Chapter 5 - The First Liberation of 1918. Écourt-Saint-Quentin, France

The First Liberation of 1918
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Chapter 5: Liberation (Scroll below for photos)

 
 
Still in the front line, during the night of September 2nd-3rd, Kentner doesn’t know what the morning will bring. Finally, orders are given that the attack would be renewed at 5 AM. However, at 5:01 the order is rescinded and the men were ordered to stand down. The operation was postponed 24hrs as there had been no time to move the artillery forward to support a renewed attack. Kentner continues his narrative;

 
 
Our supplies of ammunition were increased and later in the night we were given some water. In the early hours of the morning, perhaps 2 or 3 AM, all members of B Company who were with us were ordered to return to rejoin the remainder of their Company. This left Lowry and myself alone on our left flank and deprived us of the machine gun. As things were fairly quiet and shelling had completely subsided we did not mind this very much but wondered what was going to happen. Shortly after, a large party of the 44th passed our post and from this we surmised that they might he going forward to attack at daylight.

 
Shortly before daylight, we received from Mr. Coates the facts of what were the plans for the morning. We were to attack again at daybreak. The 44th was on our left. Our C Company was in front. We were to form the second wave. Our attack was to be supported by the usual artillery fire though it would this time be very limited as few of the guns had as yet been brought forward with the advance. Our objective was the Sensée Canal[1] which was a few kilometres in front.

 
By hurrying a bit we were in our proper jumping-off positions a few moments before the barrage was due to open. Some rations had been brought forward and we partook of a very hurried but satisfactory lunch. Our Company mustered three very weak platoons, comprising in all perhaps 55 or 60 men.

 
We were surprised and anxious when the Zero Hour arrived and the guns did not open fire. On our left, a very slight bombardment began but it found no echo from the artillery supporting us. Daylight was fast breaking and it seemed essential that the attack should commence at once. Just as our anxiety was finding expression in loud complaints, an officer arrived in haste from Battalion Heaquarters to inform us that the affair had been cancelled and ordered us back to our previous positions. Rumours began immediately to spread to the effect that Fritz had withdrawn. These appeared quite credible as our movements had been quite open and must have been detected by the enemy, had he been in the positions which he had occupied during the night.
 
 
Kentner was right, the Germans had blinked and withdrew to Oisy-le-Verger, beyond the canal du Nord. During the morning orders were received to follow up the retreating enemy.

Meanwhile, Clémence starts a new day in Aniche:
 
 
Tuesday 3 (September con’t)
 
 
The sun rose despite nobody getting any sleep. A village employee has told us to take all our bags and chests and bring them to the square in front, sorted by family. This is done in an orderly manner and everybody finds what they packed. Unfortunately, in the chaos, a certain number of people disappeared letting others to load their packages should cars present themselves. These in turn are stressed by the officer who pressured everybody to leave in ten minutes. Ten were left with no change of clothes and were understandably upset. We promise to share with them in vain; nothing seems to console them and we weep for them. Yesterday there was no time for weeping, to say goodbye to our home, our village so today we should cry all day?

 
We do try to remain composed. We talk about our terrible journey. People who didn’t go with the column are taking other routes. They must be sleeping in the open, in ditches to avoid shell explosions, bombs; others are covered in dust and have seen soldiers die alongside them. A man from Saudemont who was in the front of the column was wounded and was unable to proceed. Somme have slept on the way or have gotten this far while pushing their wheelbarrows and prams. No one from Écourt was hurt.

 
All heads of household were summoned to the town hall to get their billet assignment. People come with wheelbarrows and carts to take the baggage to the house assigned and, like that, we are settled. In our case, we are billeted in the home of a nice woman Madame P., whose husband is a soldier. She lives alone with her five-year-old son Ernest. We can’t expect better hospitality. ‘Make yourself at home’, she tells us ‘. This seems like the reception we all received. We are unanimous in our praise of the warm reception we received from the people of Aniche.

