Chapter VII – 1918

For Montreal as for much of Canada 1918 proved to be a difficult year marked by political crises, rampant inflation, coal shortages and a deadly flu epidemic. For many French Canadians the imposition of conscription, after what most saw as a rigged election, was a special source of bitterness. Isolated, without representation in the Federal government or allies in the other provinces their mood was crystalized three days after the election when a member of the provincial assembly, J. N. Francoeur gave notice of a motion to be introduced in January which read,

That this house is of the opinion that the Province of Quebec would be disposed to accept the breaking of the Confederation Pact of 1867 if in the opinion of the other provinces it is believed she is an obstacle to the union, progress and development of Canada.

The Francoeur motion was debated in both the legislature and the newspapers but apart from La Croix which had been advocating separation for some months, the consensus was that Francoeur was providing an opportunity to express the anger and frustration felt by many French Canadians. Premier Gouin brought the debate to a close in a widely reported speech on the advantages of Confederation to Quebec. He declared that if he had been present in 1864, when the negotiations over Confederation began, he would have argued for the same protection for the French Canadians of Ontario that was obtained for the English minority in Quebec. If however, “I did not succeed I would have still voted for the Federation pact”. Gouin went on to describe the benefits of Confederation, especially for Montreal, and the necessity of Quebec supporting the 500,000 French Canadians in other provinces. After the war ends, he argued, the language question in Ontario as elsewhere will settle itself.

We complain of insults, of appeals to prejudice, but our fathers always suffered from those things. For sixty years they have been constantly used for party ends. These appeals pander to the appetite for power and the lust for patronage… We have been insulted it is true, but I persist in believing that it is not by the majority but by a small number. I believe the majority of people in this country are good people… I am proud of my name of Canadian, proud of my country Canada.[1]

At the conclusion of Gouin’s two hour speech, Francoeur withdrew his motion bringing the debate, though not the conflict, to an end.

One reason for the moderate tone of the debate was the growing awareness that very few men were being conscripted. Ninety-seven percent of the 115,602 from Quebec required to register in the late 1917 sought exemptions and, as the newspapers regularly reported, both the local and appeal tribunals were accepting the vast majority of exemption requests. Apart from the 1,888 men who joined the army voluntarily after registering,[2]  just 3,681 requests were rejected by the local tribunals. Eventually, after the Central Appeal Judge, Lyman Daff, intervened 10,691 men from Quebec were refused exemption but this process was strung out over many months.[3] As Laurier told a correspondent, who explained voting for Borden because of the need for “speedy reinforcement of the army”,

The conscription measure was introduced in the first week of June. We are now in the third week of January and not ten thousand men, if indeed half that many, have been brought into the ranks by this measure. By next June you will not have one conscripted man across the ocean…[4]

Laurier exaggerated ever so slightly. The first Quebec conscripts, drawn from the men who had voluntarily reported, were part of a draft sent to England in February 1918. Le Canada, in reporting their departure, complained that the conscripts were denied the opportunity to even say goodbye to their parents.[5]

If newspaper coverage is an appropriate gauge of public interest it is necessary to remind ourselves that the Francoeur debate and reports on the progress of exemption tribunals competed for space with other events. The Church sponsored La Ligue antialcoolique and the Montreal branch of the Dominion Alliance had long fought to bring prohibition to Quebec and in early 1918 it appeared as if victory was in sight. Most rural municipalities and small towns had adopted prohibition by local option, as had Quebec City, but Montreal remained stubbornly “wet”. The Gouin government’s decision to impose prohibition on Montreal through provincial legislation provoked a considerable backlash from citizens as well as organizations such as the Brewers Association, and the Montreal Trades and Labour Council. On 12 February 1918 the Provincial Treasurer, Walter Mitchell introduced a bill tightening existing regulations and announcing that total prohibition would be enforced from 1 May 1919 after existing stocks of liquor were exhausted. In his remarks Mitchell said the bill was required as the Dominion Government had outlawed the production of alcoholic beverages as a war measure. The legislation sparked an intense campaign to allow beer, wine and cider to be sold, an issue finally resolved in 1919 by allowing a referendum on the question.[6] (The beer, wine and cider side won.)

Montrealers also focused an even bigger Automobile Show and their winter passion for hockey. The 1917-1918 season was the first year of the new National Hockey League but the war and a disastrous fire threatened its survival. Quebec City’s team had disbanded before the season began and on 2 January, the Montreal Arena burnt down destroying the equipment of both the city’s teams. The Wanderers gave up, their players joining the three remaining clubs. The Club de Hockey Canadien was now everyone’s team with a roster of both French and English-speaking players.[7]


Fires were frequent occurrences in Montreal, especially in winter, but no one was prepared for the tragedy that overwhelmed the city on 14 February 1918. The Soeurs Grise or Grey Nuns had been active in caring for citizens since the 18th Century and there building in the west end was one of the largest institutions in the city.[8] In 1918 the sisters were providing accommodation and care for wounded veterans as well as seniors and a large number of illegitimate and abandoned children. The fire, later determined to have been deliberately set by a deranged worker[9], drew all available fire engines and thousands of spectators alerted by the wail of sirens heard throughout the city. Both the seniors and veterans were escorted to the nearby Montefiore Club that served as a temporary evacuation centre. The fire was concentrated on the ward where the babies were sleeping and while some were rescued at least 53 died of smoke inhalation or burns.[10]

Grey Nuns Chapel Entrance, Dorchester Street. 1890

Newspaper coverage included pictures of the ward with its long row of cots prompting various responses. Archbishop Bruchesi organized a diocesan-wide fund raising campaign for the sisters to re-build, prompting Le Pays to suggest that an investigation of the conditions was required before money was raised.[11] The Montreal Herald drew attention to an article published in the popular American magazine Literary Digest titled, “The Cradle is More Fatal than the Trenches”. The author calculated that babies born in the United States were seven times more likely to die in their first year than a British soldier in trenches of the Western Front and fifty percent of these deaths were easily preventable.[12]

The Grey Nunnery Fire

The Herald noted that public interest in the loss of 53 babies in a fire was not matched by concern with the city’s notorious infant mortality rate with one in every five newborns dead before their first birthday.[13] Edouard Montpetit, an economist and nationalist intellectual elaborated on this theme in an address to L’Assocation des femmes d’affaires. Montpetit titled his talk “La Veillée des berceaux” (the watch over the cradles) a reference to a recent article by Louis Lalande S. J. who used the phrase Revanche des berceaux (revenge of the cradle) to describe the need to maintain a high birth rate, promote colonization and avoid distractions such as feminism.[14] Montpetit, one of the more data-oriented nationalists, agreed with Lalande about the necessity of maintaining French Canada’s high birth rate but argued that it is “not the babies born but the babies saved” that will ensure our survival. He calculated that despite the decline in infant mortality in the past decade, a Montreal newborn was nine times more likely to die than a soldier in the army.[15] The Municipal Board of Health Report for 1918 emphasized the declining rate of infant deaths noting that “In 1918 there were 20,373 live births and the number of children saved was 1,379 compared to 1908”,[16] but the deaths of some 3,488 babies, most of them in their first year of life, was still too easily accepted. It took until the mid-1920s to enforce the pasteurization and inspection of all milk sold in the city. This, together with new methods in the treatment of gastro-enteritis in children, finally brought the infant mortality rate down to a more normal level.[17]

Throughout the winter of 1917-1918 the daily newspapers printed dispatches from Associated Press and other agencies that offered readers a remarkably detailed and reasonably accurate picture of events in the wider world. Woodrow Wilson’s “Fourteen Points” speech of 8 January was well received with the Gazette reporting that Canadians were reassured “The United States will stand with the Allies to the end”.[18] The protracted negotiations between Germany and the new Russian government were linked to the prospect of the transfer of German divisions to the Western Front and the likelihood of a major spring offensive. Trotsky’s February declaration that Russia was no longer at war – no war, no peace – and the German attempt to underwrite an independent Ukraine were detailed as were the terms of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Editorial writers insisted that the harsh terms of the Treaty ended any prospect of a negotiated peace in the west and informed readers of the likelihood of a new and powerful German offensive in the west employing divisions transferred from the Eastern Front.

Ludendorff’s Eastern Empire – Source: Holger Herwig, The First World War, p. 373.

            The prospect of more costly battles forced both the British[19] and Canadian governments to re-examine their manpower policies. British divisions were reduced in size by removing one battalion from each brigade and using the men to bring the remaining nine battalions to full strength. The War Office wanted the Canadians to adopt the new order of battle and send two additional, small divisions to France.[20] The Corps Commander, Sir Arthur Currie, was totally opposed to the proposal even though it would lead to establishing a Canadian Army of two corps which Currie would command. His counter-proposal, was to use the men from 5th Division, still training in England to increase the combat strength of the front line battalions and create additional engineer and machine gun units.[21] Borden refused to disband the division before the election avoiding opposition from the troops and Sam Hughes, whose son commanded the formation. With the election won Borden was content to follow Currie’s advice.

The newly strengthened Canadian Corps was holding the Vimy sector when on 21 March the long-anticipated German offensive began. With an additional 500,000 men transferred from the Eastern Front and specially trained and equipped divisions, the German army struck at Fifth British Army. Outnumbered eight to one, the British yielded ground and thousands of prisoners. Survival depended on the arrival of Allied reserves.

