Back to Bel­gian bat­tle­front 100 years later

The Beacon Herald - - NEWS - JEN­NIFER BIE­MAN POST­MEDIA NEWS NEWS

KOR­TRIJK, Bel­gium — The sol­diers who lib­er­ated this West Flan­ders city in the fall of 1918 prob­a­bly didn’t re­al­ize just how close to the end of the First World War they were.

They didn’t know the ar­mistice that would stop the fight­ing on the West­ern Front was a lit­tle over a month away when the al­lies launched an of­fen­sive on the Ger­man-oc­cu­pied city on Oct. 14, lib­er­at­ing it days later.

“They are very much fo­cused on the next place to cap­ture, the next place to lib­er­ate,” West­ern Univer­sity his­tory pro­fes­sor and First World War his­to­rian Jonathan Vance said. “They’re fo­cused on the task ahead.”

The lib­er­a­tion of Kor­trijk was one mo­ment in a se­ries of war-win­ning of­fen­sives, or­ga­nized by the al­lies against a se­verely de­pleted Ger­man army be­tween Aug. 8 and Nov. 11.

To the world, it went down in his­tory as the Hun­dred Days Of­fen­sive, but ask any Cana­dian war his­to­rian and they’ll tell you it’s re­ally Canada’s 100 Days.

The young na­tion — not even 50 years old when the war broke out — was hit hard by that fi­nal push. More than 40,000 Cana­di­ans were killed or wounded. At least 55 men from South­west­ern On­tario were killed in ac­tion or died of wounds in Bel­gium and France be­tween Oct. 11 and Nov. 11 alone.

Pte. Arthur Wil­liam Cop­pen of Wood­stock and Maj. Cuth­bert Fin­nie of Lon­don were among them, killed sep­a­rately by ex­plod­ing ar­tillery shells three days apart in Oc­to­ber.

Even as sol­diers ad­vanced against the Ger­mans the fall of 1918, driv­ing them from a key sec­tion of the West­ern Front around Ypres in late Septem­ber, the al­lies were ready­ing for more blood­shed.

“They’re pre­par­ing for 1919. They’re pre­par­ing for 1920. The Amer­i­cans are go­ing to carry most of that weight and then through the se­ries of bat­tles, Ger­many is de­feated,” author and Cana­dian War Mu­seum his­to­rian Tim Cook said.

“It was hard-pound­ing war­fare and ter­ri­ble sac­ri­fice that broke the Ger­mans.”

Se­verely de­pleted af­ter a ma­jor of­fen­sive in the spring, the Ger­man army strug­gled against the al­lied coun­ter­at­tack, the Hun­dred Days Of­fen­sive, that fol­lowed.

There were sev­eral break­through mo­ments in the hun­dred days, in­clud­ing the Bat­tle of Cam­brai from Sept. 27 to Oct. 9.

“That’s when they (the Ger­man army) go into full re­treat,” Cook said. “Those last four weeks, maybe five weeks of the war were very dif­fer­ent. It’s much more open war­fare, end­ing at Mons.”

The city in the south of Bel­gium was lib­er­ated Nov. 10 by Cana­di­ans, in­clud­ing cavalry from Lon­don’s 1st Hus­sars.

But even as the war on the West­ern Front en­tered its fi­nal phase, it was busi­ness as usual on the home front.

For four long years, the war ef­fort was im­pos­si­ble to ig­nore in Lon­don, Vance said.

Lon­don was a mil­i­tary dis­trict head­quar­ters, where peo­ple flocked to en­list and where con­scripts were cen­tral­ized later in the war.

“It would be un­avoid­able in a place like this,” he said. “It re­ally brings home the cost of the war in that ev­ery week you’ve got one train­load of men go­ing out and an­other train­load com­ing in.”

Re­mem­ber­ing the hu­man cost of the so-called War to End All Wars is still the fo­cus on a sec­tion of what was once no man’s land out­side of Ypres, the des­o­late plain be­tween the al­lied and Ger­man front lines.

There are 600,000 dog tags that cor­re­spond with 600,000 clay sculp­tures — one for ev­ery civil­ian and sol­dier killed on Bel­gian soil dur­ing the First World War — laid out on the ground at De Pal­ing­beek.

It doesn’t mat­ter what side sol­diers fought on, their sculp­ture and dog tag is the same.

Project co-di­rec­tor Lotte Moeyaert wouldn’t have it any other way.

One hun­dred years on, it’s not about al­lies and en­e­mies, it’s about hon­our­ing and re­mem­ber­ing the faces of the Great War.

Post­media News re­porter Jen­nifer Bie­man is in Bel­gium, cov­er­ing the 100th an­niver­sary of the end of the First World War, as a guest of the Flan­ders re­gional gov­ern­ment.

JEN­NIFER BIE­MAN/POST­MEDIA

Project co-di­rec­tor Lotte Moeyaert stands with the dog tags that cor­re­spond to the 600,000 sol­diers and civil­ians who died on Bel­gian soil dur­ing the First World War. The tem­po­rary ex­hi­bi­tion is in no man’s land, be­tween the for­mer al­lied and Ger­man front lines, south­east of Ypres.

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