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Last road to Mons: Inside the frantic final hours of the First World War

Last road to Mons: Inside the frantic final hours of the First World War
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At 3:30 p.m. on Nov. 8, 1918, hours after four German envoys drove through Belgium and arrived at a forest near Paris to negotiate their country’s capitulation, the 28th Northwest Battalion of the Canadian Corps left their billet homes in the French city of Valenciennes to march across the border heading the other way.

A few weeks away from the front had invigorated the unit, as much as any infantryman could muster energy this deep into a ruinous fight of attrition. The Canadians had relaxed and trained in a nearby village as Allied troops liberated town after town from Germans who had occupied them for years in the north of France. Canadian forces freed Denain in late October. They took Valenciennes on Nov. 2.

Now the soldiers of the 28th Battalion treaded the muddy path their comrades had blazed into Belgium. Their destination that afternoon was Quievrain, 15 kilometres east down country roads ravaged by shelling and detonated mines. They were to sleep there on the condition they could be roused to move again at two hours’ notice, ever closer to the German stronghold the senior military officers of Canada and Britain envisioned as the endpoint of this great surge forward: Mons.

Four years and tens of millions of people dead or maimed and the First World War was destined to end up back there, in precisely the place where British soldiers first battled Germany in August 1914. Heavily outnumbered then, the Brits had killed thousands of Germans but ceded control of the city. Retaking Mons was not an opportunity to be squandered — even if the enemy was slinking toward surrender at that very moment.

Canadian troops march through Mons in November 1918. (File)

By the time the 28th Battalion settled at Quievrain for the night, another Canadian brigade had pushed as far as Elouges, a bit further down the road. Mons was within reach, possibly in the next couple of days. Across the front, Germany’s army was in disarray, depleted by the desertion of thousands of men who no longer cared to fight a war they couldn’t win.

Those who remained dutiful were massed between the Canadians and Mons with orders to dig in. They would protect their terrain or die trying until the second they were told to stop.

***

The German diplomats tasked with conceding victory to Allied commander Ferdinand Foch set out on their bleak journey by car. On the evening of Nov. 7, they crossed from western Belgium into northern France in three large vehicles, each emblazoned with a menacing black eagle, the German coat of arms.

When the convoy drew close to the French line near La Capelle just after 8 p.m., a German soldier climbed onto the sideboard of the first vehicle and sounded through a silver bugle the universal call for ceasefire. Another soldier swung a big white cloth. Foch had radioed German officials in the wee hours of the previous night to say he’d instructed his troops not to shoot the delegates.

From La Capelle, the Germans — a legislator, a foreign ambassador, an army general and a navy captain — were taken on a winding ride past the debris of homes, churches and factories to the town of Tergnier, where they were put on a train bound for the Forest of Compiegne. At a railway siding located somewhere in the brush was Foch, waiting in his own personal carriage.

The armistice ending the First World War was signed in this train car on Nov. 11, 1918. Allied commander Ferdinand Foch is in front, second from the right. (AP)

At Compiegne, the Germans slept fitfully in their uniforms for a few hours before Foch’s chief aide came for them at 9 a.m. Hungry and tense, they walked across duckboards that bridged the gap over the wet ground between their train and Foch’s, where the French general opened the first meeting of the peace summit by dispelling any notion that he might go easy on them.

Facing the chief German delegate, Matthias Erzberger, a Catholic politician his country’s imperial leaders hoped could secure favourable terms for their surrender, Foch insisted that the Germans admit their side had asked for the war to end. He wasn’t camped out in the forest to negotiate, he said, but to dictate the rigid conditions on which the Allies would approve an armistice.

German troops were to evacuate France and Belgium, Foch’s list of demands began. Allied troops would occupy the industrial Rhineland in western Germany. The German military would relinquish tens of thousands of weapons, its entire fleet of aircraft and other materiel. In the meantime, the Allied blockade of ships attempting to deliver food and cargo to Germany would go on.

If the Germans wanted peace, Foch said, they had 72 hours to agree.

Staggered by the severity of the clauses, Germany’s Maj. Gen. Detlev von Winterfeldt requested a ceasefire while Erzberger relayed the demands to their superiors. Thousands of soldiers would die pointlessly if fighting continued in the interim, von Winterfeldt argued.

Foch was unmoved. He’d told his staff earlier that if German troops kept retreating from the front over the next few days, Allied forces would follow them with “a sword at their backs.”

Canadian troops gather in the centre of Mons. (AP)

The delegates returned to their railcar feeling deflated. A German lieutenant, meantime, left with a paper copy of the demands for German military headquarters in Spa, a resort town in eastern Belgium.

That evening in Berlin, German Chancellor Prince Maximilian of Baden spoke by telephone with his country’s emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II. Revolution was afoot; soldiers were mutinying and citizens were clamouring for Germany’s monarchical government to be overthrown. Maximilian pleaded with the kaiser to abdicate. Wilhelm refused.

