Last Days of Rest - Canal du Nord
One of the Regiment’s battle honours that is not emblazoned on the Guidon is “Canal du Nord.” Running from 27 September to 1 October 1918, this battle opened the way for the Allied Armies into Cambrai.
The German High Command had ordered the 17th and 2nd Armies to withdraw to more defensible ground in early September, losing the salient that had been established in earlier fighting. The 17th Army was commanded by General Otto von Below, one of Germany’s outstanding commanders, having served on the Eastern Front, in Italy (most notably at the Battle of Caporetto) and as part of the Kaiserschlacht Offensive in Western Europe. He ensured that their defensive positions astride the Canal du Nord used the existing obstacle to the fullest and would be a formidable check to the Allied advance.
When the Canadian Corps attacked on the morning of 27 September, the 2nd Division (including the 20th Battalion) was held in Reserve. The 20th had suffered heavily in August, having lost 18 officers and 563 other ranks, and was still busily reconstituting. It spent much of September rebuilding its strength, training the men sent as replacements and patrolling when assigned a piece of the front line.
At 05:20 on the morning of 27 September, the battalion’s sleep was interrupted by the firing of thousands of guns in the distance, the preparatory barrage for the initial attack. The day was spent waiting in the rain – conducting drill, a pay parade, and baths for A and B Companies in nearby Hendecourt. The battalion’s Band also provided entertainment to the men as they waited to be called forward.
The following day, the 20th were moved forward towards the fighting, marching through the rain for about four hours until they reached the intersection of the Buissy and Hindenburg support lines, captured the day previously. Evidence of the battle was strewn all around them, and the Band was detailed to bury the large number of horse carcasses that surrounded the position. They waited there for two more days in the open, subjected to much rain and boredom.
On the 30th of September, a new set of orders was issued by the Brigade, and the 20th moved forward again. At around 06:00 on 1 October, the battalion marched two miles to a trench line east of Sains lez Marquion. They were held in that location by the Brigade until 21:00 that night, when they were ordered to march again into their final position.
Upon arrival, they found their new home to be unliveable. There were only very shallow trenches, that provided no shelter from the elements and little shelter from the enemy. Word was received from the Brigade to expect a heavy counter-attack at first light the following morning, and so the battalion began to dig in on a desolate, treeless plain that they had been assigned. Scouts also went forward to reconnoitre more suitable positions from which to repel the enemy.
Luckily for the battalion, the expected counter-attack was broken up by a very heavy barrage fired from 04:30 to 06:00, and never occurred. Absent further orders, the battalion was left in their new position, overlooking Cambrai in the distance. Over several days they improved the “funk holes” that they had dug into a more comfortable position, all while wondering when they would be committed.
At the time, the isolated 20th Battalion didn’t realize that they had stayed in reserve for one of the Canadian Corps most brilliant victories, one that LGen Arthur Currie always regarded as his finest achievement. An extensive deception plan and a night assault by all four Canadian divisions enabled the crossing of the canal, and the capture of Bourlon Woods. Determined German counterattacks failed and six Canadians won the Victoria Cross, and cleared the way to capture Cambrai.
Little did the Rangers know that their time spent in reserve during the battle over the Canal du Nord would earn them a starring role in the Canadian Corps’ next battle.