The French provided Haig with nine divisions while additional men in Britain, training or on leave, were rushed to France.[22] By 27 March with the Germans approaching Amiens the possibility of separating the British and French armies galvanized Allied resistance. Haig agreed to the appointment of Foch as Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Armies. Fortunately the German offensive was bogging down and Germany’s Supreme War Lord, Erich Ludendorff decided on a new attack south of Arras. Infiltration tactics and surprise won early tactical success leading Haig to issue a melodramatic order of the day,

Every position must be held to the last man: There will be no retirement. With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause, each one of us must fight on to the end… Many amongst us are tired. To those I would say that victory will belong to the side that holds out the longest.[23]

The Canadian Cavalry regiments and elements of the Motor Machine Gun Brigade were involved in the defence of Amiens but the Canadian Corps played a modest role in this period extending its line and temporarily providing divisions to assist the British. According to Haig, Currie’s attempt to retain all four divisions under his command created serious problems for the British. Currie, he noted in his diary, “wishes to fight only as a Canadian Corps… As a result the Canadians are together holding a wide front near Arras but they have not yet been in battle.” Two weeks later, after a meeting with Edward Kemp, Canada’s Overseas Minister of Militia, he wrote “I could not help feeling that some people in Canada regard themselves as ‘allies’ rather than fellow citizens of the Empire”.[24]

Newspaper coverage of the German offensive was on the front pages of most Montreal newspapers from 22 March, though other issues competed for public attention. The death of John Redmond, the leader of Ireland’s Home Rule movement was deeply felt in the city’s Irish community leading to the decision to cancel the St. Patrick’s Day parade, scheduled for the week after his funeral.[25] Lloyd George’s proposal to extend conscription to Ireland and stories about the reaction in Ireland[26] were widely reported with inevitable comparisons to the situation in Quebec. The introduction of legislation to establish daylight savings time produced a major controversy in Quebec as well as the rest of Canada. Montrealers like most urban dwellers generally favoured the measure which became law despite opposition from farmers and their elected representatives.[27]

On 22 March the Prime Minister introduced a bill to enfranchise women who were 21 years of age, and British subjects who possessed the same qualifications as male voters, words that excluded indigenous and Asian women. Five provinces had already extended the vote to women and a sixth, Nova Scotia, was preparing legislation so Borden’s announcement was expected and widely-supported in most of Canada. A Montreal Gazette editorial noted that there was little controversy “Canadians will generally accept such legislation as something foreordained…”[28]

Women’s organizations in the Anglo-Celtic city were less restrained in their support for the law but with so much happening that spring, neither the Montreal Suffrage Association nor the Montreal Local Council of Women marked the occasion with public celebration. The Féderation Nationale St Jean Baptiste was divided over the issue with its president, Marie Lacoste Gerin Lajoie, ready to endorse the law while other leading members were opposed. It was decided to ask Madeleine Huguenin to write the “Entre nous” editorial in La Bonne Parole as her views more closely reflected those of the majority. Huguenin opposed enfranchisement for its “negative effects on women” and declared that she “dreaded” the consequences.[29] The majority of French Canadians women appear to have agreed and did not obtain voting rights in provincial elections until the 1940s. The most intense reaction came in the pages of Le Devoir with Bourassa expressing his opposition in a series of front page editorials. The legislation, as well as other aspects of “feminism”, were, he believed, linked to war fever and would have terrible consequences for marriage, the family, the education of children and the moral welfare of women.[30] French Canadians in the Federal Liberal caucus offered pro-forma opposition but allowed the Bill to pass without division.[31]

Montrealers were also caught up in the 1918 mayoralty campaign in which Joseph Ainey, the long-term Labour representative on the Board of Control, was running against Méderic Martin. Montreal’s financial problems, aggravated by the forced annexation of the bankrupt “Promoters City”, Maisonneuve, led the provincial government to assume control of the city, replacing the elected Board of Control with an appointed Administrative Council. Since the mayor and elected alderman would have no significant power the election was largely a popularity contest. This did not stop business leaders, the daily newspapers, and various vocal government groups from waging an aggressive campaign to elect Ainey.[32]

Martin was easily returned for his third term winning broad support among French Canadian voters. His margin of victory may have been enhanced by reaction to the events unfolding in Quebec City over the week end preceding the vote. The outbreak of violence soon to be known as the “Easter Riots” began when two, locally notorious, Dominion Police constables entered a pool hall in working class Lower Town seeking men evading conscription. One young man, Joseph Mercier, who had left his exemption papers at home was taken into custody until friends brought his certificate to a Police Station used as a detention centre. A large crowd attacked the building and assaulted the police constables. Mayor Henri-Edgar Lavigueur[33] declined to send municipal police to assist and shortly after midnight the riot ended. The next day, Good Friday, was quiet but “stories of all kinds were carried throughout the entire city” with rumors spreading about a mass rally in Upper Town that night.[34]

C. J. “Chubby” Powers, a veteran and recently elected Liberal Member of Parliament for Quebec South, watched the crowd gather in front of the offices of the Military Service Branch which was protected by a thin screen of city police. Children began to throw snowballs then a cry of “lets burn the military papers” roused a group to action, breaking through the police line and setting fires in the M.S.A. offices. The Mayor, with about 300 soldiers, arrived to quell the demonstration but once again Lavigueur declined to read the Riot Act.[35] The night ended without arrests or serious injury. In Ottawa the Prime Minister called an emergency cabinet meeting to discuss the situation. His diary entry reads

Saturday March 30     Severe rioting in Quebec City last night which was only quelled when troops called in… Debated question for two hours, decided to send immediately 1000 men to reinforce garrison, to order Lessard [Major-General François Lessard] to proceed immediately to Quebec and to bring 200 troops from the West. Machin [Lieut-Colonel H.A.C. Machin] reported by telephone that the situation is very serious… wants martial law proclaimed. Further rioting expected this evening.[36]

The streets were quiet throughout the day but rumours of a planned attack on the Drill Hall where draft evaders were incarcerated were widespread. Powers recalled that,

Again thousands of onlookers congregated at the spot, the principal residential street of Quebec City and again in the evening crowds appeared as if from nowhere, having climbed the steep hills from the Lower Town. They began shouting and marching in the vicinity of the small square fronting the Drill Hall… suddenly we saw emerging from among the crowd mounted soldiers galloping down the breath of the street scattering the population in all directions. The soldiers were armed with axe handles which they waved about but to the best of my knowledge did not wield on the heads of spectators.[37]

The crowd disbursed but not until the offices of the two pro-government newspapers, the Quebec Chronicle and L’Evénement were attacked. The next day Borden was told that all was quiet in Quebec City and there were no reports of trouble in Montreal or elsewhere in the province. However, no new instructions were issued to General Landry who deployed the additional troops from the Central Ontario Regiment throughout the city. General Lessard[38] and “trainloads of English-speaking troops, horses and military supplies from Ontario arrived at Quebec City” in the late afternoon adding to the numbers already patrolling the streets. After several failed attempts to secure guns by breaking into hardware stores the core of activists and thousands of onlookers gathered to listen to Armand Lavergne who claimed to have made a deal with the military that troops would stay in their barracks if the crowds went home. Lessard denied making any such commitment and soldiers continued to protect key sites like the Ross Rifle factory as well as conducting street patrols.

The next morning, Monday, 1 April was cool with rain and fog. Lessard who had established military authority over the city placarded the streets with a notice forbidding unlawful assemblies and warning citizens to stay home. The military, he declared, “would use every means at their disposal to maintain peace and order.”[39] Martin Auger who has examined the available evidence summarized what happened that evening when Lessard ordered Quebec-based regiments to stay in their barracks and sent 1200 soldiers from Ontario into the streets. Crowds soon assembled in Lower Town and could not be disbursed, “as soon as they cleared an area the angry mob reassembled and hauled stones, snowballs, ice and bricks at the soldiers”. Shots were fired by armed protestors and after several soldiers were wounded “the troops were ordered to open fire on the crowd”.[40] A fourteen-year-old, Georges Demeule and three young men who also appeared to be onlookers were killed along with an estimated thirty-eight wounded.[41]

Men killed in the Quebec City Conscription Riots

The shooting deaths of four civilians in the streets of a Canadian city evoked no sympathy from the Prime Minister who gave the House of Commons a version of events based on scant information.

