Warning: More Canadian War History
Today is the ninetieth anniversary of one of the most important battles of the First World War: the battle of Drocourt Quaent Switch.
Following their disastrous defeat at the Battle of Amiens, the Germans began a long retreat, eventually losing all the ground they had captured during their spring offensive of 1918. By the end of August they were back in their old trenches, but demoralized. The spring offensive had been their last push, one last shot at beating the allies before the American presence on the battlefield became overwhelming. They very nearly pulled it off, and their defeat was a crushing blow to their morale. Most of the German soldiers no longer believed they could win the war.
The British High Command was optimistic, but concerned. They feared another four years of interminable trench warfare, of pointless battles fought again and again over the same ground. The British commander, Douglas Haig, had another reason to be afraid: by now he knew that if the war lasted another year, the British Prime Minister, Lloyd George, planned to have him replaced. Haig called in his most successful general (and incidentally, the man chosen by George to replace Haig if the War stretched into 1919) the Canadian general Sir Arthur Currie. He gave Currie a seemingly impossible task: he was to attack and break the German lines at a place called Drocourt Quaent. Haig gave Currie two days to prepare. Currie insisted- and got- three days. As Currie stood to leave, Haig gave him a warning: "It will be a tough nut."
Currie replied: "We shall crack it sir."
Throughout the war, the British and French Generals made outlandish and unrealistic plans in which they dreamed their armies would smash through the German lines and some place, rush through and capture distant objectives, and end the war within a week or two. Uncharacteristically for Currie, it appeared that it was now his turn to indulge in some rather extravagant plans. The Canadian corps would break through at Drocourt Quaent. Canadian commander Brutinel's special armoured vehicle units would rush through the gap, cross the Canal Du Nord and, in a daring pincer movement, capture the city of Cambrai. They were confident. They had never been defeated, never had a machine gun or cannon captured. Their men had taken many objectives the French and British had thought impossible. They could do this.
The Switch was protected by large belts of barbed wire, machine gun nests, under ground tunnels for moving troops. It was very heavily defended, and any attacking army would face heavy casualties taking the position.
At 0500 on the morning of September 2, 1918, the Canadian guns fired, and the troops advanced. The Canadians waded into the Germans, advancing steadily forward under heavy fire. The ground conditions stopped Brutinel's armoured vehicles from being an effective force. This was a battle of infantry versus artillery.
Currie showed his usual preparedness and talent for battle. He drove the Canadians forward along one axis of attack, waiting until the Germans committed their reserves to the battle, and then he would shift the axis, leaving the German reserves out of position and exposed.
By nightfall, the Canadians had advanced over six thousand yards into the German defensive position. The Australians on one of the flanks had captured Mont St Quentin, another German strong point within the defense. The German Commander General Ludendorff realized his position was no longer tenable, and in the night he withdrew his troops across the Canal Du Nord to the city of Cambrai. The battle was over.
The Canadian commanders were initially disappointed with the results of the day. Their hopes had been much higher and set on a greater victory. They did not yet fully grasp the enormity of their achievement.
They had breached the line of German trenches. They had created a gap the German line that stretched across all of Western Europe. Through that gap now poured the might of the British Army. The German's were now outflanked, and the trenches of the Western Front could no longer protect them. They rose from their trenches and began the long retreat to Germany. Trench warfare was over.
Currie relentlessly drove the Canadians after the Germans for the next few months. He refused to let up pressure, even under the recommendation of his own High Command. He did not want to allow the Germans a moment's rest, did not want to let them pause long enough to build another line of defenses that would only be breached at a bloody price.
The Canadians were the spearhead of the British charge for the rest of the war. In the coming weeks they would cross the Canal Du Nord, and Cambrai would be theirs in time. More battles they had to fight, and in each they would emerge victorious, as our men gave a contribution far greater than anyone could have predicted. The men of our nation brought victory measurably closer with every passing day.
Representative of those men, I will once again publish the words of my Grandfather. One of the few letters I have of his was written after Drocourt Quaent, and I will finish with his words to his sister:
Well Sis I suppose being as this is Labour Day you will be taking a trip to see the Exhibition and I sure would like to be there myself, however we will hope for that pleasure next year Eh? We haven't been getting much mail lately so I do not know how you are all keeping but I hope it is as well as this finds me at the present. We sure have been busy with Heimi lately as no doubt you see by the papers and as usual he came out second best (Ha-Ha). I wrote a line to Herb the other day and hope He receives it O.K. have you had a line from him lately and how is he keeping these days pretty busy I guess. I hope you had a nice time on your birthday gee Sis the time does fly Eh? I received a nice money order from Ollie the other day which I am saving for leave which will be coming along soon. You remember Bob H---'s brother Dick well I had quite a chat with him yesterday and He is looking fine. I am expecting a line from Roy F--- any time now I am anxious to hear how He is getting along You know that gas is No Bon as we say out here. Well Sis how are those boys behaving these days I'll bet Dad and they have a great time Eh? And how is Mother keeping I'll bet she feels a lot easier now that Dad is with you again. I hear eggs are an awful price over there now well I hope mum's chickens are doing their bit these days (ha-ha) Have you had a line from Ed Since He landed here I am waiting to hear from him so that I will know were (sic)to write to as He has no address at present. You knew George D--- didn't you well He is in the same Battery as George H--- and has a pretty good job. I hear Ernie Atkins is cooking in the mess for his Battery some class to him Eh? Well Min news is rather scarce at present so I will close for now hoping to hear form you soon with love and kisses to all and the babes xxxxxxxxxxxx
Your loving Brother