 
Monsieur Révillon went to the Kommandatur early to ask to send cars to Écourt to get the forty-odd citizens who remained behind. He was told it was impossible as the village is off-limits. We are very worried about them[2].
 
 
Meanwhile, Lt. Harold Ernest Searson of No. 5 Squadron R.A.F. was piloting his R.E.8 observation plane at two hundred feet altitude over suspected German position, without being fired upon. He was patrolling the front and trying to make contact with the enemy on the ground. The idea was to goad the Germans to shoot at him so they would reveal their location. He discovers that there are no Germans between Dury and the Canal du Nord[3]. At 10:45 AM he drops a message at the 4th Canadian Division Heaquarters reporting no sign of the enemy West of the Canal. Searson was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his dawn patrol. The citation testifies to the impact his report had on the evolution of the Battle:
 
 
‘This officer (Searson) has shown conspicuous courage and ability when on contact patrol, notably on 3rd September, when he made a most valuable and detailed report of a certain area, in consequence of which report our patrols were pushed forward in pursuit of the retreating enemy’.
 
 
This anecdote is corroborated with an after-action report of the 87th Battalion, which was on Mont Dury:
 
 
...airplanes reported no enemy seen in Saudemont and only a few West of the Canal du Nord. Companies were immediately ordered to stand to and a patrol was sent to investigate…
 
 
Similar orders were issued to the 46th Battalion. Kentner returns to the fray:
 
 
Day found us still in our old positions, our Company still in front. It was perfectly quiet save for a few shells which Fritz dropped near the wood. Becoming more bold as time passed with no further activity on the part of the enemy, we began to walk about openly, doing so without molestation which assured us that Fritz had withdrawn. Later in the forenoon, the 44th Battalion on our left began to push forward and had soon advanced several hundred yards.

 
It was close to the noon hour, l should think, when we received definite instructions to advance. The assumption was that Fritz had withdrawn to the high ground on the opposite side of the canal and it was proposed that we should push carefully forward to the edge of the canal. We had several kilometres to go and could depend upon undergoing a very severe ordeal of shellfire as we had to cover an open tract of country which could be looked down upon and formed a most favourable target from the heights which the enemy occupied.

 
Our Platoon, No. 15, was to form the first wave, the remainder of the Company to follow several hundred yards in rear. C Company was on our right and the 44th on our left. On our farther left were the lmperials and on the right, the 12th Brigade. We began our advance in lines of sections in file at about 50 yard intervals. On my right was a machine gun section.
 
 
The battalions of the division advanced in echelon in the following order: The 44th on the left, against Récourt; the 46th Battalion toward the high ground between the Sablière and Écourt-Saint-Quentin; the 87th was to take Écourt; the 54th was to skirt Saudemont from the south and head for Rumaucourt; the 102nd was to operate against Mont Robin, and points beyond.

Kentner continues his narrative:
 
 
We had proceeded some distance before the enemy began to molest us. But once his guns had opened they kept a continuous, accurate and severe bombardment of the area we had to cross. It was showery and wet during the first hours of our advance and several times, when halts were necessary, we were obliged to lie flat on our stomachs in the long grass with the rain beating down upon us. It was far from being a pleasant experience and as we approached closer and closer, the gunfire became more accurate. Shells began to drop so very close in front of us that I thought certain one would drop right on our section any moment. l had the boys spread well out so one shell could not inflict too serious damage. The section on our right was the first to suffer. We were advancing over an open field. A shell lit a few yards in front of them. In another moment, one hit apparently directly on the first two men. One man dropped and lay quite still, the other dropped and committed those awful, horrible struggles that men do when in the grip of death. It was terrible to witness one of our own comrades in such awful agony. But presently, death kindly ended his sufferings. A third man was wounded. It was a horrible terrifying sight and quite enough to make cowards of the best of us, but we proceeded on our way taking what small precautions we could against this destructive fire.
 