From house tops, side streets, snow banks and other places of concealment, the rioters opened point-blank fire on the troops who, as one the previous night, displayed great steadiness and forbearance under severe provocation. But at length after several soldiers had received bullet wounds, it became absolutely necessary for the troops to return the fire in self-defence, for the protection of the public, and to prevent the situation passing entirely beyond control. Five soldiers were wounded and of the crowd four were killed, many injured and 58 arrested.[42]

Borden also introduced Orders-in-Council retroactively authorizing military intervention without the reading of the Riot Act and canceling the exemption of anyone resisting the enforcement of the MSA.[43] Many of his colleagues pressed for the suppression of Le Devoir and the arrest of Bourassa but Borden “told them a man behind bars some times has more influence than outside the bars”. Instead he proposed tightening censorship regulations.[44] This encouraged the Dominion Police to seize a printing plant “circulating Ukrainian socialist and I.W.W. literature” as well as “Le Bulletin” a weekly had “recently published a burlesque on military and government action.”[45]

Montreal newspapers carried detailed reports on the riots and their suppression deploring the violence while raising questions about the behavior of the Dominion Police. Mayor Lavigueur’s cable to Borden which blamed “the lack of discretion, tact and discrimination on the part of officers responsible for the enforcement of the Military Service Act…” was widely cited[46], as were statements about the failure of the civic authorities to intervene early. Le Devoir initially provided sympathetic coverage of the rioting and of Armand Lavergne’s intervention, but on 5 April Bourassa’s front page editorial insisted that public order must be maintained. The editors of Le Pays responded, blasting Bourassa for his hypocrisy.[47]

On the surface, life in Quebec City returned to normal though there were minor clashes in April and June.[48] The Dominion Police Commissioner’s report of 12 April stated that, “while things appear quiet, indications are that when active enforcement of the Military Service Act starts, there will be resistance in the city of Quebec and elsewhere in the province.”[49] An Ontario battalion was to be permanently stationed in Quebec City. Martin Auger has described the precautions taken in Montreal where local regiments “remained on high alert until 7 April”.

Auger writes,

A small detachment of soldiers also guarded the office of the local MSA registrar, while larger contingents of up to two hundred soldiers were assigned to the Montreal Port to protect the Imperial Munitions Board hangars. Military officials also monitored telegraph correspondence passing through Montreal’s cable station to uncover information about possible future riots…[50]

Large contingents of Ontario and Western Canadian troops were maintained in the province until the end of the war, including several hundred from Manitoba who were stationed at Saint-Jean close to Montreal.

While attention was focused on the riots the news of German victories on the Western Front could not be ignored. Haig’s “backs to the wall” order of the day and other signs of a possible Allied collapse challenged newspaper editors, who tried to cloak stories of enemy advances in optimistic language, emphasizing heavy German casualties. The Montreal Standard criticized this approach declaring that the crisis meant the war was now less about “saving the world for democracy” and more about “making it possible for democracies to exist”.[51] In Ottawa where the cabinet had little more information than newspaper readers, Borden noted, 7 April, that the “enemy is evidently preparing for another heavy attack” and recorded his view that “British generals and staffs were not equal to the Germans or French”. Three days later he wrote “Germans again taking the offensive in overwhelming numbers and pressing the British back”.[52] After a “secret telegram” arrived offering new details Borden decided to call for a closed session of Parliament to explain the scale of the crisis and announce the government’s intention to cancel exemptions calling out men for military service. On 19 April the public learned the details. All men in Class I, 19 to 34 years of age who were single or widowers without children were now liable for service and no claims of exemption were to be allowed.

Initially men from twenty to twenty-two inclusive were to be called up. The Prime Minister admitted that the Military Service Act had failed, blaming the exemption tribunals which “were attended with great inequality and sometimes with marked injustice”, especially in “some parts of the country”. Borden dismissed the argument, pressed by the Liberals, that the United States already had more available men then could be transported, insisting that he had “assurances” that shipping for the Canadians would be found. He then undercut his argument and the claims of urgency by adding, “if they cannot be transported in the immediate future they can be trained here in Canada and sent forward when ships can be provided”.[53] Borden’s determination to proceed with universal conscription was further evident when 19 year old men were ordered to register facilitating a future draft and when he faced a massive farmers’ protest in Ottawa. Quebec was well represented in the crowd but it was men from Ontario and the west who had voted Unionist after promises that farmers would be exempt that led the protest. Borden offered no apologies, he told the demonstrators that in this crisis nothing mattered more than the military. “If a scattered and broken remnant, overwhelmed because not reinforced should return to Canada it would profit little to tell them that while they were being decimated our production had been largely increased.”[54]

It took some time to organize a call up but nationally by mid-June close to 72,000 of the 95,000 required to report had done so. The figures for Military District 4, Montreal and 5, Quebec City were somewhat different. Montreal Registrars had notified 11,470 men to appear but 4,189 of them, more than a third ignored the order. Quebec City reported that 1,702 of 4,126 failed to register.[55] Was the glass half full or half empty? Pro-government newspapers, La Patrie, L’Evénement and the English-language dallies, insisted that the attitude of French Canadians towards military service had changed, and military officials were said to be elated over the results in Quebec. Laurier, Gouin and other prominent Quebecers renewed the proposal to establish a French-Canadian brigade with Brigadier Thomas-Louis Tremblay brought back from France to command. The idea was greeted with enthusiasm in much of the press.[56] The Minister of Militia vetoed the idea in early June promising that French speaking conscripts would be kept together while in Canada and “as far as possible overseas but an entire brigade of fresh and untrained troops, wholly by themselves in the trenches would be to incur great risk.[57] Keeping French Canadian conscripts together overseas was not possible because the unilingual Canadian army was determined to “spread about” French-Canadian reinforcements and avoid establishing additional French-language companies never mind battalions.[58]

Both pro and anti-government newspapers publicized the efforts of French Canada’s Roman Catholic clergy to encourage men to report. Since the Bishops, and the parish priests, were opposed to conscription, support took the form of sermons and pastoral letters urging the faithful to obey the law. The words of Monseigneur Emard, the Bishop of Valleyfield, in what La Presse described as a touching farewell to conscripts in his diocese, were typical,

The law commands you and duty calls you. You respond, if not with joyous heart at least with courage and generosity… Since it is the final decision there is no turning back, go ahead and never forget while you are with the colours that you have with you the honour of the race and your creed…[59] [to read the full text click here]

This was less than a clarion call to wage war for civilization and democracy but it was in tune with the mood of French Canada.

The government’s decision to amend the Military Service Act by Order-in-Council rather than legislation led to court challenges that further slowed the enlistment process in Montreal. The crucial case was heard in the Alberta Supreme Court with R.B. Bennet acting for a conscript who Bennett argued was held in custody illegally by the army. The court ordered his release and declared that the Order-in-Council was illegal. This decision encouraged many draftees to seek release from service through writs of habeas corpus. In Quebec the courts embraced this ruling ordering the release of men exempted by the regular tribunals.[60] Very few conscripts could hire a lawyer to pursue court action but the Alberta decision had broader consequences. Officials at Military District 4 headquarters admitted that up to 10 July “no legal proceedings had been taken against those who fail to report”. Less than half of the 400 men required to appear on 9 July were taken on strength and no one could say when further action to deal with them would be taken.[61]

Legal uncertainty was not the only problem in Montreal where a bitter dispute between the Dominion Police and the military led to open conflict. The situation arose after influential members of Borden’s cabinet complained that the MSA would never be properly enforced as long as C.J. Doherty, the Minister of Justice, was in charge.[62] Borden agreed to transfer authority to the military who were to supervise the Dominion Police. The change went smoothly in Toronto[63] but in Montreal, language and culture stood in the way of co-operation. The District Registrar, Eugene Godin, the Dominion Police Chief Inspector J. A. Belanger, their deputies and staff were French Canadians carrying out a very unpopular task. To be subordinate to the unilingual English Canadian authority of Major-General E. W. Wilson and his Assistant Provost Marshal Major P. Mackenzie was too much to ask. Resignations, “Desmission en bloc”, as La Presse described it[64], followed and for some weeks there were few serious attempts to round up deserters or those evading the call up.

The challenges confronting the military police, many of whom did not speak French, were evident during an attempt to arrest an alleged evader in the village of Saint-Lazare, west of Montreal. Ten armed men confronted the officers and one of them accidentally discharged his weapon wounding himself while striking a police driver. Hit in the leg he bled to death in the confusion. The police returned to the village with 100 soldiers from the Montreal garrison and arrested six men including one who had deserted in 1914. The others were not charged.[65]

On 19 July, the Supreme Court of Canada reversed the Alberta court holding that the Order-in-Council was within the powers of the Government under the War Measures Act. Mr. Justice Anglin, who wrote the majority of opinion, emphasized “that we are living in extraordinary times which necessitate extraordinary measures.”[66] The next such measure adopted by the government was to offer an amnesty “to all deserters and defaulters” who reported voluntarily “on or before 24 August 1918.” Three quarters of the 5,477 Canadians who reported under the terms of the amnesty were from Quebec, most from Montreal.[67] The amnesty was part of an overall plan to increase the share on conscripts from Quebec, so instruction were issued to Registrars in other provinces “to temporarily stop the call up of men in order that Quebec might catch up”.[68] Shortly after this order was issued pressure from farm groups persuaded the government to grant “harvest leave” of six weeks to all conscripts who were previously resident on farms.[69]

Despite the amnesty and harvest leave the military police in Quebec appear to have stepped up their pursuit of draft dodgers. On 12 August, with almost two weeks left in the amnesty period, the Gazette and Star reported the shooting of a “defaulter” in the Eastern Townships and the dispatch of police to St Therese, north of the city where “forty young men” were said to be living in the woods. The Star sent a reporter to interview the men reporting that they “are not holding back in order to work on farms… but instead are enjoying wild day and night orgies”. The reporter, well trained in the journalism characteristic of the Star, added, “They do not limit themselves to the company of the one sex but neighboring farmers families join in the ‘doings’ at the camp…”[70] No arrests were made. By October, when it was believed that as a result of the amnesty and better co-operation with the authorities, Quebec “had reached parity with the other provinces… the epidemic of influenza had broken out in practically every district… Registrars were asked to call no more men.”[71]

