Heroes of the Hundred Days

W. W. MURRAY August 15 1929

Heroes of the Hundred Days

W. W. MURRAY August 15 1929

Heroes of the Hundred Days

During the last hundred days of the War, twenty-eight V.C.’s were awarded to Canadians

W. W. MURRAY

OF THE sixty-one Victoria Crosses awarded to soldiers of the Canadian Corps during the whole four years of the Great War, twenty-eight were bestowed for deeds of valor performed in the last hundred days.

“Between August 8 and November 11,” says the report of the Corps Commander, Sir Arthur Currie, “the following had been captured:

Prisoners..........31,537

Guns (Heavy and Field) ..... 623

Machine Guns........2,842

Trench Mortars (Heavy and Light) . . 336

“Over 500 square miles of territory and 228 cities, towns and villages had been liberated, including the cities of Cambrai, Denain, Valenciennes and Mons. “From August 8 to October 11 not less than fortyseven German Divisions had been engaged and defeated by the Canadian Corps; that is, nearly a quarter of the total German forces on the Western Front.”

Seven Awards for One Day’s Fighting

'"T'HOSE last three months of the war witnessed grim ■*and bitter fighting. In the thick of it battled the Canadians, launching their thunderbolts one after the other, staggering the enemy with violent hammer-blows, making of each captured position a base for a new attack. ' .íe enemy contested every foot of the ground. They fought back with a sullen, stubborn fury, recoiling only to gather themselves for the next shock.

The battle which saw the Drocourt-Queant defense line fall to the valor of the Canadian troops opened on September 2. Seven Canadians were awarded the Victoria Cross on that day, the largest number that was ever bestowed within the Corps for acts of bravery in one single day’s operations. Among them were a battalion commander, Lieutenant-Colonel C. W. Peck, a native of Hopewell Hill, New Brunswick, and Commanding Officer of the 16th Battalion (Canadian Scottish); and a medical officer, Captain B. S. Hutcheson, attached to the 75th (Central Ontario) Battalion. He was one of the four United States born members of the Canadian Corps who received this exalted distinction; his birthplace was Mt. Carmel, N.Y. The five other heroes were No. 410,935 Private C. J. P. Nunney, of Dublin, Ireland, whose unit was the 38th (Ottawa) Battalion; No. 426,420 Acting Sergeant A. G. Knight, of Mead Vale, England, and a non-commissioned officer in the 10th (Alberta) Battalion; No. 22614 LanceCorporal W. H. Metcalf, M.M., born in Waite, State of Washington, U.S.A., who served in the 16th Battalion; No. 2,204,279 Private W. L. Rayfield, of Richmond, England, a member of the 7th (British Columbia) Battalion; and 177,239 Private J. F. Young, Kidderminster, England, a stretcher-bearer of the 87th (Quebec) Battalion. Of this heroic group Sergeant Knight and Private Nunney gave their lives in the performance of the deeds which brought them the honor.

One of the seven is chosen—by no definite process of selection at all—to illustrate Canadian valor on that day.

Lieutenant-Colonel Peck, a most gallant officer, led his men in the attack on the Drocourt-Queant Line, the 16th Battalion being on the right of the 1st (the Old Red Patch) Division. Eighteen tanks were employed on the divisional front. From the moment the artillery barrage opened at five a.m., the attack progressed with uniform success and according to plan. The Highlanders had to traverse about a mile and a half of country that was flat and open, but seared with trenches and tangled with barbed wire, before they reached their objective — the support defenses of the Drocourt-Queant system. Southwest of the village of Cagnicourt, however, the attack slowed up, due to heavy flanking fire from the south. The troops operating on the right had been unable to advance at the same rate as the Highlanders. The ground was higher, and on it were German artillery batteries and many machine guns which raked the Canadian lines with devastating effect. The right of the 16th was checked.

No picture of the manner in which LieutenantColonel Peck earned his Victoria Cross is better painted than the one presented in the words of Sir Archibald Macdonell, K.C.B., the General Officer Commanding the 1st Canadian Division. Writing in the Canadian Defence Quarterly, Sir Archibald, in his own whimsical style, has this to say:

“It was at this juncture that Colonel Peck (on whom I had conferred the honorable sobriquet of ‘MacPeck’ for never-failing valor, and in keeping with his commanding a splendid Highland battalion), performed prodigies of valor and leadership which materially helped the right flank forward and eventually won for himself one of the best fighting V.C.’s on the Western Front, so far-reaching were the results of his leadership. He went back under terrific fire and secured some tanks and showed them where to go to assist the advance, but probably due to engine trouble and shortage of petrol, they only went part way, turned about and retired. But his tireless and fearless efforts got the right flank forward and captured many prisoners.”

Sir Archibald adds a footnote. “I was credibly informed,” he says, “that when the advance was held up in front of the Bois de Bouche, he walked along the front of his line and the 15th Battalion, cheering up the men and saying: ‘She’s a bear, boys; by God, she’s a bear,’ and got them all laughing and in good fettle.”

