During the 100 Days Offensive that would eventually close out the First World War, one of the most significant battles for Canada was the Battle of Scarpe. It would begin on Aug. 26 and run for the next five days and would prove to be an overwhelming victory for the Canadians.
The Battle of Amiens had raged only a few days previous but there will be little time for rest as the Allies pushed to break the German defenses. The Fourth Brigade would get only three days break before they needed to march back to the front line.
The coming battle was described by General Arthur Currie the hardest battle in the history of the Canadian Corps and he wanted to make sure it was a success. To achieve that, he would use the element of surprise and an attack in the middle of the night.
On Aug. 26 at 3 a.m., the Canadians advanced with the objective of capturing a long section of German trenches after a five minute artillery barrage had hit the German trenches. The 51st Highland Division would advance along Cambria Road, while the Third Canadian Division would advance between the River Scarpe, and the Second Canadian Division on the right, south of the main road. Using tunnels as shelter, they advanced on the Germans who were caught unaware who had expected an attack at dawn, not before it. The Canadian Corp under Julian Byng and Arthur Currie were able to advance over five kilometres on the front and capture the towns of Wancourt and Monchy-le-Preux within only a few hours, without using any armoured equipment. The Princess Patricia’s Light Infantry took part in the battle as well, suffering heavy casualties on the flanks but they were able to fight off evening counter attacks from the Germans. The Third Division were able to capture its first objective, Monchy-le-Preux by encircling the Germans in a tactic that was praised for some time after. The Second Division captured Guemappe and Wancourt by the afternoon. By the evening, the Canadian line extended 914 metres east of Monchy.
The attack was described by Private Hilaire Dennis as such.
“It was raining heavy and there I saw one of the prettiest sights of my life, one who is wed to my memory forever. We were crossing two mountains, which were about a mile apart. We were on one and the enemy on the other and there the heavy guns were roaring something awful and the sky was red with fire through the rain. There was fire splashing through the sky and fire rolling on the mountain in front of us and when we reached the other mountain I certainly did see some sight in the dark. We had to walk through dead bodies all over and I was wild. I was right after blood. Uncle, it is funny how a man changes when he gets in a scrap like that. We always get a drink of rum before we start anything and then we can go through fire and do anything but after the battle is over one often wonders how he got through it without being killed.”
In a report from London published in the Edmonton Bulletin, it was stated “At three o’clock this morning our troops attacked in the Scarpe sector and are reported to have made good progress. On the southern portion of the battle front we have advanced our line slightly astride the Somme and by a successful operation carried out have made progress in the direction of Maricourt.”
During this first stage of the battle, Lt. Charles Smith Rutherford of the Fifth Canadian Mounted Rifles would perform actions that would earn him the Victoria Cross. While commanding an assault party, Rutherford suddenly found he was well ahead of his men and near the a fully-armed enemy party outside a pillbox. He would put on his best poker face and persuaded the Germans that they were surrounded and the Germans, believing that this was actually true, surrendered. In all, 45 Germans, including two officers and three machine-gunners surrendered to Robertson. After they surrendered, Rutherford would notice that another pillbox was holding up the assault of his troops. He would then attack that pillbox and capture another 35 Germans. Rutherford would survive the war and serve as the Sergeant of Arms in the Ontario Legislature from 1934 to 1940, and he would be the first Sgt. Of Arms to eject a member from the legislature. He was also the last recipient of the Victoria Cross from the First World War to die, when he passed away on June 11, 1989 at the age of 97.
Another medal winner from that first day was Lt. H.G. Spohn who received the Military Cross. During the attack, he went forward with a bombing party as the liaison officer and saw a group of Germans preparing for a counter-attack. He quickly gave directions to the artillery and enabled them to pour in a concentrated fire that dispersed the Germans. The citation for him would state, “His untiring efforts and gallantry in action have always enabled the artillery to render immediate support to the infantry when required.”
Following the battle, Currie would say to his men, “I desire to congratulate all concerned on the magnificent success achieved this day. It has paved the way for greater success tomorrow. Keep constantly in mind Stonewall Jackson’s motto, press forward.”
On Aug. 27, heavy rains during the night made the ground very slippery and difficult to advance on, causing late starts on assaults. The Germans also resisted with strong defences and the gain for the day was only three kilometres. Part of the battle was the capture the Village of Cherisy, which was assigned to the 22nd Battalion, also known as the Van Doos, along with the 24th and 26th Battalions. The advancing Canadians were mowed down by German machine guns but by midday the village would be captured. The Princess Patricia’s would bomb the Germans heavily to shake their defences but were unsuccessful in their attempts. The Van Doos would suffer heavily in the attack, losing all of their officers. Major George Vanier, the highest-ranking officer left, would organize the defense of the captured village. Vanier would eventually go on to serve as the Governor General of Canada, and the first French Canadian to hold the post, from 1959 to 1967 when he died in office. During the attack, Vanier would be shot in both legs and the chest, which resulted in the loss of his right leg. He would take many months to recover but would be awarded a bar on his Military Cross for his bravery in the attack and defense.