Measures to enforce conscription on a population that was actively or passively opposed to serving in a unilingual, British-Canadian army were justified in English-speaking Canada by news from the Western Front. The series of German victories which began in March 1918 continued well into the summer, suggesting that at a minimum the war would continue into 1919. This was certainly the government’s view conscripting 100,000 men would keep the army up to strength through the balance of 1918 and into the next year and if more men were needed the 19 year olds would be called up. It did not matter that one and a half million American troops had reached Europe, conscription was about Canada’s army and Canada’s place in the world. These priorities were evident when the Prime Minister and three of his most important Cabinet Minister travelled to London to participate in a new series of meetings of the Imperial War Cabinet. They left Ottawa on 24 May and on arrival in London Borden heard the depressing details about the state of the Allied armies from Lloyd George. He then sent for Sir Arthur Currie to obtain a Canadian perspective. Currie was harshly critical of British strategy especially with regard to Passchendaele which had cost the Canadians 16,000 casualties to no purpose as “the British army immediately went on the defensive… no advantage in position was gained and the effort was simply wasted”. Currie was later to claim that he had tried to keep the Canadian Corps out of Passchendaele but there is no contemporary evidence supporting his recollections. Once the Corps was committed to action, Currie insisted on pressing the attack to secure Passchendaele village and arguing for a continuation of the offensive.[72] Both his Army Commander Plumer and Haig were opposed to further action but Currie believed his army should keep fighting to secure the rest of the ridge. Currie was also critical of British preparations to meet the German’s March offensive comparing the extensive preparations of his own corps, 375,000 yards of barbed wire entanglements, which he claimed were ten times as much as neighboring British corps.[73] Borden presented Currie’s views to the IWC to the evident delight of Lloyd George whose disdain for General Haig and staff was as strong as ever. According to Borden, Lloyd George “exploded with regard to the high command” during a walk in the countryside, Lloyd George told Borden that he had been “boiling with impotent rage” against them.

He explained at great length their constant mistakes, their failure to fulfill expectations and the unnecessary losses which their lack of foresight had occasioned.  I asked him why he had not dismissed those responsible during the previous autumn, and he replied that he had endeavoured to do so but did not succeed in carrying the cabinet; the high command had their affiliations and roots everywhere and it was for the purpose of strengthening his hand in dealing with the situation that he had summoned the Dominion Ministers to the Imperial War Cabinet.[74]

During his visit to England in 1918 Borden began to abandon his long-held ideas about Imperial unity transforming himself into a nationalist who would endorse an independent international status for Canada. His evolving position was evident when the Admiralty sought support for a scheme of post-war naval defence which called for Dominion participation in a unified naval program. Borden agreed that “from the standpoint of efficiency it was probably the best that could be devised but in the Dominions it was politically impossible”. Accepting the proposal “would offend the newly-awakened sense of nation-hood which pervaded the people of Canada…”[75] Few people at home were aware of Borden’s metamorphous or his other activities in England as newspaper coverage was sparse. By the time he returned to Canada in mid-August, attention was focused on Allied victories in France.

            The last phase of the Ludendorff Offensive, an attempt to break the French Army north of Paris, was initially successful but French reserves and German exhaustion forced a halt. The French Army, with the support of American divisions, then seized the initiative in what was to be called the Second Battle of the Marne. This counteroffensive of 18 July marked the beginning of the end for the German Army in the west but German leaders still believed they could control events and negotiate a peace that secured their new empire in the east while retaining Alsace-Lorraine and control of Belgium.[76] Ludendorff advocated a policy of “strategic defence” to wear down the Allies by inflicting enough casualties to force them to negotiate. Such fantasies could be entertained in Berlin but at the sharp end, weary troops who had to defend 100 kilometres of new front line in hastily prepared positions, lacking depth, were unconvinced. To make matters worse the German Army was the first to be effected by the 1918 influenza epidemic – the so-called Spanish Flu. This initial phase of the viral infection killed few men but tens of thousands of German soldiers were out of action, sick or in recovery further weakening front line units and reserves.[77]

The Allies planned to follow up their success at the Marne with a major offensive in the Somme. Their operational plan was influenced by the Australian attack at Le Hamel, a village near Amiens. Sir John Monash, the Australian Corps commander attacked without preliminary bombardment using tanks to support the infantry. The position was captured in just forty minutes.[78] General Rawlinson, the Fourth Army commander, planned a larger version of Le Hamel with the Australians and the Canadian Corps leading the attack. Both corps had resisted the British move to reduce the number of battalions per division from 12 to 9 and were at full strength. The Canadians, who had not fought in a major battle since Passchendaele, eight months before, were as fresh as any formation on the Western Front could be. Divisional war diaries document extensive training exercises that fully integrated reinforcement including conscripts. The first conscripts to join units in France were undoubtedly drawn from the men who had “voluntarily reported” in 1917, but by August those “ordered to report” in the first months of 1918 were completing their fourteen week infantry training program in England,[79] and entering the reinforcement stream. Patrick Dennis’ 2017 book, Reluctant Warriors tells the stories of individual

conscripts who fought and were killed or wounded during the 100 Days Campaign. Dennis presents the conscripts as reluctant but effective soldiers who overcame prejudice and integrated successfully into Canada’s army. The late Richard Holt who examined the fatalities listed by the Commonwealth War Graves and concluded that 1,032 (12.5%) of the 8,227 men killed August to November 1918 were MSA conscripts.[80]

Amiens “The Black Day of the German Army”

Secrecy was vital to the success of the Battle of Amiens and only a select number of senior Canadian officers knew the plan for the offensive. All four Canadian divisions were transported to the Somme at the last possible moment under tight security so there was no time to recce the battlefield. The battle was fought on the plaine du Santerre south of the River Somme, an area of wheat fields, orchards and brick-walled villages that offered ideal ground for tank-infantry co-operation. The Germans had not attempted to build a continuous defensive line on recently conquered ground, relying on fortified positions to provide interlocking fire with artillery in support. Intelligence reports accurately identified ten German divisions in the area but noted that many enemy battalions were understrength.

Tanks advancing during the Battle of Amiens, August 1918.

Rawlinson’s plan called for close co-operation between the Australians and Canadians as well as with the flanking formations, British on the left and French on the right. Brigadier Raymond Brutinel’s “Canadian Independent Force”, composed of the 1st and 2nd Motor Machine Gun Brigades[81], was to secure the Amiens-Roye road which served as the boundary between the Canadian and French forces. Amiens is remembered as a tank battle and each Canadian division was supported by a battalion of 36 Mark V heavy tanks plus supply tanks for infantry and engineers.[82] As with all battles on the Western Front, artillery played a principal role. Over 2,000 guns supported the attack, 646 for the 8.5 kilometre front attacked by the Canadians. The attempt to achieve surprise meant no preliminary bombardment and no opportunity to register guns for counter-battery. At 0420 hours on 8 August the Australians and Canadians moved forward against a startled enemy beaten down by a hurricane of high explosive. Early morning mist helped to add tactical to operational surprise.

The Second Canadian Division’s first major obstacle was the fortified village of Marcelcave. The 4th Brigade, which was to lead the attack, had been under artillery fire for more than an hour when the Allied barrage began. The 28 Mark V tanks available assisted the infantry advance but Marcelcave could only be entered after “a punishing forty-five minute artillery bombardment reduced much of the village to rubble.” The remaining German soldiers forced the Canadians into a battle for the ruins before the advance could continue. Good co-operation between 7th Australian Brigade and the Canadians assisted both brigades in the rapid penetration of the “Green Line” which was secure by 0745, less than four hours after the advance began. The 5th Brigade then took over the Canadian advance, reaching the “Red Line” by early afternoon. The 24th Battalion, Victoria Rifles, moved quickly forward reaching Guillaucourt where “house-to-house and hand-to-hand combat cleared the village. To this point casualties had been light but advancing well beyond the barrage had its cost. German troops, holding a small quarry and a nearby woods, caught the battalion in crossfire. Four lieutenants leading their platoons were killed. The toll for the day was 35 dead and 152 wounded. The battalion history notes that after their objective was secured

Cavalry which came up from the rear to exploit the infantry’s success could make little progress. The horsemen rode through the 24th Battalion lines and attempted to gallop “out into the blue” but machine gun fire was intense and the effort was checked abruptly, the survivors forced to dismount…[83]

The next morning the 22nd and 25th battalions took the lead fighting their way forward with tank support. The village of Méharicourt was reached and once again British cavalry with “flashing swords” charged gallantly forward to be “caught in a concentration of enemy machine gun fire.”[84] The 22nd reported losses of 6 killed and 14 wounded on the day that Lieut. Jean Brillant won the Victoria Cross for his courage and leadership in successive and successful attacks on enemy machine gun positions. Twice wounded he continued to lead his men forward until struck a third time. Brillant died the next day.[85]

In the centre, First Canadian Division had run into strong resistance at Hangard Woods where enemy machine guns, well protected by barbed wire, required extraordinary efforts by small groups of men. Two Victoria crosses were awarded in this action, Private John Croak and Corporal H. Good both of the 13th (Black Watch) Battalion. Both men were from the Maritime Provinces, an indication of the changing composition of Montreal battalions. Once through the crust, 1st Division reached the “Blue Line” by early evening.[86]

