On the northern plain of France, standing above slag heaps and beneath an overcast of smoke from the coal towns of Lille and Lens, two high columns of stone leap up from the summit of a long hill. Nearly any spring or summer day within the last forty years it has been possible to see a tourist or two, or perhaps ten or twenty or a hundred, walking carefully up the long, not very steep hill, up the steps to the shafts of stone, stopping to take a photograph or two and then going back down the hill. Often there will be a greying and mildly complaining woman in tow. A boy or a girl might be there as well, grandchildren now most likely, children in the earlier years.
The place these people have come to is the ridge of Vimy. Though there are other places a good deal like Vimy Ridge on the industrial plains of northern Europe, there is none the same in the heart and history of Canada. Here in April 1917 the Canadian Corps fought and won a great though largely fruitless battle. Here their country learned to its great pride and faint dismay that it had become an important factor in the destiny of nations.
The Vimy Ridge in 1917 stood at the heart of an escarpment, seven miles long, on which the Germans had anchored their whole position in northern Europe. Like Ypres and Verdun, Vimy was already a celebrated place-name. The Germans had dug in there in 1914. The French had tried to dislodge them in 1915. Now, in April of 1917, the ridge had both a military and a spiritual meaning. It was part of a complex of forts, redoubts, dormitories, parlors and passageways that in contrast to the muddy wallows of Ypres and the Somme seemed almost luxurious. On the high dry ground of the escarpment and the slopes leading up to it, the Germans had had two full years in which to build and improve their permanent trenches. Here the Hollywood version of a Prussian battalion commander with his monocle, his bird and his bottle was not only possible but occasionally true.
Behind the front the Allied positions, centred on the old walled city of Arras, were a maze of caves and tunnels, many of them centuries old and left over from earlier wars. By careful attention and reworking, this honeycomb had achieved some of the utility of a good hardrock mine. There were miles of wire for telephones and lights. There was a tramline and an underground hospital. Twenty-five thousand men could be housed safely in the hidden depths. When needed they could be moved through the tunnels and catacombs to the front line without the usual hazards of shelling on open roads, duckboards or communication trenches.
But the attack from Arras had far more to recommend it than these local advantages. In a sense that could not be measured by the men waiting to rush up the hill of Vimy, the year in which they lived—and in which many of them died was already in a state of crisis and convulsion unsurpassed by any other single year in man’s whole stay on earth.
In the fifteen tumultuous months from September 1916 to November 1917 the Germans fired their high commander. The French fired their high commander. The British threw out their government. The beaten and bedraggled battalions of Russia turned their backs on their foes and began to fight their masters. The German general staff, now resigned to the implacable fact that it could not win the war on the ground, forced the German government to accept a program of unrestricted war by submarine. The United States of America entered the war officially.
Some of these things had not happened by the early spring of 1917 and of those that had happened not all were known to the Allied soldiers who attacked east of Arras on April 9. On their part of the front the line wavered as it curled past Arras. The Germans held a blunt salient toward the south of the city. The Allied decision to attack there, like so many command decisions in the war of 1914-18, was mainly decreed by the lack of anything better to do. Decisions of equal moment were once assessed in this way by the chief intelligence officer to the British commander-in-chief, Sir Douglas Haig: “Allenby shares one peculiarity with Douglas Haig: he cannot explain verbally, with any lucidity at all, what his plans are. In a conference between the two of them it is rather amusing. DM hardly ever finishes a sentence, and Allenby’s sentences, although finished, do not really convey exactly what he means. They understand one another perfectly, but as each of their particular staffs only understands their immediate superior, a good deal of explanation of detail has to be gone into afterward. . . . At these army conferences no one dares to interfere.”
The night of April 8, 1917, was Easter Sunday. The strength of the Canadian Corps, including attached British troops, stood at 170,000. Fifteen thousand of its assault infantrymen moved into position through the tunnels from Arras.
Already little gaps had been cut in the barbed wire by special patrols and larger holes had been made by an almost unlimited artillery bombardment of two weeks.
