Berton's Great War

In an excerpt from his new book, the veteran author chronicles the Last Hundred Days, in which Canadians were chosen to lead the advance

September 10 2001

Berton's Great War

In an excerpt from his new book, the veteran author chronicles the Last Hundred Days, in which Canadians were chosen to lead the advance

September 10 2001

Berton's Great War


In an excerpt from his new book, the veteran author chronicles the Last Hundred Days, in which Canadians were chosen to lead the advance


The name Pierre Berton has long been synonymous not only with Canadian history but with the nations very sense of itself. Probably our best-known and most-read writer at home, Berton, 81, has popularized the past as no one else has, shaping Canada’s story into more than a dozen compelling historical books (his total output, which also includes social analyses, a novel and childrens tales, is 47 books, plus innumerable articles and columns). Bertons latest, Marching as to War: Canadas Turbulent Years 1899-1953 (Doubleday Canada), has the same narrative verve as Berton classics like The National Dream (1970) and Vimy (1986). The book will have its detractors, too: already, in a Quill & Quire review, respected historian Jack Granatstein lambasted it for being “so riddled with errors of fact and historical interpretation as to be almost completely unreliable. ” In a subsequent interview with The Toronto Star, Berton countered that historians have always dumped on his work because “they don’t like it when somebody else treads on their turf.” In fact, Granatsteins review praised Bertons “scintillating” prose, adding, “he can still take a welltrodden story and give it new life. ’’And in an interview with Maclean’s, Granatstein contended that Berton has “almost single-handedly kept narrative history alive in this country—I don’t know anyone who writes better narrative history anywhere. ” One rivetting segment of Marching as to War deals with the Last Hundred Days of the First World War, one of the bloodiest campaigns for Canadian soldiers. An excerpt:

In May, 1918, Haig took the Canadian Corps out of the line to rebuild for the coming Allied thrust planned for Aug. 8 near Amiens. Erich Ludendorff’s all-ornothing breakthrough offensives between March and July had failed after five tries. The Germans had come within a whisper of smashing out of the Ypres salient, almost destroying Gen. Gough’s British Fifth Army but ignoring the section of the front held by the Canadian Corps, perhaps, as some argued, because they had too healthy a respect for the Canadian fighting forces. Now the new Allied supreme commander, Gen. Foch, was planning a knockout blow against the badly weakened enemy. In this, the final chapter of the Great War, known to history as the Last Hundred Days, the Canadians would be chosen as the shock troops to lead the advance.

The Commanders

Lt-Gen. Sir Arthur Currie, commander, Canadian Corps

Brig.-Gen. Andrew McNaughton, commander,

Canadian Corps Heavy Artillery

Marshal Ferdinand Foch, commander-in-chief,

all Allied forces on the Western Front

Heid Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, commander,

British Expeditionary Force

Gen. Sir Henry Horne, commander,

First British Army (under which the Canadian Corps served most of the 100 days)

Gen. Sir Julian Byng, commander,

Third British Army, former commander of the Canadian Corps

Gen. Erich Ludendorff, de facto German army commander

Foch had called the corps “an army second to none,” causing some of the British to refer to the Canadians as “Foch’s pets.” But there is no doubt that these were the elite troops of the British Expeditionary Force. For two months they were trained in a new kind of warfare that suited the Canadian temperament and was really an old kind of warfare—the open style of fire and movement that the long years in the trenches seemed to have made obsolete. But the development of the tank and the new emphasis on the rifle as a platoon weapon, plus the increased mobility of the artillery, had changed the way men fought. As one Canadian gunner remarked, “It was a wild, thrilling moment to be careening over the countryside.”

The assault was touched off in early August when Currie engineered the great surprise attack of the war, moving the entire corps more than 70 miles south from Flanders to Amiens in a single week under a cloak of absolute secrecy. This intricate and seemingly impossible move stunned the German defenders. “You Canadians have no business down here,” one officer exclaimed after he was captured. “We were told you were in Flanders; how I would like to hang our fools of intelligence officers.” The surprise was so complete that when the 9th Battalion captured a German regimental headquarters, the breakfast porridge was still warm on the table.

