17/6/1919 The Epsom riots: rampage of the Canadians

Following the armistice last November, the Allies were able to demobilise many of their soldiers, but they still have large numbers of men under arms. The armistice was only a pause in the fighting and large Allied armies need to be maintained in case the war needed to be renewed. This has however led to a certain sulkiness on the part of the men who have not been demobilised, as they mostly want to return to civilian life as soon as possible.

This sulkiness on the part of the servicemen can sometimes cross over into unruliness, leading to a breakdown in discipline. Canadian soldiers based at Epsom in Surrey, near to London, are among those who are fed up of still being in uniform and have taken to increasingly loutish behaviour. Two Canadian soldiers are arrested after a brawl, but their comrades decide to free them. Today several hundred soldiers attack the police station in which the two are held. They secure the release of the two soldiers, serving up a thrashing to the greatly outnumbered policemen. The Canadians then rampage through the town, smashing windows and destroying property.

One of the policemen, Sergeant Thomas Green, is beaten with an iron bar. He falls into unconsciousness and later dies of his wounds.


Epsom police station after the riots (Wikipedia)

Thomas Green (Surrey Live – The Epsom Riot: The story of one of Britain’s forgotten police tragedies)

11/11/1918 The guns stop firing, too late for some #1918Live

The Allied and German negotiators signed the armistice just after 5.00 am this morning but it does not come into effect until 11.00 am. As word spreads of the war’s imminent end fighting begins to trail off but before then fighting is surprisingly intense, with Allied troops either trying to capture symbolic targets or to secure advantageous positions in case the ceasefire breaks down and fighting is resumed. Canadian troops expend great efforts to liberate Mons, site of the first clash between British and German troops in 1914. By the time the guns stop firing it is in Canadian hands. American troops die taking the town of Stenay, apparently for no better reason than it has some excellent bathing facilities.

People keep dying right up until 11.00 am (and possibly beyond, as some isolated units only discover that the war is over after mid day). There are reports of Allied artillery pieces continuing to fire on the Germans until the very last moment, simply because doing so will save them the bother of bringing the un-used shells home.

There are a number of candidates for the last man killed. Near the Meuse river Augustin Trébuchon is bringing a message to frontline troops that hot soup will be served after the armistice comes into effect; then a bullet ends his life at 10.50 am. On the outskirts of Mons, Privates Arthur Goodmurphy and George Laurence Price are so far forward that news of the impending armistice has not reached them. Without orders, they move on further to investigate some abandoned houses. Then Price is shot and killed by a sniper at 10.58 am.

American troops taking part in the last stages of the Meuse-Argonne offensive are still fighting this morning but again, as news of the imminent armistice spreads they mostly choose to sit tight until the ceasefire. Private Henry Gunther has other ideas. Previously a sergeant, he was demoted after complaining to a friend in a letter about army conditions, advising him to avoid being drafted. Now he seizes a last chance for glory and makes a solo bayonet charge on a German machine-gun post. The Germans try to wave him away but he keeps coming and fires his gun before the machine guns cut him down, one minute before the armistice takes effect.

The last German deaths appear not to have been recorded. In total both sides suffer some 11,000 casualties today, of which roughly 2,700 are fatalities.

When the guns stop firing there does not appear to be much in the way of fraternisation between the two sides. There are reports of German soldiers waving towards their former enemies before beginning their long march home. Lieutenant Clair Groover of the US army is unusual in that he does meet a German today. A tearful German soldier approaches him, saying that his brother was killed yesterday. The German asks for permission to find and bury his brother’s body.

image sources:

map (New Zealand history: Armistice and occupation of Germany map)

Augustin Trébuchon’s grave (Wikipedia)

George Lawrence Price (Wikipedia)

Henry Gunther (Wikipedia)

10/11/1918 Canadian troops close in on Mons #1918Live

By now it is clear that the war is about to end, yet the Allies continue to attack the Germans. The German position on the Western Front is collapsing. With the rail hub of Sedan now in Allied hands the German occupation forces cannot be adequately supplied: it would be impossible for them to make a stand even if they were to want to. Everywhere the Germans are being pushed back, with only the most limited resistance being presented to the Allies. In Belgium Canadian troops are now at the gates of Mons. While not a target of any great strategic importance, Mons has a symbolic significance to the British and their Commonwealth allies. It was here in 1914 that British forces first clashed with the Germans and suffered their first defeat. Now Currie, the Canadian commander, is determined that Mons will be recaptured before the war ends.

9/10/1918 As Canadian troops recover Cambrai, Wilson’s reply to Prince Max’s note arrives in Berlin

Fighting on the Western Front is continuing in an almost surreal atmosphere now that news of Germany’s armistice request has reached the soldiers. Officers try to prevent talk of the war’s imminent end, but many of the men are wondering why they should risk their lives in a war whose outcome now seems pre-ordained. On the German side, troops moving to the front are often denounced as scabs by those retreating, who see continued resistance as serving no purpose but to prolong the war and end more lives for nothing.

