Amiens

The campaigns of 1918 had seen irreversible changes on the Western Front, both for the Allies and the Central Powers. 


Early in the spring, Germany had played its final offensive hand of the war, committing almost a million men towards their “Kaisersclacht” - or, nearly 1/5th of their fighting force. Elite German stormtroopers swarmed over the Allied lines, recapturing lost ground from the campaigns of 1916-1917. Allied forces lost huge swathes of ground, including their positions at Passchendaele. 


The Canadians had been moved back to their old grounds at Vimy. Little German activity was taking place in the region, and the Corps’ took time to rest, refit, and rehabilitate themselves after the punishing campaigns of Passchendaele and Lens a few months before. Luckily enough, they were spared the German onslaught. 


As British and French troops stemmed the oncoming assault, they ground down their own fighting strength as well. By the end of the offensive, both Armies were sapped of strength. However, the Germans had paid a much higher cost than the Allies. Not only were their losses irreplaceable, but their newly captured lines were nearly untenable, and over-extended. 


Allied High Command knew that a strategic offensive could shatter the depleted Germans and open up the real possibility of ending the war. 


Operations in Amiens were supposed to be conducted as “surprise attacks”. However, the some 300,000 troops being committed to the attack made the planning difficult to hide. In addition to the Canadians, the B.E.F also called upon John Monash’s Australian Corps, considered elite troopers in the same vein as the Canadian Corps. If the German Army caught wind of both corps’ being there, it would have been obvious to them a decisive offensive was being planned. 


However, the secret nature of the offensive was remarkably well kept. By the kickoff date of August 8th, the Germans were oblivious to the attack that would soon befall them.


The attack was aimed at Amiens, an important logistical and railway centre for the German Army. 


At 4:20 AM on August 8th, 2,000 guns went off along the whole of the Allied front. A creeping barrage covered the way for the attacking Corps, who hugged the wall of steel falling just before them. 


The first day of battle saw the single biggest day’s victory for the Allies, and a devastating defeat for the German forces. Erich Ludendorff called it the “black day” of the German Army. He was right in doing so - three German Divisions were shattered, and 5,000 troops taken prisoner. 


Following the substantial gains made by the Canadian Corps (up to 13 kilometers in some sectors) the German Army had reinforced their front line with 5 divisions, digging in opposite to the Canadians. It became clear the Canadians would be fighting a much more prepared enemy within the days to come.


It was difficult for the Allied forces to replicate the success of the August 8th offensive. With Ludendorff continuing the reinforcement of German lines, the attackers found themselves experiencing diminishing gains. On August 12th, General Haig called off the offensive. 


The Amiens campaign, while resoundingly successful, had demanded much from the Allies – and the Canadians were no exception. The Corps took 11,822 casualties through the 6 days of fighting, illustrating the price paid for ground gained. However, an influx of returning (formerly wounded) soldiers and conscripts from Canada soon joined the Corps at the front. The Canadians were quickly back up to full strength and ready to finish the fight. 

The Final Hundred Days: Armistice

As the clock ticked towards November 11th, Canadian forces continued to push into Mons.

A cold mist enshrouded what remained of the defending German Army and the attacking Corps. The contingent forces of the 2nd Division had pushed into the city centre from the south, and by 4 AM they had entered the city centre. German forces had melted away in the face of the Canadian advance.

Mons belonged to the Canadians.

At 6:30 AM, the Canadian Corps headquarters received word that an armistice would be struck for 11:00 AM. Runners were dispatched to every Canadian unit along their 9 km area of the front. by 9:30, most units were informed.

at 11 AM, the guns fell silent, and bells began to ring in Mons.

The First World War was over.

Hill 70

Hill 70

By mid-1917, the reputation of the Canadian Corps was that of one of the strongest fighting forces in the world. Three years of warfare had refined the Canadians into a fine-tuned, fire hardened unit who could be confidently called upon to deliver victory time after time.

Success at Vimy Ridge was swiftly followed by engagements at Arleux and Fresnoy early in the spring of 1917. Both towns fell to the Canadians by May 3rd, with the 1st Division bearing the brunt of the fighting.

Following the victory at Fresnoy, British 1st Army Commander Henry Horne cabled Arthur Currie, Commander of the 1st Division, his admiration - proclaiming Currie’s division “the pride and wonder of the British Army”

Currie had proven his worth as a Division Commander. His flexibility and willingness to undertake unorthodox operations to ensure success had played a major role in Canadian victories through his tenure in the Corps. Moreover, Currie possessed an unwillingness to callously sacrifice the lives of his infantry. Instead, he and Andrew McNaughton placed their faith in well planned artillery barrages.

These tactics would be implemented into the Canadian attack doctrine following Currie’s promotion to Corps Commander in June 1917. Julian Byng was promoted to command of the British Third Army, and he had longed groomed Currie as his eventual successor.

