Chapter 7 - The First Liberation of 1918. Écourt-Saint-Quentin, France

The First Liberation of 1918
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Chapter 7: The Newsreel and Archival Pictures (Scroll below for pictures)

The newsreel I obtained from the Imperial War Museum is only 1 minute and 12 seconds long and is made up of three scenes. In the first scene (which I call scene 1) we see a group of civilians from Écourt with a French officer in front of an unidentified building. We also see some trees. Besides the officer, we count thirty-nine civilians: twenty-six women and thirteen men, Among the men, five seem to be adolescents or in their twenties.[1]

If we look to the story in l’Illustration, we find picture which seem to have been taken at the same time as the filming of this scene (in the pictures we recognise the building and the officer.) It seems the area is located in an inner court of a school or institution.

In the second scene (scene 2), the same group of people (less the French officer) are in front of a ruined house on an unidentified road. The group is joined with Canadian soldiers who are wearing badges of the 4th Battalion, Canadian Mounted Rifles.

I consulted a number of archival photos at the Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa which one (which I have called the mystery photo) seems to have been taken at the same time and place as the filming of scene 2. Also, there is a picture of the same French people walking about an unidentified street with Canadian soldiers that we recognize from scene 2. There are also photos of the group getting loaded onto a truck, at an unidentified street corner. In one of these we can see the cameraman, filming the French people on the truck. (Two pictures show the rear of the truck and one of it’s side. The later photo is parked in front of a ruined house. On all the photos of the collection, we recognise the civilians and the soldiers of the 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles. The third scene (scene 3) shows three young Frenchmen speaking and having a smoke. The three men are unidentified in the film but have since been identified as Noël Lagrange, Gustave Barbier and Léonce Doisy of Écourt-Saint-Quentin. They seem to be in the same inner courtyard from scene 1 and the pictures of the Illustration story. To complete the set, I found a photo of the three young men with a soldier of the Canadian Mounted Rifles in front of a building like the building in scene 3.

The question I asked myself was, ‘where the pictures were taken, and the film made?’ My first instinct was to go search in Écourt, but this hypothesis seemed improbable because Écourt was near the front line for three weeks after it’s liberation. It was surely somewhere else, but where?

I considered the facts: Archival documents and contemporary reports state that the Écourt civilians were liberated by troops of the 4th Canadian Division on September 3, 1918. The next day, it seems they were transported to the military hospital in Arras. The story in l’Illustration claims that the civilians were assembled in Arras the day after their liberation. Logically, I had to look in that city to find the hospital.

We know that, at the time, the British Army had a hospital set up in the civilian hospital Saint-Jean, which was located on the rue Saint-Aubert near the intersection with the rue des Agaches. Unfortunately, this hospital has been demolished since the Second World War, so the neighborhood is unrecognizable today. The old Saint-Jean hospital has been replaced by two American-style towers and a new road, the rue Pierre-Bérégovoy, crosses the old hospital complex. (The rue Bérégovoy starts at the park in front of the palace of Saint-Vaast, cuts the old hospital complex by a third and reaches the rue Saint-Maurice by an overpass.)

To complicate things, the Canadians and British had set up a hospital for walking wounded in the college for Young Girls, which was located on a large parcel of land bordered by the rue Gambetta and Saint-Marquerite and the boulevard Carnot. The college still exists as the lycée Gambetta but nothing is left of the buildings of 1918.

The civilians were treated at one of these institutions. Unfortunately, the archives of the medical services are no help in determining which one. The fact that both institutions were completely rebuilt leaves me to think that we will never know where exactly the newsreel was filmed.