 
The 46th Battalion was not the only unit to suffer casualties. The 87th Battalion, to the right of the 46th, advanced on Saudemont and Écourt-Saint-Quentin. Somewhere in between Lt. Albert Lloyd of the 87th was killed by enemy shellfire. (His body was recovered by his Battalion and buried at Quebec Cemetery in Chérisy. A plaque in his honour was unveiled on the town square of Écourt on November 11, 2010.)  

We go back to Kentner’s narrative:
 
 
We finally halted some distance from the canal and yet quite close enough to assure us that no Huns were lurking on this side of the water[4]. We had absolutely no protection against the shelling which continued with unabated ferocity. Our only hope was to lie low in the open field and hope for very good fortune. This we did and good fortune surely was ours. From the hill in front Fritz had a perfect view of all our movements. In addition he had a "Sausage"  (an observation balloon) hoisted quite close by to further perfect his observation. But as we lay flat in the grass with never a move he could not detect our exact whereabouts. The villages on our right[5] and the road[6], but a few yards away, were heavily shelled. The field in front, perhaps 100 yards, and again close up to our rear, were objects of his hate but though bits of shrapnel whizzed by us, we were not injured and escaped really better than those in rear. It had cleared up and was quite warm and bright. We lay for hours, the greater part of the afternoon in fact, without a move. Finally, we withdrew about 100 yards to a road in rear. I thought this a very foolish move but it did not result in any casualties. As soon as it became dark enough in the evening, we began to consolidate. We had carried a few shovels with us and had found a few Fritz had left behind. These we put to use and soon had constructed a few quite useful posts.
 
 
Back in Écourt, the civilians in Monsieur Léchevin’s farm were restless.  The braver ones went up from time to time to see what was going on.

Monsieur Léchevin recalled:
 
 
We had a misunderstanding. One of us went up, like we were doing quite frequently in order to have a look around, came down quickly and exclaimed ‘the Boche are coming back’!
 
I went up to see for myself and I realize it wasn’t the Boche, but brave Canadians, who were surprised to see us. More came who spoke French and everybody was happy. We were saved.
 
…in another cellar fourteen Boche showed themselves…they were patient and surrendered happily at the arrival of the Canadians, Tuesday (September 3) at 11AM.
 
 
The liberating Battalion was the 87th (Canadian Grenadier Guards), recruited all over Canada, but in 1918 most reinforcements came from Québec, so an important minority of the soldiers did speak French, to Monsieur Léchevin’s delight.

The 87th reported…
 
 
…forty-five civilians were found living in cellars: twelve of these were women. Seven of the forty-five were unable to walk. They stated that the enemy had withdrawn early that morning. These civilians were all successfully evacuated the following day.
 
 
The celebration must have been fleeting as the Battalion was busy pushing the line forward. The civilians would soon be taken care of by the 46th Battalion. Of the forty-five, three young men chose not to wait for the liberation, and set off on foot towards the cannonade, to meet the liberators. They were: Léonce Doicy, Gustave Barbier and Noël Lagrange. Family tradition says that they escaped South, and followed the little Hirondelle stream, wich ran near the Abbey Farm and its course running along the Northern outskirts of Rumaucourt. Léonce Doisy supposedly decided to hide in a culvert, and the other two proceeded to the southern edge of the Rumaucourt, via the Hirondelle stream. What is certain is that Lagrange and Barbier were intercepted by the 54th Battalion in the vicinity of Rumaucourt. Oral history is often unreliable but not in this case.

 
Lagrange and Barbier’s kids were married in 1945. I had the pleasure of meeting them in their home in Écourt.

 
Later in the evening, the 46th Battalion was given responsibility of Écourt and the civilians were taken in hand. Here is a message sent by the 46th Battalion, presumably to the 10th Infantry Brigade:
 
 
…moving at dusk (approx. 9 PM September 3rd) to new headquarters in Écourt-Saint-Quentin. We found seventy-five[7] civilians in the town of Écourt-Saint-Quentin. They are without gas masks and the town is being heavily shelled with gas. Advise authorities and us as to disposition.