The Allies meanwhile are continuing to press the Germans. The Americans are plodding away in the Argonne, fighting the kind of attritional battle Pershing had thought his men’s pluck would have allowed him to avoid. Further to the north the fighting is more mobile, and today Canadian troops finally take the city of Cambrai, long a target of Allied intentions. Victory celebrations are muted by the ruinous state of the city, which appears to have been deliberately set ablaze by the retreating Germans (though perhaps Allied artillery bombardments may share some of the blame).

Meanwhile in Berlin the Germans receive a reply from Wilson to their armistice request. The US President’s response is cordial, but he seeks assurances that the German government is truly representative of their country and that it accepts his Fourteen Points. He also makes clear that any armistice will involve Germany’s complete evacuation of all Allied territory it has occupied. Prince Max, the German Chancellor, is reassured by the tone and cautiously optimistic that an armistice can be concluded.

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Canadian troops liberate Cambrai (Cambrai Area Tourist Office: Liberation of Cambrai)

27/9/1918 Canadian troops storm the Canal du Nord, prepare to march on Cambrai

Yesterday the Americans attacked the Germans in the Argonne forest. Progress has been slow and casualties heavy. The Allies however are intent on applying pressure all along the line to prevent the Germans concentrating reserves against any one threat. British artillery has started blasting German positions defending the St. Quentin Canal, aided by the capture in fighting at Amiens of a detailed map of the German defences here. This is allowing the guns to precisely target enemy positions in preparation for an attack in the next few days, which if successful will see the Hindenburg Line breached.

Today however it is a different canal that comes under attack by the Allies, the Canal du Nord, which lies between British and Canadian forces and the town of Cambrai. The attack is preceded by the kind of short artillery bombardment that has become the norm in fighting now. This canal and the marshy land surrounding it form a natural defensive barrier but Currie, the Canadian commander, concentrates his attack on a section of the canal that has not been flooded. This sector is strongly defended but the attack, after a short artillery bombardment, takes the Germans by surprise. The Canadians are able to cross the canal and push into the German positions. By the end of the day they have advanced some five miles and captured around 4,000 prisoners and more than a hundred guns.

To the Canadians’ south, British troops have a tough day of it. The Canal du Nord is not an obstacle here but German defences are strong and there are few tanks available to support the advance. Nevertheless, gains are made and progress made towards an advance on Cambrai itself.

image sources:

map (Battle Honours of the Calgary Highlanders)

Canadian troops on the move (Endless streams and forests: Deneys Reitz in WWI/ “They went forward at a walk.”)

2/9/1918 Allied successes force a German withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line #1918Live

After their capture of Mont St. Quentin, the Australians were able to seize Péronne from the Germans yesterday. Today it is the Canadians’ turn to win battle honours, as they manage to clear the Germans out of the Drocourt-Quéant line, a strongly fortified position north of the main Hindenburg Line. The Canadians attacked here without serious armoured support (most of the tanks have by now broken down) but despite the strong enemy fortifications they were able to evict the Germans. Haig is so impressed by this feat of arms that he comes up to the front to personally congratulate Macdonnell, the local Canadian commander.

The success of the Australians and Canadians has undermined the German position on the Somme battlefield. They now begin a withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line, a strong defensive position constructed in 1917. Ludendorff hopes that his men will be able to hold off the Allies here until war weariness forces them to sue for peace.

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Canadian troops press forward (Library and Archives Canada: Soldiers in Danger – Georges Vanier – We were there)

see also: Measuring the Success of Canada’s Wars: The Hundred Days Offensive as a Case Study (Canadian Military Journal)

11/8/1918 Further Allied gains at Amiens

The Allied offensive at Amiens has smashed the Germans. Australian and Canadian troops have made unprecedented gains, as have supporting British and French forces. The battle has forced the Germans onto the back foot, obliging Ludendorff to abandon plans for another offensive of his own. The initiative on the Western Front has now definitively passed to the Allies.

The Allied advance has also brought relief to Paris capital from the Germans’ Paris Gun, which had been shelling the French capital from territory captured in their earlier offensives. Allied progress now means that the Paris Gun within range of British and French artillery, forcing it to discontinue its operations.

After the first day of the battle Allied progress begins to slow. German resistance begins to stiffen as reinforcements are rushed to the battle, while the Allied tank force weakens due to breakdowns and tanks being knocked out be enemy action. At the Somme and Passchendaele, Haig continued to order attacks long after it should have been clear that no breakthrough was going to be achieved; however the Haig of 1918 appears to be a changed man, as he now heeds calls from Monash and Currie, the Australian and Canadian commanders, for a halt to the offensive. Foch is pressing for further attacks but Haig agrees to pause operations until the tanks are ready for action again. The French separately halt their attacks, after capturing Montdidier yesterday.

Losses in this round of fighting have been considerable, with the Allies suffering some 44,000 casualties. At 75,000, German losses however are much greater, with some 50,000 of the Germans having been captured.

image sources:

map (Weapons and Warfare: Tanks at Amiens 1918)

German prisoners captured on the 8th of August (Wales at War: Amiens, 8th – 12th August 1918)