November 9th, 1918. The Final 100 Days: Germany Disintegrates

The advance continued. Combined offensives along the entirety of the Western Front had German forces reeling.

Since 1915, the British Navy had enforced an embargo on Germany, depriving their people of vital imports of food, fertilizer, and other necessities of life and production. This, combined with the continuous drain of the war effort, had seen growing discontent from German citizenry concerning their quality of life and the feasibility of the ongoing war.

Naturally, the blame fell on the nation’s leadership. Support for Kaiser Wilhelm had dwindled to near nothingness by the last months of 1918. On October 29th, the “German Revolution” began. Revolutionaries proclaimed Germany a republic, and demanded the resignation of the Kaiser.

It had been clear to most that the Kaiser would have to abdicate his throne, aside from the Kaiser himself. Without his leader’s consent, German Chancellor Maximillian of Baden announced the resignation of the Kaiser on this day, November 9th, 1918.

Wilhelm only agreed to his vacating the throne after being informed that the German Army would not fight for their Emperor. Even a longstanding royalist, Paul von Hindenburg, suggested the Kaiser abdicate.

He did.

As a reshuffling of the political hierarchy went on in Germany, the Allies worked to end the war on the Western Front.

On the 3rd Canadian Divison’s front, the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry moved with astonishing haste over the open fields of Belgium. By the close of the day’s operations, the PPCLI and 49th Battalion had advanced over 8 kilometres. They were now in sight of Mons, and ended the day in the suburb of Jemappes.

The Royal Canadian Regiment and 47th Battalions would relieve the PPCLI and Fighting 49’ers through the night.

On the southern front, the 2nd Division made impressive gains. The 5th Brigade established lines 6.5 kilometres south of Mons, running northwest to link with the 3rd Division’s positions.

The Somme

The Battle of the Somme stands as the most infamous of all battles fought during the First World War. Deeply ingrained in the collective consciousness of Commonwealth nations are the sacrifices made by forces fighting for British Empire on July 1st, 1916.

The first day at the Somme stands as the bloodiest day in British military history. The B.E.F threw 13 Divisions into the fray, and suffered a devastating 57,470 casualties - including 19,240 dead.

July 1st holds a special place for Canadians, as the date of our country’s confederation. In Newfoundland, the date holds a somber and solemn meaning.

Newfoundland had not chosen to confederate with the rest of Canada in 1867. As such, it still operated as a British dominion, separate from Canada. The small dominion proudly fielded a separate Regiment for the Empire’s war effort.

As a unit in the 29th British Division, the Newfoundlanders had participated in the Gallipoli Campaign through 1915. The failure of the campaign led to the 29th’s being recalled to the Western Front.

French General Joseph Joffre had called for an attack on the Somme for months. A joint Anglo-French Offensive would shatter the German lines, and reclaim France’s industrial base.

However, the German Offensive at Verdun disrupted the Entente plan for the Somme. What was originally a joint operation became increasingly more British. As French units were shifted towards Verdun, General Douglas Haig was forced to commit more and more divisions towards the offensive. Amongst them was the 29th Division.

The Newfoundland Regiment was tasked with capturing German positions along Beaumont Hamel. Formidable German defences made this a difficult operation; deep rows of barbed wire would hold up attacking troops as machine guns cut them down.

Across from the Canadians were men of the elite 119th German Reserve Regiment.

An artillery barrage commenced at 6 am, saturating the German trenches with shrapnel and high explosive shells. An hour and twenty minutes later, the Allies detonated over 18,000 kilograms of explosives. Though effective, the blast had made certain to the Germans an Allied attack was coming.

The Newfoundlanders went over the top at 9:15 AM. Stiff German machine gun fire killed or wounded most of the men as they advanced into No Man’s Land.

Men rallied towards the charred remains of an apple tree. Machine gun fire followed them, cutting down hundreds of Newfoundlanders before they could reach the German lines.

After only 30 minutes, Regiment C.O Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Hadow reported to British HQ that the attack had failed.

The Newfoundland Regiment had been nearly annihilated. Out of 800 men who had gone into battle, only 68 men showed to roll call the next day. 324 Newfoundlanders had been killed, or went missing, while suffering 386 more wounded.

The total failure of the first day at the Somme was followed by equal failures in the coming months. Although the Canadian Corps had not taken part in the initial operations along the Somme, they would soon find their way into the lines.

Canadian forces relieved the 1st Australian Corps early in September 1916. On the 15th, the Battle of Flers-Courcelette began along an 11km front. The Canadians assaulted Courcelette, closely following a strong creeping barrage. The attack was a resounding success - however, the capture of Courcelette had cost the Corps 7,230 casualties.

The victory at Courcelette was followed by an assault at Thiepval Ridge on September 26th. The 1st and 2nd Canadian Divisions engaged in three days of brutal fighting, and again attained success, though on a lesser scale than the Courcelette operation. The Corps had taken over 10,000 casualties in September alone.

After several months on the Somme, the 3 Canadian Divisions were pulled out of the line. The once 65,000 strong Corps had suffered nearly 20,000 casualties in their campaigns along the Somme River. This would not be the end of Canadian activity on the Somme, though; David Watson’s 4th Division would assume their fellow Canadian’s positions in the line.