Major-General L.J. Lipsett’s 3rd Division faced the most challenging tasks. The lead brigade was to advance along the main Amiens-Roye road which was naturally well defended. The French Corps on their right flank employed an hour-long artillery barrage before attacking and this obviously could not begin until the Canadian advance was underway. Fortunately, Brutinel’s force acted swiftly, protecting the exposed flank. The division’s left flank straddled the River Luce which was bordered by marshes, making much of it impassable. This terrain feature forced Lipsett to employ two brigades with 9th Brigade committed to an exceptionally narrow front south of the river. Canadian engineers played a crucial role in maintaining momentum, repairing bridges and building pontooned cork footbridges across the marshy Luce valley. North of the river, Third Division’s 8th Brigade cleared Hangard Woods and captured the village. The 7th Brigade, in reserve, advanced along the main road behind a new barrage designed to bring them to the Red Line. Despite gas shells and cratered ground they reached their objective, dug in and watched in amazement as the 3rd Cavalry Division with the Canadian Brigade in the lead came forward to test the long-promised chances of a breakout. The “Whippet” tanks, in support, proved too slow for the cavalry and German machine guns cut down horses and riders. The Canadian brigade lost 245 men in a series of “gallant but futile charges.” Elsewhere, the cavalry enjoyed some success, one regiment intercepting a trainload of reinforcements and taking 600 prisoners.

Whippet tank being used for reconnaissance, September 1918.

Haig and Rawlinson now believed that the Amiens-Roye road was the best axis of advance. The Germans were equally committed to defending the sector and despite the commitment of fresh troops the enemy held a key Canadian objective, Le Quesnel, (where the Canadian Memorial for the Amiens battle is located) against repeated attacks. Le Quesnel fell to the 4th Division the next morning, but the strength of the German defence pointed to a significant change in the rhythm of the battle. The Canadians had advanced 13 kilometres, a distance unprecedented on the Western Front but there was no breakthrough. Despite a further advance of up to 3 kilometres on 9 August it was becoming evident that German reinforcements, nine additional divisions by 10 August, were closing off the chances of reaching Péronne or Roye. Just 38 tanks were available across the entire Fourth Army front and the Allied soldiers were exhausted. Currie and other commanders sought to persuade Haig to call off the offensive. Currie was not just a highly successful commander; he was also the head of Canada’s national army. His written protest persuaded Haig to end the Amiens offensive. Sir Julian Byng’s Third Army was to stage the next attack while the Canadians returned to First Army and the Arras sector to prepare for a major assault on the Hindenburg Line.

With the German Army reeling, Sir Julian Byng’s Third Army began an advance north of the Somme towards Bapaume. Byng was hesitant, convinced that German reinforcements would block an Amiens-like penetration, so he adopted a bite and hold approach which proved effective. Pausing to consolidate after securing minor gains his British forces, plus the New Zealand Division, inflicted heavy casualties when the Germans counterattacked. The next day Third Army renewed the offensive, overwhelming the defenders and taking 10,000 prisoners. Known as the “Battle of Albert” this success, coming on the heels of Amiens and Tenth French Army’s five mile advance on the British flank, led Haig to send a new message to his army commanders. The enemy, he insisted, “has not the means to deliver counterattacks on an extended scale nor has he the numbers to hold a position against the very extended advance which is now be directed upon him” by all the Allied armies. “Risks which a month ago would have been criminal ought now to be incurred as duty.” It was, Haig believed, the return of open warfare where a division would act “independently of its neighbour advancing to distance objectives.” At last, Haig believed, the German Army had been exhausted by four years of brutal, attritional warfare.

As the battlefield became more open, different tactics had to be employed although no experienced corps commander would cease to use artillery as the principal weapon and none would order divisions to act independently. The dream of using the Cavalry Corps to gain “strategic objectives” remained just a fantasy. The great advance would be made by the poor bloody infantry.

Monchy le Preux, Arras Front.


The initial task assigned to the Canadian Corps at Arras was to overcome the German defences based on a series of hills. The official historian described the scene, which included the previously bloodied heights of Monchy-le-Preux:

The enemy’s main defence positions, supplemented by various subsidiary switches and strong points, were amongst the strongest on the Western Front. The ground was pocked with scars of 1917 and early 1918, and in the litter of old trenches and fortifications German engineers had found ready-made positions which they had considerably strengthened. Furthermore, topography was on the side of the Germans. The battle area spread over the north-eastern slopes of the Artois Hills, whose summits about Monchy were over three hundred feet above the valley-bottoms of the Scarpe and the Sensée. The latter river, flowing generally eastward, together with its tributaries had dissected the hills into numerous deep valleys. The intervening ridges and high points, often mutually supporting, the enemy had fortified with a skill that demonstrated his mastery in military engineering.[87]

Known as the Battle of the Scarpe, the operation began at 0300 hours 26 August 1918 with fourteen brigades of field artillery, and nine heavy brigades. There were few tanks available after the losses east of Amiens and just nine were allotted to each of the two divisions leading the attack.

North of the Arras-Cambrai road, the centre-line of the Corps advance, 3rd Canadian Division seized their first objectives in less than five hours. The division, commanded by Major-General L.J. Lipsett, a British officer of exceptional ability who had previously commanded 8th Battalion at Ypres and 2nd Brigade at Mount Sorrel, was confident enough to stage a complex night attack. The 8th Brigade with three battalions of the (dismounted) Canadian Mounted Rifles in the lead overcame the German defences at Orange Hill and the heights of Monchy-Le-Preux by outflanking the enemy and attacking from two directions. The 2nd Division also made good initial progress but orders to shift their weight to the southeast, capturing the Wancourt Ridge, to assist Third Army slowed the advance to the division’s objectives.

            Among the many casualties suffered in the last days of August were the men killed and wounded near the village of Chérisy in 2nd Canadian Division’s sector. Chérisy has, along with Courcelette, become identified with the 22nd Battalion which suffered 105 killed and 206 wounded on 27 and 28 August.[88] The 22nd was one of three 5th Brigade battalions ordered to attack through Chérisy and across the River Sensée as part of the Corps’ attempt to break the Fresnes-Rouvray line. From the first moments of the advance, on the morning of 27 August, it was evident that the German defences had survived the Allied artillery barrage. “A hail of machine gun fire and heavy gas shelling…”[89] broke battalion formation and it was up to small groups of men to work their way forward across a small stream flowing with water after heavy rains. The slope beyond the Senéee was an obvious defensive position.[90] Rows of uncut barbed wire, concealed from air observation by long grass that had grown up around them stopped the Brigade advance as “the leading sections of the forward three battalions were hung up by this wire…”[91] Committing the reserve battalion, the 25th (Nova Scotia) did not restore momentum and the survivors dug-in on the lower part of the slope. Neither the 4th or 5th brigade was in any condition to continue the advance but those were the orders leading to yet more losses.

The official history summary reads:

Casualties for the day were very heavy and brought the total reported by the 2nd and 3rd Divisions in the three days fighting to 254 officers and 5547 other ranks. The 22nd Battalion lost all its officers and the 24th Battalion was also grievously stricken. Major Georges Vanier (a future Governor-General of Canada) who had taken command of the decimated 22nd Battalion on the previous day lost his right leg in the action. Lt-Col. W. H. Clark-Kennedy, the 24th C.O., amalgamated the remnants of both battalions and in spite of a serious wound continued to direct his focus against the German lines. His heroic and distinguished leadership in this and the previous day’s fighting brought him he Victoria Cross.[92]

After the relief of 2nd Division, fresh troops from 1st Division were able to roll up the defences attacking from the south where a breach had been made.

Casualties to British and Dominion troops were now causing grave concern in Britain where the War Cabinet decided to send a telegram to Haig (29 August) warning against incurring heavy losses in the next weeks as infantry reinforcements for the BEF were simply not available. Due to the breakup of 5th Canadian Division and the arrival of conscripts, the Canadians were the only one of Haig’s Corps able to restore formations to full strength. This inevitably meant that Currie would be asked to take the lead in the next series of costly assaults. The situation was dramatized when 4th British Division, which had fought under Currie in the second phase of the late August advance, reported that only one brigade was fit enough for action against the Drocourt-Quéant Line, forcing the Canadians to take an even larger share of the assault.

Breaking through the Drocourt-Quéant Line required detailed planning and lots of artillery. There was little opportunity for any kind of “open warfare”. Five brigades following a rolling barrage would have to overcome three defensive lines before reaching the ground overlooking the Canal du Nord. Currie decided to attack at dawn hoping that Mark V tanks could move forward with the infantry at zero hour. By the end of the day, seven Canadians had won the Victoria Cross and the Drocourt-Quéant Switch, as it was also known, had been breached on a 7,000 metre front. The next morning the enemy was gone, retreating behind the Canal du Nord. Over 6,000 German soldiers were in corps prisoner of war cages and many more were killed or wounded, at a cost of some 5,600 Canadian casualties.