The official citation naturally contains no touch of humor: it is always severely terse. After having outlined the critical nature of the situation and LieutenantColonel Peck’s solo reconnaissance “under heavy machine gun and sniping fire,” it sums the matter up with great economy of words as follows:

“His magnificent display of courage and fine qualities of leadership enabled the advance to be continued, although always under heavy artillery fire, and contributed largely to the success of the brigade attack.”

At the Canal du Nord

rT'HE breaking of the Drocourt-Queant Line ended the Battle of Arras. On September 3 the Canadian Corps continued the advance, and battalions of the 1st Division reached the northern outskirts of Inchy, within two hundred yards of the Canal du Nord. They were then on ground adjacent to that over which General Byng’s Third Army had fought in November, 1917, during that battle of Cambrai which just missed being an overwhelming success. On September 27, the Canadian Corps followed the trail blazed by their old commander, and completed the work he had begun. From that point on to Valenciennes the fighting was continuous; the infantry were daily at handgrips with the enemy. Attack followed attack until the enemy’s resistance collapsed. When the Canal du Nord operations ended and the Battle of Cambrai commenced, when Cambrai finished and the engagement which ended in the fall of Valenciennes started, arc questions which the ordinary man in the field could not answer. To him it was all one colossal and long-drawn-out struggle, and that is clearly illustrated by the fact that for the most part the awards of the Victoria Cross were made for repeated acts of bravery performed not on one, but on a number of succeeding days.

The Canal du Nord itself was a work that had been under construction when the war broke out. East of Inchy was a dry stretch, about 2,600 yards long. North of the town, as far as the Trinquis River, the channel and the land in the immediate neighborhood had been flooded and were impassable. Sir Arthur Currie’s plan was to have the entire Corps cross the canal on this mile-and-a-half front, and gradually fan out to a frontage of between eight and nine miles as the advance progressed on the other side. The whole region was dominated by the formidable, fortified heights of Bourlon Wood. In the Canal du Nord fighting— operations which took the Canadian Corps right to the gates of Cambrai—five Victoria Crosses were won. Their recipients were Lieutenant M. F. Gregg, M.C., the Royal Canadian Regiment, and a native of New Brunswick; Lieutenant S. L. Honey, 78th (Manitoba) Battalion, whose home was St. Catharines, Ont.; Lieutenant G. F. Kerr, M.C., M.M., the 3rd (Toronto) Battalion, born at Deseronto, Ont.; Lieutenant G. T. Lyall, 102nd (Central Ontario) Battalion, an English-born Canadian from Manchester; and Captain J. C. MacGregor, M.C., D.C.M., the 2nd Canadian Mounted Rifles, whose birthplace was Nairn, Scotland.

An Amazing Record

'"THE record of Lieutenant Lyall is an extraordinary one. His captures in two days amounted to the following;

3 Officers;

182 Other Ranks;

26 Machine Guns;

1 Field Gun.

His citation makes it clear that these were “exclusive of heavy casualties inflicted.”

The 102nd Battalion were on the extreme right of the Canadian Corps, and soon after crossing the Canal du Nord they ran into galling machine-gun fire which came from the sugar factory on the Cambrai-Bapaume Road. The battalion, due to the failure of their right-flank troops to keep pace with them, were forced to switch from their allotted line of advance and capture this pile of buildings. It was in this vicinity that Lyall “rendered invaluable support to the leading company, which was held up by a strong point which he captured by a flank movement, together with thirteen prisoners, one field gun and four machine guns.”

The advance continued, but Lyall’s company was greatly weakened. Casualties had been severe, and at the southern fringe of Bourlon Wood few men were left to attack the obstacles now confronting them. However, this officer was equal to the emergency. “Collecting any men available,” his citation says, “he led them toward the strong point, and springing forward alone, rushed the position singlehanded and killed the officer in charge, subsequently capturing at this point forty-five prisoners and five machine guns. Having made good his final objective, with a further capture of forty-seven prisoners, he consolidated his position and thus protected the remainder of the company.”

This amazing record might reasonably be thought enough for one man; but the 102nd officer was intent on winning the war. The fighting was carried away from the Cana! du Nord and Bourlon Wood toward Cambrai; and in the bitter battles waged northwest of that city, Lieutenant Lyall again distinguished himself. His company on October 1 was reduced to fifty men, and with this little force Lyall operated on the right of the battalion at j Bleeourt. In the conflict on that day he captured a strong enemy position, and with it seventeen machine guns and eighty prisoners. “He showed throughout the utmost valor and high powers of command,” the citation concludes.

“The attack continued on September 28,” says Sir Arthur Currie. “The 3rd Canadian Division captured Fontaine: Notre-Dame and, penetrating the Mar¡ coing Line, reached the western outskirts of St. Olle.”

