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

The First Liberation of 1918
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Introduction (Scroll below for a picture.)
The first time I read anything about the 1918 liberation of Écourt-Saint-Quentin was the mention in Canada’s Hundred Days by the Canadian journalist J.F.B. Livesay, published in 1919. I bought a copy of the book circa 2001, at the beginning of my interest in the Great War.

In his work, Livesay, who was a war correspondent with the Canadian Press, tells the story of the Canadian Corps in France and Belgium during the last hundred days of the Great War. (i.e. August 8 to November 11, 1918.) It makes for excellent reading as the Canadians were always on the move, going from one offensive to another. August 8 found the Corps on the Somme fighting in the multinational Amiens-Montdidier offensive.

On August 26th they renewed their offensive on the Arras front, in the direction of Cambrai. Cambrai fell on October 9th. In early November the Canadians took Valenciennes and just before the Armisitice comes into force, the Canadians captured Mons, in Belgium. The severity of the combat is well illustrated by the following statistic: One fifth of all the Canadian dead of the war are killed during these hundred days.

Of all the many stories told by Livesay, the happiest was the tale of the liberation of the civilians in Écourt-Saint-Quentin. From Canada’s Hundred Days:

Ecourt St. Quentin must figure in Canadian history as the village where Canadian troops first rescued the unhappy imprisoned French people. ‘Vive les Canadiens! Vive les braves Canadiens’-it was a glad cry from the heart soon to grow familiar to our ears, but it was first heard at this village. Forty-six persons, for four years held in slavery, hid for several days in one cellar when the order had gone out for villagers to be evacuated. Half-starved, emaciated, but very happy and voluble we found them.

This excerpt would come to mind many years later, in October 2008, while I was watching a collection of newsreels from the Great War that I had obtained from the Imperial War Museum. Featured were scenes filmed in Arras. One of the films showed a group of French civilians from Écourt-Saint-Quentin with their arms around their liberators which were identified as British soldiers.[1] I immediately recalled Livesay’s story about Écourt-Saint-Quentin. I fumbled for my copy of Canada’s Hundred Days, which was on my shelf behind me, and I anxiously leafed through it. I looked for the reference to the civilians I had read seven years prior. I found it, on the yellowed page: Ecourt St. Quentin must figure in Canadian history as the village where Canadian troops first rescued the unhappy imprisoned French people…I raised my eyes to the screen and got shivers to see Livesay’s civilians animated as if it had been filmed yesterday! On the screen I could see the joy in their faces of being liberated.

Encouraged by such an exciting find I undertook some preliminary investigations. I started to scour the memoirs in my collection for any reference to these Civilians. I was surprised to find many references to groups of civilians that were liberated in 1918. I say groups as apart from Écourt, there are reports that civilians were found in neighboring villages to Écourt: Rumaucourt, Récourt, Saudemont and Cagnicourt.[2] So, at first glance it seemed that many villages had been liberated with civilians in them.

However, my gut was telling me that all these reports were, in fact, of the Écourt civilians. As the months passed, I dug deeper and studies the context of each report and am now convinced that the only village in the area with a civilian population was Écourt-Saint-Quentin. I now go even further and state that the civilians in Écourt-Saint-Quentin were the first civilians, under the German yoke since 1914, to be liberated during the 1918 offensives. I have taken on the challenge to convince you, my dear readers, that the liberation of Écourt-Saint-Quentin is more than an obscure anecdote. It is an important chapter in the history of the Great War and belongs to Canada and France’s joint heritage. In Écourt-Saint-Quentin the liberation of France had it’s beginnings!

I took my research to France and am fortunate to have made some acquaintances in Écourt that greatly helped to expand the story of The First Liberation of 1918. I met Thierry Wiart and Serge Leblanc of the Cercle d’étude historique d’Écourt-Saint-Quentin, the local historical society. They never heard of the newsreel, but they are familiar with the story: about forty civilians had sought refuge in a solid barn in the centre of the village that belonged to a Monsieur Léchevin, and that they had been liberated on September 3, 1918 by Canadian soldiers. Three young men, Léonce Doisy, Gustave Barbier and Noël Lagrange left the barn, with all their wits about them ran towards the bombardment to reach allied lines.