Montreal’s 87th Battalion, Canadian Grenadier Guards, went into the battle for the Drocourt-Quéant Line with a strength of 35 officers and 725 men. Most were reinforcements from the disbanded 60th Battalion but drafts had also arrived from French Canadian units. An entry into the March War Diary records the arrival of 98 men from the 150th Battalion and notes that they are “A good looking lot, apparently well trained”.[93] The 87th’s part in the assault on the Drocourt-Quéant Line at Dury, where the Canadian memorial is located, was to cost the battalion 98 men killed and 209 wounded, half their rifle strength. Private John Francis Young, an English-born Montrealer from St Henri who was employed as a “tobacco packer” before enlisting was awarded the Victoria Cross for actions as a medic and stretcher bearer who worked through the day dressing the wounds of men who had fallen and then organizing stretcher parties to bring in the wounded.[94]

The Canadians passing the Canal du Nord, East of Arras, November 1918

The successful assault on the Drocourt-Quéant Line was supported by a parallel British-Australian advance to Bapaume, forcing a German retreat all along the front. Third British Army resumed the advance on 12 September and Fourth Army joined in six days later. On 26 September a large-scale Franco-American offensive began on a 44-mile front. The next day First Army was ordered to cross the Canal du Nord and seize Bourlon Wood. Henry Horne, who commanded First Army, has been described as “a rather shadowy figure for historians,” who seemed content to leave the planning and conduct of operations to Currie which meant the Canadians again at full strength would lead.[95]

Currie decided to advance on a narrow front, less than 2,500 metres, where the Canal du Nord was under construction and still largely dry. The enemy had strengthened defences in the area with dense belts of barbed wire but there was little protection from the kind of bombardment the corps and army artillery could apply. Beyond the canal, a second defensive position, the Marquion Line, crossed the front. The main objective, the high ground at Bourlon Wood, was to be attacked after the reserve brigades of 4th Canadian Division had crossed the canal to add weight to the advance.

Bourlon Wood, 1918.

A massive creeping barrage mixing smoke, shrapnel and high explosive led the way. Although the German Armies had been depleted, machine guns situated in concrete pillboxes, along high railway embankments, and dense woods still did their damage. The country across which the Canadians had to advance was largely flat, open terrain which left the infantry vulnerable wherever the German gunners had escaped the bombardment. For example, the 38th Battalion took heavy casualties when machine gunners firing from the railway line running north from Bourlon cut them to ribbons as they walked forward through the autumn fields. But despite such losses, once again the Canadians overwhelmed the defenders and in less than five hours Bourlon Wood was brought under attack. This heavily wooded hill above Bourlon village could well have been the scene of protracted battle since the ground and an open flank to the south combined to challenge the determination of David Watson’s 4th Canadian Division. One need only visit the quiet, hauntingly beautiful Bourlon Wood Cemetery, tucked away just past the Canadian hilltop memorial to find evidence of the cost. Fortunately the enemy withdrew and Bourlon Wood was in Canadian hands by midnight on 28 September. Elsewhere air support and superb work by the engineers who bridged the canal helped to maintain the momentum and by nightfall leading elements were probing the last fortified positions in front of Cambrai. Unfortunately the Germans were determined to try and hold the city as long as possible. The battle for Cambrai turned into a bitter, attritional struggle.

Cambrai on fire, October 1918.

After a failed attack by the Fourth Division, Currie ordered the Corps to stage a new set-piece attack on 1 October. After initial progress enemy resistance stiffened and then a series of German counterattacks forced a withdrawal. For the moment, the enemy had stabilized the front. Cambrai, badly damaged by shelling and arson, was finally cleared on 9 October after Third Army succeeded in crossing the canal south of the city, threatening a double envelopment. The Canadians fought their way into Cambrai, overcoming their rear guards and dealing with mines and booby-traps. On 11 October the Corps was sent into reserve. The summary offered by the official historian states:

… its casualties were many, but by First World War standards not excessive in light of their task. The total officially reported killed, wounded, and missing between 22 August and 11 October numbered 1,544 officers and 29,262 other ranks. In achieving its victory the Corps had captured 18,585 prisoners, together with 371 guns and nearly 2,000 machine guns. Besides depriving the enemy of the great distributing centre of Cambrai, the Canadians had liberated 54 towns and villages standing on more than 116 square miles of French soil.[96]

From Cambrai the Corps advanced to Valenciennes and Mons in the last month of the war. The story of the final advance needs to be understood in the context of the German effort to achieve an armistice which would preserve the Kaiser’s regime, the prestige of the German Army, and as many territorial conquests as possible.

As the Western Front disintegrated and the Allied armies advanced east, similar breakthroughs were being achieved on other long stalled fronts. In Macedonia, a multi-national of French, British, Serbs, Italians and Greeks, totalling over 700,000 men, burst through the Central Powers defences. Their drive continued northward to liberate Serbia, and threatening Bulgaria and Constantinople. On the Italian Front, Austro-Hungarian summer offensives had been blunted and the Italian Army was preparing a counteroffensive. The Battle of Vittorio Veneto would begin on 24 October, and would effectively knock the Austro-Hungarian Empire out of the war.

On 10 September, the German High Command agreed to permit an approach to the Allies through the Queen of the Netherlands. This gambit was abandoned when on 14 September the Austrian Emperor, fearing the complete disintegration of his armies, issued a public appeal for a peace conference in a neutral state. This transparent attempt to preserve a collapsing empire was followed by a public declaration of German war aims that called for preserving the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the return of all German colonies, and effective control of Belgium.

President Wilson’s reply to the Austrian peace note included his enunciation of five essential conditions for peace, an elaboration of the famous “Fourteen Points.” Wilson declared “there can be no peace obtained by any bargain or compromise with the Governments of the Central Empires.” The next day Bulgaria, one of the four Central Powers, surrendered. Ludendorff subsequently wrote that 28 September was the day he knew “the war was now lost… If we had the strength to reverse the situation in the West, then of course nothing would yet have been lost. But we not the means… We had to count on being beaten back again and again.” Insisting that “every hour of delay is dangerous,” Ludendorff led an effort to reconstitute the German government and issue an immediate call for an end to the fighting. A new Chancellor, Prince Max of Baden, was appointed on 4 October and “with a view to avoiding further bloodshed” he signed a letter to President Wilson requesting an immediate Armistice. Wilson’s reply, on 8 October, demanded immediate “withdrawal of their forces everywhere from invaded territory” – not the response the German government was hoping for. On 12 October the Germans agreed to evacuate occupied territory but with an international commission supervising the process. Any chance of a conciliatory response from Wilson or other Allied leaders was diminished by the sinking of the Irish Mail Boat RMS Leinster on 10 October. Over 500 men, women, and children including soldiers returning from leave were drowned in the pointless U-boat attack. Wilson echoed the public outcry, insisting on 14 October that “there can be no peace as long as Germany attacks passenger ships.” The small coterie of decision-makers in Germany remained divided and uncertain. Ludendorff wanted to avoid any responsibility for a military surrender while Crown Prince Rupprecht warned that “we must obtain peace before the enemy breaks through into Germany…”

The camouflaged RMS Leinster

Prince Max crafted a new note on 20 October accepting the need to have military advisers determine the details of the Armistice as long as no demands were made “that would be irreconcilable with the honour of the German people and with paving the way to a peace of justice.” He did promise to end the sinking of passenger ships. Wilson then announced that the Entente and allied forces would not negotiate nor accept terms from the Kaiser who would have to abdicate if discussions were to lead to an armistice. This led to Ludendorff’s resignation while the Kaiser fled into exile in Holland: there was nothing the German Army could do to dictate terms or stabilize the line. The war was effectively over.

The collapse of the German Army and the Imperial state was remarkably swift. The German people had been starved of both food and reliable information for four years. The previous winter had been known as the turnip winter when most supplies of grain, mean, and fat had disappeared. German newspapers had convinced a highly literate and patriotic population that the war could still be won as long as the spring offensives went as planned and so they persevered. News of the defeats that summer and fall had been kept secret and so the collapse of the German Army seemed inexplicable. Rioting and socialist uprisings inspired by the Bolshevik Revolution the previous year in Russia quickly swept across the country, feeding off the hunger and anger of the people. As Ludendorff left his post, he also attempted to deflect blame from himself and the German generals: the German Army had not actually been defeated in the field, he argued, it had been stabbed in the back by the socialist politicians and revolutionaries at home who agreed to form a provisional government in the Kaiser’s absence. This laid the groundwork for the Dolchstoss myth that would be so effectively exploited and expanded by Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party in the post-war period.

Neither the British nor the French governments had finalized a decision on the exact terms of an armistice and soon events made such discussion irrelevant. The Turkish Government sent envoys to sign a separate peace on 26 October and Austria soon followed. On 5 November Marshal Ferdinand Foch was authorized to “receive representatives of the German Government and communicate to them the terms of the Armistice.” The terms were presented on 8 November in a railway carriage in the Forêt de Compiègne, north of Paris. The German delegates were given 72 hours until 1100 A.M. on 11 November to sign the Armistice.

The prolonged Armistice negotiations had little impact on Allied military operations raising the age-old question of the legitimacy or wisdom of continuing combat when the war was all but won. This issue became particularly important to Canadians after Sir Arthur Currie was criticized for the unnecessary deaths of Canadian soldiers in the final hours of the war. Rumours, innuendo and specific attacks on his reputation by Sam Hughes, during and after the war, culminated in the famous trial in Port Hope where Currie defended his reputation and won a form of vindication in 1928.[97] Currie consistently argued that the Canadian Corps had been following explicit orders as it advanced towards Mons in the last week on the war. Certainly the last large set-piece attack on the war for Canadians, the Battle of Valenciennes, was the result of a directive from Haig to General Horne to capture the city. This attack was to be carried out simultaneously with attacks by Third and Fourth Armies. The 51st Highland Division, part of 17th British Corps, began the attack with an assault on 28 October, but were unable to hold the ground gained.