The Canadians spearheading the attack raced forward for eight miles following the greatest barrage of the war with more than 600 guns massed along the corps front. To Ludendorff, Aug. 8 was “the blackest day of the German army in the history of the war . . . the worst experience that I had to go through....” When the news was broken to the kaiser, he told Ludendorff privately that “the war could no longer be won.” In the battle of Amiens between Aug. 8 and 11, the Allies suffered some 40,000 casualties, the enemy close to twice that number. The “war machine,” Ludendorff admitted, was no longer effective, and “the war must be ended.” His brother-in-law, who commanded the German Eighteenth Army, did his best to excuse the defeat, explaining that “we were up against the elite of the French army and the celebrated Canadian Corps.”

Ahead lay the formidable Hindenburg Line, a 20-mile labyrinth of trenches and strong points, defended villages, rivers, and sunken roads. To Currie it was “without doubt one of the strongest defences on the Western Front.” Here, on three days’ notice in August, the Canadian Corps faced one of the hardest battles in its history.

Haig had picked the Canadians to storm and smash the Drocourt-Quéant Line near Arras, a key section of the Hindenburg complex. That would be, Foch declared, “the ram with which we will break up the last line of resistance of the German army.” But the D-Q Line was stubbornly defended, and Haig realized that for him it would be a do-or-die effort. “If my attack is successful,” he said, “I will remain on as C-in-C. If we fail or our losses are excessive, I can hope for no mercy!... What a wretched lot of weaklings we have in high places at the present time!”

The Canadians saved Haig’s job on Sept. 2, smashing the D-Q Line to become the first Allied troops to break through the Hindenburg system. “The prisoners surrendered in shoals,” the commander of the Canadian Scottish, Cy Peck, reported. His was one of seven Victoria Crosses won that day, a record for the war. When 50 Germans surrendered to him, James Logan of the 39th Battery, Canadian Field Artillery, came out to get some souvenirs. “I pointed my finger at them. Down they went, saying: ‘Oh, Kamerade! Mercy, Kamerade!’ I couldn’t touch them, they were so excited. I did not get a darn thing off them.”

Later, Logan sat down and chatted with another bunch of prisoners. “You fellows got white bread?” one asked. “Will we get fresh white bread? I haven’t had any white bread for four years. I had six brothers and my dad killed in this war. I’m the last boy of the family and my mother told me when I got in front of the English to give myself up. This was my first time in front of the English. I didn’t know you were Canadians. When you started to shell this morning I came on a dead run.”

An older prisoner, “a nice distinguishedlooking man,” turned to Logan. “You don’t know it, but the war’s over,” he said. Logan asked him how he was able to speak such good English.

“I’m an English professor at the University of Berlin.” “A university professor and you’re in the war?”

“They’re scraping the bottom of the barrel. There’s nobody left. They’re taking everybody! We’ve lost the war. We should have quit long ago.”

Logan would have liked to continue this revealing conversation, but an officer arrived and stopped it: no fraternizing with the enemy.

Yet this kind of fraternization was exactly what was needed—a surefire method of assessing the Germans’ capacity to continue the war. Ludendorff’s failed lastditch stand had petered out. Germany’s growing manpower crisis should have been obvious from the presence of so many underage youths and overage draftees in her army. And conversations such as James Logan reported should have made it clear that the enemy had reached the end of its resources. Yet in spite of mounting evidence, the Allied military and political leaders were convinced that the war would continue well into 1919. All this tells us as much about the deficiencies of the British intelligence system as it does about the enemy.

In Berlin the kaiser was as demoralized as his soldiers. “Now we have lost the war!” he cried. “Poor Fatherland!” He suffered a nervous breakdown, took to his bed, and refused to get up for 24 hours.

Behind the D-Q Line another apparently impenetrable obstacle barred the way. This was the half-completed Canal du Nord, a monstrous ditch 100 yards wide. Its banks, down which troops would have to clamber, were overflowing with slime, creating a vast, impassable marsh, a miniature Passchendaele—and a potentially costly one. Behind this barrier the withdrawing Germans had formed up to frustrate the Allied advance.

A frontal assault against this flooded bulwark could be devastating, and Currie wanted no part of it. Instead, he devised a daring alternative. To the south, at the extreme limit of the corps boundary, was a dry stretch 2,600 yards long. He proposed to move two divisions south and across this narrow front. There, with the remainder of the corps following, he would fan out east and north in a semi-circular movement to take the enemy garrison from the rear. It was an intricate plan demanding speed, timing and the full co-operation of the engineers in bridging the crossing. Horne, the First Army commander, tried to talk Currie out of it. The operation, he insisted, was too complicated. When Currie stood firm, Horne turned to Julian Byng, Curries old comrade-in-arms in the Vimy days.

