Canadian Forces at Valenciennes and Mons 1918

A Canadian Cyclist shouting down a dugout in German for men to come out. His fighting potential far outweighs their own.

Mount Houy barrage map.

The assault on Cambrai was to be the Canadian Corps’s introduction to urban warfare in the Great War. German desertion of the city on the eve of the Canadians’ assault on October 9 1918, however, made the Battle of Valenciennes on November 1–2 the Canadians’ first urban engagement.

Valenciennes was the last major French city still held by the Germans on October 30, and it stood as a key obstacle to the Allied advance along the Western Front. It was heavily fortified, anchoring the last major German defence system, the Hermann Line. Geography aided the German defences here as well. To the south, the Germans had fortified positions on Mount Houy, a 160-yard-high wooded highland that commanded the l’Escaut Valley to the south of Valenciennes. On the west and north sides of the city, the Canal de l’Escaut combined with the German trench system running alongside formed a second key barrier to attack. Five divisions of the German army were dug in to these positions. On the morning of November 1, Canadian forces faced off directly from the south.

Across a front of 2,500 yards, Currie’s plan of attack on Valenciennes was for the 4th Canadian Division to dislodge the Germans from their defensive positions atop Mount Houy with a massive artillery barrage early on the morning of November 1. Then, after the 3rd Division had crossed the Canal de l’Escaut on the left of the Canadian line, infantry units would advance on Valenciennes itself, moving street by street, house by house, “mopping up” the city. (The Allies had forbidden Currie from using artillery within the city due to the large French civilian population.) The Canadians also had a deadline: the main Allied advance on Germany was to resume November 3.

Zero hour at Valenciennes came at 05:15 on November 1, with one of the largest artillery barrages unleashed in the war, the magnitude of which warrants quoting G.W.L. Nicholson in full:

Because its left wing, on the west side of the Escaut Canal, had advanced so far forward, the Canadian Corps was able to arrange a rather unique artillery barrage on the Mont Houy position. Eight field and six heavy artillery brigades supported the 10th Infantry Brigade in its attack. Three field brigades sited south of the Escaut, near Maing, supplied the frontal creeping barrage; one gave oblique fire from the left bank near Trith St. Leger; the other two were near La Sentinelle, west of the Cambrai–Valenciennes road, furnishing enfilade fire along the enemy’s flank. Unable through lack of suitable bridges to cross the Escaut, the heavy artillery remained on the left bank in a position to bring oblique, enfilade and even reverse fire (deliberately arranged for moral effect) on the area of the attack. Some three and a half brigades were employed, on counter-battery work, the remainder bringing down fire on houses which were suspected of containing machine-gun nests. Three batteries of 4.5-inch howitzers fired an intense smoke-screen to cover the attack, and the normal artillery barrage was supplemented by the fire of twelve batteries of the 1st and 4th Canadian Machine Gun Battalions firing in close support or in enfilade from north of the canal. On no other occasion in the whole war was a single infantry brigade to be supported with such a weight of gunfire.

As per Currie’s plan, 4th Division infantry advanced after the initial barrage and took Mount Houy by 06:00. The 3rd Division was equally successful on the Canadians’ left flank, crossing the Canal de l’Escaut and pushing north of Valenciennes by mid-morning. Elements of the 4th Division advanced the remaining mile and a half to Valenciennes itself, with the 44th and 46th infantry brigades crossing the canal and entering the city in the early afternoon.

At Valenciennes, three units from Brutinel’s Brigade were assigned to the 4th Division — the 1st CMMGB, one Canadian Light Horse squadron, and one company of Canadian Corps Cyclist Battalion (“B” Company). On the morning of November 1, the 1st CMMGB was assigned to the 4th Division MG Commander to help support the hurricane barrage. The bulk of CLH and Cyclist troops were employed as dispatch riders and runners “between Headquarters of Brigades and the advanced Battalion Headquarters and also for keeping up Communication between the Scouts, Patrols, Companies and Infantry Report Centres.” The remainder of Brutinel’s force was assigned patrol and reconnaissance duties, sending reports back to HQ on the disposition and positions of 4th Division troops, enemy strength and location, and the state of critical infrastructure like bridges and roads. Cyclist Macnab described “B” Company Cyclists’ assignment at Valenciennes like this:

By October 31st advance parties had reached the Canal de l’Escaut, where it passes through the outskirts of Valenciennes. Here all the bridges had been blown up but next morning (November 1st) some Cyclists [working on the left flank of the 10th CIBn] got across on a canal lock gate and established a bridgehead. The Germans had set fire to the buildings along the canal and between fire, smoke and snipers, our lads had quite a hot time until the engineers got over and stopped the fires.

