Chapter 3 - The First Liberation of 1918. Écourt-Saint-Quentin, France

The First Liberation of 1918
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Chapter 3: The Battle of the Scarpe, 1918. (Scroll to the bottom for the pictures.)

 
 
One of the last soldiers of the 4th Canadian Division to reach Gentelles Wood was Lance-Corporal George Kentner of the 46th Canadian Infantry Battalion (Saskatchewan).  Kentner rerecalled:
 
 
It was just getting dark when we arrived at Gentelles Wood where the Battalion was situated. The only accommodations were some bivouacs which the boys constructed but even these looked good and we readily accepted the offer of sharing one with others.

 
We had heard some of the news concerning the great attack which had been launched around Arras and rumor insisted that Canadian troops had participated in it. We wondered what our next move would be and if we would soon bear our portion of this new offensive.

 
 
He didn’t have long to wait. At 9:20 PM on August 26th, the adjutant of the 46th Battalion issued an order stating that the next morning, August 27, the Battalion would leave its bivouacs in Gentelles wood and would march to the Boves train station, a distance of 5kms, for a destination unknown. Kentner recalled getting the order:

 
 
Two or three days were passed in Gentelles Wood and then came orders to move. No one knew where we were going or for what purpose but we all surmised that we would be heading towards the new attack.

 
 
Meanwhile Clemence Leroy was seeing the effects the attack against Monchy-le-Preux had on the Germans in the rear areas:

 
 
Tuesday the 27th (August)

 
 
All the (German) officers are leaving. They were to stay a few days but instead they are moving tonight at 6 PM. They say the English are making a lively advance. In the evening we witnessed the parade of columns from Récourt, Rumaucourt and others from further away, then a line of vehicles of all kind, soldiers with their weapons and kit, all heading to Palluel.
 
 
Récourt is a small village 3kms closer to the front than Écourt, and Rumaucourt was less than 1km to the South-West. Both would be liberated by the 4th Canadian Division on September 3, 1918, on the same day as Écourt. Écourt and Rumaurourt are so close, they almost form one large village. Palluel is 3km North-East of Écourt. As we will see later in the text it was the cause of much concern for George Kentner. From that time on Palluel was part of the front line and contested by both sides until definitively captured by the 56th (London) Division, on October 12th 1918.

Clémence Leroy continues her journal:

  
I’s 11 PM (August 27th): we are warned to prepare two rooms, one for a General and one for an officer who are already waiting at the Kommandatur. However, the two men must have decided that it was best to go farther back as they never showed up.

 
 
The Kommandature was a Millitary Command that admistrated occupied territory. It`s not clear, even to local historian Francois Belin, where the local Kommandatur in Écourt-Saint-Quentin was located, although it was likely the Germans appropriated the town hall. (The town hall was restored after the war, but has since moved.) Clémence continues:
 
 
At 12 AM (August 27-28) Monsieur Révillon[1] was summoned to the Kommandatur. It was a shock. All the men up to age sixty-five must be ready to leave at 4 AM, Monsieur Révillon included. We are dismayed.

 
 
In the meantime, the 4th Canadian Division (including Kentner`s 46th Battalion) was busy entraining for the trip to the Arras front. According to operational orders that have survived, three companies of the 46th entrained at Boves at 1 PM, August 27th for Augigny, a village West of the city of Arras. The fourth company took a later train at 4 PM. It’s unknown which train Kentner actually travelled on. (Infantry Battalions were composed of four companies). Regardless of the train he took, Kentner describes the trip:
 
 
We were loaded onto the train a few kilometres outside of Amiens (at the village of Boves). We caught a glimpse of the famous city as our train dragged slowly through (Amiens[2]). Portions of the place had been heavily shelled and many buildings were totally wrecked. Many inhabitants were in the town and it presented quite a lively spectacle in contrast to the dead places we had been accustomed to. On our way, we passed by a Blighty train[3] on which were a number of New Zealanders. They informed us that they had taken part in the storming of Bapaume[4] which had fallen a few days before. Everywhere our attacks were being successful and it at last appeared that the height of the enemy's power had been reached.

