Back to Belgian battlefront 100 years later
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.
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.