Sappers Given Credit for Cambrai Victory

Cambrai Battleground
German road defences on the Cambrai Road
Canadian Engineers replacing wooden bridge over Canal du Nord, Nov 18
Capt CN Mitchell, VC from the Beaverbrooke Collection at the Canadian War Museum
Publication Date 
03 Oct 2018

The series of Allied offences all along the Western Front beginning on 5 August 1918 and ending on 11 November 1918 is known as the Last Hundred Days. It defeated Germany and ended the First World War.  

The Canadian Corps played a pivotal role in these actions, and although much has been written about the campaign, too little credit has been given to the Canadians and most especially to the Canadian Engineers. In two articles published in McLean’s’ magazine, noted author and historian Jack Granatstein, has indeed included mention of our sappers in a very complimentary way.

The city of Cambrai is located in the north of France close to the Belgian border. It is surrounded by an elaborate system of canals linking the Steele and Scheldt rivers to the northeast and draining marshy lands. The Canal-du-Nord, to the west of the city, although incomplete, was a serious obstacle to the Allies advancing east against the German Army. The already swampy area was flooded and there was only a 4,000-metre southward stretch where the ground was firm and the 35-meter wide Canal-du-Nord was dry. A successful attack would cross the Canal and capture Bourlon Wood and the high ground to the north. The enemy position was strong and locked into natural defences.

The first article, Canada’s Audacious Plan to Beat an Unbeatable Enemy, describes the Battle of Canal du Nord.  The Germans had been pushed back to the far side of the Canal and were confident an attack against their positions would be suicidal.  Arthur Currie was given the task of assaulting the Canal and seizing objectives in depth. The main German defences at the Marquion Line were only a mile past the canal. The challenge was to move the entire Canadian Corps, with heavy artillery, through that narrow defile before the enemy attacked.

Currie’s plan has audacious and other Allied generals thought it would fail. However, Currie was confident his four divisions, 40,000 men, would be victorious. Basically, infantry would cross through a narrow gap in a dry portion. Once across, Engineers recently reorganized from field companies into battalions and described as easily the best in the entire British Expeditionary Force, to throw 17 bridges across the canal to allow artillery, armour and supplies to cross.  The Engineers were deployed rapidly – sometimes undetected, but often under machine gun fire. They built vital bridges and pontoons for artillery troops and floating footbridges for other troops over water-filled portions of the canal. In the end, Currie’s plan succeeded, Canal du Nord was breached and the road to Cambrai was open.

The second article, At Cambrai, Canada Smashed Desperate German Defences, tells how the Canadians, after a short rest, took over from British divisions and attacked through the outskirts of the city and crossed the Canal de l’Escaut. Canadian Engineers again bridged the Canal in many places and Captain Mitchell of the 1st Tunnelling Company, won a Victoria Cross leading a small party of Sappers in capturing the most important crossing of the Canal, taking prisoners and holding the bridgehead until relieved by the following infantry.