CLIMAX AND CARNAGE: THE LAST HUNDRED DAYS OF CANADA’S GREAT WAR
Dr. Sean Howard
Adjunct Professor, Political Science, Cape Breton University
Campaign Coordinator, Peace Quest Cape Breton
CBU Library, Friday October 26, 2018
This event is part of the Library’s participation in The World Remembers project, displaying – for 12 hours a day, and for 49 days, from September 21 to November 9 – the names of over one million men and women in uniform, from 16 nations, killed during 1918. The display is being looked after each day by Carla White, Jasmine Hoover, and other members of the Library staff, to all of whom great thanks are due.
I’m happy to report that The World Remembers at CBU, co-sponsored by the Library and Peace Quest Cape Breton, is now listed on the Events page of Veterans Affairs Canada. If there are any veterans present, you are – as are you all – most welcome to this attempt at the impossible: to cover in 30 minutes the ‘Last Hundred Days’ of Canada’s Great War; the last and some of the darkest of (to quote historian Tim Cook) “the 1,561 days of slaughter and destruction during which the British Empire was at war”.
Though it may seem strange, even disrespectful, to use such a ‘big picture’ – such a boldly international project – to frame part of a national story, the intent is to tell that story in human terms, as much as possible in the words of those who were there.
I rely on four main sources: Cook’s Shock Troops, published in 2008; a path-breaking study from the same year by the British historian Alexander Watson, Enduring the Great War: Combat, Morale and Collapse; Nova Scotia at War, the new book by CBU’s own Brian Tennyson; and a celebrated 1930 memoir, And We Go On, by Will Bird, a Nova Scotian member of the P.B.I., the Poor Bloody Infantry.
Those ‘Hundred Days’ (actually 96) – from the eighth day of the eighth month, the start of the 7-day battle of Amiens, to the famous eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month – saw some of the bloodiest fighting on the Western Front since the mobile warfare of the first hundred days, ending with the ‘stitching’ of 440 miles of trenches, ‘housing’ millions of men, from the North Sea coast of Belgium to the French-Swiss border. The thousand-day-plus stalemate had been broken by the German Spring Offensive of March 1918, a string of futile ‘victories’ squandering vast numbers of lives while failing to capture the French and Belgian ports through which thousands of fresh, well-armed American troops – together with prodigious amounts of equipment, food, fuel, and medical supplies – were pouring each week.
Even before the Spring Offensive – a last ‘great push West’ made possible by Russia’s collapse on the Eastern Front – German soldiers and (even more) civilians were suffering horribly from the effects of Britain’s illegal ‘Starvation Blockade’. And “in order to survive” so long, as Alexander Watson writes, “against numerically superior enemies,” Germany had “had to mobilize on an unprecedented scale. In contrast to the comparatively modest 49 per cent of British military-aged males who served during the war, the German Army recruited no less than 13,387,000 men, representing 86 per cent of its eligible manpower.” By August 1918, ‘manpower’ was also ‘boy power,’ adolescents often as young as 14, and ‘elder power,’ or powerlessness, as Will Bird discovered on the first day of the ‘Last Hundred’: “all at once a German popped up directly in my path. He rose so suddenly that I shot without taking aim. As he dropped he gave a fearful groan, and to my dismay I saw he was a wizened old chap with steel-rimmed spectacles and a scraggly beard. Probably he used to do mean chores around the battery position…and in all probability he was trying to surrender. He had no weapon of any kind.”
The August 8 offensive is often ‘celebrated’ for its unprecedentedly ‘potent’ combination of forces, complete dominance of the air coupled with massive artillery superiority (including gas shells) and, as Brian Tennyson notes, “some 420 tanks, making this the first battle in which they played a major role.” But firepower alone doesn’t explain why so many German troops fled and surrendered; as Watson writes, “far from being a turning point, the Battle of Amiens simply exposed the psychological exhaustion and physical fatigue which had already taken hold”. “Even British intelligence,” he adds, “was unconvinced improved tactics were the main cause of surrenders. In some instances, large numbers of troops surrendered to trivial Allied forces: for example, eighty armed men of the 217th Division surrendered to four French soldiers,” while a British Brigadier-General ‘persuaded’ “more than twenty soldiers to surrender simply by throwing chalk and old boots at them.” As we will see, though, Watson is right to stress that “surrender nonetheless remained a highly risky course of action”.
