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During the 100 Days Offensive, Canada was helping to lead the charge to push the Germans back as the war was drawing to a close. The Germans had withdrawn to their Hindenburg Line and the Canadian front would include the sector that had Bourlon Wood and Canal Du Nord on it. The Canadians had seen victory in a recent battle but it would be a month before they would advance any further.
The Canal was a difficult spot for the Canadians to crack through on. The canal was dry, but the banks were several metres high and the Canadians did not know what was on the other side of that in regards to the Germans. The Germans had flooded the area around the canal, with only a two kilometre section still being dry. This would result in the Canadians being squeezed into a small front, and once through, they would have to fan out in order to take the rest of the section they had been assigned. Another issue with this was that while tanks and infantry could cross over the dry canal, artillery could not.
In order to accomplish the movement of artillery, General Arthur Currie would put the Canadian Engineers in charge of installing portable bridges. This was not a simple task of building bridges but would involve the building bridges while being shot at and shelled. It was vital to get the artillery across through.
In the week leading up to the battle, two Canadian divisions were sent south to cross the canal at a weaker point while the engineers continued to build the bridges. During this same time, heavy reconnaissance operations were conducted. Observation balloons, forward patrols and occasional raids of enemy trenches gave the Canadians a small idea of what they would be facing, but much was left to the unknown and the success of a surprise attack. They were able to identify 113 guns before the operation began, which the artillery would eliminate.
For Currie, there was a great deal of worry that the plan would fail. He would state later:
General Byng warned Currie that there was a good chance that it would not work but the British wanted to push back the Germans as much as possible to crack through the Hindenburg Line. His plan would see two divisions, 40,000 men total, moving in the attack.
Byng would say to Currie in a meeting described by Shane Schreiber:
“Do you realize that you are attempting one of the most difficult operations of the war? If anybody can do it, the Canadians can do it, but if you fail, it means home for you.”
The machine gun corps also prepared for the attack by establishing well-filled dumps of ammunition as close to the line as they could. Half a million rounds were placed in one spot 100 yards north of the crossing of the road, while another contained 300,000 rounds at the Cambria Road, near the canal.
At 5:20 a.m. on Sept. 27, 1918, the creeping barrage of the Canadian artillery would begin and four Canadian battalions went forward across the canal with the aid of ladders to climb the 1.5 metre wall on the opposite bank, reaching the other side successfully.
The scene was described by A.M.J. Hyatt:
“The infantry, bunched into the crowded assembly area and oppressed by the fear of routine enemy barrage on their dangerously dense numbers, waited apprehensively for zero hour. Rain began to fall and the cold ground became slippery, adding to the difficulty of the coming assault. The assault of the sky remained ominous. Suddenly, at 5:20 a.m., the stillness and tension were shattered by the sickening crash of the creeping barrage and the infantry began moving forward.”
Canon Frederick Scott, a chaplain, describes the artillery barrage:
By 6:05 a.m., the first German prisoner had arrived at the rear of the battalions, signaling success up ahead. At this point, the other battalions would begin to leap frog over their positions, moving forward and fanning out over nine kilometres long the front. The surprise aspect under the cover of darkness was a major reason for the success of the Canadians during the initial stages of the battle. By 10 a.m., the first objectives were captured.
Major J.A.G White would write later, “When the attack was launched, the Brigade was already tired after holding the line for several days…harassed by enemy fire, gas and aeroplane bombing. Notwithstanding these difficulties, the spirit of all ranks ensured success. But for this spirit, the success which ultimately attended our efforts would have been impossible.”
Capt. W.H. Hubbard, a pilot, would write, that he could “be recounted of German gunners being chased away from their guns and then prevented from working them until captured by the tanks.”
Now that the opposite bank was secure, the engineers began installing the portable bridges they had built and the first guns moved across at 8:40 a.m., with some being pushed back under fire. By the middle of the afternoon, several artillery were across and the push to move the rest through was going quickly. In all, 785 guns were used on the first day of the battle using eight bridges. There was one gun per 14 metres of front, releasing a storm of steel and smoke for the Canadians to advance on.
By the end of the day, the Canadian Corp had secured the canal, Bourlon Wood and the village of Bourlon. The Canadians would dig in for the night because things were not done yet.
The Canadians would attempt to cross the Marcoing Line but were not able to until Sept. 29 and by Sept. 30, the third and fourth divisions of the Canadian Corp had reached Cambrai. The city was circled and Currie started to plan how the city would be taken. The Canadians were not used to urban warfare and Currie would have to plan how the city could be taken without going door-to-door and likely seeing huge Canadian casualties.
For the next week, the Canadians waited for their orders as Currie planned out the attack. The Germans would force his hand though as they pulled out of the city on Oct. 8, leaving behind a city burning that had been riddled with trip wires and booby traps. The Canadians would advance into the city slowly, following the Germans who had retreated east.