Before giving up, I follow up with another lead: The 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles whose soldiers are in the film. I find on the internet an electronic copy of their history, published in 1926, which includes a photo (the original of which is part of the Library and Archives Canada collection) of the civilians with the caption ‘Civilians released by the 4th CMR after four years in occupied territory.’[2] Despite being happy to find this reference, it is of no help in my search to find where the picture was taken. I then take a look at their war diary and it has the following information: The Battalion was billeted in the museum (the palace of Saint-Vaast) from 10 PM on September 2, 1918. The headquarters of the Battalion was a house on the rue des Teinturiers[3], which was across the street from the museum. On September 4th the Battalion received orders to move to the front. In the meantime, it seems the Battalion scouts came across the civilians quite randomly. The Battalion’s war diary describes the scene:

About 30 repatriated French civilians have arrived in Arras, having been found in the village of Roumancourt[4] which was recently taken by the Canadian Corps. These demonstrated their joy and gratitude in typical French fashion. The Canadian Corps Official Photographer and the moving picture man enhanced the record of the Canadian Corps by wonderful rescue scenes in which the repatriated and our scouts figured. Just whether the rescued or rescuers enjoyed the game most it is impossible to say.

It goes without saying that I was delighted to find an eye-witness account of the filming of the newsreel. ‘The next time I am in Arras’, I said to myself, ‘I will go take a look for myself’.
My next opportunity to visit Arras was in November of 2009 as I was in France to participate in the Remembrance Day ceremony in Sains-lez-Marquion.[5] I also had an appointment with the Écourt Historical Societly, to discuss the liberation of Écourt.

When I got to Arras, directly from the Charles de Gaulle airport, I was jetlagged. Never deterred by jetlag I dropped my luggage off at the hotel (the Astoria, if I remember correctly). I take off on foot with my companion. We go up the rue Gambetta. We turn on rue de Ronville, which is full of shops my companion loves. For my part, the shops are of no interest. What I pay attention to are the buildings facades. I hope to recognize one or more from the newsreel or archival photographs. It was logical to expect that the newsreel was filmed in the neighborhood adjacent to either of the two military hospitals. This said, it’s impossible to say if the civilians were lodged at the hospital or offsite. It’s a challenge as there are many buildings in Arras that have survived since the war.
I abandon my companion on the petite place (the small square) downtown and go at it alone. I concentrated my search in two areas: the neighborhood of the old hospital Saint-Jean, and the Museum, where the 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles were billeted. I was concerned that, as I already mentioned, the old hospital was demolished after the Second World War. It’s possible that the buildings in the newsreel have disappeared! In any case, I leave the petite place and take the rue Albert 1er. I stop at the corner of the rue Ernest-Delannoy, because I see some facades that look familiar. I am standing in front of a house that dates to before the Great War. Unfortunately, it is a false alarm. I see quickly that the construction materials and architectural styles are similar on many buildings. I continue and circle completely the museum to find the rue des Teinturiers. I survey the facades without any definitive results. I backtrack using the rue du Refuge-Maroeuil which connects to the place Quincaille. I am now in front of an abandoned institution.[6] It’s façade resembles those of the scene 1 of the newsreel and in the pictures from l’Illustration. I want so much to have this be the building! I compare with the pictures and stills I have with me, and despite my best hopes, I conclude that this is the wrong building.

I return to the museum but before I go I visit the site of the old hospital Saint-Jean. I go through the parking lot which is higher then the adjoining road. I look around me and inspect the buildings on the periphery. From there I go down the new road rue Pierre-Bérégovoy, up to the overpass over the rue Saint-Maurice, all the while inspecting the facades of buildings. I find nothing.
After about an hour, I still have nothing to show for my search. The jetlag begins to be felt and I get a little discouraged. Tired, I go find my companion. She has done her shopping, so now she is on board with my mission, so it boosts my moral. The two of us continue the hunt for facades.

We pass in front of the museum again and we go back up the rue des Teinturiers. Looking at the problem from a fresh eye my companion asks ‘where was the hospital?’ I point my finger towards the rue Pierre-Bérégovoy. ‘So lets go that way’ she says. So I hop to it with the effects of the jetlag forgotten. We turn left on the rue du Refuge-Maroeuil, but this time we go straight through the place Quincaille and go to the end of the rue du Vert-Soufflet. We are standing on the corner of the rue St-Maurice (in a neighborhood never visited by historians of the Great War) in front of a greenspace next to the overpass of the rue Pierre-Bérégovoy, which crosses the rue Saint-Maurice only a few meters from us. We are in a neighborhood that was in the periphery of the hospital Saint-Jean complex. This time, I see a lintel stone on a small street on the right, also facing the greenspace which looks like lintel stones that are on my pictures. I compare with my photos in hand and conclude that the spot corresponds to one of my old photos from 1918 (the picture shows civilians loaded onto a truck, seen from the side. A demolished house is at the spot where the greenspace is now.)

