Chapter 8 - The First Liberation of 1918. Écourt-Saint-Quentin, France

The First Liberation of 1918
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Chapter 8: Who Liberated the First French People in 1918? (Scroll below for a map and pictures)

It’s the 14th of September 1918. We find ourselves at the headquarters of the 10th Canadian infantry Brigade, in the faubourg Ronville (in the East end of Arras), on the rue de Bapaume (today the rue Fernand-Lobbedez) near the ruins of the church of the Bonne Nouvelle (or colloquially, the church of Ronville). A clerk, armed with a typewriter, is typing up the report of his Commanding Officer, Brigadier-General Ross Hayter, regarding the recent operation East of Arras, September 2-3, 1918.

In the report, we find a list of appendices and appendix 79 is interesting for us. It’s entitles appendix 79 O.D. 333 Report Bde. Interprer. A note regarding this appendix states:

The report of the Brigade interpreter, M. Bossière, on the evacuation of the French civilians in Écourt-Saint-Quentin is of deep interest, this being the first case in which any number of civilians had been found by Canadian troops in the advance.’ [1]

Somebody then (certainly the clerk under the supervision of Brigadier Hayter) crossed out the word THE, in the advance and replaced it with AN, changing the sentence from the advance to an advance. This simple edit underlined a historic event: The Canadians had liberated French civilians, for the first time! Brigadier Hayter seems to echo Livesay’s statement: Ecourt St. Quentin must figure in Canadian history as the village where Canadian troops first rescued the unhappy imprisoned French people.

I asked myself: Who liberated the first French civilians in the Great War? Was it the Canadians in Écourt? Knowing the circumstances of the war, I couldn’t imagine when in 1918 a civilian population could have been liberated, before the liberation of Écourt-Saint-Quentin. In fact, for the first half of 1918 the Allies were on the defensive: From March until July the Germans launched successive offensives (know often as the German Spring Offensives) all along the Western front from Champagne to Flanders. During this period, the Allies only lost French territory. On July 18, the Allies regained the initiative. The French and their new American Allies launch a counter-offensive on the Marne which lasts until the beginning of August. Soissons is reoccupied (it had been lost during the German Spring Offensives) and the Champagne front stabilised on the river Vesle.

On August 8, 1918, began the Franco-British offensive (which included the Canadian and Australian Corps) of Amiens-Montdidier in the direction of the city of Roye, which sought to clear the Paris-Amiens railway. The offensive, which concludes officially on the 11st of August, is a great success and sees the Germans pushed back some 20kms. The Allies reach the old fortifications of the front line of 1916, abandoned during operation Alberich in 1917. In these old positions the Germans dig in and block the advance on Roye. This said, rail service from Paris to Amiens is restored. Despite the offensive having wound down, minor operations continue until the 18th of August. The liberation of Roye is left for another time.

This said, other operations are undertaken to widen the front on each side of the Roye sector. Attacks materialise on the right then the left flank: On the 20th of August the 3rd and 10th French Armies attack on each side of the Oise river, which brings them close to Noyon and the St-Gobain massif. To the North of Amiens, on the 21st of August, the 3rd and 4th British Armies attack in the direction of Bapaume and Péronne. On the way, the troops of the 4th British Army reoccupy Albert, which had been lost the previous spring. On the 26th, the offensive is moved North to the Arras-Cambrai road.

When the Allies counterattacked between July 18 and August 26, 1918, it was to retake territory lost in previous months. In places like Soissons there was likely a civilian population, but it had only been occupied for a month-or-so. On the Amiens front, the British made plans to deal with the civilians they thought they would encounter, but it seems they didn’t come across any.
It was only on August 27, 1918, that the Allies reached ground that had been occupied by the Germans since 1914. On this date, East of Arras down the Cambrai Road, the villages of Vis-en-Artois, Chérisy and Fontaine-lez-Croisilles (all depopulated) were captured by Canadian and British troops. The Canadians continued to advance beyond these villages and on September 2, 1918, definitively broke through the front. The Germans reacted by evacuating all the villages near the front and retreated to Cambrai.

The next day, September 3rd, the Canadians are in pursuit. They have reached the green fields of occupied France and liberate a cluster of villages not too badly damaged by the war: Lécluse, Récourt, Saudemont, Rumaucourt, Écourt-Saint-Quentin, Buissy and Baralle. All villages were abandoned except, as we have seen, for forty-or-so civilians in Écourt-Saint-Quentin who stayed behind to be rescued by the Canadians.