 
A report from the 10th Infantry Brigade adds:
 
 
Report received from 46th Battalion giving change of HQ to Écourt-Saint-Quentin and stating that their patrols found Forty-Five civilians in buildings in the village, without gas masks and the town being heavily shelled.

 
Arrangements were at once made by the Brigade interpreter, M. Bossiere, for their evacuation, and this was carried out by him most efficiently next morning (September 4th) before daylight.
 
 
The 46th’s move to Écourt necessitated Kentner’s company to a move South, to a few hundred yards closer to Écourt. He was disappointed as he had just finished consolidating his position. Having no say in the matter Kentner complied. His company was now guarding the Northern approach to the village.
 
 
Our task was just about complete and we were about to settle down for the night when we received orders to vacate our position and occupy a new place on our right. This caused a storm of unavailing protest from everyone. We were about to move off in obedience to our instructions when our position began to be very heavily shelled. It had hitherto not been molested but from the intensity of the shellfire it appeared that the enemy was going to make up for their previous negligence. To add to the terror of the bombardment, enemy planes hovering overhead, dropped some huge flares which, hanging suspended in the air, lit the area about us very brilliantly and with the aid of these flares huge bombs were dropped on various targets around us. This nerve-straining form of amusement lasted for about half an hour during which time we took shelter in our newly-constructed posts and escaped injury. When it subsided we started on our way to the new position we were to occupy.

 
ln a short time we reached a point where the remainder of the Company was awaiting us and upon our arrival we all moved off together. We had to cross an open piece of ground which was being rather heavily shelled. As every path and landmark were entirely new to us, our guides were not certain of the way and we experienced various difficulties in finding the position we were to occupy. After some hours of groping about in the dark we reached a road[8] where we were told to halt and consolidate. A road is quite a natural target for artillery lire and is an object whose position is certain to be known to the most exact detail by the artillery observers. Hence we marveled and groused a good bit at being instructed to consolidate here. However, we set to. work. We were very tired and most of us were absolutely incapable of performing any very strenuous tasks but by morning we had constructed a rather shallow, but at least a serviceable, trench in the side of the road.
   
 
The Civilians
 
 
On the morning of the 4th, an interpreter from the French Millitary Mission arrived in Écourt-Saint-Quentin to look after the civilians and be apprised of the situation in general. From the records of the 10th Infantry Brigade:
 
 
Translation of the report to the French Mission on civilian population at Écourt-Saint-Quentin. (By Monsieur Bossiere, interpreter.) Early this morning I proceeded to Ecourt St Quentin, which was taken yesterday, and where civilians were reported. One hundred and eighty civilians had been staying in Écourt up to yesterday morning (September 3rd). The enemy, on leaving the place, evacuated all but forty-five, who refused to go. These I found in billet 379, Kaiser Strasse[9] with the exception of Monsieur Bury, who is staying at his own house with his daughter. Three young men, whose names follow, proceeded to the rear as soon as our troops entered the village, it is not clear which direction they took.
 
 
-they were-
 
 
Lagrange, Noël, aged 22
 
Barbier, Gustave aged 19
 
Doisy, Léonce aged 20
 
 
Two young men of military age are still in Écourt
 
 
Robert, Jean – 19
 
Banetat, Octave -19; these I am directing to French Mission, 4th Canadian Division[10].
 
 
There are no aged people or children in Écourt. Three women would be unfit to walk any long distance. -there are no sick.

 
A young woman, Marguerite Mazinque, was wounded several days ago and left unattended to by the enemy. I took steps at once to have her evacuated through the 46th Battalion. Écourt is still under fairly lively fire, mostly gas shells. The two cellars inhabited by the civilians are fairly safe shelters. I gave some direction in making them gas proof. Gas masks will be issued today. The civilians have a sufficient supply of food to last for a few days.