By four o’clock on the freezing morning of Easter Monday every battalion was in place, most of them no more than a hundred yards from the enemy. It rained on them through most of the night and then in the cold black of early morning the rain changed to sleet and snow. But by the start hour, every man in the assault force had been given a hot meal and a tot of rum to fortify him against the historic day ahead.
No battle had ever been more carefully planned or mounted. Before they made their strange journey through the weird chalk tunnels from Arras, most of the assaulting infantry had gone through elaborate practice manœuvres. They had used white tapes to help them learn their routes of travel and their officers had pored for weeks over plasticene models of the ground ahead. And above them all the shape of the coming battle was being discerned and drawn by the pilots of the Royal Flying Corps, many of them Canadians too. As the RFC pried behind the German lines, interceptors rose to meet them and one of the first and greatest of dogfights swirled above the waiting soldiers below.
In the last minutes of the cold night before the attack, the artillery finished its work. Besides the usual curtain of high explosives on the forward positions, a heavy barrage of gas shells was thrown into the German rear. The greatest and most decisive casualties of the gas were not men but horses. They died in hundreds and, when the infantry attack began, the German communications system was in chaos. The troops at the front ran short of ammunition. The artillery had no means of locomotion. The main Allied rush across the sleet-drenched hillside therefore was given a chance to succeed.
On some parts of the ridge the very depth and safety of the German trenches now betrayed their defenders. When the Allied artillery fire stopped it took as long for the German garrisons to clamber up to the surface as for the attacking troops to pour across the tiny strip of No Man’s Land. In the first rush nearly 3,500 Germans surrendered. In one of the many impregnable tunnels a hundred and fifty German soldiers came up dazed and half-dressed with their hands aloft.
In any recital of military events there is a strong temptation to depend only on the memories of the victors. At Vimy Ridge an account by one of the defeated Germans says this: "No sooner had it been decided to abandon the battalion headquarters at the tunnel entrance than the first English appeared two hundred yards away and brought a machine gun into action at the Ruhleben House. Pursued by the fire of this troublesome gun, the battalion commander, his stall and twenty men went back along the communication trench, knee-deep in mud, toward the second-line position; but most of the staff and all the men were killed or wounded before reaching it.”
At a more practical level another German account of Vimy Ridge describes in this way the situation not long after dawn: “Nothing was yet known of the situation of the infantry on the ridge, since all telephone cables leading forward, including one buried six feet deep, had been broken, and patrols sent forward could bring no enlightenment.”
The four Canadian divisions in the attack panted up the slope, some throwing grenades, some carrying awkward cylindrical Lewis guns on their hips, the great majority armed with bayonets and rifles and shooting through the rising fog and snow against an enemy they could not see. Not surprisingly, they achieved feats of great courage and folly. One officer, with only two men in support, leaped into one of the enemy trenches and captured two officers and seventy-five other ranks. By early morning of that famous Easter Monday the snow had stopped and those who had burst across the No Man’s Land of Vimy and gained its height could look out on the great plain beyond. One of the Germans near by has reported the scene in this way: “The cessation of the snowstorm lifted the veil which had till now hidden the landscape, and we saw a remarkable sight. The air was suddenly clean and clear, filled with spring sunshine. The high ground . . . was covered with English troops standing about in large groups. The officers could easily be distinguished waving their short sticks in the air and hurrying from group to group to give instructions. For a few minutes the artillery fire almost ceased on both sides and complete silence fell upon the battlefield, as if all were lost in wonder. The battle itself seemed to hold its breath.”
Though Vimy is rightly counted as one of the great Canadian military successes, it was not a decisive victory. Having been warned of the forthcoming attack by more than two weeks of heavy artillery bombardment, the Germans were already prepared to make an orderly withdrawal if they should lose their forward trenches. One German record says: “Innumerable crowds of working parties labored . . . at the repair and deepening of the defense system. Night and day in unbroken sequence trains from the Homeland laden with material and munitions reached the main depots. Mountains of shells were piled up in the ammunition dumps. The construction of the defenses . . . was completed. The enemy could come.”
