LAST ROAD TO MONS

IN­SIDE THE FRAN­TIC FI­NAL HOURS OF THE FIRST WORLD WAR

Windsor Star - - NP - 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 trod 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 in­structed 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 their side had asked for the war to 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 matériel. 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 heard the war would end soon, 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 time the world went to war.

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.

At 3 a.m., the streets of Mons were foggy and freez­ing as the rest of the 42nd Bat­tal­ion and the Royal Cana­dian Reg­i­ment ar­rived. When the Cana­dian nu­mer­i­cal ad­van­tage be­came ob­vi­ous, run­ning gun­fights sud­denly gave way to ju­bi­la­tion. Civil­ians poured out­side to hug the Cana­di­ans. Women kissed any sol­dier in sight. As peo­ple kicked at Ger­man corpses, oth­ers rushed home to find gifts for their lib­er­a­tors: flow­ers, bis­cuits and bot­tles of wine.

Mons be­longed to Canada, but the war still raged.

At 4 a.m., the 28th North­west Bat­tal­ion left Frameries to ex­tend the charge even fur­ther into Bel­gium. Stub­born Ger­man troops were hang­ing about sev­eral kilo­me­tres to the east. The 28th Bat­tal­ion, mostly young farmhands and trades­men from Saskatchewan, were di­rected to loop south of Mons, seize the vil­lage of Havre and clear all the bridges on the nearby Canal du Cen­tre.

At 5 a.m. in Foch’s car­riage, the terms of the ar­mistice were fi­nal­ized. The deal would take ef­fect at 11 a.m. Erzberger signed his as­sent on pa­per, but was up­set he hadn’t wrung any con­ces­sions from the Al­lies. He fixed his gaze on Foch and of­fered a part­ing re­mark: “A na­tion of 70 mil­lion can suf­fer, but it can­not die.”

“Tres bien,” Foch replied, coolly. No one shook hands as the meet­ing ad­journed.

Word of the ar­mistice reached Cana­dian Corps head­quar­ters at 6:30 a.m., 30 min­utes be­fore the 28th Bat­tal­ion marched into Hyon, where they heard church bells ring­ing to the north in Mons. As run­ners fanned across the front to in­form ev­ery Cana­dian unit of the com­ing cease­fire, the bat­tal­ion walked for an­other hour into a for­est that sep­a­rated them from Havre. There, the sol­diers over­whelmed a clus­ter of Ger­man re­sisters and kept mov­ing to­ward the vil­lage.

At 9:30 a.m., an English coal miner and army pri­vate named Ge­orge El­li­son was shot on a pa­trol out­side of Mons, mak­ing him the last Bri­tish sol­dier to die in the war. El­li­son, 40, had fought at Mons in Au­gust 1914, just like 17-year-old John Parr, the first Brit killed that month. Their graves face each other in a ceme­tery in nearby Sain­tSym­phorien.

At 10:20 a.m. in Lon­don, Bri­tain’s wartime press bureau is­sued a state­ment on be­half of David Lloyd Ge­orge, the prime min­is­ter, pro­claim­ing that peace­time was less than an hour away. At 10:30, a Cana­dian of­fi­cer rode into Havre on horse­back to tell the troops of the 28th Bat­tal­ion the same news. De­lighted vil­lagers spilled from their homes into the street. “Ger­mans ka­put!” they yelled. Just east of Havre, two Cana­dian pri­vates wan­dered from the party and now stood a few steps away from an iron bridge, scru­ti­niz­ing a brick house on the far bank of the Canal du Cen­tre in the ham­let of Ville-sur-Haine. There were a few holes in the top storey of the house, cre­ated, per­haps, to spray ma­chine­gun fire down at any­one who ap­proached.

It looked sus­pi­cious. Art Good­mur­phy, of Regina, and Ge­orge Price, orig­i­nally from Nova Sco­tia, but who had moved to Moose Jaw, Sask., rounded up three more mem­bers of the 28th Bat­tal­ion and led the group back to the bridge.

When they got there, the pri­vates saw Ger­man sol­diers ar­rang­ing a ma­chine gun on a small hill be­hind the house. The Cana­di­ans raced across the bridge, pis­tols at the ready, and kicked open the front door of the prop­erty. In­side were a Bel­gian man and his six-year-old son. The man said the Ger­man gunners who’d com­man­deered the up­stairs had just run out the back door.

In the next house, the Cana­di­ans found an el­derly cou­ple, the Lenoirs, who greeted them with re­fresh­ments, an of­fer the men ac­cepted. Then the ma­chine guns on the hill be­gan to boom. Bul­lets smashed into the home’s brick sid­ing. Tiles fell from the roof. Tip­toe­ing out­side to steal a glance at the canal, Good­mur­phy and Price saw that the bridge, too, was un­der heavy fire. They ducked back through the door.

It was 10:55 a.m. Five min­utes ear­lier, David Lloyd Ge­orge had walked onto the bal­cony at 10 Down­ing St. and told a throng of flag-wav­ing Lon­don­ers that the war was about to end. Given what they had en­dured in the past four years, he said, they had earned the right to re­joice. The five Cana­dian pri­vates had no way out of Ville-surHaine save for the bridge. The Ger­mans were still fir­ing on the house when Good­mur­phy and Price slipped out­side for an­other look at the canal. This time they stepped fur­ther into the cob­ble­stone road.

A sin­gle shot rang out. Price slumped for­ward into Good­mur­phy’s arms. A young nurse who’d been watch­ing the men from her home across the street ran out­side on in­stinct. Good­mur­phy tugged Price be­hind a brick wall. He and the nurse, Alice Grotte, lifted Price into the el­derly cou­ple’s house. Mme. Lenoir was wait­ing with broth. Grotte peered into Price’s eyes. She knew it was too late. Ge­orge Price died at 10:58 a.m., felled by a sniper’s bul­let, one last Cana­dian ca­su­alty in a piti­less war.

At 11 a.m., a sin­gle shot rang out from Fort Mont­Va­le­rien in a Parisian sub­urb, sig­nalling that peace had fi­nally pre­vailed. Po­lice sta­tions all over Lon­don let off cer­e­mo­nial fire­works. In Mons, the mayor gave a Cana­dian gen­eral the key to the city. Near Mons, a brawny Ger­man ma­chine-gun­ner stood up, faced a group of hun­kered Aus­tralian troops at whom he’d been shoot­ing sec­onds ear­lier, took his hel­met off his head and bowed. Near Havre, Ge­orge Price lay limp in­side a bul­let-rid­den brick house. The Ger­man ma­chine guns had stopped fir­ing, though for how long, no­body knew. Price’s friends picked up his body and stepped ten­ta­tively into the street. It was quiet as they crossed the bridge, the only sound the dim noise of a cel­e­bra­tion un­fold­ing some­where in the dis­tance. Price is buried at Sain­tSym­phorien, in sight of the rest­ing places of Ge­orge El­li­son and John Parr.

GETTY IMAGES

GE­ORGE MET­CALF ARCHIVAL COL­LEC­TION / CANA­DIAN WAR MU­SEUM

Cana­dian nurses in No­vem­ber 1918 in Va­len­ci­ennes, France, where sol­diers of the 28th North­west Bat­tal­ion of the Cana­dian Corps were bil­leted.

Pte. Ge­orge Price

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