Liberation Day
The Liberation of Mons

For the citizens of Mons, a small Belgian city south of Brussels on the French border, it seemed like the horrors of The Great War would never end. Since the German occupation endless years earlier in 1914, their lives had changed forever.

For the youngest, their memories were only of bombs and artillery shells shaking their beds and making their homes fall down around them. They dreamed of tanks and guns, and of strange men in uniforms walking through their streets. They knew the smell of death better than the smell of baking bread.

For the older Belgians, their memories were of a time long-since passed... a time of peace that seemed a lifetime away... a time they feared they might never see again. Yet they lived in hope.

The first glimmer of hope arrived just after Easter in 1917 when they learned the Canadians had successfully taken Vimy Ridge. About 80 kilometres (50 miles) west of Mons, the Ridge had been occupied by the Germans in September of 1914. Rising over 130 metres (426 feet) above the surrounding land, it offered an unobscured view of all activities below. It was protected by many kilometres of trenches, underground tunnels, and impenetrable walls of barbed wire. Concrete bunkers sheltering machine guns were constructed on top. Vimy Ridge became a virtually impregnable fortress.

Every Allied attempt to take Vimy had failed, but the Ridge was crucial to the Allies if they wished to win the War. The challenge was finally handed to the Canadians. In every battle they waged, the Canadian forces had been victorious, even against impossible odds. Certainly nothing seemed more impossible than conquering Vimy.

Arthur Currie was not a soldier by nature. He was, in fact, a British Columbia realtor. But when the approach of war caused real estate to collapse, Currie joined the Canadian militia, and then devoured every book on military strategy he could find. As a result he was quickly promoted through the ranks, and, by 1917, he was Commander of the First Canadian Division. The burden of capturing Vimy Ridge from the German armies now fell on his shoulders.

When Currie studied the past attempts at taking Vimy Ridge, he was convinced they had all been doomed to failure before they began. A completely new approach was needed - something totally unexpected. Vimy Ridge was impregnable, but he was determined to find a way to break it.

Currie ordered intensive surveillance photos to be taken of the Ridge and all the surrounding land. These photos were then compiled into one large image of the entire area. For the first time in military history, detailed maps were made and distributed to every soldier. Meanwhile, with the help of the Allies, an exact replica of the Ridge, complete with tunnels, trenches and caves, was constructed behind the Front. There, Currie trained his men. After two months of intense training, the Canadians knew the Ridge as well as the Germans. Each man knew exactly where to go and precisely what he would find when he got there.

On April 9, 1917, at 5:30 AM, the assault began. It was daring and risky, and the Allied commands could only watch in amazement as events unfolded. Arthur Currie’s unusual offensive left the enemy scratching their heads in wonder. Instead of being bombarded by artillery as they expected, the shells fell in a solid line far across the land below. The attackers appeared either very inept or extremely cunning. At predetermined times, the bombardment advanced 100 metres toward the ridge, and behind it, with carefully-paced steps, advanced the Canadians in what would be named the Vimy Glide. Every three minutes the army moved steadily forward, 100 metres at a time, shielded by the ever-advancing artillery fire.

The advance moved forward through all the barriers, and incessantly up Vimy Ridge. Bodies lay where they fell. They would have to wait for the stretcher-bearers and medics following behind. The advance must continue, and it did. When it was over, Vimy Ridge belonged to the Allies for the first time since the beginning of the War.

3,598 Canadian soldiers died that day, and 7,004 more were wounded, but this victory marked the ‘beginning of the end.’ For his efforts, General Arthur Currie was knighted by King George V on the Vimy battlefield and named Commander-in-Chief of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Canadians were finally no-longer considered simply colonials or subordinates. For the first time, they were now regarded as full Allies.

While the Germans regrouped, the Allies began forming their final offensive to liberate all of France and Belgium.

August 4 to November 11, 1918, became known as Canada's Hundred Days. Flanked by Australian and French troops, the Canadian 'spearhead' advanced steadily eastward from Amiens (north-east of Paris) through France and into Belgium. Realizing defeat was imminent, the German High Command was devastated.

The advance continued incessantly. Losses were heavy on both sides, but in the end, freedom for the beleaguered French and Belgians lay in the wake of the terrible battles and bloodshed. Finally, in the early-morning hours of November 11, Canadian troops marched into Mons. The words of Victor Maistrau, Bourgmestre (Mayor) of Mons, describe that moment:

"At five in the morning of the 11th, I saw the shadow of a man and the gleam of a bayonet advancing stealthily along that farther wall, near the Caf´ des Princes. Then another shadow, and another. They crept across the square, keeping very low, and dashed north toward the German lines.

"I knew this was liberation. Then, above the roar of artillery, I heard music, beautiful music. It was as though the Angels of Mons were playing. And then I recognized the song and the musician. Our carillonneur was playing "O Canada" by candlelight. This was the signal. The whole population rushed into the square, singing and dancing, although the battle still sounded half a mile away.

"In the city hall at six in the morning I met some Canadians and we drank a bottle of champagne together. We did not know that this was the end of the war.

"The dawn revealed a strange sight in the square. The Canadian troops, exhausted from their long offensive, lay sleeping on the cobblestones while all Mons danced around them."

That same morning, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the Armistice was signed. World War I, The Great War, was over.

Neil Simpson
Peterborough, Ontario

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