 
It was late at night when we unloaded from our boxcars at the town of Aubigny. Here a number of motor lorries was waiting for us including a number of London omnibuses. These took us a good deal farther on. We did not know where or in what direction we were going. At last our lorries stopped and we tumbled out. Everyone expected that we would be led to a camp for the night, but our accommodations were still to be the open air and weeks were to pass before we were to occupy a proper shelter.

 
We were taken a distance across some rough ground and halted for the night. We lay down and endeavored to rest but it was cold and damp and our efforts met with very little success. There were some large batteries firing at intervals close by.

 
 
The 46th Battalion debussed on the western side of the city of Arras, somewhere near the old Vauban Citadel. From Kentner’s account above we deduce that he spent the night in the open air somewhere close to where the busses left the battalion, presumably near the old walls of the Citadel. He didn’t find out where he was until daybreak.
 
In the mean-time, the battle was still raging: On August 27th the Canadians reached Vis-en-Artois, 11kms from Écourt-Saint-Quentin. The Battle for Vis-en-Artois went on until September 1st.

 
 
Vis-en-Artois

 
While he was in his bivouac, Kentner could not know the impact the recent advance at Arras was having on the population of Écourt-Saint-Quentin and other villages behind the enemy lines  (At this point Écourt might as well have been on the other side of the world). During the night of the 27th of August, the Germans began to make plans for the evacuation of the population of Écourt-Saint-Quentin (and presumably the other villages in the path of the Canadian Advance.) The Écourt civilians were sent to the nearby village of Oisy-le-Verger. Oisy-le-Verger is a community 5kms East of Écourt, occupying a commanding position on a hill. It remained in German hands for three weeks until September 27, 1918. Oisy unfortunately gave the Germans entrenched there a commanding view of the whole area around Écourt-Saint-Quentin.

 
Clémence Leroy is concerned:

 
 
Wednesday the 28th (August)

 
 
At 4 AM the sad exodus begins. All the men are there after responding to the summons; they are pushing wheelbarrows, pulling carts, or carry on their back or under their arms their baggage of varying size. Oh! It’s a scene of immeasurable sadness! Strangely, we barely find tears as we make our goodbyes. What we are feeling is indescribable. Oh! What dreadful times we live in.
 
 
There was also apparently eighteen people from the nearby village of Saudemont evacuated to Oisy as well. Saudemont is a village 2kms closer to the front than is Écourt-Saint-Quentin, therefore was likely a more dangerous place.

 
As day broke on the 28th, and while the men of Écourt were being evacuated, George Kentner discovers that he is in the outskirts of the ruined city of Arras. The city of Arras was on the front line for most of the war and its battle scars were evident but, was nevertheless a beehive of activity as we see from Kentner’s narrative:
 
 
The city of Arras was very badly damaged. For the most part in fact, it was totally ruined, the result of being exposed to hostile fire for practically four years. It was at this time being continually shelled by long-range guns. Though the enemy had been driven back a good distance during the last few days he was yet able to direct an accurate and harassing fire on the place with his huge naval guns. One of our companies suffered some casualties[5] shortly after arriving. There were all kinds of troops in Arras, Imperial as well as Canadians. Ambulances were continually pouring through from the line, dressing stations were busy. The town was alive with activity, indicating the importance and extent of the attack then in progress.

 
The 46th Battalion was assigned to trenches in Tilloy-lez-Mofflaines, on the road to Cambrai. They were in what had been the front line on August 26th, 1918, before the Battle of the Scarpe began.  The trench system to which he was assigned was south of the Cambrai road, near Tilloy’s modern Agricultural College. Kentner recalls:
 
 
Early in the forenoon (August 28th) we were led through the ruined city (Arras) to an old system of trenches on the farther side where we were assigned our various areas. We occupied an old trench. It was damp weather and the trench was dirty. Sergeant Malcolm[6] and l built a bit of a shelter which served as a partial protection from the rain and in which we secured a short sleep.
 
