The First World War was winding down but that does not mean that the battles were ending. The Hundred Days Offensive was still going strong into November 1918 and thousands were being killed on the battlefield on nearly a daily basis.
Amid all of this was a little-known battle at the City of Valenciennes, which put the Canadians and British against an entrenched German force. Throughout October, the Germans had been pushed back during the offensive, before making a stand at Valenciennes, which was the last major French city still under the control of the Germans. The city was home to thousands of French civilians, so there was no way to bombard the city with so many civilians inside. The only area that could be bombarded was a row of houses on the eastern side of the canal, which were occupied by many machine guns.
Plans began on Oct. 27 for how to take the city, with General Horne and General Currie deciding that Mont Houy needed to be taken first as it overlooked the entire city. The plan was for the 51st Division of the British 22nd Corp to take the hill, then to move to the sunken road called Red Line on Oct. 28. Then, the Fourth Canadian Division would pass through the 51st to take the Blue Line, which was just outside the city. The plan was that the Canadian division would then take the high ground east of the city on Nov. 1, allowing the rest of the troops to get to Escaut Canal to take the Green Line, which included the city itself.
Unfortunately, as was so common during the First World War, not everything went to plan. On Oct. 28, the British were unable to reach the Red Line due to heavy German opposition and their own depleted numbers, but were able to hold most of the southern slope of the hill by the night, along with the village of Famars. This resulted in the plan being revised and the Blue and Green Lines were made into one objective that the 10th Canadian Brigade would be assigned to take, with artillery and the 49th British Division supporting them. The assault on the city would run from south to east and the 12th Canadian Brigade would mop up at the canal. The plan was now to launch the attack on Nov. 1.
The 44th and 47th Canadian Battalions took over the British lines on the evening of Oct. 29 and began to send out patrols to determine enemy positions and to deal with the barbed wire. As the day of the battle approached, the 10th Infantry Brigade and its 250 field guns began to bombard the German positions. The army wanted to spare civilians from the artillery, so the artillery only attacked military strongholds that were known to the Canadians. As for the hill, it would be heavily shelled to weaken the German defences.
As Nov. 1, the weather was rainy and cold, something that continued until the start of the battle. At 5:15 a.m. on Nov. 1, the 44th and 46th Battalions started out from their positions as the rain poured down on them. The rolling barrage allowed the Canadians to advance forward, but the Germans started to fire gas shells, forcing the troops to wear their masks to continue. Thankfully for the Canadians, the German artillery fire overall was weak thanks to the Canadian counterbattery actions over the past few day. The artillery continued until 7 a.m. and to allow for the creeping barrage, the guns had to be pulled around slightly after every few shots were fired.
The artillery did an excellent job of breaking the German lines. One gun, at a range of 100 yards, fired directly into a house that had been determined to hold several Germans, causing the house to explode. The artillery officer would say “It was great sport, they scurried out of the place like rats.”
It was not completely smooth sailing. A Company was moving a cork-float bridge into place for a crossing on the canal when it broke just as it was launched. Private D. Clawson dove into the canal, swam hard to the end of the bridge and pushed it across to the other bank. This allowed the rest of the company to get across the canal and continue the assault. D Company specifically Platoon 13, had issues as well. Their first boat across the canal nearly sunk with five men before it reached the other side. The second boat was hit by a heavy burst of German fire, wounding several and sinking the boat. The remainder of the platoon raced north along the canal and crossed on the A Company cork-float bridge.
Once across the canal, which was the greatest hurdle, the Canadians were able to begin moving into the city.
The Canadians were able to capture Mount Houy within 45 minutes, right on schedule and the Germans surrendered by the hundreds. In the process, the Canadians also captured 83 heavy machine guns, a huge number for any battle. The Blue Line objective was taken by 10:20 a.m. with the 46th Battalion accomplishing the task, even though they were outnumbered as much as three-to-one by the Germans. By noon, the Canadians had reached the heart of the city and bridgeheads were established. By the end of Nov. 1, Germans were still in many parts of the city, but they were slowly pushed out through the night by the Canadian 12th Brigade. The 72nd Battalion held a line along the north half of a broad boulevard outside the city on the west, while the left flank of the battalion extended into the flooded area to the north of the town. All stood ready to resume the advance as soon as daylight came. It was far too dangerous to go into the city at night and navigate its streets and alleys without much light at their disposal.
On the morning of Nov. 2, the 54th Battalion reached the village of Marly and by the end of the day, the Canadians had completely taken the city. B and C Companies leap-frogged over D and A and continued their advance into the city, with B company pushing swiftly through the northern half of Valenciennes. C Company was able to drive the Germans from the northern sections as well. The cyclists in the 72nd Battalion reached the eastern edge of the city at 7:30 a.m. and heading down the main road they came right to a German machine gun next that opened fire. Several were wounded but they took cover in ditches and returned fire, holding the area until reinforcements arrived.
