HALIFAX — One hundred years ago, Canadian troops spearheaded the Allied offensive that would ultimately lead to the end of the First World War in November 1918.
The final push through Belgium and France that became known as Canada’s Hundred Days was commemorated Wednesday, a century to the day it began, at a monument on the Halifax waterfront.
Ken Hynes, curator of the Army Museum at the Halifax Citadel, said during the last 100 days Canadian troops were “consistently in the vanguard of advancing Allied armies” and confirmed their reputation as some of the best shock troops in the British Expeditionary Force.
“Canadian victories at Amiens, the Drocourt–Quéant Line, Canal du Nord, and the Pursuit to Mons were among the most difficult and costly battles of the war,” said Hynes.
He said the Canadian contribution was marked by “great determination and valour” with 30 soldiers earning the Victoria Cross, the highest award for gallantry for British and Commonwealth forces.
Among the posthumous recipients was John Bernard Croak of Glace Bay, N.S., who was recognized for his actions on the first day of the offensive, Aug. 8, at Amiens.
Croak was wounded in the arm while attacking a machine gun post. He managed to take prisoners before being fatally wounded during an attack on a second machine gun nest.
Overall, Hynes said the 100,000-strong Canadian Corps paid an enormous price for its reputation — with more than 45,000 men killed and wounded over the last days of the war. Casualties during the period accounted for almost one-third of all Canadian casualties during the war.
The beginning of the offensive saw the Canadians at the head of an attack on an important salient near Amiens.
Hynes said on the eve of the battle secrecy needed to be maintained, so Canadian units were actually moved away from the line and into an area near Arras.
“When the Canadians were in front of the Germans, the Germans knew they were going to be attacked,” he said. “The move was a feint that caused the Germans to think that an attack was going to be launched in that area (Arras).”
Hynes said the entire corps doubled back in the dead of night to launch an attack which saw it gain 13 kilometres in one day.
“When you consider trench warfare as it existed during the First World War, that’s an unheard-of amount of ground to cover … and overall from the eighth to the eleventh of August when the Battle of Amiens concluded, the British Expeditionary Force had moved forward over 25 kilometres.”
During Wednesday’s ceremony, a commemorative panel was unveiled on Pier 2 that completes two so-called “portals of remembrance.”
Created by Nova Scotia artist Nancy Keating, the portals include the Last Steps Memorial Arch in Halifax and the Canada Gate near Passchendaele in Belgium.
The arch marks the departure of 350,000 soldiers who boarded ships in Halifax bound for Europe. It features dark prints from soldiers’ boots on a wooden gangway that points toward the harbour.
The Canada Gate, installed last fall, has the same boot prints on a row of wooden duckboards, like those that lined the bottom of First World War trenches.
Keating said the symbolic completion of her artistic vision marks the end of a personal journey.
“I learned a lot,” said Keating. “There is so little sacred (war) ground in Canada and so what we need to do is make sure people remember.”
Hynes said it’s hoped the Halifax memorial will inspire people to make the journey to Belgium and France to trace their ancestors’ footsteps, including on battlefields that were prominent during the final days of the massive conflict.
“While the 100 days offensive did finally lead to victory, they were marked by incredible sacrifice which we all have an obligation to commemorate and remember,” he said.
Keith Doucette, The Canadian Press