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Letters from the front. Being a record of the part played by officers of the Bank in the great war, 1914-1919 (Volume 2) online

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sector had lost its momentum, and whatever might happen in the
north, there were now two factors that conduced to a more favour-
able situation — reinforcements had arrived, and the AUied Com-
mands on the Western front had been united in the person of
Marshal Foch.

On 9th April began the Battle of the Lys, the second phase of
the great enemy offensive. Halted south of the Scarpe at Hebut-
erne, at Villers-Bretonneux and at Montdidier, the Germans now
turned their attention to the sector north of the La Bassee canal,
whence British troops had been sent to fill the depleted ranks on
the Oise. The objectives of the attack were Hazebrouck and
the Channel ports, and the isolation of the British Army in Flanders.
Having bombarded the Lens-Armentieres sector with gas shells
on the previous night, the enemy penetrated the line just south
of Armentieres and, after considerable fighting, forced a retirement
across the Lys and Lawe rivers. A break was also effected between
Ploegsteert and Messines, which led to the capture of the entire
ridge, the turning of Armentieres from the north and the opening
of the way to Hazebrouck. On 13th April a stand was made in
front of the Nieppe Forest, but two days later Bailleul fell. By
the 16th Wytschaete was in German hands, and a general with-
drawal from Passchendaele and advanced points in the Ypres
salient had become necessary. The struggle now centred about
Kemmel, where an attack was repulsed on the 17th. On 28th
April, however, Kemmel was taken and, as a result, a further



shortening of the Ypres salient was carried out. A number of
attempts were made during the next few days to turn Ypres from
the south, but the general line from this point to Kemmel was
maintained and the northern drive definitely halted. Meanwhile
the attack on Amiens developed, and Villers-Bretonneux was the
centre of a number of engagements which ended not only in the
retention of this village by the Australians, but in a considerable
improvement of the British position on this sector. Minor actions
were fought on various parts of the front during May and June,
of which the general outcome was distinctly favourable to the Allies.
In order to secure more ground for manoeuvring against
Amiens, and also to prepare the way for a drive on Paris, the enemy
on 6th April attacked the French salient on the Oise east of Noyon,
and within the next few days advanced to the line of the Ailette.
Towards the end of May the ridge of the Chemin-des-Dames was
occupied and a movement developed against Rheims, which,
though held against all frontal attacks, was nevertheless threatened
by the fall of Soissons on 29th May, and the arrival of the enemy
on the Marne between Chiteau-Thierry and Dormans. At the
same time a strong assault was delivered by the enemy on the
twenty-two mile front between Montdidier and Noyon, with the
object of crushing in the Compiegne salient. The success of the
double drive thus launched against Paris was primarily dependent
upon a broadening of the salient on the Marne by the capture of
Rheims, and on 15th and 17th July attacks were delivered on a
front of fifty miles from Chateau-Thierry to a point east of Rheims,
the only result of which was the withdrawal of the Allied line a
couple of miles south of the Marne; the Rheims sector was still
intact. On 18th July the Allies began their counter-offensive, Marne II
known as the Second Battle of the Marne, in which British,
American and Italian soldiers fought side by side with those of
France. The enemy's failure at Rheims, in conjunction with his
advance across the Marne, had left him in a salient too narrow in
proportion to its depth, and especially vulnerable on its western
flank. It was here, between Soissons and Chdteau-Thierry, that chftteau-
the Allied attack was launched. North of the Ourcq, it was Thierry
attended with immediate and overwhelming success, the enemy's
positions being penetrated to a depth of five miles. Further south
the advance was slower, but on the 20th Chdteau-Thierry was taken
and on the 23rd Oulchy-le-Chdteau. Under cover of stiff resistance
north of the Ourcq and strong counter-attacks at Dormans, the
Germans now prepared for the evacuation of the saUent and by 27th
July their retreat was well under way. From the Marne the enemy
was driven to the Ourcq and thence on 3rd August, after the capture



of Soissons, to the line of the Aisne and the Vesle. Meanwhile the
French had gained ground north of Montdidier and were firmly
estabhshed on the west bank of the Avre. In front of Amiens,
harassed by constant raids and attacks, the enemy had abandoned
his advanced positions and withdrawn some distance from the Ancre,
while in the Hazebrouck area his attacks had been repulsed with
heavy loss. The tide had definitely turned, and the initiative had
everywhere passed into the hands of the Allies. The military
genius of Marshal Foch had seized upon the German advance across
the Marne as the psychological moment for the great battle, which,
by creating a new enemy salient to the north, opened the way for
the culminating Allied offensive of the war.

