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ARCHIVED - Canada and the First World War

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We Were There

Georges Vanier

and the Last Hundred Days of the War

Enlisting as an officer in 1914, Georges Philéas Vanier joined the ranks of the 22nd Battalion in 1915. Gradually rising through the ranks, he earned decorations for bravery along the way and even briefly commanded the battalion. After the war, Vanier had a brilliant military and diplomatic career culminating no doubt in his appointment in 1959 as Governor General. The second Canadian and first French Canadian to hold this office, he remained Governor General until his death in 1967.

Vanier was with the Canadian Corps when, following the failure of the German offensive in the spring of 1918, the Allies took the initiative again and against all expectations won a brilliant victory starting with the first attack east of Amiens on August 8. The succeeding campaign inspired a number of heroic acts leading to the German defeat, but also resulting in crushing losses to all the armies there. Vanier's battalion, for example, was decimated during the capture of Chérisy at the end of August and during the ensuing counterattacks. Vanier himself, replacing Lieutenant Colonel Dubuc who had been wounded on the first day, was put out of action the following day, and his right leg was later amputated.

Library and Archives Canada is privileged to have among its collection sources that give insight into this period, which became known as the Last Hundred Days. These sources include the personal diary Vanier kept during the war. Personal diaries round out the rather dry and anonymous information found in campaign journals, official reports essential to an understanding of operations.

Georges P. Vanier's Diary

There are few diaries that record the wartime memories of Francophones who served in the First World War, and the diary of Georges Philéas Vanier is one such diary. Sources of this type give substance to the vicissitudes of life in the trenches in a way that the unavoidable but generally anonymous campaign journals cannot.

With Vanier's personal diary, we can follow events during the first weeks of hostilities which, beginning on August 8, 1918 and in spite of the difficulties of an often stubborn resistance, eventually pushed back the Germans to the border and forced them to surrender. The diary also illustrates Vanier's courage in overcoming the loss and pain of the wound he suffered on August 28 during hostilities near the village of Chérisy. These hostilities that decimated the battalion, resulted in the death of about 435 men and forced the unit to withdraw from action for over three weeks, the time it took for reinforcements to arrive.

War Diaries

Canadian units and formations serving at the Front had to keep a journal of daily events. Library and Archives Canada has these rich sources of information and, although a few journals have disappeared, the entire collection is on microfilm and is indexed in an on-line database.

The war diaries are extremely varied, some extremely concise, others full of details of all kinds. In all cases, however, they deal with the unit's overall activities. Except for some officers, individuals are rarely mentioned by name. A researcher interested in tracing the comings and goings of a particular soldier, his promotions, punishments, wounds or illnesses, and who does not have diaries or correspondence, must consult the soldier's military file. The best overview can be gained by consulting both sources.

The last hundred days of the war are described in the journals of 48 infantry units, from headquarters, medical, artillery, engineer, machine-gunner, forestry, service corps, orderly or other service units. They describe the Battles of Amiens and Arras, battles on the Hindenburg Line and at Valenciennes, the capture of Mons and even, after the Armistice, the occupation of bridgeheads in Germany. A number of appendices, including orders, reports, summaries of operations, sketches and some seized documents, round out the information.

Victoria Cross

This decoration, awarded for bravery to commissioned and non-commissioned personnel, is the most prestigious decoration in the British Empire. Instituted in 1856 during the Crimean War, it is made from the metal of seized Russian canons. A total of 94 Canadian soldiers received the Victoria Cross during the First World War. Two were awarded to Vanier's fellow soldiers of the 22nd Battalion, both during the last months of the war.

During the night from June 8 to 9, 1918, when the Canadian Corps was in a relatively quiet area, the Germans launched an attack at three points along the line defended by the 22nd Battalion. Corporal Joseph Kaeble blocked the enemy advance in spite of his injuries, which proved fatal the following day. Kaeble was posthumously awarded the Military Medal and the Victoria Cross, the first of three awarded to French Canadians. The two other recipients were Lieutenant Jean Brillant and Captain Paul Triquet, the latter being decorated during the Second World War.

Lieutenant Jean Brillant had already earned the Military Cross for his conduct in an attack during the night from May 27 to 28, 1918. On August 8, 1918, Brillant took part in the initial attack east of Amiens. He did not live to see the campaign's success. Wounded on August 8 and again the following day, Brillant refused to be evacuated and continued to lead his men until a third wound put him out of action. Although he died the following day, his efforts were successful and the attack marked a shift in the fortunes of war. He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross on September 27, 1918.

Armistice

Exhausted and defeated, the victim of social agitation but not yet crushed militarily, Germany was the last of the main powers to request and obtain an armistice. The peace, concluded with the Treaty of Versailles of 1919, imposed humiliating conditions on Germany and was indirectly one of the causes of the even more devastating conflict a generation later.

The last days of the war saw relatively minor operations, the last of which was the entry into the city of Mons on the Belgian-French border. On the morning of November 11, shortly before the armistice was known and announced, the Canadians liberated the city of Mons, suffering a few losses.

One final task remained for the Canadians before they returned home to civilian life. The 1st and 2nd Canadian Divisions had to occupy, in Cologne and Bonn respectively, bridgeheads on the Rhine. Canadian troops thus occupied a small part of Germany from December 1918 to January 1919.