The Canadians and the Fall of Cambrai

Following their success at the Canal du Nord, the Canadian Corps could now turn their attention to Cambrai. Situated in the Nord-Pas de Calais region, Cambrai was a key logistical centre that was surrounded by an elaborate network of canals. The area was heavily occupied by a retreating German army who showed no signs of slowing their resistance.

Image: “Canadians Advancing”, Alfred Soden English CCGW Collections, 2016.3.1.1-188. 

Since the opening of the campaign at Amiens, the Canadian Corps suffered more than 42,000 casualties. Morale was low and frustration was widespread as the Canadian Corps found itself spearheading yet another attack. [1] Unlike earlier battles in the campaign, Cambrai would involve urban warfare, a form of combat that the Canadian Corps was not particularly experienced in. Moreover, given the strategical importance of Cambrai, the French discouraged the Canadians against using artillery fire. [2] Fighting an urban terrain with no artillery barrage, the Canadian Corps was left to capture the city of Cambrai with only their rifles and machine guns.

As preparations continued for the assault, the Germans withdrew from the city. Their withdrawal from Cambrai, however, was not without its destruction. For days leading up to the assault, pillars of smoke could be seen rising from Cambrai. [3] It was evident that the enemy was determined to destroy the city during its retreat. The German army was particularly determined to destroy any bridges that could become critical crossing points for the Canadian Corps and their artillery. On the evening of 8 October, a group of combat engineers led by Captain C.N. Mitchell and escorted by 28 men of the 26thBattalion, including Lieutenant Walter Ritchie Clarke, were on a reconnaissance mission to examine bridges over which the Canadians would later cross. [4] After determining that the bridge was prepared for demolition, Mitchell dismantled the explosives while Clarke and his men held off an enemy attack. For their roles in the successfully saving the bridge from demolition, Lt. Clarke received the Military Cross while Mitchell received the Victoria Cross, becoming the first and only engineer to ever receive one. [5]

With the crossing points saved from demolition, the Canadians entered Cambrai later that evening and into the early hours of 9 October. Except for a few German rearguards, the Canadians were met with relatively little resistance. In their wake, however, the Germans planted mines and incendiary bombs across the city for their unsuspecting and unwary enemy. [6] The Canadians were cautious in their advance but early morning air reconnaissance on 9 October revealed that the Germans had completely deserted the city. [7] While the capture of Cambrai was achieved more easily and quickly than any previous battles, the German army was still unwavering as they took one of their last stands at Valenciennes.

References

[1] Cook, Tim. Cook, Tim. Shock Troops: Canadians Fighting the Great War 1917-1918. (Toronto: Viking Canada, 2008), 549.

[2] Ibid, 546.

[3] Nicholson, Gerald W. L. Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919: Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War. (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015), 458.

[4] National Defence and the Canadian Forces, Coulson Norman Mitchell, retrieved fromhttp://www.cmp-cpm.forces.gc.ca/dhh-dhp/gal/vcg-gcv/bio/mitchell-cn-eng.asp

[5] Cook, Shock Troops, 546.

[6] James, Fred. Canada’s Triumph: Amiens-Arras-Cambrai. (London: Pub. for the Canadian War Records Office, 1918?), 50.

[7] Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 458.

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