The Canadian Corps had spent the winter of 1917-1918 on
the Lens sector, between Hill 70 and Acheville, and had greatly
improved the Vimy defences in view of the expected enemy offensive,
which threatened the coalfields lying to the north-west of the ridge.
The March drive left this sector untouched, but the personnel of
the Corps was largely concerned in the wholesale shifting of troops
entailed by the Franco-British scheme of defence. On the night
of the 22nd-23rd March, one of the Canadian Motor Machine Gun
Brigades was ordered to proceed to the Fifth Army front, where,
in conjunction with the infantry, it fought a series of stubborn
rearguard actions before Maricourt and a number of points between
the Somme and the Avre. On 24th March the Corps took over the
line at Arras to which the British had withdrawn on the flank of
the main attack, and shortly afterwards extended its front north
and south of this sector, to such a degree, indeed, that during the
battle of the Lys it had to veil its weakness by raids and artillery
demonstrations. During May and June, with the exception of one
division retained in the line, the Corps was placed in General Head-
quarters Reserve and underwent intensive training in the offensive
tactics of open warfare. On 15th July, it took over once more the
Arras front and made preparations for an attack on Orange Hill,
just west of Monchy-le-Preux, which were continued as a feint
during the period immediately preceding the Battle of Amiens.
Similarly, in order to deceive the enemy, two Canadian battalions
were put into the line in the Kemmel area. On 2nd August the
Corps was relieved at Arras and secretly concentrated behind
Amiens. The plans of the Allied Command required the release
of the lateral lines of communication from possession or pressure
by the enemy, as the preliminary step before a general offensive
could successfully be carried out. In this connection the r6le of
the British was to relieve the pressure on Amiens and to free the
Paris-Amiens railway. The attack of the 8th was, therefore, in



its inception a local operation, but the success which it met with
from the very outset converted it into a movement which not only
reduced the enemy salient on the Somme, but ensured the satis-
factory carrying out of future operations aiming at the St. Quentin-
Cambrai line. With the British established between these two
points, a further advance might be possible to Mons and Maubeuge,
the possession of which would threaten the enemy's most important
forward hues of communication, while a successful movement of
the French and Americans converging at Mezieres would deprive
him of his main lateral line.

On 8th August the British attacked on a front of eleven miles, Amiens
from Albert to the Amiens-Roye road, the French extending the
battle from here southwards for about five miles. The Canadian
Corps, occupying the centre right of the attack, advanced between
the Australians and the French, and exploited success so well that
by the end of the first day it had penetrated the enemy's position
to a maximum depth of eight miles. Stubborn resistance was
encountered at Le Quesnel, but this point was carried on the night
of the 8-9th, and on the following day a further penetration of
five miles was effected. Progress north of the Amiens-Roye road
now became slower, for the old trench systems used in the Somme
fighting of 1916 afforded the enemy good defensive positions, and
on the 17th the British advance was halted in front of Chaulnes
and Roye, where the enemy made a determined stand. The
Canadians had by this date advanced fourteen miles at the farthest
point; this was the greatest depth gained on the British battle-front.
Amiens was now definitely safe, and the Corps was withdrawn
from the line and moved once more to Arras. In this notable series
of actions, which marked Canada's entry into the last phase of
the war, six of our staff gave up their fives. The French occupied
Montdidier on 10th August, and, striking northwards, took Lassigny
on the 21st, thus threatening Noyon from the west as well as from
the south.