For all the crumbling of a far-from-daunting foe, Amiens still saw much hard, close fighting. “Three German officers,” Bird remembers, “appeared as if by magic from the bowels of the earth, a dugout entrance I had not seen… They were talking earnestly and didn’t see me... I tossed a grenade. It exploded shoulder-high behind them and they went down like jackstraws. … Two were dead, one with part of his head blown away, but the third man was breathing. He was wounded in the neck and spine and looked as if he would not live five minutes. Suddenly [he] spoke, giving me a start. ‘You are Canadians,’ he said, in a good accent. Then he began groaning and twisting in pain.”
The next day, Bird’s platoon was ordered to attack without a preliminary barrage: “it seemed an odd thing, but we began to feel that nothing was real in this new area.” Shortly after, he was ordered to “locate” another “platoon”: “I said I had no map of the place, had not been there before, and could not see any landmarks to use as a guide. The major agreed it was a problem...” ‘Tactics’ were sometimes improvised by young, untested officers, as when Bird’s platoon “had reached a spot where a German machine-gun was placed so it could shoot directly down a deep trench.” An officer with, in Bird’s words, “weird ideas and no experience…ordered the men to charge up the trench and capture the gun.” When a private “told him it would be suicide to try,” he “whipped out his revolver,” saying: “I’m giving you an order!” At which point, he found himself “looking into the barrel of a Lee Enfield and hearing a voice tell him just one more move would be his last on earth. He sputtered and put his revolver back in its holster…”
Amiens also saw the surreal sight of “a massed cavalry attack…‘hitting the gap’ which the infantry had hacked open.” “But the cavalry,” as Cook notes, was designed “to attack and exploit rather than hold and defend,” and after it “rode off, the Germans reoccupied the position.” Soon, “the bodies of horses and their riders were increasingly dotting the landscape. The Canadian Cavalry Brigade suffered 245 (human) casualties from August 8 to 11, and proved once again that sabres could not defeat machine guns.” “Their charges,” Brigadier Robert Rennie lamented, “were exceedingly gallant, but futile.” No wonder, later in the Battle, one “cavalry section…refused to advance.”
Overall, Cook concedes, “there was nothing special about the Allies’ strategy,” which “consisted” mainly “of hard-pounding,” often badly misaimed. On August 9, for example, “shells fell short in the dark, and many of the Torontonians who formed much of the 75th were torn to bits by their own armaments.”
At Battle’s end, the Canadian Expeditionary Force (the CEF), “102,000 strong, had suffered 11,822 casualties”. And General Sir Douglas Haig, Supreme Commander of the BEF, the British Expeditionary Force which included the Canadians, wanted – much – more of the same: “Risks which a month ago would have been criminal to incur ought now to be incurred as a duty,” Haig thundered, “calling” in effect, as Cook says, “for storm-trooper tactics to be implemented at the operational level, although his troops exhibited far more caution as they only had to turn their minds back a few months to remember” how “the Germans, who had employed similar tactics,” had fared.
On August 26, less than a fortnight after Amiens – “denied a normal period of rest and refit,” and deprived of “many of its battle-hardened veterans” – the CEF spearheaded the next major offensive, the Battle of Arras. Some regiments, Cook notes, “were so weak that the cooks…and other usual non-combatants were ordered forward to fight.” “I can’t understand it,” wrote Private William Breckenridge: “it looks to me as though the Canadians are the only troops in France.” “There were of course” others, Cook writes, “but at the end of August,” as “neither the French nor Americans were ready to commit to a long offensive…it fell to Britain and its dominion troops to lead”.
The Battle of Arras was so brief – ten days – not because those troops were ready and willing to fight but because so many Germans were ready and willing to quit. “Soon,” Bird remembers, “we began meeting walking wounded and prisoners. The Huns were mostly young fellows and not one of them looked down-hearted.” A stretcher-bearer noted that the “wounded Germans seemed quite pleased at finding themselves in our hands,” not least, as Cook notes, because “enemy field hospitals were found to have only flimsy paper bandages – the shortage of medical supplies being one of many tangible effects of the ongoing British naval blockade.”