The newly promoted Lieutenant-General Currie would soon have his first test in command. B.E.F Commander Douglas Haig had launched his long-planned, if ill timed, offensive in Passchendaele on July 31st, 1917. In an attempt to stem German reserves racing towards the newly opened battleground, the British First Army was ordered to capture the city of Lens.

After a brief respite from the lines, the Canadian Corps joined the First Army in moving to their new positions. By mid-July, the 1st and 2nd Divisions were on the outskirts of the city.

In surveying the city and the surrounding area, Currie came to the conclusion that the proposed assault on Lens would be a “bloody fool operation”. It was a well studied observation. An assault on the city itself would force Canadian troops into urban fighting, an aspect of war they had no experience in.

In addition to this, Lens lay directly under a gentle ridge known as Hill 70. The hill offered a direct view down into the suburbs of Lens and the trench lines running beyond. German artillery had a clear view of fire over the plain below.

Currie saw value in capturing the hill before assaulting Lens. Neutralizing German artillery and depriving them of their commanding view of the city would be of a great advantage to any attacking force. Horne agreed, and left the planning to the Canadians.

In a similar fashion to the raids at Vimy Ridge, the Corps launched a series of raids to prepare themselves for the upcoming assault. A number of battalions launched raids on German trenches south of Lens, drawing away German reinforcements from around Hill 70, and securing a number of prisoners.

August 1st, 1917 saw Canadian artillery began a two week bombardment of Hill 70. On the 14th, the 1st and 2nd Divisions moved into positions just outside Lens.

The command of the 1st Division had been given to Archibald MacDonell, a Boer War veteran who had formerly commanded the 7th Brigade. He was an able leader, and would command the division for the rest of the war.

At 4:25 AM on August 15th, another barrage began to pound the German positions atop Hill 70. 10 Canadian Battalions sprung over the top, following a creeping barrage towards the German lines.

Facing the Corps were 5 German Divisions of Otto von Below’s 6th Army. The 4th Guards, 7th, 11th, 185th, and 220th Divisions stood fast in the face of the Canadian onslaught, despite having to bear weeks of devastating bombardments.

Most Battalions were on their objectives by 7:00 AM, though some stiff German resistance made it difficult for others. However, all had to dig in and prepare for a struggle against a number of determined German counterattacks.

The battle raged for 3 days. By the 18th, the Germans had been soundly beaten, and Hill 70 was securely in Canadian hands. They would go on to attempt an assault on Lens the next day, though it would ultimately end up a failure. On August 25th, following a failed assault on German positions at the Crassier, Lt-General Currie ended the operation.

Although Lens remained in German hands, the Canadian victory at Hill 70 had afforded them a commanding view of the surrounding countryside and of the city itself. The Corps had suffered though; through 10 days of fighting, 9,198 Canadians would be listed dead, wounded, or missing.

The victory at Hill 70 stands as a testament to the ever-developing fighting prowess of the Canadian Corps, who would be afforded no rest as Douglas Haig called them to the battlefields at Passchendaele.

The Final Hundred Days: Mons

The clock ticked downwards towards the Armistice.

Behind the lines, in the forest of Compeigne, talks of an official armistice to end the First World War had been held. The German delegation, led by Matthias Erzberger, had been given a deadline on which they could agree to armistice terms dictated by the Allies. On the morning of November 10th, a decision had yet to be made.

With the circumstances surrounding the ceasefire unclear, Corps Commander Arthur Currie ordered an advance into Mons.

The capture was predicated on an encircling approach. On the southern end of the city, the 2nd Division would sweep forward and link up with the 3rd Division, who were based on the eastern edge of town.

Although the men in the front line were fiercely torn over whether or not the assault was worth the cost, they did their duty.

As in the past few days, the Royal Canadian Regiment teamed with the 42nd Battalion for the evening’s operations. At 11pm, the two units crashed through German defences in the southern portion of the city. To the north, D Company of the 42nd and the RCR’s B Company swept through the suburb of Ghlin, and punched into Mons over the bridges there.

Fighting would continue through the night. This would be the Canadian’s last evening in combat. Only hours remained until peace.

Vimy Ridge

Vimy Ridge and Canada are irrevocably linked. As one of the Allies greatest victories of the war, the fact that the operation was fully executed by Canadian soldiers stands as a point of pride to all in our nation.

Often looked upon as Canada’s finest military operation, the capture of Vimy Ridge also symbolizes our country’s becoming a nation. The battle was the first time all four Canadian Divisions fought together in history, with each region in Canada represented in battle.

The Allied campaigns of 1915 and 1916 had been fruitless endeavours. Although the trench lines along the Western Front remained unchanged, the Canadian Corps had matured into one of the most effective fighting forces within the Entente.