The Canadian Corps took over employing the heaviest artillery bombardment in support of single brigade ever tried during the war. The 10th Brigade swept over Mont Houy, capturing stunned prisoners and reaching the edge of the city. Brigadier Andrew McNaughton, then serving as the senior Corps artillery officer, described the artillery program: “The barrage and bombardment had left scarcely a yard of ground untouched… the Canadian Corps had paid the price of victory… in shells and not in life.” Casualties were less than 400 with 80 killed in action. The next day the enemy abandoned Valenciennes.

The 2nd Canadian Division led the advance to Mons with orders to capture it if it could be done “without many casualties.” Was the decision to maintain pressure based on the symbolism of Mons where the war, for the British Expeditionary Force, had begun more than four years before? Currie was to say that “it would be befitting that the capture of Mons should close the fighting records of the Canadian Troops” but the reality was that all the leading divisions continued operations through to 1100 on 11 November. No Allied commander was willing to allow the enemy time to regroup and delay an Armistice including American commander John J. Pershing who was subjected to similar attacks after the war. On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the war ended.

Canadians who read daily newspapers were well-informed about these events through regular updates from Associated Press correspondents and official statements from London, Paris and Washington. The Canadian Press correspondent, J. F. B. Livesay, a Manitoban who had served as chief press censor for western Canada and was later to write one of the first triumphantly patriotic accounts of Canada’s Hundred Days, provided stories about the achievements of the Corps.[98] Once again casualty lists with the numbers and names of Montrealers heading the story were printed along with capsule biographies of local soldiers, killed wounded and missing. There was however relatively little detail about Montreal’s battalions as attention focused on the larger picture and the growing possibility that victory was in reach.

By late September a different story of misery and death related to the war began to dominate the news. The so-called “Spanish flu” reached the city when cases were reported in the barracks of the Depot Battalion. Mark Humphries’ article “The Horror at Home: The Canadian Military and the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918”[90] uncovers the origins of the epidemic in Canada and traces its spread across the country. To read the article click here. Humphries had also provided a description of the situation in Montreal in his book, The Last Plague, Spanish Influenza and the Politics of Public Health in Canada,[100] noting that,  

… the number of cases then began to increase slowly over almost three weeks before peaking around 15 October. Mortality from the pandemic followed a similar pattern, although delayed by about a week… deaths per day from influenza peaked at 201 on 21 October 1918. At its height, flu killed a Montrealer every seven minutes.[101]

As the flu spread measures to close schools, theatres and other public places were introduced but churches, stores and places of work remained open. A four o’clock closing time was imposed on department and general merchandise stores, a deadline designed to limit crowing on the tramways. On 12 October as the number of cases and deaths continued to rise churches were required to close on Sunday and no more than fifty people at a time were to attend services during the week. This was followed, on 18 October, by an order closing all churches in the city. The next day provincial health authorities extended the rule to churches throughout the province. This was a controversial and contested measure and all churches were re-opened on 5 November.[102] The remaining restrictions were lifted before 11 November.

Between 23 September and 11 November 18,483 cases of influenza were reported to the city health department, a figure that does not include suburban municipalities. The death toll, 3,155 significantly understates the total but suggests the scale of the epidemic. From 10 November to the end of January 1919 a further 916 cases were reported with 484 deaths, largely from pulmonary complications following from infection with influenza.[103]

It is evident that Montreal failed to introduce and enforce timely measures to quarantine those infected or to impose restrictions necessary to limit infection. A recent study comparing the experience of Winnipeg with Montreal notes that the western city quarantined soldiers suspected of having the flu on 30 September and “moved rapidly to introduce a broad series of measures to promote social distancing: quarantine was placed on army bases following the ban on public gatherings. The ban remained in place for six weeks until 27 November”.[104] As a consequence Winnipeg had a lower transmissibility rate and of lower mortality rate than Montreal. Military officers in Montreal added to the city’s problems by continuing to search for deserters and evaders throughout the flu epidemic. Protests from health officials and expressions of outrage from the French-language daily press were ignored by the Assistant Provost Marshal who confirmed the existing procedures for the apprehension of men in an order dated 11 October. Despite the danger of transmitting the virus and despite the collapse of the German army on the western front military authorities continued to pursue defaulters well into November.[105]

Throughout October and the first days of November the influenza epidemic had to share the front page with the news from Europe. The series of defeats inflicted on the German army and the capitulation of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires were covered in detail. The other major story was the 1918 Victory Loan campaign which was carried out in the middle of the flu epidemic. Montreal’s leading business men were involved and Edward Beatty the new President of the CPR arranged “to borrow the elaborate decorations used in a Liberty Bonds campaign in New York City. St Catherine Street was transformed into “Avenue of the Allies” with flags and decorations on buildings from Guy to Papineau streets. A “Victory Arch” was constructed at Phillips Square and a Victory Loan parade organized.

By the happiest of coincidences, the guns of Europe fell silent on 11 November, the date already scheduled for Montreal’s Victory Loan Parade. With the ban on crowds temporarily lifted, at 6 a.m. a CPR engine left Windsor Station, its whistle shrieking and then the whole city exploded with the sounds of whistles, bells and automobile horns. Windows opened all over Montreal and hundreds, perhaps thousands of Union Jacks and Allied flags were thrust out into the November wind, in a city already festooned with bunting for the Victory Loan parade. Sherbrooke Street from Atwater Avenue to Lafontaine Park was filled with hundreds of thousands of spectators and the procession began. Hundreds of veterans and soldiers led the parade…[106]

Victory seemed to heal all wounds – at least for the day.


[1] All daily newspapers covered the debate with particular attention to Gouin’s speech. The quotations are from the Sherbrooke Daily Record 25 January 1918, p. 1. See Le Canada 24 January 1918 p. 1 for a fuller text.

[2] H.A.C. Machin, Report of the Director of the Military Service Branch (Ottawa 1919) p. 42, 44.

[3] Machin, p. 50.

[4] Skelton, Laurier Vol 2, p. 544-555

[5] Le Canada 5 February 1918, p. 8. See also Patrick Dennis, Reluctant Warriors, Canadian Conscripts and the Great War (Vancouver 2017) p. 53.

[6] For the Catholic Church and Le ligue antialcoolique see Hamelin et Gagnon; Historie du Catholicisme Québécois Vol III p. 197 – 209. The pages of the Montreal Witness provide the best source for English-speaking prohibition. For Mitchell’s speech to the legislator see Montreal Witness 12 February 1918, p. 3. See also Canadian Annual Review 1919, p. 686-688.

[7] La Patrie 2 January 1918, p. 3 and Le Canada 4 January 1918, p. 2.

[8] The website offers a summary of the results of the fire in the section “Histoire de la ville du Montreal 1900-1930” which reported the death toll at 64 children between the ages a few weeks and three years, nothing that there were 170 babies under the age of one year in the Crèche.

[9] Le Devoir 20 September 1918, p. 7.

[10] All daily newspapers reported on the tragedy. See especially La Patrie 15 February 1918, p. 1 and La Presse 15 February 1918, p. 1.

[11] Le Pays 9 March 1918, p. 1. The writer suggested citizens were being asked to “Ouvrez vos bourse, fermez vos bouches”.

[12] Literary Digest 5 January 1918, p. 22 (online)

[13] Le Canada 7 March 1918, p. 8. The Herald also carried a series of front page stories on infant deaths in the city, noting on 4 March 1918 that 53,000 babies under 2 years of age had died in Montreal in the past 12 years.

[14] Louis Lalonde S. J. “La Revanche des berceaux” L’Action Francaise No. 263, 1918.

[15] Edouard Montpetit, La veillée des berceaux L’Action Francois, (Montreal 1919). The talk was also reproduced in Le Devoir, Le Canada and other newspapers 7 March 1918. See also Denyse Baillargeon, “Entre la Revanche et la Veillée des berceaux” in Cheryl Kaswick and Veronica Strong-Boag (eds.) Children’s Health in the Historical Perspective (Waterloo 2005).

[16] Annual Report, Montreal Board of Health 1918, p. 14.

[17] Denyse Baillargeon, The Medicalization of Motherhood in Quebec 1910-1970 (Waterloo 2009). See also Nathalie Lampron, “Growing Up Health in the 20th Century” McCord Museum (online)

[18] Montreal Gazette 9 January 1918, p. 1.

[19] The most recent and balanced account of the Allies’ 1918 manpower crisis is Elizabeth Greenhalgh, “David Lloyd George, Georges Clemenceau and the 1918 Manpower Crisis” The Historical Journal Vol 50 No 2 (2007) p. 397 – 421.

[20] Sam Hughes cited the views of the War Office in an Ottawa speech advocating the six division plan. Montreal Herald 5 March 1918, p. 4.

[21] Currie’s original proposal was to strengthen the infantry battalions and increase the artillery. The additional engineer and machine gun units were later additions. Humphries (ed.) Sir Arthur Currie p. 80 – 82.