In accordance with instructions and telegram No. 140 dated (September) 3rd inst., I addressed the following telegram to 1st Army S.D.S., French Mission at 9 AM:
 
 
45 Civilians at Ecourt-St-Quentin in good shelters. Few days’ supply of food. Gas masks being provided.
 
I instructed interpreter Debette to report to his Battalion H.Q. and keep in touch with the civilians at Écourt until the relief of his Battalion[11] has been completed.
 
While this was going on we rejoin Clémence Leroy in Aniche:
 
 
Wednesday 4 (September)
 
 
Our parish Priest is giving Mass in the chapel of the civil Hospital. All the people from Écourt attended. There are rumours that we are leaving for an unknown destination. We hope to get away as things are not quiet here either. Airplanes come over daily[12]; at night many bombs fell on the city, two of which close by. Some windows were broken in the house we are at and others occupied by other people from Écourt. We would like to get settled somewhere so we can get some rest: we really need it. A woman from Écourt has arrived alone in Aniche. The ones that remained behind (in Écourt-Saint-Quentin), she tells us, are sheltered in the basement of a large farm, an old well-constructed abbey. An artillery shell fell on it without causing much damage and the night wasn’t terrible. The lovely spire of the church is destroyed and a few houses as well. The bravest of those who remained take turns going outside to see if the English are there. This woman fled to be with her sick daughter who was brought here before we arrived. She saw dead soldiers all along the way.
 
 
The church’s spire was intact when the village was captured. But around the 4th of September it was the target of shelling and lost 30 feet of it’s height. (More on this later.)

 
Now we come back to Kentner’s narrative. It’s sunrise, September 4th and Kentner takes stock of where he is:
 
 
With the coming of daylight we could look about us and get some knowledge of our position. We were still some distance from the canal. In front was an open field. On our right front was a village, Écourt-Saint-Quentin, which had been literally torn to pieces the previous day by the enemy shellfire. Our C Company was established in this village. Fritz could look down upon us from the elevated ground on the opposite side of the canal. In consequence we had to observe the greatest care in our movements and, if possible, avoid detection of our whereabouts.

 
Rations, water and rum had been brought up that morning and as we had enjoyed little of these necessities for two days we were very pleased to receive even a small issue of each. Though it was very difficult to find a comfortable position in which to rest, most of the boys managed to obtain a little sleep. I was not quite so fortunate myself.

 
In the first place I had to find out the complete strength of Nos. 15 and 16 Platoons combined. Because of our heavy casualties and the loss of most of our NCOs and officers, the two platoons were now one. I had scarcely completed this task and lay down for a moment's rest when I was instructed to prepare to get ready to go out of the Line to take over billets as we were being relieved that night. This was very welcome news and I readily jumped up and in a few moments was ready to go as far back as they cared to send me.

 
I was greatly disappointed when a short while later I received very different instructions. I was instructed to go to company heaquarters which I accordingly did. Here, I was informed that I was one of a party chosen for a patrol. Some eminent strategist sheltering in the comparative safety of battalion headquarters had racked his brilliant brains for a scheme whereby we might commit some movement and establish ourselves in a more advantageous position for the benefit of the unit who would relieve us that evening. This clever person had conceived of a plan whereby the town[13] on the opposite side of the canal might be entered and occupied and gained possession of by a small force of about 15 men. His analytical mind had not thought it necessary to provide any other means than merely to issue the order for our patrol to cross the canal and occupy the town! Our good friend the Hun did not appear to enter into his calculations at all. We were instructed, however, that if resistance became too stubborn we were not to insist but come back with our report.
 
 
Kentner recalls seeing an old man and a young girl in the doorway of a ruined home. There is a good chance that this was Monsieur Bury and his daughter Victoria. Local lore tells us that Bury was a wheelwright who had two daughters, Emilienne who was married to an Albert Lecoq, and Victoria, who never married. He lived in a house (which still exists) at No. 26 Rue du Préhaut. This is the likely artery Kentner used to get through Écourt on his way to Palluel.