Then too, the Allies were simply running out of sinew. The French had agreed to support the Arras offensive with another major offensive farther to the south. But the poilus who had so staunchly given so much to save their country in 1914, 1915 and 1916 were now, through the sheer weight of misery and futility, in a state bordering on mutiny. Their officers, even up to the rank of army commander, were in the same condition. It was not surprising, therefore, that the French part of the attack of April 1917 was an unenthusiastic failure. Assaulting toward and through objectives with the tragic names of the Road of the Women and the Hill of No Name, the French were turned back everywhere. The British were beginning to lose their effectiveness too. Like the French, they had run out of time for training and were starting to run out of men. Many of their junior officers were beardless schoolboys. As for the other ranks, a colonel of no less a regiment than the immortal Black Watch had this to say of one large draft of reinforcements that reached him in the early stages of Arras: "These men, hastily put into kilts, had undergone no infantry training. . . . Some could not fix bayonets and some could not load their rifles when they arrived.”
The usually objective British official history, published after twenty years of careful retrospect, offers a reason why the Canadians did so well in the spring of 1917 while other equally gallant formations did relatively badly. “The capture of Fresnoy was the culminating point of brilliant successes by the Canadian Corps during the Arras battles, and the relieving feature of a day which many who witnessed it consider the blackest of the war. . . . One of the factors in this isolated success was undoubtedly the high standard of the Canadian infantry reinforcements. It had been pointed out that British divisions which began a long-drawn-out battle in a high state of efficiency suffered a very serious falling-off as the ranks of their battalions became filled with inadequately trained drafts. The Canadian drafts had not only as a rule undergone more training but were also rather older men and often of better physique. Thus a Canadian division appeared to deteriorate very little after taking part in several engagements at short intervals of time. The same applied to a great extent to the Australian and New Zealand troops, though the Australians, who maintained in the field more formations than the Canadians from a smaller though more homogeneous population, were at a disadvantage by comparison with them.”
The portents for the Allies, though reasonably good at Vimy, were far less hopeful elsewhere. When the time came for the supporting French offensive, many of the French simply would not fight. As had happened at Ypres in 1915, thousands of colored colonial conscripts were in the van of the battle, but had no idea what they were doing there. When the order reached them to leave their trenches and move into the killing hail of machine-gun fire, most of the Senegalese consulted their instincts and their logic and went the other way.
The morale of the French continental divisions was in a similar state. There had been many upheavals in the high command and before the April offensive the promising but colorless Robert Georges Nivelle was given the desperate task of picking up after Joffre and Foch.
Nivelle’s army was soon in a state of anarchy. Fifty divisions either mutinied outright or threatened mutiny. There were twenty thousand desertions by men who preferred a possible death by court-martial to a certain death by the German guns.
At last Henri Pétain replaced the broken Nivelle. Pétain shot twenty soldiers after courts-martial. He exiled another hundred, and herded two hundred more into an artillery range, zeroed big guns on them, and simply blew them up. By these harsh measures, together with the memory of his victory at Verdun, he restored the French army as a military unit.
Even crueler events lay only the distance of a summer ahead. In the last months of 1917 the Canadian Corps was withdrawn from France and thrown again into the great killing ground of Flanders. This time its objective was the small and soon to be immortal village of Passchendaele, barely five miles beyond Ypres. Since the stalemate on the Western Front had set in three years earlier, neither side, for all its millions of dead and wounded, had been able to win more than a few ruined little French and Belgian farmyards.
Haig's new plan, after his failure at Arras and his earlier failure on the Somme, was to move back and try again in the north. Here, he had persuaded himself, he could either break through and sweep up the coast of the North Sea or, failing that, wear the Germans into surrender. If the fighting was kept up "at the present intensity” for six more months, he predicted, Germany would run out of men.
