ONE HUN­DRED DAYS

THE MOST SIG­NIF­I­CANT BAT­TLES IN CANADA’S HIS­TORY WERE DUR­ING THE 100 DAYS OF 1918, WHICH COST 15,000 CANA­DIAN LIVES

National Post (National Edition) - - ISSUES & IDEAS - J.l. Granat­stein His­to­rian J.L. Granat­stein is the author of The Great­est Vic­tory: Canada’s Hun­dred Days, 1918.

I WON­DER IF THERE IS A PER­SON ... ON THIS PLANET — SUR­NAME GUGEL, SEX UN­KNOWN — WHO NEARLY DROWNED AT AGE 3 IN GER­MANY IN JAN­UARY 1918? THE BEST EX­E­CUTED AND BEST PICKED OUT PLAN THAT WAS EVER PULLED OFF.

Most Cana­di­ans know some­thing of the bat­tle of Vimy Ridge in April 1917. The vic­tory there saw the Cana­dian Corps take a key en­emy po­si­tion, and the great Cana­dian memo­rial atop the ridge has been the scene of na­tional com­mem­o­ra­tions and countless in­di­vid­ual pil­grim­ages. Fewer Cana­di­ans know about Ypres in April 1915 when the raw sol­diers of the Cana­dian Divi­sion fought through the first dread­ful Ger­man gas at­tack. And even fewer know about the bat­tle of Pass­chen­daele in the au­tumn of 1917 when the Cana­dian Corps strug­gled through a morass of mud and suf­fered some 16,000 ca­su­al­ties to take a worth­less rise of land in the flat Flan­ders fields.

But al­most no Cana­di­ans know any­thing about the Hun­dred Days of 1918 when the Cana­dian Corps, led by Lt.-Gen. Sir Arthur Cur­rie, fought the most sig­nif­i­cant bat­tles in Cana­dian mil­i­tary his­tory. From Aug. 8 to the sign­ing of the Ar­mistice on Nov. 11, the 100,000 men of the four Cana­dian in­fantry di­vi­sions de­feated one-quar­ter of the Ger­man army on the West­ern Front in a great suc­ces­sion of ter­ri­ble strug­gles.

Be­gin­ning at Amiens, France, the Cana­di­ans, Aus­tralians, Bri­tish and French smashed through the Ger­man lines, gain­ing up to 14 kilo­me­tres on the first day. The Cana­di­ans, the “shock troops of the Bri­tish Army,” as his­to­rian Shane Schreiber dubbed them, had been moved some 60 kilo­me­tres in se­crecy to the Amiens front, each sol­dier or­dered to “Keep Your Mouth Shut!” Then with tanks, ar­tillery, air­craft and in­fantry work­ing to­gether in a near-per­fect com­bined arms at­tack that fea­tured both dis­in­for­ma­tion and sur­prise, the Cana­di­ans at­tacked. “Within 10 min­utes of the start,” Gun­ner Ber­tie Cox re­mem­bered in an ex­tra­or­di­nary ac­count of the at­tack on Aug. 8, “the tanks, by the hun­dreds, and the cavalry, by the thou­sands, were pass­ing our guns. It made an aw­ful pretty pic­ture to see the tanks and cavalry loom­ing up in the mist, over the crest, just about dawn. The field guns be­gan to pass at a gal­lop too, not to men­tion the in­fantry by the hun­dreds of thou­sands. By 5 a.m., the prison­ers be­gan to go by and this pro­ces­sion con­tin­ued all day . ... We spent a con­sid­er­able part of the day check­ing them over, get­ting sou­venirs. ... They nearly cleaned us out of cig­a­rettes and emp­tied our wa­ter bot­tles.” It was, de­clared an­other sol­dier, “the best ex­e­cuted and best picked out plan that was ever pulled off.” True enough. It was also what Ger­man strate­gist Gen. Erich Lu­den­dorff called “the black day of the Ger­man Army in the war.”

Three weeks later at the end of Au­gust and the be­gin­ning of Septem­ber, the Cana­di­ans, hav­ing moved north, fought their way through the Dro­court-Quéant Line near Ar­ras, driv­ing ahead through ma­chine-gun bunkers and heav­ily de­fended strong­points. The fight­ing was bru­tal and ter­ri­bly costly to both sides, but the men of the Corps broke the en­emy line.

Then at the end of Septem­ber, Gen. Cur­rie’s men fought their tac­ti­cal mas­ter­piece and crossed the Canal du Nord. Cur­rie had sent two di­vi­sions across a dry por­tion of the canal, then fan­ning them out to roll up the en­emy po­si­tions. The Corps’ en­gi­neers threw up bridges across the canal un­der fire, and tanks, guns and more in­fantry went across. The fight­ing over the next week was es­pe­cially dif­fi­cult for the weary Cana­di­ans. “Never have I felt so de­pressed as I felt af­ter that bat­tle,” young bri­gade com­man­der J.A. Clark re­called. “It seemed im­pos­si­ble to break the morale and fight­ing spirit of the Ger­man troops. We felt that this Boche could not be beaten,” he con­tin­ued, “cer­tainly not in 1918. He fought mag­nif­i­cently and in a most de­ter­mined fash­ion. He dis­cour­aged a great many sol­diers in the Corps.” The en­emy was bro­ken but far from beaten, and the in­fantry bat­tal­ions in Clark’s bri­gade had been shat­tered in the fight­ing in front of Cam­brai.