It was in this attack on the Marcoing Line that Lieutenant Gregg earned the ! Victoria Cross. The story of how this New Brunswicker conducted himself on , that day is graphically outlined by [ J. F. B. Livesay in “Canada’s Hundred ] Days.” It reads:

“Lieutenant Milton Fowler Gregg, Royal Canadian Regiment, a native of J Mountain Dale, N.B., when the advance j of the 7th Brigade on September 28 against the Marcoing Line was held up by heavy machine-gun fire on both flanks and thick uncut wire in front of the enemy trench system, crawled forward alone and explored the wire until he found a small gap. Through this he led his men, organizing parties which went right and left along the trench. The enemy counterattacked in force, and through lack of bombs the situation became critical for his company. Although wounded in the head and weakened by loss of blood, he started back alone to our attacking line, and going from one company to another collected a further supply of bombs which he carried back, suffering a second wound, this time in the side. He found but a handful of his men left, but he quickly reorganized them and started to bomb the enemy out of his defense system. This consisted of a series of short trenches three to seven yards long, and the enemy advanced over the top to the attack, time after time. But at length he cleared the system, himself killing eleven and taking twenty-five prisoners.

Notwithstanding his severe wounds he steadfastly refused to be evacuated. On September 30 he again led his company in to the attack, but was severely wounded and was ordered out by his senior officer. He made his report at Battalion Headquarters and then collapsed.”

Cambrai

OF THAT series of engagements which culminated in the fall of Cambrai this same writer says:

“In this battle the Canadian Corps touched its pinnacle of fame. Beyond question the battle, and especially the fighting of September 30 and October 1, was the most savage and sustained in which the Canadian Corps ever engaged . . .

“In those five days of battle the Canadian Corps dealt such a blow at the enemy that he reeled back to final defeat. Above everything else it was the unconquerable spirit of all ranks that gained the decision. Notwithstanding his lavish outpourings of blood, he had not shaken a whit our stranglehold on his vital pivot of Cambrai.”

This “unconquerable spirit” was well manifested in the deeds of heroism which earned the Victoria Cross for another quartette of Canadians between October 1 and November 1. They were 8,000 Sergeant W. Merrifield, a native of Brentwood, England, and a non-commissioned officer of the 4th (Western Ontario) Battalion; Captain C. N. Mitchell, of Winnipeg, 4th Canadian Engineers Battalion; Lieutenant W. L. Algie, who was born at Alton, Ont., and served with the 20th (Central Ontario) Battalion; and 472,168 Sergeant H. Cairns, D.C.M., of Newcastle, England, and a member of the 46th (Saskatchewan) Battalion. Both Lieutenant Algie and Sergeant Cairns gave their lives in performing the acts for which they were awarded the cherished honor

The Canadian Corps attacked due north of Cambrai on the morning of October 1, with all four divisions in line. At the extreme left operated the 4th Battalion, flanked on either side by the 1st Battalion and a battalion of the Notts and Derbys. The narrative of operations of the 1st Division says in part:

“The 1st Battalion secured the line of the railway north of Blecourt, but were unable to get beyond owing to the intense fire from Abancourt. On the left, the 4th Battalion got to within 200 yards of the railway, but were definitely held up there.”

It is at this point that Sergeant Merrifield enters on the scene, and the story is best told in his own words, recorded in the Sault Ste. Marie Star in January of this year.

“We were on the extreme left of the Canadians,” said Sergeant Merrifield, “and on our left was a gully with the Notts and Derbys regiment across the gully. A big German was standing on the railway 100 yards away, making signals. Our Lewis gun had no effect on him, and I grabbed the gun. I couldn’t hurt him and figured he had armor on. So I went on and he came at me with a bayonet. But I shot him when a few feet away. I went after three more in a machine-gun nest. I clubbed two and the third was tangled in the netting over the nest: I got him, too. I got into the hole and stayed there a few minutes, I suppose. Anyway, when I was looking around the country I saw seven or nine Germans sixty yards away with one machine-gun cleaning up our No. 6 platoon . . .

“No. 6 platoon was being slaughtered, so I got out of the hole and decided to clean up the German machine-gun crew. I had four bombs. I slipped between the second and third strands of a barbed wire fence and never touched a wire; and I got shot in the arm doing so. I was then about sixty feet from the machine-gun nest. It was all high ground with a hard chalk surface that the shells didn’t make much of a hole in. Anyway I ducked into a few and just as the Germans saw me I threw a bomb -two of them. That settled them. My ‘battle equipment’ was only half used -I didn’t need the other two bombs. I must have hit the hole fair and square because all the men dropped.

“But I was facing our No. 6 platoon and the Germans were firing at me from behind. That was when I got three bullets in the back, and one missed my backbone by a hair. Nineteen stitches I needed. I crawled 100 feet to our own fellows and said I was all in. I had the idea nobody else could run my Lewis gun there. The boys told me to get out— that they could handle the affair. That was about eight or nine o’clock.”

Sergeant Merrifield, later awarded the King’s commission and the Victoria Cross, was able to make his way to the dressing station. He had served, his citation says, “with exceptional distinction on many former occasions, and throughout the action of the 1st October showed the highest qualities of valor and leadership.”

Editor’s Note: Mr. Murray’s seventh and final article on the Canadian V.C.’s will follow in an early issue.