At 10 a.m. the following day, Nov. 9, German military commander Paul von Hindenburg spoke personally with the kaiser. Through tears, Hindenburg told Wilhelm the army was no longer loyal to him. By 3:30 p.m. the emperor relented, agreeing to be driven into Holland in street clothes to begin a quiet life of exile.

Imperial Germany was now a republic.

***

At noon on Nov. 9, the Canadian 28th Battalion left their lodging in Quievrain to walk further east into Belgium, inching closer to Mons. They arrived in the town of Dour at 2:30 p.m. right as Foch issued a directive from Compiegne, urging Allied soldiers along the front to “secure decisive results” by speeding up their pursuit of withdrawing German troops.

By 6:35 a.m. on Nov. 10, the 28th Battalion was on the move again, instructed to go from Dour to Frameries, eight kilometres southwest of Mons. Other units were even nearer to the city: Canadians now controlled the suburbs of Ciply, four kilometres south of Mons, and Jemappes, four kilometres due west.

That morning, with Wilhelm II displaced, Erzberger’s delegation languishing in their train car and Foch’s armistice deadline 24 hours away, Canadian Corps commander Arthur Currie told the battalions that had surrounded Mons to liberate the city.

It was a decision that would tail Currie all his life. Sam Hughes, Canada’s former minister of defence, lambasted him in the House of Commons in 1919, claiming every soldier who came home from Europe would “curse the name of the officer who ordered the attack on Mons.” In 1927, the Port Hope Evening Guide newspaper opined on its front page that Currie had intentionally wasted the lives of his men with a ceasefire at hand. Currie sued the paper for libel and won.

To Currie, granting Germany a moral victory by stopping short of Mons was not an option. He had heard the war would end soon, but it hadn’t happened yet. The Canadian Corps “would no more have thought of easing up because an armistice might have been signed in three or four days than they would have thought of running from the enemy,” Currie wrote a few months later.

So the order of the day filtered down through the ranks: Canadian infantrymen were to attack Mons from all sides.

At a farmhouse in Jemappes, Sgt. Will Bird, a platoon leader with the Canadian 42nd Battalion, was packing his binoculars, his German Pickelhaube infantry helmet and other keepsakes after an officer told him an armistice was imminent. After the war, he’d move home to Nova Scotia, get married and begin to write. Drawing heavily from his recollections of the front, his novels and memoirs would earn national acclaim. One of his two children, Stephen, would die aged 24 in France in 1944, the second time the world went to war.

But on Nov 10, 1918, he had one more fight to wage. “Bird, get your sector in order at once,” said an officer, standing at the door of his room. “Battle order.”

Canadian troops are cheered in Mons on Nov. 11, 1918. (Department of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada)

***

At 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 10, a deputy of Foch’s knocked on the door of the German railway carriage in Compiegne. Berlin had sent word: Erzberger had permission to agree to an armistice on the Allies’ terms.

***

That night, around Mons, Canadian patrolmen searched for unprotected paths into town. The Royal Canadian Regiment ran the Germans out of Ghlin, a village to the northwest. Other units made inroads at Hyon, two kilometres straight south. But as the Canadians probed the enemy’s defences, German snipers eyed bridges that led into Mons and machine gunners lay in wait in the hills above the city.

From 11 p.m. into the early hours of Nov. 11, the Royal Canadian Regiment and the 42nd Battalion broke into the city in waves. Troops sprinted through Mons’ crooked streets to blast the Germans out of every nook.

Those steady territorial gains came at a cost. One of Will Bird’s men died when he was shot in both eyes. On a bridge, Canadians found three slain British soldiers whose uniforms were adorned with the Mons Star, meaning they had fought in Belgium or France at the outset of the war in 1914.

***

At 2:10 a.m., Erzberger’s delegation walked over the duckboards to Foch’s train car to seal their country’s fate.

Matthias Erzberger. (German Federal Archive)

***

At 3 a.m., the streets of Mons were foggy and freezing as the rest of the 42nd Battalion and the Royal Canadian Regiment arrived. When the Canadian numerical advantage became obvious, running gunfights suddenly gave way to jubilation. Civilians poured outside to hug the Canadians. Women kissed any soldier in sight. As people kicked at German corpses, others rushed home to find gifts for their liberators: flowers, biscuits and bottles of wine.

Mons belonged to Canada, but the war still raged.

At 4 a.m., the 28th Northwest Battalion left Frameries to extend the charge even further into Belgium. Stubborn German troops were hanging about several kilometres to the east. The 28th Battalion, mostly young farmhands and tradesmen from Saskatchewan, were directed to loop south of Mons, seize the village of Havre and clear all the bridges on the nearby Canal du Centre.

***

At 5 a.m. in Foch’s carriage, the terms of the armistice were finalized. The deal would take effect at 11 a.m.

Erzberger signed his assent on paper, but was upset he hadn’t wrung any concessions from the Allies. He fixed his gaze on Foch and offered a parting remark: “A nation of 70 million can suffer, but it cannot die.”
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