The soldiers of the 4th Canadian Division were surprised to find these civilians, as is expressed in Brigadier Hayter’s report. The village should have been empty, had it not been for the leadership of Ernest Léchevin, a town counsilor. He hosted, in his barn, the civilians who refused to be evacuated. For the Canadians, the liberation of French civilians would become routine in late October, but at Écourt on September 3, 1918, it was a novelty, to say the least.

Attempts to liberate France, November 1914 to December 1917

To satisfy my curiosity, I decided to undertake an analysis of the Western front in 1914-17, to attempt to find instances were the Allies liberated French civilians. I think the question merits an answer.

During this period, I only found three anecdotes, one at Loos in 1915, one at Masnières, during the Battle of Cambrai in 1917, and Noyon. In all cases the liberations were news worthy events at the time.
You would be right, as a reader, to ask me: Is my study exhaustive? The answer is probably no. It is possible that an isolated incident escaped my research as it was a big war, after all. Definitive or not, my analysis demonstrates that the liberation of a civilian population in 1914-17, by force of arms, was, at least, a rare occurrence.

So lets go back in time to 1914: By the end of 1914, Germany has already decided on a defensive strategy on the Western Front. In fact, the invader is satisfied with exploiting the conquered territory and turn it's attention to other fronts. They did not manage their Western Front willey-nilley, however: They select the ground to occupy carefully and chose high ground so that they can dominate the defenders.

During the whole of the conflict, the fortifications on the German side are almost always more substantial, as the French always assume the situation, or the status-quo, is a temporary affair. In fact, the French expect to chase the invader out of their country in 1915. The French high command was certain that by overwhelming the enemy with motivated troops, they would pierce the front and force a withdrawal of the enemy from the occupied zone. The French Army, therefore, undertakes a number of bloody offensives, starting in December 1914, which persist until the end of 1915.

In Artois, North of Arras, the French attack the German positions on the Notre-Dame-de-Lorette ridge, and the Vimy ridge. In Champagne, the French attempt to take a few strategic hills including the Navarin farm hill, and the buttes of Tahure and de Souain. (In Champagne, the village of Tahure, among others, is utterly destroyed and never resettled.) These offensives are complemented by British attacks in French Flanders and the coal mining district of Northern France near Lens.

It is true that the French manage to reoccupy the Notre-Dame-de-Lorette ridge in 1915 and a few hills in Champagne, and the British take Loos near Lens, but the big breakthrough does not occur, and the modest gains in territory are paid for in with insupportable human loses.

In June 2003, I visited the very large French military cemetery on the Notre-Dame-de-Lorette ridge, as well as the ossuary. Like the thousands of tourist and pilgrims before me, I get there by passing through the community of Souchez. In front of the Centre Européen de la paix (a famous Great War museum) I turn left on the Bouvigny road, which took me to Notre-Dame de Lorette. From an observatory at the entrance of the cemetery saw the panorama of the village of Amblain-Saint-Nazaire in the valley before me, and a little farther I could trace the outline of Vimy ridge.
I was impressed by the Basilica and the immense lighthouse, which is also an ossuary. Both were erected after the war and are surrounded by a field of white crosses. The interior walls of the Basilica are covered with plaques that recall individual soldiers who died in the fighting of 1915, hung there by mourning families during the post-war period. These are the testimonials that brought home to me the suffering of the French people during the Great War, and especially the terrible losses of 1915. The pain that the next-of-kin felt seemed very real and immediate to me. Frankly, I was unnerved by the feeling for some time and I was overwhelmed by the size of the cemetery. The site for me represented the determination of the French people to see the liberation of the occupied country.

The breakthroughs in 1915 are not deep, so civilian populations seem to have eluded the Allies. However, there exists an exception at Loos-en-Gohelle (known simply as Loos to the British): The troops of the 15th Scottish Division capture Loos on September 25, 1915. They are surprised to be greeted by a young French woman, Émilienne Moreau, who would later be decorated for the help she gave the liberators as much for the intelligence she was able to provide and the help she gave to the wounded.[2] But, Émilienne Moreau’s case is exceptional: In the occupied zone the only Poilus[3] and Tommies the civilians see are those taken prisoner by the Germans.

In 1995, my family set up our home in an old house (dating to the 1840s) in the village of Williamstown, on the Raisin river in Ontario. A few hundred meters from the house was Saint-Andrews church, one of the first Scottish congregations in Ontario. The present church dates to 1812. It is surrounded by a magnificent cemetery, where many pioneers rest.

