LAST ROAD TO MONS
As terms of the armistice were being worked out in a forest near Paris, Canadian troops in Belgium were fighting and dying, until minutes before the document was signed
At 3:30 p.m. on Nov. 8, 1918, hours after four German envoys drove through Belgium and arrived at a forest near Paris to negotiate their country’s capitulation, the 28th Northwest Battalion of the Canadian Corps left their billet homes in the French city of Valenciennes to march across the border heading the other way.
A few weeks away from the front had invigorated the unit, as much as any infantryman could muster energy this deep into a ruinous fight of attrition. The Canadians had relaxed and trained in a nearby village as Allied troops liberated town after town from Germans who had occupied them for years in the north of France. Canadian forces freed Denain in late October. They took Valenciennes on Nov. 2.
Now the soldiers of the 28th Battalion treaded the muddy path their comrades had blazed into Belgium. Their destination that afternoon was Quievrain, 15 kilometres east down country roads ravaged by shelling and detonated mines. They were to sleep there on the condition they could be roused to move again at two hours’ notice, ever closer to the German stronghold the senior military officers of Canada and Britain envisioned as the endpoint of this great surge forward: Mons.
Four years and tens of millions of people dead or maimed and the First World War was destined to end up back there, in precisely the place where British soldiers first battled Germany in August 1914. Heavily outnumbered then, the Brits had killed thousands of Germans but ceded control of the city. Retaking Mons was not an opportunity to be squandered — even if the enemy was slinking toward surrender at that very moment.
By the time the 28th Battalion settled at Quievrain for the night, another Canadian brigade had pushed as far as Elouges, a bit further down the road. Mons was within reach, possibly in the next couple of days.
Across the front, Germany’s army was in disarray, depleted by the desertion of thousands of men who no longer cared to fight a war they couldn’t win.
Those who remained dutiful were massed between the Canadians and Mons with orders to dig in. They would protect their terrain or die trying until the second they were told to stop.
The German diplomats tasked with conceding victory to Allied commander Ferdinand Foch set out on their bleak journey by car. On the evening of Nov. 7, they crossed from western Belgium into northern France in three large vehicles, each emblazoned with a menacing black eagle, the German coat of arms.
When the convoy drew close to the French line near La Capelle just after 8 p.m., a German soldier climbed onto the sideboard of the first vehicle and sounded through a silver bugle the universal call for ceasefire. Another soldier swung a big white cloth. Foch had radioed German officials in the wee hours of the previous night to say he’d in- structed his troops not to shoot the delegates.
From La Capelle, the Germans — a legislator, a foreign ambassador, an army general and a navy captain — were taken on a winding ride past the debris of homes, churches and factories to the town of Tergnier, where they were put on a train bound for the Forest of Compiegne. At a railway siding located somewhere in the brush was Foch, waiting in his own personal carriage.
At Compiegne, the Germans slept fitfully in their uniforms for a few hours before Foch’s chief aide came for them at 9 a.m. Hungry and tense, they walked across duckboards that bridged the gap over the wet ground between their train and Foch’s, where the French general opened the first meeting of the peace summit by dispelling any notion that he might go easy on them.
Facing the chief German delegate, Matthias Erzberger, a Catholic politician his country’s imperial leaders hoped could secure favourable terms for their surrender, Foch insisted that the Germans admit theirsidehadaskedforthewarto end. He wasn’t camped out in the forest to negotiate, he said, but to dictate the rigid conditions on which the Allies would approve an armistice.
German troops were to evacuate France and Belgium, Foch’s list of demands began. Allied troops would occupy the industrial Rhineland in western Germany. The German military would relinquish tens of thousands of weapons, its entire fleet of aircraft and other materiel. In the meantime, the Allied blockade of ships attempting to deliver food and cargo to Germany would go on.
If the Germans wanted peace, Foch said, they had 72 hours to agree.
Staggered by the severity of the clauses, Germany’s Maj. Gen. Detlev von Winterfeldt requested a ceasefire while Erzberger relayed the demands to their superiors. Thousands of soldiers would die pointlessly if fighting continued in the interim, von Winterfeldt argued.
Foch was unmoved. He’d told his staff earlier that if German troops kept retreating from the front over the next few days, Allied forces would follow them with “a sword at their backs.”
The delegates returned to their railcar feeling deflated. A German lieutenant, meantime, left with a paper copy of the demands for German military headquarters in Spa, a resort town in eastern Belgium.
That evening in Berlin, German Chancellor Prince Maximilian of Baden spoke by telephone with his country’s emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II. Revolution was afoot; soldiers were mutinying and citizens were clamouring for Germany’s monarchical government to be overthrown. Maximilian pleaded with the kaiser to abdicate. Wilhelm refused.
At 10 a.m. the following day, Nov. 9, German military commander Paul von Hindenburg spoke personally with the kaiser. Through tears, Hindenburg told Wilhelm the army was no longer loyal to him. By 3:30 p.m. the emperor relented, agreeing to be driven into Holland in street clothes to begin a quiet life of exile.
Imperial Germany was now a republic.
At noon on Nov. 9, the Canadian 28th Battalion left their lodging in Quievrain to walk further east into Belgium, inching closer to Mons. They arrived in the town of Dour at 2:30 p.m. right as Foch issued a directive from Compiegne, urging Allied soldiers along the front to “secure decisive results” by speeding up their pursuit of withdrawing German troops.
