Valenciennes and the Pursuit of the German Army

Following the allied victory at Cambrai, the Germans continued their retreat and made their final stand at Valenciennes. With the Canal de l’Escaut to their west and Mount Houy to their south, Valenciennes offered a strong natural defensive landscape where the Germans could slow their enemy’s advance. This would be where the Canadians would fight their last final battle before the armistice.  

Image: “Cadillac in Flooded Valenciennes Streets”, Alfred Soden English CCGW Collections, 2016.3.1.2-16. 

Nearly three months into the hundred days campaign, the Canadian Corps was beginning to feel the logistical effects of their rapid advance. As the Corps continued their pursuit of the retreating German army, it found itself well in advance of its diminishing supply lines. Food, ammunition, medical supplies, and replacements now had to be transported relatively long distances over a transportation network that suffered from heavy artillery and bombardment. [1] The toll of three major battles must also be taken into consideration. With more than 42,000 casualties, much of which was suffered by the infantry ranks, Canadian morale was low. Moreover, casualties were an increasingly heavy cross to bear with the end of the war being so near in sight.

As preparations commenced for the attack, it was evident that the allies would need to capture Mont Houy, a prominent wooded ridge that rose 50 metres above the flat terrain that surrounded it and overlooked the German’s position within Valenciennes, before they could focus their efforts on the city itself. Preparations were also complicated by the thousands of French civilians still remaining in Valenciennes and its outlying villages. As much and as far as possible, the city would therefore need to be spared from artillery fire. [2]

The attack was set for 28 October and the British 51stHighland Division was tasked with the capture Mont Houy. While initial successes led to the capture of their objective, German counterattacks quickly reclaimed their gains. [3] With the 51stDivision unable to hold the high ground, it fell to the Canadians to capture Mont Houy and then Valenciennes beyond it. The revised plans to capture Mont Houy were set for 1 November and included the entire 10thBrigade supported by an unprecedented weight of artillery fire for a single infantry brigade. [4]

At 5:15 am, the artillery bombardment opened with a creeping barrage led by the 44thand 47thBattalions. In less than an hour, the 44thBattalion captured their objective and dug in on Mont Houy. With the high ground now captured, the assault on Valenciennes commenced. As the Canadians encircled Valenciennes, they engaged in urban warfare, kicking down doors, tossing grenades into buildings, and speaking to the French civilians who freely provided information on the whereabouts of the enemy. [5] On the same night the attack was launched, the Germans were once again in full retreat. On 2 November, the Canadians started their liberation and by the end of the day, Valenciennes had fallen.

Valenciennes was the last major French city under German control and its loss was another significant retreat for the Germans. Canadian casualties for the attack numbered 501, of which 121 were killed or missing. [6] The pursuit continued as Sir Douglas Haig ordered a full advance and shortly, the allies would be entering Belgium for their final advance.

References

[1] Schreiber, Shane B. Shock Army of the British Empire: The Canadian Corps in the Last 100 Days of the Great War. (St. Catharines: Vanwell Publishing, 1997), 117.

[2]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), 473. 

[3]Cook, Tim. Cook, Tim. Shock Troops: Canadians Fighting the Great War 1917-1918. (Toronto: Viking Canada, 2008), 556.

[4]Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919, 473.

[5]Cook, Shock Troops, 565.

[6]Ibid, 567.

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