From time to time, I would take walks in this old burial ground to read the inscriptions. To the left of the church was a family plot of the MacMaster family, descendants of Scottish settlers. According to the impressive monument, the patriarch, Donald MacMaster became a member of the British Parliament and later made a Baronet. He died in 1922 and is buried in England. Also, on the monument is the name of his son, Lieutenant Donald Cameron Deford MacMaster, and we discover he is also buried in Europe. The inscription offers information concerning his birth and death:

Donald Cameron
Deford MacMaster
6th Battalion, Cameron Highlanders
Born at Montreal
4 September 1894
Killed in action at Loos
25 September 1915
Gallantly leading his men

In 1995, I only had only a rudimentary knowledge of the goings-on of the Great War. It’s true that in 1984 I had visited the Vimy Memorial, but I could not have found Loos on the map. At the time I assumed Loos must have referred to a Canadian battle. I found out much later that Loos was a British battle, fought on September 25th, 1915. The young Donald MacMaster enlisted in a Battalion of the New Armies in Scotland. (His mother was a Cameron, which might explain why he chose the Cameron Highlanders.) His father was a politician in England, so I assumed young Donald MacMaster lived in Great Britain as well.

In any case, the 6th Battalion, Cameron Highlanders was part of the Scottish 15th Division at the time of Loos. On September 25th, 1915, after the capture of Loos (and the liberation of Émilienne Moreau) the task of the 6th Battalion was to circle the town by the North and protect the flank of troops attacking a feature known as Hill 70[4]. They dug in, in front of a wood known as bois Rasé. MacMaster was killed during the manoeuvre. In a way he contributed to the liberation of Émilienne Moreau. (Maybe she tended to him before he died.) MacMaster was buried in a temporary grave. After the war, his remains were moved to Dud Corner cemetery in Loos-en-Gohelle.

The next year the Germans change their strategy. They attempt to bleed the French by starting a battle of attrition at Verdun, on the Meuse. The fortifications of Verdun are necessary for the defense of France so the French respond to the Germans in kind.  The incursion against Verdun force the French to commit division after division to what became a great meat-grinder. They shall not pass was the battle-cry of the French. The liberation of the occupied territories becomes secondary to beating back the Germans at Verdun. The battle of Verdun occupies the French for the rest of the year. When the fighting winds down in December 1916, the Germans have taken a little more of France, but they did not pass. Both sides licked their wounds.

In the mean-time, the British are not idle. They support their Allies at Verdun by undertaking a great offensive on the Somme, starting on July 1st, 1916. Gradually and at extreme cost the British push back the Germans from Albert, 13kms towards Bapaume. At the same time, the French attack on the British right and almost reach Péronne. It’s in front of these two cities that the front settles in November, 1916.

The bloody advance on the Somme takes four long months, and sees the liberation of many villages but the advance seems to have been too slow to catch up with any populated areas. The liberators occupy uninhabited ruins. In Verdun, it is all the more discouraging. The front line has barely moved.

For the French civilians, who are still living under the German yoke must pray to the altar of patience. They must look to 1917 for a possible liberation. However, 1917 would be a year of disappointment for the Allies.

In order to economise men the German High Command decides to reduce the front in France. The solution is to construct a major defensive position behind the front of the Somme, between Arras and the Saint-Gobain massif. This new defensive position included many trenches and dugouts, concrete fortifications and fields of barbed wire. The Germans call it the Siegfried Stellung; the British know it as the Hindenburg Line. The Hindenburg Line was hundreds of kilometres long and originated at Telegraph hill, near Arras, between Beaurains and Tilloy-lez-Mofflaines. From here it connected with Quéant, then turned south down to the city of La Fère on the Oise. Between Quéant and La Fère it follows approximately the path of the modern highway A26.

When the Hindenburg Line was ready to be occupied, in February 1917, the Germans undertook operation Alberich, which was a withdrawal of German troops on the Somme towards the Hindenburg line. The operation is a success as it is executed under the noses of the Allies. A large piece of occupied France is abandoned by the Germans between Beaurains, Péronne, Roye and Soissons. Before leaving the area, the Germans destroy all the infrastructure and plant booby traps for the Allies to find. Further to this, the Germans evacuate all the population to the rear areas that are judged to be useful. (In Noyon, the Germans tear teen-age daughters from the arms of their mothers to deport them.) The French and British, surprised by the German evacuation, pursue belatedly the retiring Germans and occupy the abandoned territory. There they find, living in the devasted zone, what is left of the civilian population.[5] This liberation, which is anticlimactic, is at the German’s convenience, who now hold a strong defensive position. The war is not ready to be over.

For 1917, the Allies imagine a great two-pronged offensive in France. (Alberich forced to modify their plans.) The French General Robert Nivelle proposes an attack against the Chemin des Dames ridge, which he plans for April 1917. Once he breaches the front, he planned to push on to Laon and La Fère.