 
While Kentner and his battalion-mates were getting rained-on in Tilloy, some of the men from Écourt who were evacuated that morning, came back into town. Clémence describes the scene:
 
 
Wednesday the 28th (con’t)

 
 
Some of the young men who were evacuated this morning (28 August) have already returned this after-noon. It was to Oisy-le-Verger that they were taken and were free to come-and-go in the village as they pleased. So they took the opportunity to return here with hand-carts. Soon these were filled with packages that were quickly collected to make good, items forgotten during their hasty departure this morning.

 
 
With the departure of Monsieur Révillon, who was the town secretary, it seems Clémence Leroy had her hands full dealing with town business:
 
Wednesday the 28th (con’t)

  
I’m constantly needed at the Town Hall so I made my way to the Kommandatur to request the return of Monsieur Révillon. They finally promise me a reply by morning. Around 7 PM (August 28th) a few artillery shells fall into the town. One of the houses that was hit was demolished and the young girl who lived there and was standing in the doorway, suffered not a scratch; she is only covered in dust. Another person with a small child, living in another part of the house only suffered a good scare. Unfortunately, a young woman who was leaving a neighbor`s to go home was badly hurt in the thigh and immediately evacuated to Arleux[7] for care. A young girl who was with her was lightly wounded in the leg and lips. She is nevertheless covered in blood when she goes for help for her friend who she left for dead on the pavement.
 
 
Thursday 29 (August 1918)

 
 
After yesterday’s sleepless night spent on an armchair in fear of the bombardment resuming, and seeing we were so tired, we slumber despite the commotion and sound of canon.
 
 
At 11 AM, Monsieur Révillon returns from Oisy with the two village bakers, then around 8 PM , they are followed by the rest of the evacuees of the previous day. We were told that this was done in order to evacuate the entire population all at once. They even want to return the eighteen people from Saudemont who were evacuated to Oisy back to their village. This they refuse to do without transport as the peril is too great in Saudemont.

 
 
Friday 30 (August 1918)

 
 
We are continuing our preparations for our eventual departure. Overnight, artillery shells fell in the village and many were duds. They caused a great deal of fear and some material damage but no casualties.

 
The poor evacuees from Saudemont arrived into town after a two-day stay in Oisy. They ask why they were brought back as they expected to be moved farther back. (The village of Bouchain[8] was proposed as a destination). Maybe we will follow them?

 
 
During this time, Kentner was on the move. His Battalion’s stay in Tilloy was short lived as the Battalion was again moved, twice, to new locations on the 29th and 30th August. The final location was south of Tilloy, near the village of Neuville Vitasse[9].  

 
 
In the evening we were shifted again (Likely on August 30th) to an old trench a good distance away from the Line, Malcolm and I constructed another shelter, quite a satisfactory and "roomy" one, with the aid of some sheet iron which we salvaged...Here we stayed for two or three days, passing the time in the usual way, parades, maneuvers etc.

 
Although the Battle for Vis-en-Artois was still raging, the 46th Battalion was not engaged. Their turn was to come on September 2nd.

 
While Kentner was busy with maneuvers, Clémence was living in fear in Écourt-Saint-Quentin:

 
 
Saturday 31 (August 1918)

 
 
Nothing new today, despite the loud cannonade thundering away and seems much closer. This evening a terrible cannonade makes us wonder whether-or-not we should go to bed. A large explosion resonates and splashed dirt against our windows.

 
We retreat to the cellar to spend the night as we have done for the past several days. Three frightened people and a small child find refuge with us. We are woken abruptly: Artillery shells explode to the south of the village, in the marsh or maybe in Rumaucourt. We couldn’t exactly tell.

 
 
To the South and East of Écourt there is marshland and small ponds which are popular with sport fishermen. In prewar times bridging engineers of the French army would do maneuvers there. In a history book published around 1929, Gun Fire, a Historical Narrative of the 4th Brigade Canadian field artillery the artillerymen report that there were signs at the pond forbidding fishing with hand grenades!

