Chapter 6 - The First Liberation of 1918. Écourt-Saint-Quentin, France

The First Liberation of 1918
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Chapter 6: The Road Home (Scroll below for photos)
 
 
On the 4th of September the civilians of Écourt started their trek to Arras. From artillerymen’s eyewitness accounts we know that they left Écourt via the road to Saudemont, crossed over the mont Dury to the South of Dury village, then via the Arras-Cambrai road. They were seen going by the old German outpost near the water tower at Haucourt.
 
William Kerr was a signaler with the 11th Canadian Filed artillery Brigade. On September 4th the Battery was on mount Robin. In his memoir (Arms of the Maple Leaf) he recounts what he saw for his position:

 
From our hillside we looked across a valley to another hill Northwest of us, with a road on it’s side. We took only casual interest in it until about ten o’clock we perceived black figures in twos and threes making their way to the rear. We suddenly realised that they were civilians, men, women and children, rescued at last after four years behind the German lines. We had actually reached the inhabited zone, and during most of that day we watched group after group of these figures toiling along the road undisturbed by the sporadic shelling. As we soon learned, they had come from the village of Saudemont and Rumaucourt to the North of our hill. An infantry lineman told me that he had been laying wire ahead of his comrades and had approached a hill. On it he observed seven or eight German, and soon as he came up they departed in haste. Then three Frenchmen ran up and embraced him, crying for joy. He soon reported the news to his officers and presently he and his comrades entered the two villages, to the great delight of the population.

 
I am convinced that the only civilians that were liberated, were found in Écourt-Saint-Quentin, and there almost certainly were no children. I speculate that the three Frenchmen were Barbier, Doisy and Lagrange. It would make sense that the infantry signaller might have been from the 54th Battalion.

 
In November 2009, I went to visit Kerr’s position on mount Robin. (Which is just of the Arras-Cambrai road, just South of Écourt). I understood immediately the strategic importance of this height. From this position we see the mont Dury and the Dury memorial. We also see Saudemont, Rumaucourt and Écourt-Saint-Quentin in the valley below. We can also see the road that runs on mount Dury, parallel to the horizon, that the civilians took on their way back to Arras.

 
In Gun Fire, the author speaks of a meeting with some French refugees. They came across them at an observation post of the 4th Canadian field artillery Brigade. The observation post was set up in a sand pit, probably on the Eastern slope of mount Dury.

From Gun Fire:

Meanwhile, our heavy guns were bombarding Écourt-Saint-Quentin. Dense clouds of orange-red dust could be seen rising from the crumbling brick buildings. A number of civilians were advancing slowly towards our lines from the village, so our linemen promptly sent a message through to Divisional headquarters, requesting that the fire of the ‘heavies’ be stopped at once. As the civilians arrived, they began to congregate about our observation post, drawing heavy artillery fire from the enemy.

 
I wasn’t able to identify the location of the observation post but I suspect it was off the sunken road between Dury and Villers-lez-Cagnicourt, on the Eastern slope of mount Dury. The location makes sense if we consider that the civilians arrived from the direction of Saudemont. However, it seems that the bombardment of Écourt-Saint-Quentin had already stopped, so I can’t completely reconcile the testimony.

 
In another artillery history, Battery Action! The story of the 43rd Battery, Canadian field artillery, another mention is made of civilians:

 
We left there suddenly one night and pulled in off the Arras-Cambrai road some distance from Vis-en-Artois. There was all-night work getting ready to contribute to the morning barrage but at zero-hour the battery was found to be out of range. We were not there long and all we remember is the old German tunnel we occupied under the road and the novel spectacle, the morning the Canadians entered Dury, of old Frenchmen and women riding back from the front on artillery limbers or in ambulances. Liberated after four years under the heel of the Boches, who can imagine their feelings as they were taken back through the Army to Arras?

 
I consulted the war diary of the 43rd Battery and I can confrm thet the Battery was located on the Arras-Cambrai road, near the modern water-tower at Haucourt. The artillerymen seem to have spent time in the German dug-outs below the road.