The Cyclists then proceeded on through Valenciennes, clearing out snipers and machine-gun nests. They were officially recorded as the first British troops to go through the town. Three of them, however, never came out as they were killed in action — the victims of enemy machine-gun fire. Here as in other cities and towns the civilians were very helpful in clearing out Germans hiding in houses.

 

Vastly outnumbered and dangerously under-strength, the 10th and 12th infantry brigades pushed through the streets of Valenciennes from west to east using reconnaissance reports from two patrols from “B” Company Cyclists working in advance. Just before 09:00, the Cyclists reported back to brigade HQ that “the town was clear of the enemy.”

The 10th and 12th brigades “joined hands” on the eastern outskirts of the city north of Marly shortly after 09:00. From here, one armoured car with one Cyclist patrol set off toward Saint-Saulve on the Valenciennes–Mons road and got to a cemetery northeast of Marly where they took up positions against enemy machine guns. “D” Battery guns advanced to these positions and waited for infantry from 54th CIBn to relieve them around noon. The car set off on its own toward Mons in the early afternoon, getting as far as a slag heap on the southeast side of the village.

Against the odds, “those at the sharp end” of the Canadian advance through Valenciennes “cleared the enemy positions, one at a time, in countless stand-up battles that went largely unrecorded in the official records.”6 Currie made this entry to his diary at the end of fighting on November 2: “The operation yesterday was one of the most successful the Corps has yet performed.” A small part of this success was due to Canadian Cyclists, which the commander of the 72nd infantry battalion noted in his report: “The work of the Cyclists attached to this Battalion throughout the recent Operations cannot be too highly spoken of and their services in reconnoitring Cross-roads and Tactical Points was of immense value. The reports rendered to Battalion Headquarters during the operations were concise and accurate.”

ACT  VIGOROUSLY

The capture of Valenciennes was the last set-piece battle the Canadian Corps fought in the Great War. Although the Canadians and the rest of the Allies were preparing for another on November 3, early-morning reconnaissance confirmed the Germans were again in retreat. Allied HQ ordered a general advance, with individual divisions instructed to “act vigorously” on their own initiative and keep the Germans from establishing firm positions. Units from Brutinel’s Brigade, still attached to the 4th Division after Valenciennes, continued to be deployed as patrols and other capacities as needed. On November 2, two squadrons of CLH and three platoons of Cyclists were used as dispatch riders, runners, and orderlies between the various brigade and battalion headquarters “and also for keeping up Communications between the Scouts, Patrols, Companies and Infantry Report Centres.” One battery of guns from the 1st CMMGB (“E” Battery) and one platoon of Cyclists from “B” Company were sent out as patrols in advance of division infantry once again. Cyclist Macnab described the final push from Valenciennes to Mons like this: “German opposition was slackening but there was still quite a bit of heavy fighting along the Valenciennes–Mons road — unfortunately right up to November 11th.” This type of engagement would repeat itself day after day over the ensuing week.

Working on a much narrower front from the Valenciennes–Mons road on the north to Préseau on the south, 4th Canadian Division forces pushed forward almost to the Estreux–Onnaing road on November 3 without much resistance from the enemy; 3rd Division forces to the north made similar progress. Resistance from the topography was another story. The countryside east of Valenciennes and into Belgium had many more villages, deeper valleys and rivers, and densely treed expanses than encountered up to that point. The roads themselves were made largely impassable by large shell craters, encountered especially at key crossroads. What roads did exist, and the work-around detours hastily built by the engineers, were used by artillery and the lorries from ever-lengthening supply chains. Adding to the chaos were the autumn rains — only one day from November 1 to the 11 was without heavy precipitation. For Brutinel’s mobile forces — especially the Cyclists — this all added up to limited deployment on the final push. On November 3rd, for example, one of the armoured cars and a platoon of Cyclists could only make it halfway from Marly to Estreux “Owing to Mine Craters N. and E. of the Crossroads the Roads were impassable and prevented the Armoured Car from reaching its objective.”