 
On September 1st, the 46th Battalion started its move toward the front line. At 9:30 AM the Battalion departed for a new position just South of the village of Wancourt, close the Arras-Cambrai Road. Wancourt is a village 4kms due East of Neuville Vitasse, and located at the base of the Wancourt Ridge. Wancourt had been captured on the 26th of August by the 2nd Canadian Division.
 
Kentner describes the ground and all the activity. The Battalion learns that they are to take part in an attack the next day:

 
 
Our next move was a little farther forward, winding our way over the old, torn battle ground where a short time before our troops had launched the big attack against the heights of Monchy and the surrounding area. We camped close by the Arras-Cambrai Road, our billets being, as usual, the old trenches.

 
Everyone was thinking and talking of the big attack then in progress. Of course, we speculated as to the possibility of our taking part in it and felt assured that our time would come in a very few days. The country about us was alive with activity and the road close by was continually swarming with traffic. Quite frequently we saw batches of German prisoners being brought to the rear. We were not at all surprised when, after about two days in this place we were told that we were to go in the Line and were to attack on the morning of September 2nd.

 
Our 2nd and 3rd Divisions, in conjunction with other troops, had carried the attack successfully through to the rumored and supposedly impregnable defensive position known as the Hindenburg Line (Drocourt-Queant Line). The well-constructed, strongly-fortified position, the huge stretches of wire and the determined resistance of the enemy had brought our advance to a halt and made necessary an intense concentration of artillery and various other preparations to support our further attacks.

 
The Hindenburg Line was a major German defensive position created after the Battle of the Somme of 1916. It terminated in front of Arras at Tilloy-lez-Mofflaines. It was a formidable defensive position with rows of barbed wire, trenches and concrete emplacements.

 
After the Battle of the Scarpe of 1917, the section of Hindenburg Line at Tilloy fell to the British, so the Drocourt-Quéant Line which was farther back, became necessary. The Drocourt-Quéant Line connected the new terminus of the Hindenburg Line at Quéant with the defenses of Lens. (The Drocourt-Quéant line is sometimes referred to as the Hindenburg Line as Kentner does.) In 1917, the British reached and held Monchy-le-Preux and Wancourt in a bloody and spirited battle, but the Drocourt-Quéant Line eluded them. Sadly, the two villages were abandoned in March 1918 during the German Spring offensives, making their recapture necessary the following August.

Kentner continues his narrative:

  
It was now the lot of the 1st and 4th Canadian Divisions in the center, with English troops on either flank, to break the position upon which the German staff hoped more than anything else would halt our successful and unceasing blows. The more important and difficult point of the attack, astride the Arras-Cambrai Road, was assigned to the Canadian troops.
 
All this and further details of the proposed assault were given us the day before starting towards the Line. With the aid of maps, we were given quite an elaborate and correct mental picture of the area which we were to attack. We were kept in ignorance of nothing which might be of use to us.

 
There was little doubt that we were in for quite a difficult task. Certainly, the enemy would not permit the Hindenburg Line, the position which he considered to be impregnable, to be broken without a struggle. But we were cheered by the fact that tanks[10] were to assist us in crossing the huge stretches of wire and that perhaps the greatest concentration of artillery yet known in the war was to give us the supporting barrage.

 
After having turned in our packs on the morning of September 1st we started towards the Line. Quite a number, perhaps 20 or 25 of each company, was staying out[11]. These bid us a hearty goodbye and wished us good luck and we turned our faces towards the Line. On our way, we passed various positions which had been the scene of some recent and terrible encounters. Scattered machine guns, rifles, spades, hurriedly constructed defensive positions, and an occasional dead body, yet unburied, told us what we might expect to meet the following day. This whole area was thickly occupied by various bodies of troops, artillery, transport, etc.

 
We stopped a short distance behind our observation balloons to rest for the day and await the coming of night. We ate our dinners and lay down to rest, for we knew we would need it. We were later issued with a day's rations; ammunition, bombs, grenades, flares, etc., and everything was put in readiness for the night.