Canadians had forged a formidable reputation through the big battles of 1915. In spite of severe casualties, the battle hardened veterans of the Corps had been well schooled in the art of large scale offensive warfare. Now, they would experiment with new thoughts and implement new tactics into their military doctrine.

Through the winter of 1916/1917, Canadian forces launched sixty raids. Their aggressiveness saw great success - 338 German prisoners were captured from November 1916 to April of the next year.

In February, David Watson’s 4th Division planned a raid against German positions at Vimy Ridge. The raid was pointed towards Hill 145, the highest point along the 7 kilometre ridge, and Watson planned to use gas to smother the German defenders.

The raid commenced at 5:00 am on March 1st, and was a spectacular failure. The 1,038 canisters of gas had failed to cripple the German defenders, with their effective respiration masks, and a second wave of gas didn’t release due to a change in the wind. Thus, the Canadians assaulted a German trench with no surprise and a strong defence. The attacking Battalions suffered 687 casualties.

In the face of their failure, the Corps had learned valuable lessons about trench raiding, and the German positions at Vimy. Because of this, they would be called upon again for another attack upon the Ridge. However, this would be no raid - the entirety of the Corps would be called upon to capture Vimy.

It was a formidable task. French Commander in Chief Robert Nivelle believed the Vimy position to be so strong, he recommended the British begin their offensive further south. Though British General Douglas Haig declined this recommendation, Nivelle was correct in his assessment.

German forces had reinforced their positions on the ridge during their three years tenure upon . From October 1914 to April 1917, German engineers poured concrete bunkers, strong machine gun positions, and laid rows upon rows of steel barbed wire. Moreover, from their high positions atop the ridge, the Germans could direct accurate artillery fire into any attackers lines.

Their positions had withstood assaults from French, and then British offensives in 1914 and 1915. The Canadians would need an extra edge when trying to capture the ridge.

Julien Byng had taken control of the Corps in May 1916. Through his time as Commander, he instituted a number of changes to the Canadian attack doctrine - this included decentralizing command, allowing units in the field to attack on their own initiative, and installing specialist attack groups such as rifle grenadiers and machine gun teams within the Corps’ 4 Divisions.

In addition to their months of raiding experience, the Canadians also underwent months of specialized training behind the lines. Junior officers and NCO’s were trained to take responsibility during an attack, in case their superiors fell in battle. These tactics translated down to the general infantry itself, who learned to how to work both as an individual and as a team.

All 4 Canadian Divisions, numbering some 56,500, were to participate in the attack. They would be supported by a huge artillery barrage both before and during the attack on the ridge.

For 13 days, the Canadian artillery bombarded Vimy Ridge. Roughly 880 guns fired off 343,000 shells at German defenders. Moreover, the Canadian artillery engaged in counter-battery work, aimed at destroying the German artillery opposite them.

Zero hour was set for 5:30 on April 9th. In the hours before the assault was to begin, men wrote home, prayed, and smoked cigarettes. Some carved their names in the deep network of tunnels dug by Canadian engineers - they remain there today.

A renewed artillery barrage crashed into German lines at 5:30 AM, signalling the beginning of the assault. All 4 Canadian Divisions went over the top, acting as a unified corps for the first time in the nation’s history.

Closely hugging the artillery barrage, the Canadians edged closer to the German lines. The bombardment steamrolled the rows of barbed wire, concrete pillboxes, and the German troops themselves as the Corps crept closer and closer. Finally, the Canadians surged forwards, with the 2nd Brigade being the first to enter the German lines.

The intense training each division underwent paid off, though the capture of the ridge was no easy task. Stiff German machine gun positions massacred the oncoming Canadians, and those who made it to the trenches often had to engage in brutal hand to hand fighting.

German High Command had entrusted the defence of Vimy to 3 elite German divisions. The 1st Bavarian Reserves, 16th Bavarian, and 79th Prussian Reserve Divisions punished the Canadian attackers, making them pay for every inch of ground gained.

Despite the stiff resistance, the Corps overcame the staunch defenders and captured the ridge. The last German defenders were pushed off early in the morning of April 10th.

Through four days of engagement with the Germans, the Canadians suffered more than 10,000 casualties. 7,707 of these took place on the 9th and 10th, and April 9th still stands as the bloodiest day in Canadian military history.

The Allies now held a commanding view of the Douai plain, and could clearly see German positions along the Western Front. The attack had been a resounding success, and one of the few major Allied victories to date in the First World War.

Through the rest of the war and afterwards, Vimy Ridge stood as a symbol of Canadian unity and national achievement. In 1922, the French Government gifted the land around Vimy Ridge to Canada, in recognition of the supreme sacrifice and ultimate success of the Canadians that day.

In 1936, the Vimy Memorial was unveiled. To this day, the memorial stands as both a solemn and proud reminder of what Canadians accomplished.

“We went up the ridge as Albertans and Nova Scotians. We came down as Canadians”.