At 05:15 of November 4, “E” Battery from the 1st CMMGB and No. 6 Cyclist Platoon were ordered forward to keep in touch with the enemy and “harass his retreat.” The roads, however, delayed the gunners, so the Cyclists “pushed on alone to Onnaing, where an enemy cyclist patrol was met and a Lewis Gun post established. About 20 of the enemy were encountered here. The post was relieved at 10:30 hours by the 72nd CIBn.” Little resistance was encountered as the Canadians moved through town, save for a few retreating enemy patrols. At the eastern exit of town, though, much stronger resistance was encountered by “E” Battery, which had caught up to the action. The gunners let loose with their eight guns, “forcing the enemy to abandon his positions.” The Cyclists, meanwhile, advanced on the north side of the main road, capturing a few prisoners along with their two field guns.

Upon establishing their line on the east of Onnaing, the Cyclists and gunners found the Valenciennes–Mons road from Onnaing to Quarouble destroyed by mines and made impassable to mobile units. As they set up their positions and waited for infantry relief, stiff enemy fire was encountered; the gunners moved through a cemetery on the right of the cratered road, the Cyclists on the left along the railway. By early afternoon, the enemy guns were out of action.

On the morning of November 5, the 72nd CIBn caught up and established a line connecting the Cyclists and gunners and began organizing the next stage of the advance on Quarouble. Engineers were summoned forward to fill the craters and begin making the road passable for motor vehicles. At 09:00, though, enemy resistance heated up again, artillery first taking out one of the CMMGB’s armoured cars and then laying down enfilade fire on the Canadians’ new positions, “greatly annoying our own Gun Detachments.” The CMMGB, the Cyclists, and the 72nd CIBn fought for position throughout the day, eventually establishing a line about 600 yards to the east of Onnaing.

The 12th CIBn had much more luck to the south of Onnaing. By the early morning of November 5, infantry took the next town along the road, Quarouble, and engaged in heavy fighting over the course of that day and the next. By the evening of November 6, 4th Division forces had established a line along the sunken road immediately to the east of Quiévrechain. The 4th Division was then relieved by the 2nd Division and retired from the line for the last time in the war.

Meanwhile, on the left of the Canadian line, the 3rd Division worked its way east on the north side of the Valenciennes–Mons road, now heavily flooded as a result of Germans opening sluice gates on the canal, as well as the heavy autumn rains. The 3rd Division also encountered pockets of vicious resistance, first at the mining town of Vicq from November 4 to 6, and then at Condé alongside British forces from November 7 and 8.

FINAL PUSH

On November 7, the Canadian Corps crossed into Belgium. On the right, the 2nd Division had orders to “act with the utmost boldness” on the final push to Mons. To aid in this last act, Brutinel’s Brigade was reorganized into a two-detachment Independent Force. The Southern Detachment included two squadrons of Canadian Light Horse, two batteries of gunners from the 2nd CMMGB, and one subsection of engineers; the Northern Detachment consisted of two gun batteries, one subsection of engineers, and “B” Company of the Canadian Corps Cyclist Battalion under the command of Captain Scroggie. The Independent Force had orders to “advance through the Infantry and work ahead of them” if the enemy’s line of resistance was broken or its rearguard pierced.” While the infantry of the 2nd Division made excellent progress over the next four days, the almost complete demolition of the roads effectively grounded the Independent Forces’ mobile units during this period.