Lloyd George tried to dissuade Haig from the Passchendaele attack, but did not have the courage to forbid it. Sir William Robertson, chief of the Imperial General Staff and Haig’s nominal superior, was skeptical of the plan too at first but then was worn out and gave up the argument. Throughout the long and deadly series of harangues and dissertations that followed in the British war cabinet the extraordinary relationship between the British prime minister and his commander at the front came into chilling focus. Lloyd George despised and distrusted Haig and considered him a wholesale murderer — but did not dare to dismiss him or risk his resignation. As for Haig, he did not despise Lloyd George but merely considered him a regrettable nuisance; the notion that he, an officer of cavalry and a lifetime professional soldier, should be compelled to discuss military strategy with a Welsh radical grated on Haig’s every instinct, but in the main he kept his temper far better than did his civilian superior.
Yet it was touch and go whether Haig would have his way. At the end of a meeting of the war cabinet’s inner policy committee in mid-June, Lloyd George wrote a devastating critique of the new battle proposals. Whether he was really bent on exercising his authority as prime minister or on protecting his position in history is a nice question, in view of his ultimate capitulation. At any rate, the brilliant Welshman saw almost a dozen flaws and pitfalls in the enterprise in Flanders. While Haig and Robertson were suggesting a collapse of civilian morale in Germany they had forgotten that another costly failure might have disastrous effects on public opinion in Britain and the Empire. The Allies were equal to the Germans in guns and had only the barest advantage in manpower, and these calculations were based on the by no means sure assumption that the French had recovered from the bloodbath of Verdun, their mutinies, and their turmoils of command.
For any reasonable chance of success in the kind of war being waged in Europe, the attack needed a decisive advantage in men and weapons. Lloyd George specifically asked how anyone could be sure that the new offensive would not end as Vimy Ridge had done, with “brilliant preliminary successes, followed by weeks of desperate and sanguinary struggles, leading to nothing except perhaps the driving of the enemy back a few barren miles—beyond that nothing to show except a ghastly casualty list.” His alternative plan was to stay on the defensive in the north, send artillery to Italy, and trust that the hitherto ineffective Italians might knock Austria out and thus destroy the Central Powers’ whole position in the Balkans.
But Haig and his now persuaded boss, Robertson, marched back to Downing Street the next day and issued what amounted to an ultimatum. They had gone over their plan again and were sure it was sound; the inescapable implication was that the cabinet could accept it or get new planners. Whether they liked it or not, neither soldier could afford the politicians’ dream of fighting a war painlessly. They would never have got to be commanders if they had not realized that the object of war is to kill people—more of the enemy than your own, but if needed a great number of your own as well.
Robertson, confident of a superiority of numbers, said bluntly: "We should follow the principle of the gambler who has the heaviest purse and force our adversary's hand and make him go on spending until he is a pauper.” Great mistakes of strategy, he was sure, had been made by "endeavoring to find a fresh way around.”
Haig went on to a more detailed expansion over his battle map, his estimates of gains, and relative strengths and casualties on both sides. Lloyd George was unimpressed, but still did not take a firm or final stand.
It was a month before the wavering cabinet was half bullied and half coaxed into authorizing the commanders to go ahead with the new attack in Flanders. When he came to write his version of the discussions in his memoirs Lloyd George’s fury at having allowed himself to be overruled was entirely visited on Haig. Haig had lied to him about the simple facts, the prime minister said. Furthermore, Lloyd George blamed the whole “insane enterprise” on “inexhaustible vanity that will never admit a mistake . . . individuals who would rather that the million perish than that they . . . should own—even to themselves—that they were blunderers.” Haig had achieved, his superior concluded when cause and effect could be weighed together, “a narrow and stubborn egotism unsurpassed among the records of disaster achieved by human complacency.”
But Haig had his way at last and his massive attack exploded in midsummer with seventeen divisions ready to assault on a fifteen-mile front and seventeen more divisions in immediate reserve, a hundred thousand men in the first wave and almost a million more behind them as reinforcements and on the lines of communication.
