The Battle of the Canal du Nord
27 September to 11 October 1918
After retreating from the Drocourt-Quéant Line, the German Army withdrew to their final defensive lines in the Hindenburg system. The sector along the Canadian front included the city of Cambrai, an important logistical centre for the Germans, the Canal du Nord, and Bourlon Wood, a fortified defense position. For nearly a month after their victory at the Drocourt-Quéant Line, the Canadians waited, while Currie planned how to get the Corps across the canal, through the wood and onward to Cambrai.
The canal itself was dry, but still presented a significant obstacle; the banks were several metres high and it was unclear what awaited the Canadians on the other side. The area around the canal had been deliberately flooded by the German Army, leaving a small area roughly 2km wide that was still dry. To cross the canal, the Corps would be squeezed into a small front, and then would have to fan out to secure the rest of their section. Additionally, while tanks and infantry could cross quite easily, the artillery could not; Currie’s plan required the Canadian Engineers to install several portable bridges, likely under heavy fire, to allow the artillery across.
Currie’s plan was ambitious, and he was warned by many, including Byng, that it might not work. However, Haig and Foche wanted to push the German Army as much as possible, to see if they would crack, and an incursion near Cambrai would drain men from the rest of the German lines. At 5:20 am on September 27, the creeping barrage opened up and the initial advance of only four Canadian battalions went forward across the canal. They reached the other side successfully, and more battalions began to leap frog over their positions, slowly moving forward and fanning out to objectives along an over 9000m front.
With the opposite bank secured, the engineers could begin installing bridges, the first guns attempted a crossing at 8:40 am before being pushed back; however, by the middle of the afternoon several were in place and artillery was crossing regularly. By the end of the day, the Corps had secured the canal, Bourlon Wood and the village of Bourlon, before digging in for the night. Massed German attacks were expected for the morning and the Canadian battalions were spread thin trying to control over 10 000m of frontage.
The second day was slower and harder, as the Canadians tried to cross the Marcoing Line, which they did not manage until September 29. By September 30, the 3rd and 4th Divisions had reached the outskirts of Cambrai, though efforts to capture the city stalled as the Corps circled it and Currie tried to work out a plan to take the city. Urban warfare was not something in which the Canadians, or most of the Allied armies, had experience, and fighting the German Army house-to-house was going to be not only extremely difficult, but also likely to result in very high casualties.
During the Canadian preparations, the German Army pulled out of Cambrai on October 8, leaving behind a burning city, riddled with booby traps and trip wires. The Corps occupied Cambrai and continued to advance carefully, following the Germans as they made a fighting retreat further and further east. Though another stunning victory for the Canadian Corps, the Canal du Nord further depleted their strength; over 10,000 Canadians were killed, wounded, or missing, bringing the total number of casualties for the Hundred Days Campaign to that point to over 42,000.
The successful crossing of the Canal du Nord and advance towards Cambrai relied on a strong creeping barrage and the ability of the artillery to continue their barrage as the infantry moved deeper and deeper into German territory. The coordination between the infantry, now moving quite quickly over large distances, and the artillery was a problem that plagued Currie and the Corps throughout the Hundred Days. In the days after the initial successes, the pace of battle slowed or even stopped due to spotty bombardments.
To deal with the problem posed by the canal itself, the Canadian Engineers spent the weeks leading up to the battle building portable bridges behind the lines, which were laid in place once the far bank was secured and allowed the passage of artillery pieces, and the crews that manned them. Placing the bridges was extremely dangerous work, and throughout the day on 27 September, the bridges were frequently shelled. Like at Vimy the year before, the Engineers played a very important role in ensuring the success of the battle; without their bridges, the Corps would have quickly outpaced their artillery and bogged down, costing many more lives that they could not afford to lose.
Currie also employed a creeping barrage that moved in two directions, both forward and back. As the Corps reached their objectives, the barrage could jump forward like it usually did; however a backward moving barrage would give German gunners the impression that they were firing on their own positions. As usual, Currie also employed counter battery work to pick off German guns in advance; in total 785 guns were used on the first day of the Canal du Nord battle, most of which would follow the infantry on to Cambrai.
Like the previous Hundred Days battles the fighting at the Canal du Nord was hard and required a considerable amount of personal bravery. Canadians were awarded eight Victoria crosses during the fighting; the recipients are:
Lt. George Fraser Kerr, 3rd Battalion
Lt. Graham Thomson Lyall, 102nd Battalion
Lt. Samuel Lewis Honey, 76th Battalion
Lt. Milton Fowler Gregg, RCR, later a politician and Minister of Veterans Affairs
Capt. John MacGregor, 2nd Mounted Canadian Mounted Rifles
Sgt. William Merrifield, 4th Battalion
Capt. Coulson Norman Mitchell, 1st Tunneling Company, Canadian Engineers
Lt. Wallace Lloyd Algie, 20th Battalion