By a twist of fate, my enquiries towards the historical society corresponded with the publication of their latest newsletter (November 2008 edition) which featured a story on the liberation of Écourt and the civilians. In this story I learned that the civilians caught the attention of the famous magazine l’Illustration. The civilians of Écourt made the front page of the September 14, 1918 edition. In it, the civilians were called Les Délivrés d’Écourt-Saint-Quentin (The delivered of Écourt). The British equivalent of l’Illustration, the Illustrated London News, put the Civilians of Écourt on it’s front page of it’s September 21, 1918 edition. However, the Illustrated London News incorrectly places the civilians in Saudemont.[3] I found that a page was dedicated to them in the October 5, 1918 edition of the War Illustrated as well as in the magazine Panorama de la guerre 1914-19. In both these cases, the reference to Saudemont was repeated. Despite what the magazines may have reported, I assure the reader that the civilians were liberated in Écourt-Saint-Quentin without a doubt.

I also found a number of photographs of the civilians at the Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa, some of which were published in the publications already mentioned. The photos from L’Illustration are the only examples I have found and I don’t know if the originals exist somewhere, possibly in a French archive.

Despite the media attention, the story of the civilians of Écourt-Saint-Quentin was fleeting. By the Second World War their story was completely forgotten in Canada. (Had G.W.L. Nicholson mentioned the civilians of Écourt-Saint-Quentin in his 1962 official history, things might have been different.) The story was unknown in France outside Écourt-Saint-Quentin. (Although a new modest awareness for the story came about after the publication of my French language book on the subject in 2010.) Like many myths, the story of the civilians of Écourt-Saint-Quentin in veiled by the mist of history.

I continued my research. Besides wanting to tell the details of the liberation of Écourt-Saint-Quentin, I wanted to confirm my hypothesis that the September 3, 1918, liberation of Écourt was the first time a civilian population was liberated during the 1918 offensives. I was ready to parse the evidence and was willing to accept that I might be wrong.

I analysed the battles of 1914-18 in France to discover how often the Allies stumbled upon occupied villages during the war. An exhaustive study is almost impossible, but I undertook it anyway. I will relate the results of my analysis in another chapter.

I was fortunate to get a copy of the unpublished memoir Some Recollections of the Battles of World War 1, by Lance Corporal George Kentner, who entered Écourt on September 3, 1918. His account of events leading up to the liberation of Écourt-Saint-Quentin puts the civilians into a historical context. I have used large sections of his memoir in this book.

I was priviledged to obtain one of the first copies of Clémence Leroy’s wartime journal, privately published circa 2010 and published with the title Sous le Joug (Under the Yoke). Clémence was a school teacher in Écourt-Saint-Quentin and lived through the entire occupation of Écourt from the early days in October 1914 to the day prior to the September 3, 1918 liberation. I used her memories of the week leading up to the liberation quite liberally. The translations are my own. Having the impressions of a French civilian during a Canadian attack is unique and priceless. It ads a dimension that is absent in all other books about the Canadians in the Great War.

Clémence Leroy’s France was in a sad state. Although we are aware of the sacrifice of our soldiers in 1914-18, in Canada we do not appreciate the suffering that the French endured during this conflict. The reconstruction was barely complete when France was plunged in another European conflict. The theme of this book is the Civilians so I will take a moment to emphasize the suffering of the French, which continued long after the signing of the Armistice. The Great War continued to kill French men and women long after November 11, 1918 came and went. The veteran Will Bird visited France in the 1930’s to report on the state of the battlefields. He visited the battlefield between Arras and Cambrai, including Écourt-Saint-Quentin. He painted a pretty grim picture of the area. Taken from Thirteen Years After:

But on the slopes and in the hollows that form the wide path we made from Arras to Cambrai you find more signs of war than any other part of France or Belgium. I do not speak of preserved ground, such as Vimy or Hill 60, Sanctuary Wood or the grounds of Beaumont-Hamel, but an entire countryside. This whole Arras-Cambrai stretch is ‘war ground’…Even the people seem different in this war region. They are a duller lot, almost stupid, it seems, from the effects of their struggle with war debris. One old man told me of losing a fine colt down an old dugout shaft, of his son being killed by an exploding of a shell in the garden, and how another of his family died from blood poisoning, a scratch from old barbed wire. They hate the war, loathe it; don’t want to talk about it at all.

The story I am telling in this book is that the liberation of France started on September 3, 1918 in the village of Écourt-Saint-Quentin. It’s a happy story.

What my book taught me was that the French people paid dearly for this liberation.

[1] The soldiers were, in fact, Canadians. British and Canadian uniforms were almost identical.
[2] The author was probably referring to Villers-lez-Cagnicourt and not Cagnicourt.
[3] Clémence Leroy, (of which we will hear more of later) states that some refugees from Saudemont were in Écourt a few days before the liberation. It’s not impossible that a few people of Saudemont were with the group of civilians liberated on September 3, 1918.
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