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

National Post (National Edition) - - REMEMBRANCE DAY - Nick Faris

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.

ZIM­MER­MANN TELE­GRAM

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.

SPRING OF­FEN­SIVE

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.

NA­TIONAL POST, SAT­UR­DAY, NO­VEM­BER 10, 2018 GE­ORGE MET­CALF ARCHIVAL COL­LEC­TION © CANA­DIAN WAR MU­SEUM

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.

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