“Currie,” Byng told him, “I’ve read over your plans and know they are as good as can be made, but can you do it?”

The laconic Currie replied that he could.

Byng persisted: “Do you realize that you are attempting the most difficult operation of the war? If anybody can do it, you can do it, but if you fail, it means home for you.”

Currie did it. With the help of the engineers, his troops got across the canal on Sept. 27. But the enemy had no intention of withdrawing. The batde that followed was the most savage and sustained in the history of the corps. The enemy, Currie reported, “fought like cornered rats,” convincing him that the war could not be ended that year. “The Germans would keep on until beaten absolutely and totally.” The Canadians, in their turn, fought back so tenaciously that German intelligence thought they were facing at least 12 divisions rather than four.

The Canadians didn’t know it, but this was the last major battle they would fight in the Great War. Even as they crossed the Canal du Nord, the enemy was suing for peace. The Canadians captured Cambrai on Oct. 9 without a single casualty, and the German army began a general withdrawal along the entire front. Now the Canadians found themselves in the unaccustomed role of liberators. As one young subaltern put it, “The troops coming out of the line are absolutely bedecked with flowers, and the horses carry so many that the poor beasts don’t know what to make of it.”

One final assault remained—the fortifications on Mount Houy, a 150-foot hill near Valenciennes, which the British had assaulted but failed to retain. Currie had been ordered to conserve shells in case the war continued for another year, but he refused. Shells were expendable; mens lives were not. Currie told McNaughton that this would be the last barrage he would make in the war. “Well, by Jove,” McNaughton replied, “it will be a good one.”

The assault force would consist of a single infantry brigade, but McNaughtons 303 guns would deliver “the heaviest weight of fire ever to support a single infantry brigade in the whole war.” On that single day, the Canadian gunners fired almost sixty times the number of shells that had been fired by both sides in the Batde of Waterloo—a total of 2,149 tons of high explosives and shrapnel, not leaving a square yard of ground untouched. Currie’s insistence on conserving lives, not shells, had paid dividends. The Canadians suffered 80 casualties, the Germans 2,600.

Now the race was on. The Canadians took Valenciennes, a city of more than 30,000, the key to the new German defence line. The rout continued as rumours of an armistice increased. “It won’t be long now, boys,” Currie called out to the 49th Edmontons as he rode past the battalion on Nov. 8. By dawn on the eleventh, the Canadians had seized Mons.

On the morning of Nov. 11, just before the armistice was signed, the news that the war was over caused immense rejoicing among the civilians. As Pte. James Doak of the 52nd Battalion recorded, “Only those who were privileged to be in close touch with the French and Belgian troops and civilians can fully realize the tremendous hatred these people have for the Germans.”

The battalion was billeted at Wasmuel, a few miles from Mons. The civilian population was wild with joy. Down a side street Doak noticed an unusually noisy mob. “Their cries seemed filled with anger. Out of curiosity we wandered down that way and saw a sight which would be beyond the wildest dreams of even the most bloodthirsty moving picture.

“The victim was a woman; a resident who was also a war widow. She was suspected of giving information, which led to the arrest and imprisonment of several civilians. For the past year she had been living at Mons with a German officer. She had been immune to harm before, because in the event of any injury, the whole village would have suffered. But she was among them now. Her powerful German protector could protect her no more.

“Someone jostled her as she walked along. In an instant she was the target for all manner of abuse. Women tore at her hair and clothes. Men and boys threw sods and stones until the poor wretch begged for mercy. There is no doubt in my mind that she would have been torn to pieces, but some of our soldiers came along. Forcing their way through the mob they formed a guard around the woman, taking her to the guardroom for shelter. She had a little boy who sobbed bitterly. He, at least, had done no wrong, but suffered along with his mother.”

When the armistice was signed at eleven that morning, many of the men at the front line couldn’t believe it. In the words of a young private from Saskatoon, “A strange and peaceful calm followed. Not a cheer went up from anyone.” Another recalled, “I think most of us were in a kind of shock or something.”

Andy McNaughton was furious. “Bloody fools!” he exclaimed. “We have them on the run. That means we shall have to do it all over again in another 25 years.”

Adaptedfrom Marching as to War:

Canada’s Turbulent Years 1899-1953 by Pierre Berton. Published by Doubleday Canada. Copyright2001 Pierre Berton Enterprises Ltd. All rights reserved.