The enemy had by this time adopted a defensive poficy every-
where on the Western front; in rapid succession he abandoned his
forward positions in the Lys valley and to the north of Kemmel,
evacuated Albert and the plateau five miles west of Bapaume,
and finally, on the 18th, began a general retirement to the Hinden-
burg Line. The AUied drive was now transferred to the north, Bapaume
re-opening on 23rd August on a front of thirty-three miles from
Lihons, where the left flank of the Canadian Corps had rested
at the conclusion of the Battle of Amiens, to Mercatel, three miles
south of Arras. The evacuation by the enemy of the slight salient



and plateau referred to above brought the British in touch with
the Albert- Arras railway and offered an opportunity to drive a
wedge from the north in conjunction with the French operations
in the south. In the coiu-se of this Battle of Bapaume, the enemy
positions on the Thiepval ridge were carried on the 24th, and on the
following day Courcelette fell. The pressure against the Hinden-
burg Line further north helped to accelerate the retirement of
the enemy, Bapaume falhng into British hands on the 28th, while
on the French front Roye, Chaulnes, Nesle and Noyon were
recovered and the enemy driven to the line of the Somme and the
Canal du Nord. With the capture by the Australians of Peronne
on 1st September the enemy salient on the Somrae had practically
vanished.

The time had now come for a direct assault upon the elaborate
system of enemy defences which extended from Lille to Rheims.
Of this system the Hindenburg Line from Douai to Laon, with its
numerous ramifications, was only a part. Crossing this deep belt
of organized defences at an acute angle was the canal system of
Northern France, which by its roughly parallel lines of the Haute
Deule-Nord-Somme and the Scheldt-St. Quentin-Crozat, formed
a strong protective screen for the Hindenburg Line south of
Cambrai and a reserve defence north of that city. The penetration
of this two-fold system at its crucial points would entail a com-
plete re-adjustment of the enemy's line in Flanders, a situation
which Allied attacks dehvered in that sector, even over a wide
front, had hitherto failed to bring about, partly because the Allied
line in Flanders already formed a vulnerable salient, partly because
of the virtual impossibility of exploiting success over water-logged
ground. Moreover, a successful operation north of the Somme,
aiming at Mons and Maubeuge, in conjunction with one in the
Argonne aiming at Mezieres, would result in a double encircling
movement that would leave the main German Army no room for
manoeuvre and would necessitate capitulation, from the worst
features of which it was saved only by the declaration of an armistice
by the time these objectives had been reached.

On 26th August, in conjunction with the offensive on the right
against Bapaume, and the advance by "peaceful penetration" on
the left in the salient of the Lys, the attack on the Hindenburg
Line was launched from Gavrelle to Mercatel. In this series of
engagements, the Canadian Corps, occupying the post of honour
astride the Arras-Cambrai road, fought, as our letters indicate and
as the Corps Commander himself says in his report, "the hardest
battle in its history." The difficult nature of the ground, with its



ridges, rivers and canals, was accentuated by the strength of the
enemy's positions, but by the end of the first day. Orange Hill,
Monchy-le-Preux and Guemappe were taken, and on the 27th
further good progress was made south of the Scarpe. North of that
river Gavrelle and Roeux were taken by Imperial troops, but their
advance was now held up in front of the Fresnes-Rouvroy switch.
Halting under similar conditions, the Canadians postponed their
attack on the Drocourt-Queant line until the heavy artillery had Drocourt-
been concentrated on the wire defences. On 2nd September, the Ou6ant
decisive assault was made. Under a dense barrage and supported
by tanks the Canadians broke through this line, capturing, after
stiff resistance, Dury and Cagnicourt. By the loss of the latter
place and of Buissy, the enemy was compelled to retire behind the
Canal du Nord. During the next three weeks, preparations were canal du
made for an attack on the dry section of the canal south of the Nord
Arras-Cambrai road, and on 27th September, reinforced by Imperial
troops, the Canadian Corps carried the hue of the canal from Inchy
to Marquion, capturing the latter and Bourlon village, and deploying
between the Sensee Canal and Cambrai. Here they repulsed a
number of strong counter-attacks and continued a slow advance to
a line running north from Cambrai, which was reached on 1st
October. It was now decided that the Corps should force a crossing
of the Scheldt Canal north of Cambrai and thus complete the
investment of that city.