 
There was a YMCA close by and we bought some chocolate bars and biscuits. l put some of the chocolate in my haversack for later use.[12]

 
It was a warm, bright day and we lay about in the sun resting and watching with interest the various activities that were going on about us. Although we knew we had an unpleasant task to commence the following morning at daybreak we did not realize just how tragic it would be. Thank God, we were never able to realize just what waited for us! And yet we knew that the following afternoon some of us who were then as strong and active and well as men could be, would be cold and still and never move again.

 
To say that we were as happy as a lot of schoolboys and did not think of what we had to face would be far from the truth. Few of us worried of what might occur, we had already faced the possibility too often. None of us entertained any idea of cowardice. But yet the laughter and the jokes were not real and sounded hollow and tragic rather than mirthful. We were human and life appealed to us just as much as it appealed to our more fortunate brothers and sisters who were far removed from the war and enjoyed the warmth and comfort and happiness of the land across the ocean. We did not want to die. And yet we knew that some of us must. That was the situation we had to face. And we faced it like men. Not with the insincere joking attitude of the bravado, but with the calm, sensible determination of men who will see it through no matter where the road may lead, men who loved life and happiness and did not wish an unknown grave in this place of tragedy.
 
 
The time of contemplation in Wancourt was fleeting. At 7:15 PM the Battalion left for its assembly position in the front line. It was with a sense of impending danger that Kentner picked up his equipment and left for the front:
 
 
And when evening came and the sun sinking in the west cast long dark shadows in the direction we must go, we were all ready and without loss of time picked up our load of equipment and started towards as tragic an experience as men of today have ever had.

 
We had scarcely started away when things of interest began to happen about us. A Hun aeroplane succeeded in getting well over our lines before being noticed and heedless of the intense fire which was directed upon him did not alter his course, which was towards an observation balloon, until the balloon had been destroyed[13]. Then his clever manipulation of his machine made possible his return without injury.

 
The evening previous to any great attack, the area in rear is a crowded scene of active preparation. Naturally, movement would not take place to any great extent until after dark. And then everything begins to move at once and roads and trenches (if any) are thronging with troops and transport. It was marvellous, at times, how void of excitement and confusion were, the roads so congested with traffic moving under such precarious conditions. I don’t think I have ever seen any road so filled with traffic as was the Arras-Cambrai Road on this night of September 1st. There were lorries and other transport as well as soldiers on foot moving in both directions. We were compelled to advance in single file and I have often since marvelled how we contrived to wend our way between the various vehicles without injury to any of us; Through us all flashed the thought that should the enemy drop bomb or shell upon that road it would be certain to kill and maim someone.
 
And all about us were the unmistakable assurances that the enemy was extremely on the alert. From up in front, ambulances were returning with their loads of suffering shattered bodies. In various places close by, shells were crashing furiously, while above, the hoarse droning of Hun planes, drowned occasionally by the crash of a bomb, awed us into silence and fear. Perhaps nothing did we dislike more than the attacks made upon us by these "Raiders of the Night" whom we could not see nor defend ourselves against. They were particularly active this night and at times approached so close that we felt certain the next bomb would be directly amongst us[14]. But, happily, we escaped. The bombs burst with a terrific crash preceded by a brilliant flash and occasionally followed with a bright blaze as though a heap of cordite had been set on fire. The planes droned away overhead. Our anti-aircraft guns and machine guns barked and rattled away. The huge searchlights swept the sky for the troublesome visitors. The weird blazes burst up in various places. Our guns blazed away continually. Close by, shells were bursting. And all the while the steady stream of traffic continued on its way over the hazardous road, as though unheeding the dangers that surrounded.

 
A point on the road, some distance in front of us, was being very heavily shelled. Of a sudden something burst into a very bright flame. Evidently Fritz had hit one of our lorries loaded with ammunition. It was dangerous to go further so we came to a halt and fell out on the right-hand side of the road. It seemed possible that our halt would last some considerable time so we took shelter in a close by trench and relieved ourselves of our packs. The blaze in front continued and some passing troops assured us that it was a lorry burning.
 
We must have been halted well over an hour when orders were given to proceed.

