. Currie noted proudly, it had beaten 47 German divisions since Aug. 8, a quarter of the German forces in the West. The Corps had accomplished this because of its great fighting spirit, its fine leadership at all levels and its effective reinforcement and logistics systems. The cost in lives and in wounded was terrible – 45,000 casualties, 20 per cent of the total of Canadian losses in the entire war – but for once, the campaign had achieved measurable gains on the ground. More than that, the Canadian shock troops had battered the enemy, forced them eastward and obliged them to seek an armistice that was a de facto capitulation. It had scored its greatest victory, the greatest battlefield triumph ever by Canadian troops.
We should always remember the death and destruction caused by war. But we should never forget the great deeds accomplished by Canada’s soldiers. We must remember our losses each Nov. 11, but neither must we forget our victories.
Historian J.L. Granatstein’s book The Greatest Victory: Canada’s Hundred Days, 1918 will appear next year. He will be speaking at 5:00 this afternoon at the Munk School of Global Affairs, 1 Devonshire Place, Toronto. Details at http://munkschool.utoronto.ca/events/.