Nivelle’s attack was to be supported by a British offensive out of Arras which planned to capture the heights of Monchy-le-Preux and Wancourt (to the South-East) and Vimy ridge, to the North. These high grounds had been the thorn in the side of the Allies since October 1914. The attack was to be prosecuted beyond Monchy up to Cambrai. (No exploitation beyond Vimy was planned.) The High Command even dared imagine a push south, behind the Hindenburg Line in the direction of Saint-Quentin. If the offensives were successful, the Hindenburg Line and the defenses of the Saint-Gobain massif would be outflanked. It was an ambitious plan.

On April 9, 1917, the British attack first and make some impressive gains. Vimy ridge is captured and consolidated by the Canadians of the 1st British Army. In the other direction, the British 3rd Army broke through the Hindenburg Line at its source on Telegraph hill. Monchy-le-Preux as well as Wancourt are in British hands by the 11th of April.

A week after the beginning of the British offensive, the Armies of General Nivelle undertake the main attack against the Chemin des Dames ridge. The attack results in modest gains of territory: A portion of the ridge is taken and the Germans were obliged to abandon a salient at Condé-sur-Aisne. However, the promise of a decisive victory fell short. The offensive persisted but it was too late. Elements of the French Army, spent after three years of war, began to mutiny. The situation was sorted out, but the French Army was thrown on the defensive.

The British persisted with their offensie towards Cambrai. The British have pierced the Hindenburg Line but are now facing the Drocourt-Quéant Line. The Drocourt Queant Lline becomes absolutely indispensable after the fall of Vimy ridge and Monchy.

The British try to reach the Drocourt-Quéant Line but the effort is in vain. The British 3rd Army is stopped at Chérisy, and a number of attacks at Bullecourt fail as well to reach the Drocourt-Quéant Line. The Arras offensive is stopped and the Drocourt-Queant Line is intact.

Despite the failure of the offensives, the German loss of Vimy ridge has freed some of the coal mining district in France. The capture of Monchy and Wancourt has had some effect of relief on Arras. However, no civilians seem to have been liberated.

For the rest of 1917, British efforts are in Belgian Flanders.

As for the French, for the rest of 1917, they are on the defensive. However, they regain some confidence during the battle of Malmaison in October of 1917, which finds the rest of the Chemin-des-Dames ridge fall into their hands.

The meagre Allied gains of 1917 are of no consolation to the French civilians under the German yoke. The villages liberated by the British like Vimy and Monchy are only unpopulated ruins, like those found on the Somme in 1916.  Breakthroughs occurred, but it seems not deep enough to liberate civilian populations.

As it turns out, the British had one more offensive left in them for 1917. They decide to outflank the Drocourt-Queant line and attack at Havrincourt, an attack which would be remembered as the Battle of Cambrai, 1917. Supporting the attack would be a large force of tanks. The confidence in the tanks is such that the British omit the usual preliminary bombardment. The attack starts the 20th of November 1917, and an impressive break through is achieved by the standards of the Great War. The limits of the incursion is Moeuvres on the canal du Nord on the left, then Bourlon wood, then the village of Fontaine-Notre-Dame and finaly, Masnières on the canal de l’Escaut. The breakthrough, afforded by the tanks, allows a penetration to beyond no-man’s-land up to a habitated zone. Arriving on the edge of Masnières the tankers understand that the village is still inhabited. The civilians are immediately evacuated and go back to free-France.

In Great Britain the church bells ring to salute the breaking of the Hindenburg line. However, the British never reach Cambrai and the victory is fleeting. As if spurred on by the British bells, the Germans counter-attack and retake the lost ground, if not more. By December 3rd all is over and the Germans hold Gonnelieu and Villers-Ghislain, which were in Allied hands before the offensive!
For a short while in 1917 the door to occupied France was open, but it was abruptly slammed shut.


[1] This note is found in the 10th Infantry Battalion war diary for September 1918, Appendix D, page 15.
[2] This woman would become a heroine of the resistance in World War 2.
[3] Poilus is a knickname given to the French foot soldier.
[4] Hill 70 stayed in German hands. It would finally be captured by Canadian troops in August 1917.
[5] Among the civilians liberated were the nursing Sisters (nuns) of the congregation of Saint-Thomas de Villeneuve, in Noyon. One of them, the courageus Mother Saint-Romuald, is immediately decorated with the Croix de Guerre. For more information on Noyon see, L’Occupation allemande de Noyon 1914-17, available from Ysec Éditions.
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