The discussions and preparations had been so elaborate and prolonged that the Germans knew almost as much about them as the Allies. The Germans assigned their best defensive commanders to an arena almost perfect for defense. Because of the Flanders mud, which he knew would get worse with every day of the fall rains, Friedrich Sixt von Armin, the general assigned to stop the British, decided to change the hitherto almost unvaried system of trench defense. Instead of putting his Fourth Army shoulder to shoulder in drenched and shallow furrows, Sixt von Armin built a mass of pillboxes—five lines of them in all—filled them with machine guns and dispersed his infantry behind in relative safety and comfort but ready to move forward when and as the machine-gun posts were threatened.
The flat and marshy ground into which the British, Australians, and New Zealanders wallowed in the first weeks of the attack had no drainage system after the first bombardment wiped out the ditches and dikes. This country originally had belonged to the sea and—as was to occur in Holland in another war twenty-five years later—its defenses needed little disturbing before the whole landscape began seeding the sea again and became a quagmire.
Haig, the devoted cavalryman, had an idea that he could have his infantry and artillery make an initial break in the German front and then pour his mounted troops through. Failing that, he intended to thrust ahead with his new-fangled cavalry, the tanks. But the cavalry proved even more helpless in the mud than the infantry. As for the tanks, one of their commanders on the ground was soon forced to the judgment that: "To anyone familiar with the terrain in Flanders it was almost inconceivable that this part of the line should have been selected. If a careful search had been made from the English Channel to Switzerland, no more unsuitable spot could have been discovered.” The Tank Corps tried to warn General Sir Hubert Gough's Fifth Army of the floods that would inevitably follow the bombardment and sent topographical diagrams to prove the point. It was answered with a staff officer's order: “Send us no more of these ridiculous maps.”
Almost every one of the predictable disasters came true. The tanks were virtually useless and many of their crews had to bail out and be massacred in the mud. The German counterbarrage cut up the Allied communication wires. Infantry battalions got lost in the first dark dawn and fell under their own set artillery barrages. A disastrous rain began in the early morning. By nightfall three assault brigades of the British 55th Division had lost nearly three men out of four in killed, wounded, and missing, and Gough's Fifth Army had lost one in three. As the disastrous day went on Haig and Gough congratulated each other on a "great success” and Haig observed genially of the streams of wounded coming back to the field hospitals that they were "very cheery indeed."
It rained incessantly for four days and nights, and by the end of the first month the only provable result of the offensive was the loss of 75,000 Allied soldiers and 50,000 Germans. In the murderous sequence of attack and counterattack one little clump of woods changed hands nineteen times.
And this was only the start of what Lloyd George called "the bovine and brutal game of attrition." It went on and on, relieved by only a few particularly impossible stretches of rain. It went on through August, September and October and into November. No one knows or will ever know how many casualties it cost, for, as Lloyd George admitted, there were not enough clerks to count them and the official and semi-official attempts to slant the figures in favor of various armies and commanders made the various estimates almost hopelessly contradictory. One of the most plausible reckonings was that of the British War Office — half a million casualties to the Allies, 270,000 to the Germans.
An Australian officer recalled some of the more intimate details. He saw them when the front had crept on from a position he was ordered to reconnoitre: “I got to one pillbox to find it just a mass of dead, and so I passed on carefully to the one ahead. Here I found about fifty men alive. . . . Never have I seen men so broken or demoralized. They were huddled up close behind the box in the last stages of exhaustion and fear. Fritz had been sniping them off all day, and had accounted for fifty-seven that day—the dead and dying lay in piles. The wounded were . . . unattended and weak, they groaned and moaned all over the place. . . . Some had been there four days already.”
The Australians and New Zealanders, the immortal Anzac Corps, endured their share of the battle and then, worn out and half destroyed, were relieved by the Canadian Corps in late October.
If anything the conditions of battle had worsened along with the weather. When he was ordered to take over the main burden of the offensive, the Canadian commander, Sir Arthur Currie, demanded a short postponement. Leaving aside the difficulties of the front-line soldier, the task of tugging ammunition, food, and reinforcements through the desolation of mud in the rear had become so serious that Currie insisted on time to get his guns in place. After a good deal of wrangling he won his point.