The civilians kept out of the way, described as such in the history of the 72nd:
Lt. R.J. Holmes would send a letter home on Nov. 8, 1918 describing the fighting of the past few days.
“We were feted in great style for a few days, then we were called up to attack a most important city on the morning of November 1. Heine was holding here strong and got wind of our attack and while we reached our assembly position in good style, he shelled us consistently until our barrage opened at the zero hour and then it was wonderful. He had packed his men in cellars thinking we would neglect to mop up, but he was completely fooled and in that one morning our little depleted brigade captured about 1,800 prisoners and there were between 800 and 900 dead Germans in our area. I never saw anything like it. We surely got back ours for almost a month of hard chasing and dirty fighting. We were relieved after that fight and are now resting in the city that we captured, a lovely place and we have fine comfortable billets.”
The city would be taken by the end of the day, with mopping done throughout the streets and allies. In one firefight, four Canadians took 60 Germans prisoner.
At the end of the battle, 1,800 Germans had been captured and 800 were killed. For the Canadians, 80 were killed and 300 were wounded.
One of the men killed was Harold Tallis. While he was one of 80 to die in the battle, the real tragedy comes from the fact that six of the young men from that family fought in the First World War. Edgar Tallis was killed in the M and N Trench; Harold had been wounded at the Somme before his eventually death in November 1918. Victor Tallis was killed at Vimy Ridge, Arnold Tallis was killed in the war as well, while William and Sidney Tallis returned to Canada severely wounded and dealing with what was called at the time, shell shock.
Another Canadian killed was Harold Hunter, whose parents lived in Mount Pleasant, Ontario. He had enlisted in the 70th Battalion in 1916 and went overseas in 1917. He would spend 17 months in France, be wounded at Passchendaele and suffer the loss of his brother on Sept. 17, 1918. Hunter would be severely wounded in the Battle of Valenciennes, wounds from which he would not recover.
Captain Edward Thomas Mennie had enlisted with the 207th Battalion on April 3, 1916, becoming the commanding officer of the Machine Gun Section of the Battalion by the time he sailed to England one year later. Serving as an acting-captain by October 1917, he would be wounded on April 26, 1918 while storming the German trenches, earning himself the Military Cross. In that incident, he had been wounded but still led his men through the enemy wire under heavy fire and twice carried out men who had become casualties. After being sent to England on April 29, 1918, he joined the 38th Battalion on Sept. 19 and was wounded in the Battle of Valenciennes on Nov. 1. He would be taken to the No. 6 Casualty Clearing Station and would suffer through six days of pain until he died only four days before the war ended.
The 50th Battalion would see five killed among its contingent, with 39 wounded and 85 gassed. One of the individuals who would die in that battle was a man by the name of Cairns. Sergeant Hugh Cairns would be awarded the Victoria Cross for his bravery in the battle. Cairns had enlisted with his brother Albert in August 1915 and fought at Vimy Ridge, earning the Distinguished Conduct Medal. On Nov. 1, a machine gun was firing into his platoon and Cairns seized his own gun and rushed towards the machine gun post by himself, killing five Germans and capturing the gun. Later in the day, the line was again held up by machine gun fire and he rushed forward and captured another two guns, while killing 12 Germans and taking 18 captives. Now wounded, he led a small party to outflank more machine guns, which he accomplished while also taking 50 Germans captive. Not quite finished yet, he then went on battle patrol and captured a further 60 Germans. In this incident he was severely wounded and when rushed by 20 Germans, he collapsed from weakness and blood loss. He would die the next day of his wounds. Over the course of the First World War, 71 Canadians received the Victoria Cross and Cairns was the last. In July 1936, Cairns parents would sail to France to see a street in Valenciennes named after their son. It is believed this is the first, and possibly, only time that a French street has been named for a non-commissioned officer.
Among others in the battalion, there would be six Distinguished Service Orders, 34 Military Crosses, 23 Distinguished Conduct Medals, 227 Military Medals and 27 mention in dispatches.
In the Second Canadian Mounted Rifles, they took heavy casualties, with 14 officers and 263 other ranks being killed or wounded.
Information comes from VimyFoundation, Veterans Affairs, Wikipedia, Kenora Great War Project, Our Treasured Heritage: Borden and District, Alberta Past and Present, History of the 72nd Canadian Infantry Battalion, Story of the 66th, The Second Canadian Mounted Rifles In France and Flanders, Letters from the Front, Canadian Corps Operations During The Year 1918, Government of Canada,