Meanwhile on the right of these operations, an attack was
proceeding against the outposts of the main Hindenburg Line.
On 12th September, Havrincourt, near the junction of the Canal
du Nord and the fortified zone, was captured and on the 17th
several gains were made near St. Quentin. On 18th September,
on a front of seventeen miles, from Gouzeaucourt to Holnon, with
the French operating from Holnon southwards, the British attacked
the enemy's advance posts, overcoming a stiff resistance at Epehy
and rendering abortive a counter-attack deUvered between Gouzeau-
court and Moeuvres on the right flank of the Canadian Corps.
Hard fighting occurred at Epehy on the 20th which resulted in the Ep6hy
clearing of the area between that point and Lempire. On the 27th,
preceded by an artillery bombardment along the front of three
British armies, and acting in conjunction with the Canadians on
their left, Imperial troops, with some American divisions, stormed
and carried the Hindenburg Line between the two canal systems,
and crossed the Scheldt Canal at several points. The enemy's
position in St. Quentin was now untenable and on 18th October
British troops occupied the town. In the two days that followed,
the Hindenburg Line east of the St. Quentin Canal was penetrated at



Le Catelet and Sequhart, and the Allies now entered a country
that had nothing but natural obstacles to delay their advance.

St. Mihiel Still further south, the Franco-American forces were continuing

an offensive begun on 5th September, and by the middle of the
month had advanced to the general line held before the German
spring drive. On the 12th and 13th, the Americans succeeded in
flattening the St. Mihiel sahent, and were now threatening the rail-
ways of Lorraine, upon which the enemy depended for his communi-
cations with southern Germany. On 26th September, the French
Cham- and Americans attacked on a forty-mile front in Champagne and

P*^*** made considerable progress against very stubborn resistance.

This offensive had the far-reaching strategic result of drawing the
enemy reserves away from the more northerly sectors, which he
could better afford to leave lightly defended. The spirit of the
offensive had in the space of two months entirely vanished from the
German morale; only that of the defensive remained. The northern
front, valuable as a jumping-off point for a drive to the Channel
ports, to Amiens and to Paris, was now of secondary importance
compared with the front in Lorraine, where a powerful attack would
threaten the very existence of the German Army. Moreover, the
enemy's luck was failing him in the other theatres of war, and the
next few weeks were to witness the collapse of two of his allies. On
Capitula- 29th September the Bulgarian army capitulated, and two days later
Bukiarl Damascus fell and negotiations began for an armistice between
and Turkey Turkey and the Entente powers. Abandoned by her friends, with
her reserves of man-power diminishing almost as rapidly as American
reinforcements were increasing, Germany saw no military solution
other than a retirement to a shortened winter line of defence, where
the issue might be delayed at least until the spring of 1919. To
anticipate this movement, the Allies made every effort to exploit
the success already gained.

The battles of Bapaume, Epehy, Arras-Cambrai, the Cham-
pagne and St. Mihiel were in fact all part of one gigantic offensive
against the last fortified positions of the enemy, which he might
well regard, after four years of occupation, as almost impregnable.
The main blow was being directed frontally at the heart of the
German system of communication, and, as the opportunity pre-
sented itself, flanking movements were developed north and south
of the steady pressure in the centre. The plan of operations from
Arras northwards had to take into account Lille and the important
industrial area that surrounded it. For this reason. Allied activity
between Arras and Ypres was confined to following up the enemy
as he withdrew in conformity with the general movement forced



upon him by the pressure in the south, or to minor set-piece attacks
upon a very Hmited front. The complete evacuation of the Lys
saUent by the enemy and the recapture by the British of Mount
Kemmel at the end of August cleared the way for the great out-
flanking movement that was to extend from Ypres to the sea. On
28th September the northern contribution to the general battle
began with an attack delivered on a front of twenty-three miles Flanders
from Dixmude to Ploegsteert, the British on the right from Ypres
southwards, the Franco-Belgian force on the left or northern
sector, and the British navy operating off the Belgian coast. In
the course of five days' fighting the Houthulst Forest was cleared
of the enemy, Roulers seriously threatened and the Lys crossed
at Comines. The withdrawal of the Germans from the country
between Armentieres and Lens, as a result of these operations,
still further reduced the Lille salient and made the fall of that city
only a matter of time. Lens fell on 3rd October, but Douai still
held out, protected by one of the few sections of the Hindenburg
Line as yet unpenetrated. A fresh offensive was begun on the 14th
from Dixmude to Comines, and within a few days the Allies had
taken Courtrai, Roulers and Ostend, and by the 18th had encircled
and passed Lille and the adjacent cities of Roubaix and Tourcoing.