Nonetheless, given the sheer size and residual firepower of the German Army, the unprepared Canadians suffered grievous losses; though “despite” their “divisions being larger than British ones, they were afforded no additional stretcher-bearers or ambulances”. Referring only to the fighting of the first two days, Cook concludes: “Surely too much had been asked of the depleted forces, and the decision to both leave them in the line and not postpone the attack must fall heavily” on CEF Commander Arthur Currie, who “could have, and should have, called off the operation. The Canadians had indeed been pushed too hard.” As they were again during the Battle’s crescendo from September 1 to 5, pushing the Germans back to the Hindenburg Line – the ‘last ditch’ Canal du Nord – at the cost of 11,423 casualties.
Bird described Arras as a “perfect shambles”. His platoon was soon hit: “Every man was down and some began struggling to their feet. But the majority did not move. Hughes had not moved. He still sat on the ledge, but blood trickled from a great hole in his head. Three men beyond him were dead. Hayward was yelling that his back was on fire. Earl was lying on the floor with an eye on his cheek and terrible wounds in his stomach…” Carnage sometimes alternated with chaotic comic relief, as when Bird was approached by an angry officer. “‘How in the devil did you get here?’ he demanded. ‘We came up yesterday afternoon, sir. Why?’” –
“At a conference an hour ago, we were told this trench was held by Germans. Where are they?’
‘That I wouldn’t know,’ I said, ‘but I think you will go quite a distance before you locate any.’
His men came across the field and he formed them into a column. There were heated comments and much head-shaking. Then they filed up the slope and we watched them vanish... ‘If ever they could put all the stupid things done in this war in one book,’ said Tommy, ‘nobody would ever believe it.’”
The unbelievable, indeed, abounded: “Barlow,” Bird writes, “was sitting just ahead of me in a crater and McPhee was beside him. He looked around and said: ‘What does it feel like to be hit?’ ‘You’ll know when you get one,’ said McPhee… ‘Well,’ said Barlow, ‘nothing hit me but I can’t feel my legs.’ Suddenly, without another word, he tipped forward, dead. We pulled him over and found that a bullet had gone through his heart.”
Further chaos was caused by tens of thousands of emaciated refugees. “At one place,” Bird writes, “a pig eating at a dead horse by the roadside was driven away with shrill cries by a group of women, who attacked the carcass with knives and stripped every shred of meat... Our rations were bigger and better than they had ever been, and we gave about half our issue to children, and to mothers in whose eyes we read the story of the long paralysis of the Hun.” The primary cause of that ‘paralysis,’ of course, was the Starvation Blockade, combined with the brutally self-centred demands of the de facto military dictatorship running the officially ‘civilian’ government in Berlin: and when the Battle of Arras ended it was unclear how much longer Army Commanders Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff thought ‘they’ could fight on without risking revolution in, or occupation of, the homeland. On the ground, the end did not look in sight. “We have won our victory,” Cook quotes one Canadian, “but where have we landed? In the heart of No Man’s Land, stretching to our strained imagination in all its horror.” “Were,” Cook asks, “the 10 kilometres of machine-gun posts, concrete bunkers, shattered trenches and blasted landscape worth the butcher’s bill of 10,000 men?” And incredibly, he adds, “another 3,000…fell in the week following the battle during a supposedly quiet period that in fact witnessed heavy bombardments and cross-canal raiding.”
Haig again, Cook writes, “called on Currie’s battered troops to spearhead” the next major “assault,” on the still-formidably-defended Canal and the town of Cambrai. “Currie,” of course, “complied, although his own men grumbled he was,” again, “too willing to sacrifice their lives for the greater good of the BEF.” And ‘his own men’ now included “several thousand conscripts…rushed through basic training” and “missing key aspects of instruction.”
“Even before the battle began,” Cook notes, the Canadians “began to take casualties from fire rained down by defenders who must have stared in bewilderment as more than a thousand men lay fully exposed in long grass.” The attack began behind a stupendous barrage including 17,000 gas shells; and Tennyson is surely right to guess “most Canadians are unaware the Canadian Corps had become by now ‘the major user’ of gas shells on the Western Front.”