 
In the book The Canadian Army Medical Corps With the Canadian Corps During the Last Hundred Days of the Great War, we also find a reference to the civlians:

 
It was during this day (september 4th) that the Assistant Directors of Medical Services, 3rd and 4th Canadain Divisions, had their first experience of meeting and affording hospitality to French refugees from the other side of the line. Some fifty French civilians who apparently had eluded the enemy in his retirement, were discovered in Écourt-Saint-Quentin. They were badly in need of food and clothing, and were immediately taken in charge by the medical officer at the advanced dressing station, who provided for their wants and sent them back to the main dressing station in Arras to be tuned over to the French authorities.

 
The advance dressing station was located near the modern water tower in Haucourt. The war diary of the 13th Canadian field ambulance was in charge and they state the civilians were sent back to Arras by truck.

 
Along the way they made a stop at the Canadian Corps Headquarters where they met Major General E.W.B. Morrison, Commander of the Canadian Artillery. From Livesay’s Canada’s Hundred Days:
 
A young girl, a slender brunette, embraced him, kissing him on either cheek. ‘In me’, she cried, ‘my General, the French people salute our savior!’ With saddened hearts these poor folk had passed through the desolation of no man’s land…

 
The Corps Commander, Lt. General Arthur Currie, corroborates the anecdote in his diary.
 
Livesay, who seems to be a witness ads this:
 
With saddened hearts these poor folks passed back through the desolation of No Man’s Land, where they had been wont to visit the fêtes and feast days of neighboring smiling villages- Cagnicourt and Dury, Chérisy and Vis-en-Artois, now not to be distinguished from the general ruin.
 
There is one last eyewitness to the civilians, that I hesitate to quote. It’s rather sinister and seems to come from hearsay. But for the sake of posterity I included it here. Victor Wheeler was a signaler with the 50th Battalion, 4th Canadian Division on September 3, 1918. On this date he was at a signal station in Récourt. He relates this story in his memoir The 50th Battalion in No-Man's-Land:
 
This September day was to live in the memories of many of us for our capture of Récourt, a thoroughly resounding defeat for the enemy. Our confidence was growing that a victorious end of the war was unfolding.
 
In Récourt we released forty French civilian women between the ages of eighteen and thirty, who had literaly sealed in a cave, forced to do trench digging and manual labour of various kinds and, shamefully, required to do other not-so-lofty work of a personal nature. Once lissome lasses were gaunt and once-sturdy matrons were emaciated. Their rags hung loosely on bony shoulders and hips. They ate until surfeited. One of the older women, eyes stormy, spat into the fire. A hiss and puff of steam said it all.
 
One wretched mademoiselle who had been wounded by shellfire eight days before had received no medical attention until our own medics cauterized, washed and dressed her worst wounds. Alas, too late!
 
Near this pit of enslaved misery and iniquity we captured the Area Commandant of Dury with his staff, plus five Deutsch medical officers. The latter ‘gentlemen’ had, no doubt, been to busy attending their own wounded men, and satisfying the lusts of the flesh, to give medical aid to their suffering chattels!
 
This humiliating and degrading situation revealed to us that the German manpower shortage must have been very serious. This last episode was to leave a never healing scar on many young soldier’s memory! Yet that day we felt deep gratification in our mission to liberate a conquered people and free enslaved spririts.
 
The testimonies might be conflicting but we know the civilians were sent to the Hospital St-Jean in Arras, and billeted in a nearby, abandoned orphanage. (Today the lycée St-Charles) were they were reunited with Lagrange, Doisy and Barbier.
 
Clémence wasn’t so fortunate, she was still deep behind enemy lines:
 
 
Wednesday 5 (September)
 
 
Yesterday we heard the English were in Écourt. This rumour was confirmed today: the ‘Ardennes Gazette’[1] states that Arleux is now on the front line.[2] So, had we stayed in Écourt we would be saved or be dead. Oh! We want so much to be on the other side of the line, away from all these Germans! When will that be? What calvary is in store for us? Will they move us along soon so we don’t have to relive the terrible time we had. Everyone around us is evacuating, even the people of Douai[3]. Everyday they tell us ‘you are going tomorrow’ and it never comes to pass. Many workers in the area or escapees from the front come here to see their families. Most come without permission and it doesn’t bother them. We are sensing disorder in the enemies’ withdrawal.
 
