Battle of Mons
On 11 November 1918, the last day of the First World War, Canadian forces captured the Belgian town of Mons — liberating a place that had been under German occupation since 1914.
Since the summer of 1918, Canadian and other Allied forces had been pursuing the Hundred Days Campaign (see Battle of Amiens and Battle of Cambrai) — an aggressive series of offensives that routed the German armies from their strongholds on the Western Front. The campaign forced the Germans into full retreat eastward out of France and Belgium, fighting as they gave back territory to their pursuers.
In the final weeks of the Hundred Days Campaign, the Canadian Corps (see Canadian Expeditionary Force) took the French town of Valenciennes after a vicious, two-day battle. By 9 November they were on the outskirts of Mons.
In the early days of the war in 1914, British forces had put up a fierce resistance around Mons against the invading German armies, in an effort to hold up the German drive towards Paris. After pushing the British out, the Germans had occupied the town for four years.
Mons was a bastion of coal mining, whose resources had been used throughout the war to fuel Germany's war effort. Recapturing Mons now, at the end of the war, was of huge symbolic importance to the Allies. Lieutenant General Arthur Currie and his Canadian Corps were ordered to take the town.
The Canadians wanted to capture Mons without destroying it. Given the deadly and tricky challenges of fighting urban warfare, taking Mons was no small feat. Rumors also filled the ranks of a possible peace treaty, but until there was an official armistice, the war would continue.
Currie planned an encircling maneuver. The Canadians then entered the town, fighting against stiff German resistance. Enemy prisoners informed them that the Germans were planning a retreat, but German machine-gun fire remained constant.
The Canadians pressed on, and by the early morning of 11 November, they had subdued most of Mons without the use of heavy shelling. Bagpipes played and the town’s inhabitants welcomed the Canadians as liberators.
At 6:30 a.m. that day, Currie’s headquarters received notice that hostilities would cease at 11:00 a.m. Word spread among the troops that a ceasefire had finally been achieved, although most fighting had already ended after the clearing of Mons.
Canada is traditionally assigned the tragic distinction of losing the last casualty among British Commonwealth forces during the First World War. Private George Price was hit in the chest from a sniper shot in the town of Ville-sur-Haine, near Mons. He died at 10:58 a.m., two minutes before the armistice went into effect, officially ending the First World War (see Remembrance Day).
Overall Canadian casualties in the Battle of Mons were slight compared to other engagements of the war, but no less poignant: 280 men killed, wounded or missing during the last two days of operations.
Some of the troops serving under Currie at Mons questioned the decision to push through and capture the town — and sacrifice lives — on the last days of the war. This was especially difficult for those who lost comrades or relatives in Mons, knowing that the armistice was imminent. Throughout his leadership of the Canadian Corps, Currie had been a conscientious commander, deeply aware of the human costs of warfare and working wherever possible to minimize the sacrifices of his men, while at the same time driving hard to defeat the enemy. (See also: Canadian Command During the Great War.)
Even so, the losses at Mons and especially during the Hundred Days campaign fueled the notion among some Canadians that Currie had been a cold-hearted general. In 1919, Sir Sam Hughes, the former defence minister, denounced him in the House of Commons for “needlessly sacrificing the lives of Canadian soldiers,” and suggesting that Currie should be court-martialled for leading the assault on Mons. Prime Minister Robert Borden later defended Currie, saying, “No criticism could be more unjust.”
Years later, in 1927, the same charges were repeated in the Evening Guide, a newspaper in the small town of Port Hope, Ontario, which called Currie a butcher for the “shocking” and “useless” assault on Mons. Currie sued the paper for libel. After a widely-publicized trial, in which little evidence was produced to support the accusation against him, Currie won his case along with a small damage award.
Although some war veterans remained angry with Currie over Mons, the vast majority regarded their former general as a hero. In 1928 he was elected dominion president of the Canadian Legion. Currie spent the final years of his life championing pension reform and other veterans causes.