On November 7, the Force moved out from Rombies and Quarouble, but immediately came to a halt: the road had been destroyed by four mine craters 40 feet in diameter and 12 feet deep. Independent Force troops dismounted and worked with the engineers for six “hard and continuous” hours to fill and bridge the craters. Around noon, the troops remounted and set off down the Valenciennes–Mons road, only to be stopped again at 16:00 by another huge mine crater 1,000 yards east of Quiévrain. The Force retired for the evening, leaving the engineers to source additional bridging material.

A similar routine was followed on November 8: 2nd Division infantry made good progress, reaching the Dour-Hainin Line by noon, but the wheeled units of the Independent Force were sidelined again by systematic mining of the roads and the nonstop rain. Not needing the roads to navigate, the two CLH squadrons were redeployed to the 4th and 5th CIBns as contact patrols and dispatch riders for the duration of the war.

On November 9, the Canadian Corps was on the move once again. To the north, 3rd Division forces were closing in on Mons, the Patricias reaching the suburb of Jemappes that evening. To the south, after much bridging, the Independent Force managed to get to Frameries, three miles southeast of Mons by the evening of November 9, where it reported to 6th CIBn HQ.

On the morning of the 10th, the Independent Force moved to the intersection of the railway and the Maubeuge–Mons road and helped infantry overcome a spirited point of resistance at the Bois la Haut, a wooded hill rising 350 feet above the countryside 2,000 yards to the southeast of Mons. Once at the intersection, the North Detachment headed north, but quickly ran into artillery and machine-gun fire. Here, enemy resistance held out until 03:15. The South Detachment under Captain Scroggie did not fare much better, its progress arrested just north of Ciply by a blown-up bridge. Engineers estimated it would take the better part of the remainder of the day for the bridge to be repaired, so Brutinel’s force retired to Frameries for the night.

By the evening of November 10, the Canadian line ran west from Saint-Symphorien, where the 2nd Division had advanced to, around the south and western outskirts of Mons to Nimy, where the 3rd Division was centred.

11TH HOUR — DID NOT KNOW THE WAR WAS OVER

The attack on Mons began at 23:00 on November 10 with 3rd Division infantry advancing from the east, south, and north ends of the city. By daybreak, the last of the remaining Germans (who had begun their retreat around midnight) had been pushed out. It was around this time, 06:30 on November 11, that Canadian Corps HQ received a message from Allied High Command that hostilities were to cease at 11:00 that morning. As it took some time for word to reach all units, the pursuit of the retreating Germans continued that morning, with 3rd Division infantry pushing to a point almost five miles east of Mons and Brutinel’s troops with the 2nd Division pushing from the south.

Early on November 11, the Independent Force set out from Frameries ahead of the 6th CIBn through the suburb of Spiennes to the southeast of Mons. The “very bad state of the roads,” however, prevented the Force from “gaining touch” with the retreating enemy, save for one armoured car in the village of St. Antoine by 10:30. Major Humphrey from the “C” Company Cyclist described the last advance made by Canadian Cyclists in the Great War on November 11 like this:

Company left Frameries at 06:30 hours and moved to Spiennes to co-operate with the 2nd CMMGB — the latter were unable to get as far as Spiennes owing to roads being blown. At 10:00 hours Canadians received word that hostilities would cease at 11:00 hours and a message was received by the Company to withdraw to Frameries. The company came under heavy shell fire from 10:45 hours to 11:00 hours, but fortunately no one was hit. Company passed the day and night in Frameries.

Cyclist Macnab recalled how the end of the war ended for members of “B” Company of the Canadian Corps Cyclist Battalion: “On November 11th there was naturally a big celebration in Mons, including a march past, but some of our men who were then over three miles past Mons did not know that the war was actually over at 11 o’clock until a German official car came through to arrange the take-over by the British.”

Most Cyclists — Canadian soldiers overall — shared Captain George Scroggie’s sentiment:

I breathed a sigh of relief when the hour of the armistice arrived. We got back to Frameries that night and I had a hot bath and went to bed around 9 p.m. and slept soundly until 7 a.m., when I was awakened by the noise of a babble of voices outside the windows of my room. There was a big project under way as the housewives of Frameries were washing the cobblestones of the main street of the town for the Prince of Wales was due to come to town that morning and was going to make a speech at the Town Hall of Frameries.

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