[22] Holger H. Herwig, The First World War: Germany and Austria-Hungary 1914-1918 (London 1997) p. 382-432.

[23] Harris, Haig, p. 447.

[24] Sheffield, Haig Diary 10 April 1918, p. 405; 5 May 1918, p. 410.

[25] Mike Cronin and Daryl Adair, The Waring of the Green: A History of St. Patrick’s Day (London 2002) p. 96. See also Jolivet, Le Vert et le blue p. 209; and Matthew Barlow, Griffintown Identity and Memory in an Irish Diaspora Neighborhood (Vancouver 2017).

[26] Adrien Gregory, “You might as well recruit Germans: British Public Opinion and the Decision to Conscript the Irish in 1918” in Adrien Gregory and Sonia Paseta, Ireland and the Great War (Manchester 2002)

[27] Jarret Rudy, “Do you have the time? Modernity, Democracy and the Beginning of Daylight Savings Time in Montreal 1908-1927” Canadian Historical Review Vol 93, No 4, December 2012.

[28] Montreal Gazette 23 May 1918, p. 17.

[29] La Bonne Parole May 1910, p. 1. See also Anne-Marie Sicotte, Lacoste, Marie DCB Online.

[30] Le Devoir 28 March 1918, p. 1. For a full account of Bourassa’s views see Susan Mann “Henri Bourassa and the ‘women question’” Journal of Canadian Studies Vol 10 No 4 November 1975.

[31] Rodolphe Lemieux’s speech on the issue in the House of Commons, 11 April, 1918 was typical. Canada Debates 1918, p. 652.

[32] All six daily newspapers opposed Martin urging voters to protect the reputation of French Canadians and the city by voting for Ainey. See for example Le Canada 28 March 1918, p. 4.

[33] Henri-Edgar Lavigueur was the Liberal M.P. for Quebec County as well as Mayor of Quebec City 1916 – 1920.

[34] The most recent and detailed study of the riots is Martin Auger “On the Brink of Civil war, The Canadian Government and the Suppression of the 1918 Quebec Easter Riots” Canadian Historical Review Vol 89, No 4, December 2008.

[35] Normand Ward (ed.), A Party Politician, The Memoirs of Chubby Power (Toronto 1966) p. 85.

[36] Borden Diary, 30 March 1918.

[37] Ward (ed.), Party Politician p. 85 – 86. Auger, “On the Brink of Civil War” p. 517 – 518.

[38] John MacFarlane, Lessard, François Louis DCB Online

[39] Auger, “On the Brink of Civil War” p. 519.

[40] Montreal Gazette 3 April 1918, p. 1.

[41] Jean Provencher, Demeule, Georges DCB Online

[42] Canada, Debates House of Commons, 3 April 1918.

[43] Borden, Memoir Vol 2, p. 789.

[44] Borden Diary, entries for 9 and 10 April 1918.

[45] Montreal Star 5 June 1918, p. 6.

[46] Montreal Standard 6 April 1918, p. 1.

[47] Le Pays 6 April 1918, p. 1.

[48] Montreal Star 8 May 1918, p. 2, 17 June 1918, p. 1.

[49] Montreal Star 27 May 1918, p. 5.

[50] Auger, “On the Brink of Civil War”, p. 553.

[51] Montreal Standard 6 April 1918, p. 1.

[52] Borden Diary, entry for 10 April 1918.  

[53] Canada, Debates of the House of Commons 1918, p. 937 – 939.

[54] Montreal Star 8 May 1918, p. 2.

[55] Ibid 17 June 1918, p. 1.

[56] Ibid 27 May 1918, p. 5.

[57] Ibid 6 June 1918, p. 2.

[58] Granatstein, Broken Promises p. 94.

[59] La Presse 7 May 1918, p. 1. Translation Montreal Star 8 May 1918, p. 2.

[60] Montreal Gazette 13 July 1918, p. 3.

[61] Ibid 10 July 1918, p. 3.

[62] Borden Diary, entries for 3, 4 April 1918.

[63] Montreal Star 7 May 1918, p. 2.

[64] La Presse 7 May 1918, p. 2.

[65] Montreal Gazette 13 July, 20 July 1918.

[66] All newspapers carried the Canadian Press story or the Supreme Court Decision, 20 July 1918. For the text of the decision, see Judgements of the Supreme Court of Canada Re: Edwin Gray 

[67] Machin, Report p. 26.

[68] Ibid, p. 3.

[69] La Patrie 9 August, p. 1.

[70] Montreal Star 12 August 1918, p. 1.

[71] Machin, Report, p. 26.

[72] My thanks for Mark Humphries for thinking this through with me.

[73] Borden, Memoirs Vol 2, p. 809-812

[74] Ibid, p. 827.

[75] Ibid, p. 841

[76] See Fritz Fischer, Germany’s Aims in the First World War (New York 1967) p. 697-698 for a description of Germany’s war aims in July 1918. See the entry for “Second Battle of the Marne”,

[77] Herwig, p. 417.

[78] Harris, Haig p. 486-487.

[79] Patrick M. Dennis, Reluctant Warriors, Canadian Conscripts and the Great War (Vancouver 2017) p. 55-56. See Holt, Filling the Ranks p. 205. More than 10,000 men, largely conscripts arrived in England in the first three months of 1918.

[80] A random sample of names recorded on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website produced the following estimates of the percent of conscripts killed in action during selected battles of the Hundred Days.

Amiens 8 – 12 August         3%

Arras 26 – 28 August          8%

Canal du Nord                       19%

November 1 – 11                 26%

A Large majority of conscripts killed in action in the samples were from Ontario and the West.

[81] Musee Heritage Museum – Raymond Bruntinel Fonds

[82] The paragraphs on the events of the “Hundred Days” are from Terry Copp (et al.) Canadian Battlefields of the First World War: A Visitors Guide (Waterloo 2015) and are based on Nicholson, CEF ¸ Harris, Haig and Humphries (ed.) Sir Arthur Currie. Material added to these paragraphs is footnoted. See also J. L. Granatstein, The Greatest Victory (Toronto 2017), Shane Schreiber, Shock Army of the British Empire: The Canadian Corps in the Last 100 Days of the War (London 1997), Patrick Dennis, Reluctant Warriors, Tim Cook, Shock Troops: Canadian Fighting in the Great War Vol. 2 1917-1918 (Toronto 2008).

[83] Featherstonhaugh, 24th Battalion p. 226 – 227.

[84] Ibid, p. 228.

[85] Jean Castonguay, Brillant, Jean DCB Online

[86] For a detailed account of the action of the 13th and 14th Battalions at Amiens and beyond see R. C. Fetherstonhaugh’s books, both of which are available online. For Victoria Cross citations see DHH Victoria Cross Bios

[87] Nicholson, CEF, p. 426.

[88] See for example Carl Pepin, “The Need to Advance: The Battle of Chérisy and the Massacre of Québeçois Troops (August 1918)” Canadian Military Journal Vol 15 No 3, Summer 2015, p. 37 – 42.

[89] Featherstonhaugh, 24th Battalion p. 237, 245. The 24th lost 21 officers in the battle and reported total casualties of 666 men in August.

[90] The battlefield is little changed today and it is possible to identify the positions held by each of the three battalions on the slope. I have not found remnants of the barbed wire.

[91] Clements, Merry Hell (25th Battalion) p. 214 – 215.

[92] Nicholson, CEF p. 432.

[93] Olivar Asselin who joined the 87th in October reported that 25% of the Battalion was French Canadian by then. Pelletier-Baillargeon, Asselin Vol 2, p. 221.

[94] Duguid, Canadian Grenadier Guards p. 181 and Personnel File, John Francis Young LAC

[95] J. P. Harris, Amiens to the Armistice: The BEF in the Hundred Days’ Campaign, 8 August – 11 November 1918 (London: Brassey’s, 1998), 153 – 154.

[96] Nicholson, CEF p. 460.

[97] R. J. Sharpe, The Last Day, The Last Hour: The Currie Libel Trial (Toronto 1998)

[98] J. F. B. Livesay, Canada’s Hundred Days, with the Canadian Corps from Amiens to Mons (Toronto 1919)

[99] Mark Osborne Humphries, “The Horror at Home: The Canadian Military and the Great Influenza Epidemic of 1918” Journal of the Canadian Historical Association Vol 16 No 1, p. 235-260.

[100] Mark Osborne Humphries, The Last Plague, Spanish Influenza and the Politics of Public Health in Canada (Toronto 2013) p. 113.

[101] Humphries, The Last Plague, P. 113

[102] All newspapers carried news of the regulations on the dates included. See also Humphries, The Last Plague p. 114 – 117.

[103] Montreal, Report of the Board of Health 1918 (Montreal 1919) p. 19.

[104] Shenghai Zhang (et al) “Transmissibility of the 1918 pandemic influenza in Montreal and Winnipeg of Canada” Influenza and other Respiratory Viruses online Humphries, The Last Plague p. 142 – 147.

[105] Humphries, The Last Plague p. 142 – 147.

[106] This account is drawn from William Fong, J. W. McConnell (Montreal 2008) p. 138 – 141. There is extensive coverage in the daily newspapers.

One thought on “Chapter VII – 1918

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