Still, in what Gen. Cur­rie called the Corps’ hard­est fight­ing of the war, the Cana­di­ans pressed the Ger­mans back to Cam­brai, their ma­jor trans­porta­tion and sup­ply hub in north­ern France. On Oc­to­ber 9 and 10, they seized the city, dous­ing the fires the re­treat­ing en­emy had set.

There was one last set piece bat­tle at Va­len­ci­ennes, close to the French-Bel­gian bor­der, where a sin­gle Cana­dian bri­gade at­tacked Mont Houy un­der the heav­i­est Cana­dian ar­tillery bar­rage of the war and routed the Ger­man de­fend­ers. The pur­suit then be­gan, the en­emy flee­ing east­ward, leav­ing be­hind only ma­chine-gun teams to slow the chase. On No­vem­ber 10, the Cana­di­ans were at Mons, Bel­gium, the sym­bolic town where the Bri­tish Ex­pe­di­tionary Force had first faced the in­vad­ing Ger­mans in Au­gust 1914 and had been forced to re­treat. The Cana­di­ans lib­er­ated Mons just as the Ar­mistice brought the Great War to a close.

In truth, the Ar­mistice was re­ally a Ger­man sur­ren­der. There was no “stab in the back” as Adolf Hitler and oth­ers in Ger­many would pro­claim. The Ger­man army had been de­feated on the field of bat­tle by the Al­lies, and the Cana­dian Corps had played a distin­guished, costly role in the vic­tory. The Hun­dred Days cost Canada some 15,000 dead and 30,000 wounded, al­most one fifth of the 240,000 Cana­dian ca­su­al­ties suf­fered in four years of war.

And yet, some­how no one in Canada to­day seems to know of the Hun­dred Days, its great and im­por­tant vic­to­ries all but for­got­ten. The gov­ern­ment in Ot­tawa planned noth­ing to hon­our the sol­diers who fought and won th­ese vic­to­ries a cen­tury ago. Vet­er­ans Af­fairs sent its min­is­ter to New­found­land and New Brunswick for small cer­e­monies, but the de­part­ments of Cana­dian Her­itage and Na­tional De­fence of­fered noth­ing. The Cana­dian War Mu­seum did cre­ate a fine ex­hibit, Vic­tory 1918, and a few reg­i­ments and a num­ber of Le­gion branches held small cer­e­monies. The sin­gle most im­pres­sive se­ries of com­mem­o­ra­tive events in the na­tion took place in Cobourg, Ont., a town of only 17,000. Cobourg put on three stage plays, mounted an ex­hi­bi­tion of splen­did Great War paint­ings by Charles Pachter, dec­o­rated the streets with ban­ners, and pre­sented a se­ries of lec­tures by his­to­ri­ans. But no gov­ern­ment depart­ment in Ot­tawa hon­oured Sir Arthur Cur­rie, Canada’s great­est gen­eral. Sadly, none paid a gen­uine trib­ute to the men of the Cana­dian Corps who played such an out­sized role in de­feat­ing Kaiser Wil­helm’s army.

Why cel­e­brate bat­tle­field vic­to­ries?, some­one in Ot­tawa must have asked. Af­ter all, the Trudeau gov­ern­ment is much more in­ter­ested in present-day peace­keep­ing than in mark­ing past vic­to­ries that al­most no one re­mem­bers in our ahis­tor­i­cal na­tion. Bet­ter to let Amiens, the Dro­court-Quéant Line, the Canal du Nord, and the pur­suit to Mons pass with scarcely a nod.

The prime min­is­ter will at­tend the No­vem­ber 11 cer­e­mony in France. That’s enough for him. Cana­di­ans none­the­less should pause to re­mem­ber the cen­ten­nial of the Cana­dian Corps’ Hun­dred Days this No­vem­ber 11. The sol­diers of 1918 were not all saints and heroes. But there were saints and heroes among them, they fought for Canada, and the least we can do is to stand for a few mo­ments of si­lence to re­mem­ber the brave men who de­feated the Ger­man army in the cli­mac­tic bat­tles that brought the First World War to its close. Cana­di­ans at the very least owe them that — and much, much more.

GE­ORGE MET­CALF ARCHIVAL COL­LEC­TION © CANA­DIAN WAR MU­SEUM

A heavy ar­tillery piece is fired dur­ing the Bat­tle of Vimy Ridge, April 1917. His­to­rian J.L. Granat­stein, the author of The Great­est Vic­tory: Canada’s Hun­dred Days, 1918, writes that few know about this sig­nif­i­cant pe­riod.

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