Canal du Nord (27 Septembre - 1 Octobre 1918)

In September 1918, the Allies planned a large-scale offensive on the Hindenburg Line, the most important and strongest German defensive system remaining in France. The Canadian Corps, then operating in northern France near the town of Cambrai, was charged first with capturing Bourlon Wood then advancing and establishing a front running from northeast of Cambrai to Aubencheul-au-Bac. This front line would cover the British Third Army’s flank during its manœuvres south of the Canadian Corps.

However, in front of Bourlon Wood lay a formidable obstacle—the Canal du Nord. The enemy had destroyed the canal’s bridges and flooded a large portion of the already swampy area that surrounded it. This meant that the Canadian troops had to closely regroup by the southern part of the canal (between Sains-lez-Marquion and Moeuvres), taking advantage of a 3,500- metre-wide stretch where the ground was firm and the canal dry. At 0520 hrs on 27 September, on this very narrow front, four infantry battalions from the 1st and 4th Canadian divisions crossed the 35-metre-wide canal while artillery bombarded the enemy’s defensive positions on the other side. The success of the Canadian Corps’ plan of attack depended on this initial assault. Despite fierce fighting, the troops secured the banks so that engineer units working relentlessly, sometimes under enemy fire, could install pre-fabricated bridges, allowing the artillery to cross and maintain constant coordination with the advancing infantry.

Once the troops crossed to the other side of the canal, the front could expand considerably. The infantry advanced quickly and captured the Marquion trench line, the last enemy defences before reaching Bourlon Wood. Sixteen tanks, after crossing the canal under a smoke screen, facilitated the Canadian advance, by crushing barbed wire and neutralizing enemy machine gun nests. The Canadian Corps’ meticulous preparations and daring plan paid off as by the end of the day the Canal du Nord was under control and Bourlon Wood had been captured.

The second phase of operations, meant to control the area northeast of Cambrai, was more problematic. Starting the morning of 28 September, the Germans put up a strong resistance from the Marcoing trench line (the day’s objective) and the Cambrai-Douai road. The enemy had reinforcements and defensive positions that did not appear on the Canadian maps. The heavy fighting continued the following day, and the Canadians gained little ground while sustaining heavy casualties. To head off German counterattacks that would have erased the gains made, Lieutenant-General Arthur Currie, Commander of the Canadian Corps, renewed the offensive on 30 September—the 3rd and 4th Canadian divisions were to advance to Ramilies and Eswars located northeast of Cambrai, along the Canal de l’Escaut. The 3rd Division barely advanced because the smoke screen intended to protect it never materialized; while the 4th Division, dangerously exposed, managed to capture the village of Tilloy.

The objectives on 1 October were the same as the day before. The attack began at 0500 hrs under a heavy barrage of artillery. The numerous counterattacks and fire from enemy machine guns situated in Abancourt and the other side of the Canal de l’Escaut complicated operations and prevented the Canadians from reaching Ramilies and Eswars. In the afternoon, the decision was made to stop the advance and consolidate the positions won that day, particularly the high ground east of Tilloy.

At the end of these five days of gruelling combat, the Canadian Corps had inflicted many casualties (while taking more than 7,000 prisoners and 205 guns), and its advance greatly helped the final liberation of Cambrai, which would occur just a few days later. Despite the successes, the Battle of the Canal du Nord was very costly for the Canadian Corps which sustained more than 10,000 casualties (counting those killed, injured and missing) between 27 September and 1 October 1918. More than 230 Canadian soldiers killed in action during that period currently have no known grave.

Through historical research combined with forensic anthropological analysis, the Canadian Armed Forces’s Casualty Identification Review Board confirmed the identification of the soldier below, whose remains were discovered due to modern human activity. Furthermore, based on a report submitted by an independent researcher and with the support of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the Canadian Armed Forces’s Casualty Identification Program’s Review Board confirmed the identification of a previously unknown grave as that of the second soldier below:

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