The German Spring Offensive on the Western Front which had begun on 21 March 1918 with Operation Michael had petered out by July. The Germans had advanced to the River Marne, but had failed to achieve their primary objective of a major victory that would decide the war. The German Army was fatally weakened, demoralized and facing its own imminent and inevitable defeat. When the German Operation ended in July, the Allied Supreme Commander, Ferdinand Foch, ordered a counter-offensive, which became known as the Second Battle of the Marne. The Germans, recognizing their untenable position, withdrew north from the Marne.
Along with losing the initiative anticipated by the Spring Offensive, the Germans were losing on other vital fronts. The were losing the Battle of the Factories. The Germans had only built 20 tanks, as opposed to the Allies’ 4,000 tanks. Germany had lost the Battle of Manpower. While the release of troops from the Russian front had helped, the arrival of a quarter million fresh American soldiers every month eliminated that benefit. The Battle of Command was also lost. The Allies had a clearly structured command under the leadership of Field Marshall Foch, but the Germans were under the chaotic leadership of Ludendorff.
After the Germans had lost their forward momentum, Foch considered the time had arrived for the Allies to return to the offensive. The American Expeditionary Force (AEF) under General John J. Pershing had arrived in France in large numbers and had invigorated the Allied armies with its extensive manpower resources. However, Pershing was keen to use his army as an independent force. This would have serious consequences, as will be discussed in a future post. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) had been reinforced by large numbers of troops returning from campaigns in the Sinai, Palestine and Italy and by replacements previously held in reserve by Prime Minister David Lloyd George.
The military planners contemplated a number of proposals. Foch agreed to a plan submitted by Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, commander-in-chief of the BEF, to strike east of Amiens to force the Germans away from the vital Amiens–Paris railway. The Somme was chosen because it remained the boundary between the BEF and the French armies allowing the two armies to cooperate. The Picardy terrain, unlike that of Flanders, provided good surface for tanks. Also, the defences of the German Army in this area were relatively weak.
The Battle of Amiens
Haig had decided to begin the offensive with deception, confusion and secrecy. The soldiers of the Canadian Corps had developed a reputation as the Allies shock troops. British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George was quoted as saying “Whenever the Germans found the Canadian Corps coming into the line, they prepared for the worst.” Playing on the Germans’ fear, Haig ordered segments of the Canadian Corps to loudly deploy and to establish a very visible presence near Ypres, Belgium. By doing this, the Germans were led to believe that the assault would begin with another battle in the Flanders area. However, the Canadians were quietly withdrawn from Ypres and returned to Amiens where they were to act as the lead elements of the battle.
To further confuse the Germans and to create an atmosphere of secrecy, the protracted artillery barrage that normally preceded an assault was not used. The artillery would only begin bombardment when the assault began. Also, to mask the noise of approaching tanks, several British heavy bombers flew over the German front lines.
The operation began at 0420 hrs, 8 August 1918. In the first phase, the Canadian Corps and the Australian Corps, each supported by 154 tanks, would, for the first time, would attack side by side. Both the Canadians and the Australians had reputations for aggressive and innovative tactics and a strong record of success over the past two years. The Canadians and Australians advanced quickly, pushing the line 4.8 km forward from its starting point by 1100 hrs. By the end of the first day, Allied forces had pushed, on average, 11 km into enemy territory. The Canadians gained 13 km and in doing so overrun 5 German divisions and almost broke through the German defences. That day, the Australians advanced 11 km, the French 8 km, and the British 3.2 km.
The German General Ludendorff described the first day of the battle as the “Schwarzer Tag des deutschen Heeres” (“the black day of the German Army”) as it had shaken the German faith in the outcome of the war. It had also raised Allied morale, while German morale had sunk so low that large bodies of German soldiers were surrendering to single Allied soldiers.
The Push to Victory
With the will of the German Army virtually broken the British Expeditionary Forces (BEF) with the Canadian Corps at its vanguard continued to push forward.
This map shows the Allied advances on the Western Front during the Hundred Days Offensive.
Note the area towards the top of the map identified as BEF under Field Marshall Haig. The BEF area of operation is between the blue boundary lines with the –xxxxx– markings. The Canadian Corps was located in the centre of that sector, pushing towards Mons, Belgium.
The dotted red line to the west indicates the German front line on 30 August, the heavy solid red line is the German line as of 25 September and the dashed red line is the German front line when the Armistice was declared.
With the German front line broken, the Allies fought to maintain their momentum by pushing the Germans back to the Hindenburg Line, a defensive line developed by the Germans in 1916-17. The Canadian Corps were heavily engaged throughout this phase of fighting. Significant battles included the Battle of the Scarpe (part of the Second Battle of Arras) on 28 August, 1918 and the Battle of Drocourt–Quéant Line on 2 September, 1918. During this battle alone, 7 Canadians were awarded the Victoria Cross for their actions.
Following the German withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line in this sector, the Canadian Corp pushed on the Battle of the Canal du Nord on 27 September 1918. The Canal du Nord defensive system was the last major German defensive position opposite the British First Army and the Canadian Corps. The assault, launched at 5:20 in total darkness, caught the German defenders by complete surprise. The Canadians primary objective was to capture the Bourlon Woods, high ground where the Germans had a concentration of artillery. By mid-morning all of the surviving German defenders had either been captured or were in retreat. By sunset, all of the Canadian objectives, including the capture of the Bourlon Woods were achieved. The Canadian Bourlon Wood Memorial commemorates the Canadian participation in this battle and the six Canadians who were awarded the Victoria Cross.
The German will to fight had basically dissolved by this point. In the Second Battle of Cambrai, 8 October, the 2nd Canadian Division entered the city and encountered sporadic and light resistance. Maintaining their momentum, they pushing northward, leaving the “mopping up” of the city to the 3rd Canadian Division following close behind. When the 3rd entered Cambrai on 10 October, they found it deserted. Fewer than 20 casualties had been taken.
After the victory at the Canal du Nord and Cambrai, the Canadian Corps and the rest of the Allied armies began a running battle with retreating German forces with the Canadian Corps advanced over 70 kilometres. The last French city held by German forces was Valenciennes. The attack on Valenciennes was the culmination of all the lessons the Canadian Corps had learned during the war and was their last set-piece offensive. By 2 November 1918, the remaining Germans in Valenciennes were either captured or killed.
Field Marshall Haig gave the Canadian Corps the responsibility to push forward to Mons, Belgium. By 10 November 1918, the Canadian Corps was on the outskirts of Mons. Fighting in and around Mons continued until 6:30 AM when the Canadian headquarters was notified the ceasefire would take effect at 11:00 AM.
The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918 saw the signing of the Armistice with Germany that ended the First World War. Fighting continued up to the final moment, with 2,738 men dying on the last day of the war. Included in that is Private George Lawrence Price who died at 10:58 AM, believed to be the last Canadian and British Empire soldier to die in the war.
A total of 628,562 Canadians served in the Canadian armed forces, including 424,589 who went overseas; 60,661 were killed. This had earned Canada separate representation at the conference where the treaty was negotiated. This marked an important stage in the gradual movement toward Canadian independence from Great Britain.
The Treaty of Versailles was officially signed on 28 June 1919 and took effect on 10 January 1920. Unfortunately, in drafting the Treaty of Versailles, the Allied powers imposed punitive measures on Germany. This de-stabilized Europe and laid the groundwork for the rise of Naziism and the outbreak of World War II just 20 years later.
This Global News offers a good overview of the last 100 days and a discussion of the impact that conscription had on both the country and the fighting. It also introduces the National War Memorial. An interesting video.
Honour the Fallen; Help the Living