Looking right (towards the North-east), on the rue Saint-Maurice, I recognize another building from the pictures of the trucks, seen from behind. This building has been partially rebuilt but it is the spot, without a doubt! It’s the old orphanage of the soeurs de la charity (the sisters of charity), which is today the lycée Saint-Charles. (Saint-Charles high school).
We needed to try and identify the courtyard seen in scene 1. After investigation by Thierry Wiart, it was confirmed that scene 1 and 3 were filmed in the old orphanage’s courtyard, now a schoolyard. Two of the three sides of the façade of the courtyard has survived the war.

My investigations in France proved that the scene 1 and 3 were filmed in the schoolyard of the lycée Saint-Charles (then an abandoned orphanage), as well as the photos from the l’Illustration. Other photos were taken at the corner of rue Saint-Maurice and rue du Vert-Souflet. The only unidentified photo is the mystery photo and scene 2. That said, the soldiers in the mystery photo and scene 2 are recognizable in the pictures, meaning that the mystery photo and scene 2 were taken shortly before or after the archival photos, and probably near the intersection of the rue Saint-Maurice and the rue du Vert-Souflet. Maybe an as-yet-to-be-found photograph will tell us more.

In summary, we can conclude that the civilians were brought to Arras on September 4, 1918 and brought likely to the military hospital in the hospital Saint-Jean, then they were given billets in the abandoned orphanage which was adjacent the hospital. Trucks were dispatched, and the civilians were loaded on them at the corner of the rue Saint-Maurice and rue du Vert-Souflet. From here, they were taken to parts unknown.

The Aftermath in Écourt-Saint-Quentin

Livesay gives a description of the battlefield beyond Dury:

Beyond Dury the ground slopes back into a depression and then over another bare hillside down again into a rolling valley, commanded to the right by the heights held in strength by the enemy immediately West of the canal du Nord and North of Marquion, and from the left by the fortified triangle of the three villages, Saudemont, Rumaucourt and Écourt-Saint-Quentin, while the whole was swept by the enemy’s heavy batteries situate on the East side of the canal on the commanding eminence of Oisy-le-Verger, whence direct observation was obtained West to Dury and along almost the entire Cambrai road…

…North of the road our 4th Division had a much harder task and had sharp fighting before the area was cleared. On the Divisional right the 10th Brigade fought it’s way forward to the canal through the enemy defense system resting on the three villages of Saudemont, Écourt-Saint-Quentin and Rumaucourt…These villages had been untouched by war and contained great store of ordnance and material, with a complete hospital train. Tucked away behind the impregnable Drocourt-Quéant Line and beyond the area we shelled, he had built up there a great depot.

From a distance it looks as though a pocket handherchief might cover them. They stand intact, the churches rising above the red-tiled roofs, the whole nestling in wooded groves. The sight of these villages amid green fields is more eloquent than anything that has gone before of the success of the battle, for here, as in former years, the Boche had settled down for the winter. He had filled them with his materiel of war.

In Gun Fire there is also a description of the area in and around Écourt:

The villages of Écourt-Saint-Quentin and Rumaucourt, through which a broad gauge railroad passed on the shore of a chain of small lakes, had evidently been utilized by the Germans as large supply depots. Close by, was an attractive casino. This place had been used as an officer’s club. Numerous notices were posted around the ponds that it was ‘verboten’ to destroy the fish with hand bombs.

The destruction of the church steeple in Écourt-Saint-Quentin is well documented. From Livesay:

But intact though they seem from a distance, on entering there is evidence on every hand of the process of ruin. For hardly is the enemy driven out than he pours upon them the whole fury of his rage and disappointment. From across the canal guns great and small keep up a ceaseless cannonade, and for days gas hangs heavy in their narrow streets. A beautiful spire is that of the church of Écourt-Saint-Quentin, but even as one admires, a shell hits it fair and square and it disappears in a cloud of dust. Nevertheless, the fields are still green. Our soldiers gather pumpkins in the village gardens. It is an astonishing experience to pass into these lush pastures from our blight and the taint of No Man’s Land.