We find, on his way through Aniche, one of our old hosts[4] who is very happy to see us in good health. He says he and his compatriots are not angry at the German withdrawal: ‘this will lead to the end of the war’[5] he says, ‘and if we become French’ he adds, ‘we will lose nothing; we will have more freedom’.
 
We end Clémence’s journal here.  She was in Dour, Belgium when liberation finally came on November 8th, 1918. It was at the hand of the 2nd Canadian Division: The Canadians had finally caught up to her. She returned home to Écourt-Saint-Quentin on December 6th.
 
During the night the of the 4th-5th September the 46th Battalion was relieved by soldiers of the 3rd Canadian Divison. They marched back to a set of trenches just South-East of Vis-en-Artois. After getting cleaned-up, the Battalion marched back to Tilloy. Along the Cambrai Road they passed Vis-en-Artois British Cemetery, which still exists…
 
 
We were awake about eight in the morning, had breakfast and immediately had a good wash and shave in a close by shell hole. After this, we took time to go around the Battalion and inquire about some of our more particular friends. Many, many of them were missing, some on their way to soft, warm beds and the tender care of Red Cross sisters but too many were scattered around the ground over which we had fought and would never experience the delights of the bright world again. My own company had suffered 90 casualties. Only a few NCOs remained. We would be a new company again in a few days, with a lot of strange faces and inexperienced men to take the place of those old comrades of ours whom we would never see again.
 
In the afternoon, we marched back to the position which had occupied a short distance outside of Arras and now a good bit away from the Line.
 
On the way, we passed the usual sights of varying interest which are always, in the wake of a big advance; but one of more than usual interest, of unusually tragic interest, that made even one who was hardened by over eighteen months of constant association with the most horrible of experiences quiver for a moment with a sense of terror and feel anew the awe of that grim reaper of death.
 
Alongside the road a huge number of graves had been dug and men were engaged in digging more there. Close by in long rows lay scores of dead bodies awaiting burial. They were all mingled together. The blue and green and red patches on their shoulders were intermingled. Scotties lay with their kilts on, alongside the other infantry and the occasional transport or artilleryman with his riding breeches and spurs. As we passed, we knew that amongst them were some of the men who had chatted by our sides when we had traversed that road before. And we knew that this was only one very small fraction of the harvest of the last few days and our hearts grew heavy as lead when we thought of it all and of the loved ones back home who must in a few days learn of their bereavement.
 
But death was our constant companion these days and though struck cold at times by his presence, the influence was never constant and when we had reached the position we were to occupy, we were cheerful and happy again.
 
 
Here is where we end George Kentner’s memoir. He survived the war and went home to Manitoba. He followed his job to the United States and had a long and productive life. His daughter, who kindly gave me a copy of his unpublished memoir for this work, went to the unveiling of the Vimy Memorial in 1936.
 
 
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Several official photographs of the civilians in Arras were taken and a newsreel was produced, recording the happy encounter between Canadian soldiers and the happy people of Écourt-Saint-Quentin. Unfortunately the story quickly fell into obscurity.
 
 

 

   
 
[1] The Gazette des Ardennes was a propaganda newspaper published by the Germans for the people of the occupied territories.
[2] It would remain so until October.
[3] Douai is a major city 15kms North-West of Aniche.
[4] The conversation is certainly with a disenchanted German, likely someone from the Kommandatur in Écourt.
[5] This came to pass. The breaking of the Drocourt-Quéant line Line, combined with British and Australian pressure on the Somme, forced a German withdrawal on a wide front. This made it possible to end the war in 1918 rather than 1919 or even 1920.                                    
 
 
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