By 6:35 a.m. on Nov. 10, the 28th Battalion was on the move again, instructed to go from Dour to Frameries, eight kilometres southwest of Mons. Other units were even nearer to the city: Canadians now controlled the suburbs of Ciply, four kilometres south of Mons, and Jemappes, four kilometres due west.
That morning, with Wilhelm II displaced, Erzberger’s delegation languishing in their train car and Foch’s armistice deadline 24 hours away, Canadian Corps commander Arthur Currie told the battalions that had surrounded Mons to liberate the city.
It was a decision that would tail Currie all his life. Sam Hughes, Canada’s former minister of defence, lambasted him in the House of Commons in 1919, claiming every soldier who came home from Europe would “curse the name of the officer who ordered the attack on Mons.” In 1927, the Port Hope Evening Guide newspaper opined on its front page that Currie had intentionally wasted the lives of his men with a ceasefire at hand. Currie sued the paper for libel and won.
To Currie, granting Germany a moral victory by stopping short of Mons was not an option. He had heardthewarwouldendsoon,but it hadn’t happened yet. The Canadian Corps “would no more have thought of easing up because an armistice might have been signed in three or four days than they would have thought of running from the enemy,” Currie wrote a few months later.
So the order of the day filtered down through the ranks: Canadian infantrymen were to attack Mons from all sides.
At a farmhouse in Jemappes, Sgt. Will Bird, a platoon leader with the Canadian 42nd Battalion, was packing his binoculars, his German Pickelhaube infantry helmet and other keepsakes after an officer told him an armistice was imminent. After the war, he’d move home to Nova Scotia, get married and begin to write. Drawing heavily from his recollections of the front, his novels and memoirs would earn national acclaim. One of his two children, Stephen, would die aged 24 in France in 1944, the second timetheworldwenttowar.
But on Nov 10, 1918, he had one more fight to wage.
“Bird, get your sector in order at once. Battle order,” said an officer, standing at the door of his room.
At 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 10, a deputy of Foch’s knocked on the door of the German railway carriage in Compiegne. Berlin had sent word: Erzberger had permission to agree to an armistice on the Allies’ terms.
That night, around Mons, Canadian patrolmen searched for unprotected paths into town. The Royal Canadian Regiment ran the Germans out of Ghlin, a village to the northwest. Other units made inroads at Hyon, two kilometres straight south. But as the Canadians probed the enemy’s defences, German snipers eyed bridges that led into Mons and machine-gunners lay in wait in the hills above the city.
From 11 p.m. into the early hours of Nov. 11, the Royal Canadian Regiment and the 42nd Battalion broke into the city in waves. Troops sprinted through Mons’ crooked streets to blast the Germans out of every nook. Those steady territorial gains came at a cost. One of Will Bird’s men died when he was shot in both eyes. On a bridge, Canadians found three slain British soldiers whose uniforms were adorned with the Mons Star, meaning they had fought in Belgium or France at the outset of the war in 1914.
At 2:10 a.m., Erzberger’s delegation walked over the duckboards to Foch’s train car to seal their country’s fate.
BATTLE OF VERDUN
This was where the First World War began to transform from an unusually costly conflict into a full-fledged nightmare. Tens of thousands of men thrown into battle for little or no result. Troops forced to live among the piled corpses of their dead, drink from green puddles and go mad from constant shelling. All these images became solidified at the Battle of Verdun between February and December 1916.
BATTLE OF THE SOMME
July 1, 1916, one of the most infamous days of the war. The opening of the Battle of the Somme saw 100,000 Allied men — including Newfoundlanders — sent “over the top” to take German trenches. The Germans simply mowed them down with machine-gun fire. A total of 19,240 were killed — it was the bloodiest day in the history of the British army. The next five months would see a million soldiers die from all sides.
It is perhaps the most staggering diplomatic cockup in history: German foreign secretary Arthur Zimmermann sent Mexico a missive asking them to declare war on the United States. On Jan. 16, 1917, British codebreakers deciphered the encrypted message. It was later sent to the U.S. and caused uproar. The act was so brazen it drove a skeptical U.S. into the war in April 1917.
LENIN IN RUSSIA
Amid news of spontaneous revolution in Russia, Germany arranged for Vladimir Lenin to be sent home to his country in a sealed train. Their idea, which turned out to be very prescient, was that Lenin would hijack the revolution and end Russia’s war with Germany, which happened late in 1917. But the move unleashed a tide of communist sentiment that would ultimately come for Germany itself.
CAPTURE OF JERUSALEM
It was only a sideshow to the greater war, but the British captured Jerusalem and the future territory of Israel from the Ottoman Empire in December 1917. British Major T.E. Lawrence — Lawrence of Arabia — said, “For me (it) was the supreme moment of the war.” The city’s capture, along with the Sykes-Picot Agreement, would largely set the stage for the Middle East we know today.
At multiple points throughout the war it was a tossup over who would win. The Spring Offensive in March 1918, was Germany’s attempt to score a knockout blow before the Americans became an effective fighting force. But initial German success soon became bogged down and they ended up with 800,000 soldiers killed or wounded.
GERMANY FALLS APART
By late 1918, the German nation was subjected to waves of mutinies, protests and minirevolutions. Its army was defeated, its navy refused to fight, its people were starving and the Kaiser had abdicated. Aware that future fighting was hopeless, Germany agreed to an armistice that came into effect on Nov. 11, 1918.
Canadian nurses in Valenciennes, in November of 1918. From there, Canadian troops headed to Mons.
Canadian George Price was killed at 10:58 a.m. on Nov. 11, 1918, at Ville-sur-Haine.