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

The First Liberation of 1918
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Preface (Scroll below for pictures.)

The book you hold in your hand tells a story of the Great War of 1914-18, and takes place in and around the city of Arras, in France. It was originally published in French by Ysec Éditions, under the title Nous sommes Français! Les Canadiens et les Délivrés d’Écourt-Saint-Quentin, 3 septembre 1918. The French edition was released in France on Remembrance Day, 2010.

No matter which of the two versions you read, the core of the story remains the same: On September 2 1918, after a week-long battle, the Canadian Corps, in cooperation with the British XVII Corps, broke through the German fortifications of the Western Front in France at a point South-East of the city of Arras. For the first time in 1918, Allied troops could gaze upon the green fields of occupied France: Fields occupied by the enemy since October of 1914. The next morning, on the 3rd of September, the Canadians advanced a distance of five kms through these fields, before consolidating their position.  On their way, the Canadians passed through a cluster of deserted French villages, the population having been evacuated by the Germans the day before. These refugees left on an exodus that eventually led them into occupied Belgium.

However, not all heeded the German evacuation order. In one of the villages, Écourt-Saint-Quentin, forty-or-so civilians remained defiant and opted to stay behind, taking shelter in the cellar of a large farm in the center of the community. Here they braved the allied bombardment and hoped for the best. (Two of this group even passed on the relative security of this shelter and opted to remain in their own home.) It was a dangerous gamble, but their pluckiness paid off. After a terrifying night in the shelter, the Canadians swept into town, in pursuit of the retreating Germans. The civilians they found were likely the first to be liberated during the victory campaign of 1918.

Back in 1918, the liberation of Écourt-Saint-Quentin was a newsworthy story. In fact, shortly after the liberation, a newsreel was made about the civilians, and concurrently, photos of them graced the front page of The Illustrated London News in the United Kingdom, and l’Illustration, in France. It did not end there: The British war correspondent, Phillip Gibbs, wrote about them from the front. The article he wrote appeared all over the world. The Canadian war corresponded and witness, J.F.B. Livesay, underlines the importance of the liberation of Écourt-Saint-Quentin in his 1919 book Canada’s Hundred Days. In it, he acknowledges that it was at Écourt Saint-Quentin that Canadian soldiers liberated civilians in occupied territory, for the first time.

The civilians of Écourt-Saint-Quentin made an immediate impression on the ones closest to them: The Canadian soldiers. The war diaries of some of the Canadian units who crossed paths with the civilians mention the interactions, and a number of individual soldier’s memoirs also make mention of civilians being liberated on September 3, 1918.

The liberation of Écourt-Saint-Quentin is also mentioned in the Canadian War Records Office publication, Canada’s Triumph, a short summary of the Canadian operations of August-October 1918, published in the immediate post-war period. Another contemporary government source, Report of the Ministry – Overseas Military Forces of Canada 1918 mention that a certain number of civilians were liberated during the advance of September 3, 1918. A third government publication, Colonel A.E. Snell’s 1924 book The C.A.M.C. with the Canadian Corps during the Hundred Days of the Great War (a must-read text for any serious student of the Canadian operations of August-November, 1918) dedicates a paragraph to the civilians discovered in Écourt-Saint-Quentin.

However, after World War II, the story of the liberation of civilians in Écourt-Saint-Quentin fell into obscurity, and is not mentioned in either the Canadian or British official histories of the war. In the British history, entitled Military Operations France and Belgium 1918, volumes IV and V (both published in 1947) [1], the first mention of French civilians liberated in 1918, regard events from the middle of October, six weeks after the liberation of Écourt-Saint-Quentin. In the case of the Canadian history (entitled Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1919, written by Colonel G.W.L. Nicholson and first published in 1962) the author’s first mention of liberated civilians is regarding the 1st Canadian Division’s October 18, 1918 entrance into Pecquencourt, where two thousand French civilians were found. Subsequent Canadian history books are also silent: There is no mention of the liberation of civilians in Écourt-Saint-Quentin in John Swettenham’s To Seize the Victory, the Canadian Corps in World War I (1965), or Daniel Dancocks’ Spearhead to Victory (1987) and also Tim Cook’s recent work Shock Troops, Canadians Fighting the Great War 1917-1918. This despite the fact that the last two books cover the Canadian operations from August 8 to November 11, 1918 in great detail. This isn’t an indictment, I’m just pointing out that the story of the liberation of civilians on September 3, 1918, has simply disappeared from the histography of the Great War. [2]

It is possible that Nicholson’s work served as a template for all subsequent histories of the Canadians in the Great War, and, if true, would partly explain why the story of Écourt-Saint-Quentin was dropped from the record. Canada would have certainly benefitted from a more compressive official history of its participation in the Great War. Nicholson’s official history, although commendable and of tremendous value, is, for example, dwarfed by the Australian official history, and does not include near the same level of detail.

It might be that the liberation of a few civilians in 1918 was simply too mundane an event to bother mentioning, especially if we compare this with the images of the liberation of Paris in 1944, where throngs of civilians took to the street. In comparison, the liberation of Écourt-Saint-Quentin on September 3, 1918, seems anticlimactic. However, the story of Écourt-Saint-Quentin, well-known-or-not, has symbolic value. To appreciate this, the reader must put himself into the context of 1918. During the Great War, achieving an armed crossing of No-Man’s-Land, followed with a breakthrough to the green fields of occupied France beyond, was the objective that caused the death of thousands of Allied lives. The resulting liberation of an inhabited village subsequent to such a breakthrough should have been a landmark event. Yet, since the end of the Second World War, Écourt-Saint-Quentin does not even merit a footnote in the history of Canada in the Great War of 1914-18. Écourt-Saint-Quentin was the first inhabited village of France to be liberated in 1918. Remarkably, it took more than a month to liberate the second.

The book takes the reader from Arras through No Man’s Land to Écourt-Saint-Quentin, and back again, as it follows the fortunes of both the Canadian soldiers, and the civilians they liberated.
I made liberal use of Clémence Leroy’s journal, Sous le joug (Under the Yoke). Ms. Leroy was a schoolteacher in Écourt, who kept a lengthy record, in French, of the goings on in the village from the first days of the occupation in 1914 to September 2, 1918. As far as I can tell, this is possibly the first time, or one of the first times a memoir from the occupation is available in English. It ads a new dimension to the histography of the war.

I also make use of Lance Corporal George Kentner unpublished memoir Some Recollections of the Battles of World War 1. Leroy and Kentner record the same bombardments that marked the Canadian advance on Écourt-Saint-Quentin, from August 26th to September 3, 1918. I intertwined their story for dramatic effect.

In the book I also do a survey of the operations on the Western front to prove that the civilians in Écourt-Saint-Quentin were the first civilians liberated in 1918.

I also tell the story of how I found were the famous newsreel was shot, which completed my research into the story of The First Liberation of 1918.

When you finish this book, I trust that you will concur that the liberation of France began in Écourt Saint-Quentin.


I wish to thank Thierry Wiart, my man on the ground.
Irene Lawson (née Kentner) and Claude Belin who lifted from obscurity the memories of George Kentner and Clémence Leroy.
Thank you to all those in France who helped me along the way, including Gilles Colpart, Maxime Martin, Simon Godly and Jean-Marie Dez to name a few.
Special thanks to Aaron, Kelsey, Emélie, Scott and my Mother, without their support this book would simply not exist.

[1] Volumes IV and V encompass the period August 8 to November 11, 1918.
[2] Exceptions do exist: The Canadian Grenadier Guards Regimental History 1760-1964, published in 1965 mentions the civilians liberated in Écourt.
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