And thus it fell to the Canadians to capture Passchendaele and add it to Ypres and Vimy among the unforgettable place-names of Canadian history.
One of the most graphic descriptions of the conditions the Canadians met has been provided by Kim Beattie, historian of the 48th Highlanders of Canada:
"The mud sea . . . was awful beyond words. Derelict guns, bodies, bloated horses and broken limbers were scattered wherever they looked. Had the plank road and duck-walks vanished into that quagmire they would still have been traced by the debris and the dead that flanked them.
"On the day that the First Division attacked, half of the battalion was detailed to the task of stretcher bearing. Carrying stretchers is an arduous job at any time, but at Passchendaele, where a man could only move a yard or so at a time without sinking to his thighs, and where the shells fell always about them and burst in the mud, it was work that defies description. Eight, ten and twelve men to a stretcher sometimes, and all exhausted before one load was given into the hands of the CAMC.
“One sergeant, remembering a stretcher-bearing detail at Passchendaele, said this: ‘It was the dirtiest job that ever I ordered men to do. They slaved like men, but I hoped it would never be so bad again. It was slippery, as were the stretchers and the wounded—what with the mud and blood. They sank to their waists. The poor wounded lads fell off at times and had to be fixed and put on again. It took hours for a trip.’ ”
It has been charged repeatedly that no one in a position of high command really understood what Passchendaele looked like, how deep the mud was, what certain death was decreed for the men ordered to attack into that hopeless plain. According to the British historian Liddell Hart, one highly placed officer from general headquarters made his first visit to the front after four months of battle. As he saw the awful swamp ahead he burst into tears: "Good God,” he cried, "did we really send men to fight in that?"
The Canadians fought through this for neatly a month. With the sad poetry that so often rises in the hearts of men at the most abject stages of their most abject wars, the little ruins of bog and rubble ahead of them had been named Virtue Farm, Venture Farm, Vocation Farm, Venison Trench, Vanity Farm, Vine Cottage, and Vindictive Crossroads. At last the Canadian Corps won through them all and took the village of Passchendaele. It was a measure of the times that this was accounted one of the war's great victories. It yielded the Allied command about two square miles of mud.
The highly doubtful victory of Passchendaele was followed by a far more important one near the wood and town of Cambrai. This was farther south, on drier ground, where with the Fort Garry Horse of Winnipeg in the van an attack of tanks, infantry, and cavalry denied the German front by as much as five miles.
But Cambrai, important though it was, proved only the prelude to the Germans’ greatest and last attempt to win the war in one massive stroke. Russia by now had collapsed. Italy suffered the final disaster of Caporetto. The whole Eastern Front dissolved and the German command poured trainload after trainload of troops and guns into the West. In men the Germans increased their strength by a quarter, while the British strength, through battle wastage and the drying up of reinforcements, fell off by a quarter and the French were still struggling to recover their morale and will to fight.
Everyone on both sides knew that if the war went on much longer, the entry of the United States—which had now been made but had had no time to take effect—would probably turn the balance. So the German command took the inevitable gamble and staked everything on a massive assault in the west.
This final German offensive began on the first official day of the war’s last spring. March 21, 1918. Six thousand guns had been assembled behind the attacking troops, a number unprecedented even in the massive Allied attacks on the Somme and in Flanders. By the end of the first day the Allied lines had been pushed back as much as forty miles. Forty miles in a day was, of course, an unbelievable advance in a war that had come to reckon forty yards in a month a gain worth mention in the communiques.
The Germans had devised a new system of offense largely because, according to their sardonic records, "Haig's dispatches dealing with the attacks of 1917 were found most valuable, because they showed how not to do it." Their key man was an amazing sort of Colonel Blimp brought out of retirement and soon given the nickname of Durchbruchmüller, which in translation means Breakthrough Müller. Müller’s idea of breaking through was not to line his artillery up several miles behind the infantry and fire it for several hours before the attack, but to sneak it right up to the front and without even going through the ritual of ranging shots start shooting at what amounted to point-blank range. The surprise this brought to troops accustomed to stereotyped set-piece attacks was increased by another innovation. Instead of adhering to the traditional notion that an effective attack must be directed at all points of the defense, the Germans conceived and built "storm groups" of a few riflemen, a light machine gun or two, and a small mortar. Their task was to capture, surround, or just get behind the enemy positions in the assurance that stronger forces would be coming on behind them to exploit the confusion.