 
There was still a glow in front where the lorry had burnt but shelling had subsided considerably. The bombing planes had evidently retired for the night and conditions in general were quite normal. We passed by hurriedly the spot where the lorries were still burning. One or two large guns also had been caught in the fire. Evidently there had been a bit of confusion as the remains of the vehicles were scattered all about the road.

 
 
Aside from the delay caused by the burning lorry, the Battalion Commanders of the 10th Brigade had halted their men because the situation at the assembly position was obscure. It seems there was still Germans machinegun posts causing problems in the vicinity of the proposed assembly area.
 
Meanwhile in Écourt, Clémence Leroy can hear the cannonade getting closer. It’ a harbinger that the civilian population will be evacuated. She states in her diary:

 
 
Sunday 1st (September)

 
 
We finally received the much anticipated and fearful notice: We must leave; we are being evacuated tomorrow. Evacuated! Oh! It’s with tears of blood that I write this word. My God! It’s all that can be said from a broken heart.

 
We are going to Aniche[15], then where?... Like a herd of slaves will we wander from burg to city like undesirables, and arrive among strangers who will take us in…how?
 
 
The 2nd and 3rd Canadian Divison had spent from August 26th to 30th pushing ten kms from Tilloy down the Arras-Cambrai Road to the village of Vis-en-Artois. On September 2nd, 1918, at Vis-en-Artois the 1st and 4th Canadian Divisions, in collaboration with the 4th British Division, were to make the attack on the Drocourt-Quéant Line proper. Success would open the door to Écourt-Saint-Quentin and the green fields of occupied France.

 
The Battle of the Scarpe was over. The Battle of the Drocourt-Quéant Line was about to begin.
 
 

 

   
 
[1] Monsieur Louis Révillon was was a teacher, village secretary and brother-in-law of Clémence Leroy.
[2] In order to reach Arras from Boves, the train travelled through downtown Amiens.
[3] A hospital train.
[4] Bapaume fell to the New-Zealanders, after a spirited battle, on August 29, 1918.
[5] One of the casualties Kentner mentions was killed: 36-year-old Claude Eugene Wight. Originally from Pendleton, Ontario, he was living in Sasaktchewan when he volunteered for overseas service in 1916. He was buried in the Achicourt Churchyard, but after the war he was moved to his present resting place in Achicourt Road Cemetery in Achicourt. Achicourt is a village just South of the Citadel of Arras.
[6] A Sgt. William John Malcolm MM served with the 46th Battalion in 1918. He enlisted in Edmonton, Alberta in 1915. He died in hospital of a gunshot wound to the head on October 9, 1918. Burried at Abbeville Communal Cemetery extension, near the hospital where he died.
[7] Arleux is a small community 5kms North-East of Écourt. It remained in German hands well into October.
[8] Bouchain is a large village 23kms East of Écourt-Saint-Quentin, well behind the front line.
[9] Neuville Vitasse is a village 4kms south of Tilloy and was also on the front line at the beginning of the Battle of the Scarpe.
[10] Nine Tanks of the 11th Tank Battalion, 3rd Brigade, Tank Corps supported the 10th Canadian Infantry Brigade.
[11] It was common to hold back a number of officers and men before an attack. If disaster should befall the Battalion, it could be rebuilt around this core of men.
[12] From August 27 to September 5th the ‘Young Men’s Christian Association operated a canteen in Wancourt, near the interchange to the modern superhighway.
[13] There was in fact a balloon shot down on the evening of September 1st 1918. Balloon SR59 of the 28th Balloon Company, reported to be at Tilloy, was shot down by Leutnant Wilhelm Sommer of Jasta 39. The crew, Lt. Kitcat and Freshney parachuted to safety.
[14] During the Battle of the Drocourt-Quéant Line the Germans enjoyed local aerial superiority. A great air battle was fought over the Drocourt-Quéant line on September 2nd. On this day, according to the book Bloody April, Black September the Royal Air Force lost thirty two aircraft, most over the Drocourt-Quéant line. It was possible it was the RAF’s largest single day loss of the war.
[15] Aniche is a city 20kms North-East of Écourt-Saint-Quentin, well behind enemy lines.
 
 
 
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