The war diary of the 4th Canadian field artillery Brigade also makes a mention of the destruction of the church steeple in Écourt-Saint-Quentin. The diary of the headquarters of the Canadian Corps artillery mentions it as well. Further to this, it specifies that thirty feet of the steeple was demolished, a fact corroborated by photographic evidence. In the entry of September 4th, 1918 in her journal, Clémence Leroy learns of the destruction of the steeple.

In Gun Fire, already mentioned, is an anecdote relating to the church steeple of Écourt. It seems that before it’s destruction that there were plans to use it as an artillery observation post:

It was imperative that a good observation post be selected for the use of the Brigade in order to engage and disperse enemy movements. Nearby, at Écourt-Saint-Quentin, a church with a tall and intact spire seemed to offer great possibilities to our ‘C.O.’ A short distance away was a huge enemy supply depot, which also appeared to afford a good view of the country we were covering. After much debating the latter was decided upon as the ‘O-Pip’ and in a few hours the church tower was no more. The enemy apparently thought it would be used for this purpose. Their heavy fire changed it into a useless wreck.

In 1931, Will Bird passed through Écourt and found traces of the occupation.  He also mentioned the destruction of the steeple, the German supply depots, the hospital train and the liberation of the civilians:

…a long marshy region, with much long grass and tall trees. Here and there are bits of water showing through, and in the sunlight it is apretty spot, though it must be a breeding ground for mosquitoes. We…pass a small lake, cross another long, open, flat, and are soon in Écourt.

Here and there are old German billet signs, and houses that seem centuries old, quiet and quaint streets with here and there a gap in the wall of homes, a gaping cellar or broken wall, and some wooden huts in the rear as if pushed back when the soldiers went away. An old lady came from a small café and talked with us in a most gentle voice. She told us how she had suffered in war time when the Germans had killed all her poultry and had given her paper payment that she had not been able to cash, and how our airmen passed so close over the village that she was in mortal terror of being killed by bombs.

We left her…Écourt, Saudemont and Rumaucourt are so close to each other that they might be called one town, and it as in this district, defended by the impregnable Hindenburg line,[7] that old Jerry had his stores, munitions and hospitals. The Fourth Division advanced so swiftly that he had not time to remove them, and great booty was secured, as well as a complete hospital train. In his anger at such loses, the German commander turned all available guns on the villages – so far unmarked by war – and reduced them to ruin. The church in Écourt was famed for its beautiful spire, but it was demolished in the first hour of shelling. Écourt was the first village from which Canadian troops rescued long-imprisoned French people, forty-six of them, hiden in one small cellar, being there seven days, as the Germans had issued orders that all must be completely evacuated immediately.


[1] According to the report of the interpreter of the 10th Infantry Brigade to the French Mission, attached to the  1st British Army, we get the names of five Frenchmen who are of military age who were included in the group of civilians liberated at Écourt: Noël Lagrange, 22, Gustave Barbier, 19, Léonce Doisy, 20, Jean Robert, 19, Octave Banetat, 18 (or Bonetat?)
[2] The 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles did not liberate the civilians of Écourt. Their meeting in Arras was quite random.
[3] A document (which I no longer can find) of the 3rd Canadian Division (to which the 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles were attached) gives the address as 24 rue des Frienturiers, which is certainly a corruption of ‘Teinturiers’.
[4] Roumancourt is certainly a corruption of Rumaucourt. However, as I have said before, the civilians were in fact found in Écourt-Saint-Quentin.
[5] For the story of the liberation of Sains-lez-Marquion on September 27th, 1918, see Tough as Nails by Michel Gravel, CEF Books, 2006; or D’Arras à Cambrai par le chemin le plus long by Michel Gravel, Ysec Édition, 2010, reprinted in 2018.
[6] I asked around and nobody could tell me what this old institution was.
[7] Bird is surely referring to the Drocourt-Quéant Line which was the Northern extension of the Hindenburg line and sometimes called as such.
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