By the end of the battle, which had run from Sept. 27 to Oct. 2, 13,600 Canadians had been killed, wounded or were missing. It was a huge victory for the Canadians and the Allies but it came at a terrible cost. The Canadians were able to take over 7,000 prisoners and 205 guns, having faced 13 German divisions and many machine gun units. The 75th Battalion, made up of many men from Brant County, would go in with 450 men on Sept. 27, with 87 not being killed or injured by Oct. 4.
One person who would die during the battle was Michael Clark Jr. He was the son of Michael Clark, the MP for Red Deer since 1908, who would continue to serve in the House of Commons until 1921.
George Ross Thompson was born in Kenora and went oversees in 1914, spending four years on the front lines until he was killed on Sept. 28. His grave would be unidentified for 80 years until 1998 when extensive research was done and his grave was finally identified. In November of that year, a memorial service was held with family and members of the Princess Patricia’s Light Infantry present.
Frances George Littleworth had arrived in France in April 1917 and was severely injured in a gas attack in November of that year. On Sept. 28, he would suffer a fatal wound. The incident is described as such:
Gordon McTaggart had suffered a gas attack on Sept. 9 but returned to duty and was part of the attacking force on Sept. 27 at the canal. Already wounded, he went to take shelter in a shell-hole and was wounded again, this time fatally. His battery commander would say of him:
“He was without a doubt one of the best all-round soldiers in my battery.”
Lt. James Apperson would be awarded the Military Cross thanks to his actions on Sept. 27 when he made a daring reconnaissance and brought back information that was highly valuable. Later in the battle, when the assaulting battalion was being hit hard, he led his platoon forward to provide support.
Lt. James Davis was also awarded the Military Cross for reconnaissance work, which he accomplished on Sept. 27 under heavy fire. He then took a column of wagons forward and established an artillery refilling point 1,000 yards to the east of the canal, which was being shelled heavily. He was then able to keep up the supply of ammunition during the advance.
Several Canadians would receive the Victoria Cross for the battle.
Lt. George Fraser Kerr would lead his company in an attack on Sept. 27, and after nearing the Cambrai Road, found his advance held up by a strong point. Lt. Kerr then advanced far in front of his company, rushed the strong point by himself and captured four machine guns and 31 prisoners. He would survive the war but tragically died in 1929 in his home from carbon monoxide poisoning.
Lt. Graham Thomson Lyall led his company on Sept. 27 when they were halted by an enemy strong point. Lyall then executed a flank movement with his platoon, capturing prisoners and guns in the process. Later in the day, when his platoon was held up by machine guns, he led his few remaining men forward, rushing the position of the guns single-handed, killing an officer and taking the machine guns and numerous prisoners. He would capture more prisoners and guns the next day on Oct. 1. In those two days, he captured three officers, 182 soldiers, 26 guns and one field guns. Lyall would survive the war.
Lt. Samuel Lewis Honey would see his company commander and all other officers become casualties on Sept. 27, resulting in Lt. Honey taking command and reorganizing the unit under heavy fire. He would continue the advancement of the company, gaining their objective. He would see that his company was suffering casualties from machine gun fire and he would rush that position by himself, capturing the guns and 10 prisoners. He then led his company to capture another post and three more guns. On Sept. 29, he led his company against a strong enemy position with skill and daring and continued to serve with valour and self-sacrifice due to being severely wounded. He would die from his wounds soon after.
Lt. Milton Fowler Gregg would find the advance of his company held up by fire from both flanks and thick wire on Sept. 28. He would crawl forward alone and explored the wire until he found a small gap, where he led his men through and then forced an entry into the German trench. The Germans counter-attacked and Lt. Gregg was wounded but since his men lacked grenades, he would run back and gather more grenades despite being fired upon. He would be wounded a second time, and then reorganized his men and personally killed or wounded 11 German soldiers, and took 25 prisoners, along with 12 machine guns. He remained with his men despite his wounds and on Sept. 30, led another attack until he was too wounded to continue. He would survive the war.
Captain John MacGregor received the medal for leading his company under intense fire, and despite being wounded, he was able to locate and put out of action several enemy guns, killing four Germans and taking eight prisoners. The then reorganized his command under fire and continued the advance despite strong resistance from the Germans. MacGregor would survive the war and again served in the Second World War, this time as a Lt. Colonel.
Sgt William Merrifield would lead his men in an attack on Oct. 1, under heavy fire from two machine-gun emplacements. He attacked both by himself, dashing from one shell hole to another, killing the Germans in the first post, being wounded, then attacking the second post and using a bomb to kill the Germans there. He refused to be evacuated and stayed with his platoon and was severely wounded again. He would survive the war.
Information comes from Vimyfoundation.ca, Canadian War Museum, Wikipedia, Red Deer Express, No Stone Left Alone, Macleans, Canadian Military History.ca, South Peace Archives, Canadian Emma Gees, Letters From The Front, History of the County of Brant,