In Kentner’s own words:
 
 
It was about noon when our party of 12 or 15 men, divided into three sections, started out. We good-naturedly kidded the other boys that we were going to take the town which we could see a good distance in front. We had to pass through the village of Écourt-Saint-Quentin which, being heavily shelled, we were forced to proceed in extended order. This village, which twenty-four hours before had not been touched by shellfire, was now almost totally wrecked. Some of the civilian population still remained in the village. I remember seeing an old man and a young girl in the doorway of their ruined home. It was ticklish work passing along those streets with the shells wrecking the buildings as we passed, but we managed to arrive at the outskirts of the village without casualties. From hereon, we were in front of all our posts, but our movements were at least partially concealed by the many trees bordering on the land. Fritz must have spotted our movements as he began to shell and two of our party were wounded. We had to send one man back for stretchers and to seek assistance to carry these men back. The rest of us proceeded carefully on our way. We had to make our way through a considerable marsh and were obliged to creep cautiously along the road taking advantage of every bit of cover about us. By exercising the very greatest of care we managed to creep forward several hundred yards without being detected by the enemy. Finally, the sharp crack of a rifle discharged close by told us that we had been seen. In a few moments fire from several points about us convinced us that it was useless to attempt to go further. As the enemy was now thoroughly on the alert it was difficult to retire in safety and we were obliged to do so in short quick rushes, one man at a time. These precautions enabled us all to soon reach a point of safety and as it had become quite evident that it was quite impossible to complete the project which we had set out to perform, we began to wend our way back to rejoin the rest of our company. it was later in the afternoon when we returned. During our absence Fritz had provided our boys with a bit of 'amusementt' in the form of a rather severe shelling of the position which they occupied. No casualties had resulted though some had experienced very narrow escapes.

 
For the remainder of the evening we lay low in our position longing for the arrival of our relief. It was perhaps 11 PM when they reached us and, in spite of the fact that the area to our rear, which we had to traverse on our way from the Line was being heavily shelled at the time, we lost no time in getting on our way. We had a long way to go as we had advanced a great distance during the last three days’ fighting and we were utterly fatigued before we had covered half the distance. But the thought of a hot meal and of lying down in absolute safety for a few hours’ rest urged us on and, with the aid of innumerable rests and the never-absent humorous remarks of someone, we finally arrived at our destination which was just about the same position from which we had jumped off the morning of the 2nd of September. There was only a small percentage of our men remaining so the supply of hot tea and mulligan was quite ample as was also the always welcome jolt of rum. A more than generous drink of the latter fluid made our prospects feel a little brighter and also made our desires for sleep greater. Jock Kilkenny, Bill Kennedy, Lowry, and myself and one or two others found a good shell hole and, laying our ground sheets under us and pulling our greatcoats over top, snuggled in altogether and were almost immediately enjoying a very much-needed and exceedingly sound slumber.
 

 

   
 
[1] More specifically his objective was likely the marshes and ponds around Palluel. The Sensée canal proper is a little to the North-East of Palluel and North of Oisy-le-Verger. It runs East-West and connects to the canal du Nord just North-East of Palluel.
[2] As it turns out, things worked out well for the forty. Read on…
[3] The canal du Nord  ran North-South in front of Oisy-le-Verger. It became the front line for the next three weeks.
[4] Kentner was in a field directly North of Écourt-Saint-Quentin.
[5] He’s referring to Écourt and Saudemond.
[6] I’m guessing that he is referring to Departmental Road 19, which heads North out of Écourt.
[7] The number was clearly over-estimated.
[8] In all likelihood this was the Rue du Préhaut, a main artery in Écourt that runs North-South in the village. It stretched out North, into the countryside.
[9] This was presumably the wartime address of the Abbey Farm.
[10] It seems no one escaped military service in France.
[11] Monsieur Debette was likely the French interpreter attached to the 46th Battalion.
[12] Aniche was the home of a German Aerodrome.
[13] The town was Palluel.
 
 
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