The task imposed upon the Canadian Corps was that of crossing Cambrai
the Scheldt Canal and turning Cambrai from the north, while other
British troops operated to the south. In spite of strong counter-
attacks delivered between the Sensee and Scheldt Canals, the Can-
adians made progress on the left of Cambrai. On the night of
8-9th October, in conjunction with the general attack delivered
from here to St. Quentin, to which reference has been made above,
the Canadians stormed the Scheldt Canal and crossed just north-
east of Cambrai. In the subsequent fighting the city was cleared
of the enemy and the Corps captured the high ground to the east,
forcing the Germans to evacuate the angle between the Sensee and
Scheldt Canals. The progress of events was now rapid; one after
another the enemy's positions were abandoned, while the momen-
tum of the Allied advance increased each day. The French and
Americans were now advancing on both sides of the Meuse, Laon
was evacuated, the Chemin-des-Dames was cleared, Le Cateau
fell, and the enemy was driven to the Selle. On 11th October the
Canadian Corps took over the line of the Sensee Canal where it
runs east and west. The First Canadian Division, operating further
west towards the Scarpe, stormed the Queant-Drocourt switch at
Sailly-en-Ostravent and reached the line of the Sensee Canal where
it runs north towards Douai. On the 17th the Canadian Douai
Corps crossed the canal and, joining hands with other British troops



which had entered the town from the west, advanced in the direc-
tion of Valenciennes. The force of the attack at first carried all
before it, but after the loss of Denain on the 19th, the Germans
offered a stiffer resistance and retarded the movement of the
flanking units. By nightfall on the 22nd, however, practically the
whole of the Forest of Raismes was in Canadian hands and the
Corps had reached the Scheldt Canal at all points. As the canal,
however, was held by the enemy in strength, and as the Corps
had already thrown back its northern flank a considerable distance,
it was considered advisable to effect the capture of Valenciennes by
an attack from the south.

The change within the last few months, from trench or semi-
open warfare in fortified zones, through deserted and ruined villages
and over uncultivated fields, to campaigning in an inhabited country
barely touched by shell-fire, made a deep impression upon the
British soldier. The progress of the Canadian Corps from Douai
to Mons meant the liberation not only of towns and villages but of
the civihans whom the enemy had been forced by pressure of time
to leave in possession, and whose presence no doubt hampered his
mihtary movements. "The other day," writes an officer in one
of our Letters, "I captured with my company a small village, and
as we entered the town and as the Boche withdrew, women ran from
the houses and embraced us even while we were still under the
enemy machine gun fire, and wept for joy. It was most ludicrous
when one considered the work we were employed on, but the joy
of these people who had been under the Prussian heel for four years
was very pitiable. Now as we go forward, the same scenes greet
us at each town we pass through."* Another writes, "We are
having a glorious advance. . . Every house you go near, you are
hauled in and made drink black coffee till you can hardly see. . . .
You can't imagine what it is like to get in a decent town and see
civihans again, and to get into a bed with sheets, after two months'
continuous fighting."! There is, of course, the other side of the
picture, the silent villages that had come under artillery fire and
the traces of battle that still lingered in a scarred countryside,
"empty streets, shuttered houses . . . railway lines torn up . . .
women and children (some lay dead, gassed by the Germans in
the houses) on lorries and in dog-drawn carts. On the hillsides
and in sunken roads dead Germans, snipers in ploughed fields, and
mixed with our own men lying thick in the sunken roads. "{

The operations of the Canadian Corps from Douai eastwards
formed the left fiank of the main British offensive, which aimed at
•Vol. 1. p. .SOI. tVol. I, p. 302. JVol. I. p. 324.



1746205

Maubeuge. The capture of Valenciennes and the subsequent

advance of the Corps, culminating in the entry into Mons on the

eve of the armistice, had an important bearing upon the situation

on the Scheldt. The middle of October saw the retirement of the

Germans from the Belgian coast, and Zeebrugge and Bruges were

liberated on the 19th of the month. The Franco-Belgian forces

were pressing towards Ghent and Audenarde, while a British Army

on the right drove the enemy to the Scheldt, where he rallied.

After the fall of Valenciennes, however, Tournai had to be evacuated

and the British crossed the Scheldt on a considerable front. Further

south the enemy made a stand on the Selle, but was driven from here

on 20th October. The loss of the Selle marked the beginning

of the end of the German empire. The tentative peace overtures