But, as at Amiens and Arras, the artillery wasn’t just wreaking havoc in the German lines. Soon (Cook again) “many shells were dropping short. [Private A.J.] Foster remembered the nightmare of watching a phosphorous shell explode near two men. Their hair and heads began to catch fire like roman candles, their bodies slowly enveloped in flame. Nothing could be done, as the napalm-like phosphorous came off on the hands of men trying to help”. By September 28, “after losing almost eighty percent of his company in the futile fighting, Lieutenant Joseph Sproston complained to his commanding officer: ‘This isn’t war, it’s murder. It’s just pure bloody murder.’” Five days later, October 3, the puppet-Chancellor of the German Reich, Prince Max of Baden, sent a short note to American President Woodrow Wilson, requesting he “take the initiative in bringing about peace, that he inform all the belligerent states of this request, and that he invite them to send [representatives] for purposes of beginning negotiations. The German government accepts as the basis for peace negotiations the program stated by the President…to Congress on January 8, 1918... In order to avoid further bloodshed, the German government requests the immediate conclusion of an armistice on land, at sea, and in the air.”
This ‘basis for peace’ was Wilson’s famous ‘Fourteen Points,’ seeking not just to end hostilities but inaugurate a ‘new world order’ of transparent diplomacy; armed forces “reduced to the lowest point consistent with domestic safety”; the replacement of collapsing Empires with democracies shaped by ‘self-determination’; no new colonies for the victorious imperial powers of France, Britain and Italy; and a peaceful transition to a “general association of nations…affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike”. Of most immediate concern to the warring parties on the Western Front, Points 7 and 8 stipulated complete German withdrawal from Belgium and the full return of Alsace-Lorraine, annexed by Prussia in 1870, to France.
The question by October 3 was not whether Germany believed in any or all of the Fourteen Points, but whether France and Britain did, and would thus now agree to a cease-fire, testing German seriousness and saving tens of thousands of their own soldiers’ lives. Germany, obviously no longer capable of holding Belgium or Alsace-Lorraine, was now focused on ensuring its own survival. Britain and France, however, had spent four years at total war with the principal aim of protecting their own and seizing others’ colonies: to dominate, not deconstruct, the old world order. As soon as war broke out, London and Paris opened secret talks on redrawing the imperial map of Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere. But they couldn’t admit that, or tell Wilson they thought he was crazy, so instead they persuaded him Berlin was bluffing, playing for time, that Germany should swallow the poison of unconditional surrender before any peace terms were ‘offered.’
October 3: the ‘pure bloody murder’ at the Canal and Cambrai would rage for another 8 days, shattering the ‘impregnable’ Hindenburg Line and pushing the number of Canadian dead, wounded and missing since August 8 to over 40,000: a casualty rate ten times higher than the British, with “the vast majority” of losses, as Cook stresses, falling “at the sharp end,” an infantry of “fewer than 50,000 men.”
Until the Peace Note, Watson writes, “most [German] soldiers doubted their own leaders would terminate the conflict,” looking instead “to the Allies to bring about a quick end to hostilities”: “In many units a kind of ‘learned helplessness’ set in: as one soldier observed in September 1918, ‘Humanity is so zombified and suppressed by the war that it feels too weak to do anything against it.’” This ‘learned helplessness’ resulted in the surrender of 385,000 German soldiers on the Western Front from July 18 (a French offensive) to November 11, compared to only 140,000 in the four years before the Amiens offensive. “Niall Ferguson,” Watson concludes, was “surely correct to argue,” in a paper entitled Starvation and Surrender, “that ‘surrender was the key to the outcome of the First World War.’”
When it became clear the Peace Note had been rejected, the stampede to surrender intensified, as did desire on the part of Haig and Currie to ‘waste’ less time and manpower taking prisoners. “Brass hats,” Captain Cy Peck wrote after the War, “got very blood thirsty and we had thinly veiled hints from higher up to ‘kill ’em’,” though this means, he added pointedly, “there is a pretty good chance of getting killed yourself” if you try to surrender: “if people urge men to kill, they ought to be on hand to help the killing…”
After the capture of the Canal, two main ‘prizes’ remained: Valenciennes, the last important French town in German hands, which fell to the Allies, after just two days fighting, on November 2; and the Belgian city of Mons, which would also fall in a 48-hour bloodbath, November 10-11. To be clear: both these battles were fought to violently capture ‘objectives’ certain to be peacefully secured under the terms of any conceivable, by then inevitable and imminent, Armistice; and in both battles, as Cook details, “it was openly acknowledged among the Canadians that at least some” of the German dead had been men “trying to surrender.” “One battalion,” he writes, “was even apologetic about the high number of prisoners taken, noting, ‘It was impossible to avoid taking so many as they surrendered in batches of 20 to 50, but some very useful killing was also achieved.’” And Currie, writing in 1919, bristled at the notion his men showed any mercy in the final throes: “It has never been the spirit of the Canadian Corps to relax in their efforts in killing Boches. From the very beginning the Canadian Corps has killed the enemy on every possible occasion, and would no more have thought of easing up because an armistice might have been signed in three or four days than they would have thought of running from the enemy.”