Private Dennis would write of the second day, “We took a big bunch of prisoners one morning and I thought it was good for a little lot of Canadians to take so many great big husky Germans. They were coming to us with their hands up by the hundreds and some of them were crying like babies and I’ll tell you they should rather see old man Satan himself than see a bunch of Canadians facing them with cold steel.”
The next day, on Aug. 28, the Second and Third Canadian Infantry Divisions would seize a large portion of the German defense system but it would come at a great cost. Over the previous three days, from Aug. 26 to Aug. 28, the Canadians would suffer 254 officer casualties and 5,547 other rank casualties, but it was also highly successful. The Canadians would capture 3,300 Germans, 53 guns and 519 machine guns. The Princess Patricia’s crossed Jigsaw Valley and cleared out Jigsaw Wood, and were able to hit the Germans hard, causing heavy casualties in the German ranks. According to the history of the soldiers from McGill University, it was stated that the German’s machine-gun defence was very stubborn.
Lance Corporal Albert Jackson Wier would be awarded the Military Medal for his actions during the battle and would be promoted to corporal as a result. He would be wounded on Sept. 24, 1918 and struck off strength six days later.
On Aug. 28, Lt. Col. William Hew Clark-Kennedy would earn the second Victoria Cross of the battle for Canada. At the time, he was 39 years old and commanding the 24th Battalion, also called the Victoria Rifles of Canada. His unit had suffered heavy casualties and Clark-Kennedy would encourage his men and lead them forward, while also collecting stragglers and ensuring the entire group advanced as one brigade. He would be severely wounded in the ensuring battle, with heavy loss of blood and intense pain but he refused to be evacuated until he gained a position from which the advance could continue. He would survive the war, passing away on Oct. 25, 1961.
The 18th Battalion war diary would state, “heavy casualties were suffered…Capt. Mackedie was shot through the head and instantly killed while rushing a German gun post. Lt. Cole shot through the eye and was afterwards found dead.”
Private Dennis would write home, “Dear uncle and aunt, I figure myself very lucky to be able to write to you today because the day that I got hit there was quite a few of our Western Ontario boys who went down and will remain down forever….I was lucky that there was only one bullet that went through me because I was hit in different places through my clothes and I notice after taking my coat off to dress my wounds that a bullet had cut my clothes right across my shoulders. It was about 1 p.m. when I got hit and I drop into a big shell hole, and there I had to stay until 9 p.m. before I could get out to help. I was certainly an awful sight after rolling myself in my own blood all that time.”
By the next day, 39 members of the 22nd Battalion answered roll call, with the battalion suffering 634 killed, wounded or missing, including all the officers. For the Princess Patricia’s , the dead were seven officers and 47 other ranks, while eight officers and 135 other ranks were wounded. One person on that day to lose their lives was Private James Henry Silcox. Coming from the Peace River region of Alberta, he was drafted into the Canadian Army in November of 1917 and would ship into France on Aug. 8, 1918. Three weeks later during the battle, a shell would explode near him, killing him instantly. At the time, he had been killed while his company was advancing to support the Fourth Canadian Infantry Brigade.
One injured soldier was David Capeo, also from the Peace River region. He had arrived in France in June of 1916 and was hit with shrapnel in his left knee in September of that year. After he recovered, he was back at the front and would suffer a gunshot wound to his right shoulder on Aug. 28 during the battle. He likely would have been back at the front after recovering but the war ended before he could be shipped back to the front. In his diary on the day he would be wounded, he wrote “All ranks very tired, but situation good and the sense of victory on the men. The morale and tone never better in the history of the battalion.” After the war, he would be awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for Gallantry.
Capt. H.G. Brewer would say that during the battle, the Germans were lobbing grenades at them, which he called potato mashers, and the Canadians threw back grenades, which he called Mills. During the battle, he said Germans surrendered by the hundreds and German planes were dive bombing the Canadian troops.
On Aug. 29, Brutinel’s Brigade, the first fully motorized brigade in the Canadian Army and the British Empire, would advance to the front line, seizing Bench Farm and Victoria Copse. Along the Scarpe River, the Canadian Corps Cyclist Battalion would establish posts.
On Aug. 30, the Canadian Corp was able to clear portions of the German trench system, including Upton Wood, and held the position for the entire day under heavy fire. They would eventually drive off a German counterattack, while capturing 50 prisoners and five machine guns.
Information comes from Veteran Affairs, The Vimy Foundation, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry 1914-1919, Five Strenuous Years, Library and Archives Canada, South Peace Archives, A Canadian Conscript Goes To War,