The Canal du Nord: A Brief Background

By late September 1918, it was becoming clear that the Imperial German Army had rotten to the core. The failed Spring Offensive of 1918 had cost the Germans roughly 800,000 casualties - and though they had penetrated deep into Allied lines and inflicted heavy casualties, no strategic areas had been captured. The Allies had barely withstood the onslaught; but like a recoiled spring, they were primed to explode outwards and bring an end to the First World War.

Arthur Currie’s Canadian Corps, stationed in the Vimy region, never received a direct attack from German forces. However, elements of the Corps were called upon to plug holes in the Allied lines. For weeks, the 2nd Division fought side by side with British forces, holding back the German advance.

In relative terms, most of the Corps was left unscathed by the Spring Offensive. Knowing this, General Douglas Haig of the British Expeditionary Force called upon Currie’s Corps to act as a spearhead during the upcoming offensives. 

From their successes at Amiens and in the Arras region, the Canadians proved their standing as “masters of war”. However, their impressive victories came at a stark cost; through both campaigns, roughly 25,000 casualties were dealt to the Canadians. And just beyond the recently captured Drocourt-Quéant Line lay the most difficult obstacle the Canadians would face: The Canal Du Nord. 

Few parts of the German line were as staunchly defended as the Canal du Nord. German engineers had not only incorporated the Canal into their defences - they had also flooded the surrounding area with water drawn from the canal itself. As a consequence, the Canadian Corps had very little space to attack through. The only dry portion of the Canal was just 2,600 metres long. If the Germans were wise to the oncoming offensive, the Canadian Corps would be bottlenecked and annihilated.

Canadian infantry, artillery, and auxiliary units were moved in absolute secrecy - under cover of darkness, and with a strict blackout enforced. Currie had used this method of transport when the Canadians had moved from the Vimy sector to participate in the Amiens campaign just a month before, to resounding success. 

The ultimate goal of the first day was for Canadian units to cross the canal, fan out in different directions, and capture multiple different objectives - the most important being Bourlon Wood.

Bourlon Wood had been assaulted the year before by Julian Byng’s Third British Army, during the Battle of Cambrai. British forces had captured the wood briefly before being driven back by the counterattacking Germans. Despite losing the wood, they had learned of the strong defences that lay beneath the oak trees. A number of interlocking positions, supplemented with barbed wire and machine gun nests, made Bourlon Wood a venerable fortress, and one that needed to be captured in order to ensure success. 

For weeks, the Canadian Corps conducted reconnaissance operations. Observation balloons, forward patrols, and occasional raids of enemy trenches gave the Canadians a small impression of what they would be facing. Perhaps more importantly, it provided valuable intelligence for Canadian artillerymen, whose barrages would knock out enemy defences, and open the way for Canadian infantrymen. 

Extensive preparations propelled the Corps to victory on September 27th, 1918 - but you can read about that our daily posts concerning Canada’s 100 Days. As we continue to reflect on the triumphs of Canadian troops during the First World War, we remember those who not just fought, but died to ensure success and safety for the world.