Though untested in the field, the 4th Canadians succeeded where their comrades had failed. They captured their objectives of Regina Trench and Desire Trench before the entire Somme Offensive ground to a halt.

Haig’s offensive at the Somme had netted the British 9.5 kilometres of ground, at a cost of 432,000 casualties. The Canadians suffered 24,029 casualties out of their operational capacity of 85,000.

Four months of campaigning along the Somme had resulted in no breakthrough. The war would carry on. However, the Canadian Corps emerged from the Somme with an experienced and fire-hardened Force, who would be called upon time and time again to bring Allied forces to victory in the First World War.

The Final Hundred Days: November 8th, 1918

Canadian Forces continued to sweep through the south of Belgium.

 The 5th Brigade continued to lead the charge for the 2nd Division. The day’s operations brought them as deep into Belgium as Dour, which was secured by the early evening.

 In the north of France, the 3rd Canadian Division pushed towards the border. Thivencelle and St. Aybert fell to the combined force of the 49th Battalion and the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry.

 Later in the day, the Division would cross the Canal de Condé, gaining a strong position on the northern bank.

Gas at Ypres

The first year of the Great War had been a see-saw affair between the Central Powers and Triple Entente. Military tactics had changed little since the battles of the 19th Century,

The conditions forced a stalemate by early September 1914, culminating in the “Race to the Sea” a series of maneuvers by both sides in an attempt to outflank each other’s armies. Neither the Allies nor the Central Powers succeeded, and with the lines remaining static, both armies began to dig in.

Very little changed on the Western Front between September 1914 and April 1915. A few small-scale offensives were launched by both sides, but the majority of the action was taking place on the Eastern Front.

In an effort to break the stalemate, German High Command turned to Germany’s expansive chemical industry. It was hoped that chemical warfare could inflict a devastating blow and break the lines on the Western Front.

The Duke of Württemberg, commander of the Fourth Army, agreed to utilize gas in his sector of the line, near the Ypres Salient.

In spite of ample warnings supplied by Allied spies and German deserters, French forces in the area did little to prepare for the suggested gas attack. Canadian artillery, commanded by Andrew McNaughton, fired off 90 rounds to probe German lines. They had little success, but remained wary.

With little German activity in the area (aside from constant artillery bombardments), the Canadians stationed near Ypres were relaxed. The morning of April 22nd was warm and sunny, and mid-afternoon saw the Canadians sunning themselves in the trenches, or playing football in the field.

This quiet ended at 4pm, as the Germans began another artillery bombardment. As the British and French forces manning the line waited out the barrage, a green-grey cloud 6 kilometres wide and half a kilometre deep began to seep from the enemy lines.

Chlorine gas.

160 tonnes of gas blew over the French lines. The 45th Algerian And 87th Territorial French Divisions were shattered, and their lines broken. Many passed through the Canadian lines, dying on the ground in front of the Corps.

With the French leaving their lines en masse, a 6 kilometre gap opened on the left of the Canadians. A subsequent German advance saw Allied forces engage the Germans in a series of “mini-battles”.

Near St. Julien, Lance Corporal Fred Fisher of the 13th Battalion won the first Canadian Victoria Cross of the First World War. In the face of overwhelming German forces, Fisher provided essential machine gun cover fire as Canadian artillery units were in retreat. Though he would escape this day, he would fall in battle on April 23rd.

Canadian Forces would continue to hold fast, though. A counter-attack on German positions in Kitchener’s Wood was successful, but later German counter-attacks rendered the position untenable.

The Canadian Brigades were cut off from each other. With communications nearly impossible, Brigadier Richard Turner ordered his 3rd Brigade to retreat. This left a near 3,000 metre gap in the lines, putting the Canadians in danger of being split in two. However, a late counter-attack by 5 British Battalions pushed the Germans back and plugged the hole.

By April 25th, British and French reinforcements began to arrive in droves. Canadian troops were systemically filtered out of the lines, and were afforded a well-deserved rest.

The casualties were enormous. With 6000 casualties spread amongst the three infantry brigades, the Canadians had lost nearly 50% of their front line strength.

By the end of April, the Canadians were being looked upon as much more than wild colonials. To say the Corps saved the 50,000 Entente troops stationed in the salient is no stretch at all. In fact, it could be debated that the Corps saved the Allies from an absolute defeat.

Regardless, Ypres stood as a trial by fire for the Canadians. Many of those involved in the battle would rise through the ranks, becoming effective leaders and pillars of the Canadian Corps through the First World War.

The Final 100 Days: Belgium - November 7, 1918

Canadians entered Belgium. French and Belgian civilians who had been trapped in the enemy zone of occupation openly wept when Allied forces passed through their town.

On the southwest hinge of the Canadian line, Henry Burstall’s 2nd Division swept over the border. Burstall had picked the men of the 5th Brigade to act as a spearhead, instructing them to “act with the utmost boldness”. 

The possibility of breaking through German defences was ever-present in the closing weeks of the war. Speed was a necessity in this event. To cover this base, Burstall attached the 2nd Canadian Motor Machine Gun Brigade to the 5th Brigade. 

A slight delay at the flooded Honnelle river held up Canadian forces only temporarily. But the evening, the 25th Battalion (operating with the 2nd Division) had captured the village of Elouges. 

To the north, elements of the 3rd Division secured La Croix and Hensies, along with a number of smaller villages and communes.