What ‘enemy,’ by this point, was left? “Morale,” as Cook says, “had never been lower,” the result not just of “heavy casualties” and “the devastating effects of the Spanish flu” – affecting both sides, but falling earlier and harder on the Germans – but also “the ongoing plight of loved ones starving at home – subsisting, in many regions, on 800 calories a day, the amount of nutritional energy needed to sustain a three-year-old.” Cook continues: “With the Germans in full retreat, there were orders from Haig’s headquarters to hound the enemy – ‘“Hustle the Hun!” was the watchword,’ although it likely resonated with few of the rank and file.”
It certainly didn’t with Will Bird and his unit, camped outside Mons on November 9 –
“‘Bird!’ It was the voice of the company-sergeant-major, harsh as a whip saw. ‘Get your section ready at once. Battle order.’
‘What’s up?’ I demanded.
‘We’re going to take Mons. No use to argue about it. Get our men ready.’
‘Just a minute,’ Tom Mills was on his feet. ‘The war’s over tomorrow and everybody knows it. What kind of rot is this?’
‘Watch what you say.’ The sergeant-major’s face was pale and set. He was not speaking in his normal voice at all. ‘Orders are orders.’”
But these were different: “Every man argued bitterly and it was difficult to get them ready. … Thirteen Platoon came along and joined us. Five or six of their men were shouting at us to turn around and attack our headquarters. The officers were worse enemies than any German. No one tried to quiet them…”
On November 10, Bird’s platoon, yet again, was hit: “We scrambled up, almost choked with fumes. ‘That was too close for comfort,” I said. No one answered me. I looked at Jones. He was seated where he had been, his chin on his hands, but blood was pouring from a great hole in the temple”. Then “there was a despairing cry behind me. I swung around to see Tom Mills falling. His brother caught him but had to let him down. ‘I’m hit,’ Tom said, and held out his arm. His wrist was almost severed. But as he sank back on the floor I saw he had a fearful wound in the stomach. He died as we looked at him.”
And then, I think, comes the most extraordinary moment in Bird’s memoir: “His brother went wild. He could not believe Tom was dead and got out his field dressing, begging me to get a stretcher bearer. Jim had such agony in his voice that I could not argue with him. I ran across the open and not a shell came.” Risking your life not to save another, but give a dead man’s brother a few more minutes of hope!
The Armistice was signed at 5:12 a.m., November 11: in the just under six hours before it took effect, 2,738 men on both sides would be killed fighting for a town one side had agreed to abandon. By 9 a.m., what was left of Bird’s unit was in the outskirts of Mons when “Old Bill came around the corner with Jim Mills. He beckoned me to him. Jim was wild-eyed, white... ‘He says he’s going to shoot whoever arranged to have his brother killed for nothing… He’s hoping Currie comes here today. If he doesn’t, he’s going to shoot the next higher-up. He says his brother was murdered.” Brian Tennyson probably wouldn’t say Tom Mills was murdered. He does, though, say that when Valenciennes fell “the war was effectively over,” and that as “the Canadians approached and encircled” Mons, “they sustained 645 unnecessary and pointless casualties.”
What was the final ‘Butcher’s Bill’ of Canada’s Last Hundred Days? 45,835 casualties, over 400 a day: around 7,000 killed, 70 a day! Some who died no doubt did so bravely, even proudly; others in simple terror and despair at losing their young lives within reach of Peace. But ‘lions’ or ‘lambs,’ they were all led to, were part of the same slaughter, and were all, in truth, just men, their humanity far more important than their nationality. The last word goes to Private George Bell, writing to his parents after a shift, aided by “a stiff tot of rum,” in a “burial team” at the Battle of Arras on September 4 –
“Too often we pull out a picture. There he stands and she beside him. How smart he looks in his new uniform and how proud and happy she looks. Here’s a family group. There he is, the others must be his father and mother and kid sisters… Damn this dirty, lousy, stinking bloody war.”