The Germans’ dying putsch came within only a small margin of winning the war or forcing an immediate armistice. Six days after the spring assault began, a poetic German soldier found himself, to his happy wonder, "in the English back areas . . . a land flowing with milk and honey. . . . Our men are hardly to be distinguished from English soldiers . . . Everyone wears at least a leather jerkin, a waterproof . . . English boots or some other beautiful thing. The horses are feeding on masses of oats and gorgeous foodcake . . . and there is no doubt the army is looting with some zest."
The Germans were hypnotized by their greatest error, the error of believing that they had won the war. They bypassed Arras, overwhelmed Cambrai, and broke past the Somme and the Ancre almost to the old cathedral city of Amiens. By summer it was locked in a second Battle of the Marne with the fate of Paris itself in jeopardy, as it had been in 1914.
Even Haig, who almost never conceded the slightest possibility of failure, was forced by the third week of the assault to issue his famous order that the British must stand to "the last man."
The Canadians played only a minor part in the Allied defense, but it was enough to give their commander, Sir Arthur Currie, an occasion to send one of the most memorable of all messages from a general to his men: “Looking back with pride on the unbroken record of your glorious achievements, asking you to realize that today the fate of the British Empire hangs in the balance, place my trust in the Canadian Corps, knowing that where Canadians are engaged there can be no giving way. Under the orders of your devoted officers in the coming battle you will advance or fall where you stand, facing the enemy. To those who fall I say, you will not die but step into immortality. Your mothers will not lament your fate, but will be proud to have borne such sons. Your names will be revered forever by your grateful country and God will take you unto Himself.”
This sort of rhetoric was going out of fashion in all armies—by 1918 a French or Australian officer, for instance, would quite possibly have been assassinated by his own troops for talking such sacrilegious claptrap. But the Canadians withstood Currie’s words, fought very well in their limited defensive role, and then, in August, led the great Allied thrust that finally ended the war.
The exact date of the first assault was August 8, 1918 — “the black day of the German Army” in the famous phrase of General Erich Ludendorff.
After Vimy, Passchendaele and scores of lesser actions the Canadians had become associated with attack in the German mind. When they showed up in numbers on any part of the front the enemy commanders had come to expect an assault. Accordingly a small part of the Canadian Corps was sent back to Flanders as a decoy and its main strength moved to its start line near Amiens only a few hours ahead of time. The Anzac Corps was deployed in a similar way. For once the deception worked. There were only six thinned-out divisions defending the German position before Amiens when the massive Allied drive began.
Nearly five hundred tanks supported the first thrusts and here they had solid ground to move on, not the marshy wallows of Flanders. In the first rush, which was helped by a providential mist, the Australians and Canadians stormed ahead eight miles on a front nearly fifteen miles wide. They were slowed down but then broke loose again, and as fall came on the Americans launched a great offensive from the Argonne forest behind Verdun.
By October the Canadian Corps had suffered another 16,000 casualties, but in its last great drive, in which it had the temporary help of four British divisions, it overran, cut off, or otherwise completed the destruction of nearly fifty German divisions, a quarter of the whole remaining German force in the West. Cambrai, Douai, and at last Mons were added to the far-off, famous place-names of Canadian history and the legendary Hundred Days of the Canadian Army were over.
When the whole reckoning was completed it was decided that Canada had sustained nearly a quarter of a million casualties, one in four of them fatal. When at last, to use Lloyd George’s phrase, there was enough "clerk-power” to assemble the figures for all nations on both sides, they came to 8,538,315 killed, 21,219,452 wounded, and 7,750,919 captured or missing. This awesome total of casualties did not include civilians.