The Battle of Amiens - Account by Captain R. J. Renison C.C.
Canada - An Illustrated Weekly Journal
Wednesday, August 21, 1918
Transcribed by: marc
This is an account of the battle of Amiens (August 8-20, 1918), the
"Black Day for the German Army",written Captain W. J. Rneison, Chaplin for the 21st battalion. This battle marked the start
of "Canada's 100 Days", leading to the Armistice on November 11, 1918.
THE BATTLE OF AMIENS.Graphic Word Picture of the Canadians' Greatest Victory.By Captain R. J. Renison C. C.
It did not require a prophet to foresee in the months of June and July that sooner or later when the critical moment or moments arrived, Canadians would again engage in a drive on the German lines. The memories of Ypres, Vimy and Passchendaele were with all ranks, and became real living inspirations when the entire Canadian Corps came out of its original line a few weeks ago for special training.
The general opinion seemed to be that we were destined for the north, a country where Canada had already seen much fighting. This was confirmed by orders for our movement, in case of operations, which stated the place of entrainment and, other information of specific kind. Several Canadian units actually went north as the advance guard of the Canadian Corps, and accomplished a couple of successful raids which established their identity and the immediate habitat of Canada.
The bivouacs in these villages were very comfortable and the welcome by the people more than cordial, although every village was crowded with refugees from northern cities.
In the last resting place before going to the front our battalion headquarters were in an estaminet, where we were waited upon by a mademoiselle with an unforgettable friendly smile, which seemed to radiate equally upon the whole battalion. She wore black, and a medallion around her neck which contained the portrait of her Armand, "Il est fini. Monsieur. a Verdun."
Finally, the moment of departure arrived. The spectacle, once we commenced to move, was something never to be forgotten. Within the area of a few kilometres the pride of the Canadian Overseas Army had assembled. Cavalry, artillery, motor machine-gun brigades, and infantry—units long separated - were suddenly reunited for the greatest adventure on which the Canadian Army had ever embarked.
The roads were crowded with transport, and greetings passed between units from Vancouver, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Toronto, Hamilton, Montreal and Halifax. In the early hours of the morning we passed through the suburbs of a deserted city, whose venerable cathedral pile looked down like the sentinel spirit of France—battered, but unbowed.
At daybreak the brigade entered a wood and slept through the day. When the last night came the line was very near, and the booming of the guns at regular intervals and the occasional flares which lit the sky showed that the Canadians had come to a comparatively quiet front. As each unit in the Canadian Corps passed with unerring precision in the dark to the appointed position in the line, brigades meeting the cavalry and artillery units on a new front, even the veriest novice could see something of the Staff work of Canada's Army, and that we were only part of a greater organisation and general plan. Surely in days of peace these master minds who possess organisation and initiative, progressively developed by each subsidiary commander from Corps to Division and thence to brigade, battalion, company and platoon, will do much for the industrial development of our country - all that is her best will be our legacy for the new world which is to be.
It was known that the Canadians would cover a front of 7,500 yards, extending as the advance proceeded to 10,000 yards. The battalions and brigades had all their appointed objectives, leap - frogging each other as their turn came. There was to be no preparatory bombardment, surprise being an element in the attack. The Tanks were to lead the way.
Awaiting the Time for Attack
The non-military reader will best appreciate the scene by a description of what could be seen by one pair of eyes.
Our own battalion was to open the attack on one portion of the sector. The day before, the men occupied the reserve trenches, our cousins the Australians, who had held the line for some time, remaining in the line until the last moment, so that no knowledge of the arrival of Canadians might by any possibility reach the enemy. It had been raining for a day or two, and all day the men lay on the ground above the trenches and rested a few hundred yards from the front line. They spent their time in perfecting their equipment and polishing their arms. The next battalion to us were seen lined up in long queues in a back trench, awaiting their turn to grind their bayonets on the grindstone.
A tour of the trenches gave one an opportunity to estimate the spirit of the men. They were all radiant and confident. and it was evident that as evening drew near almost all were thinking of home. In every dugout men were writing letters — and for many of them it was the last message. I heard an old sergeant say, "Boys, I would give a good deal to read the Toronto papers next Saturday. I don't know what this show will be called, but I am sure it will be a great day in Canadian history."
The battalion was very fortunate in its commanding officer. Lt.-Col. Elmer Jones, D.S.O., was one of the most brilliant and beloved officers in the Canadian Army. A man of wide culture, born in Brockville, he came over with the battalion early in 1915. A veteran of St. Eloi, the Somme and Vimy, he was a father to every man in the battalion.
His influence over his officers was quite extraordinary. He called them all by their Christian names, and his humorous badinage touched the spot with unerring instinct. His last conference with his company officers was a lesson in the power of personality. He sat on a couch in the dug-out with hand and leg bandaged, for he had not recovered from a painful accident of the week before. In his quiet tone he gave each his final instructions. His confidence in them and their affectionate respect for him were beautiful to behold. As they left he said, "Good-bye, boys, God bless you." Several times in the last three days he repeated to himself John McCrae's inspiring poem, "In Flanders' Fields."
After dark, as the companies took their positions at the jumping-off point, the whole country seemed .alive with ghostly figures. In the last few hours guns were drawn from the near-by woods. Horses stood in the trenches. In the words of the Sergeant-Major, "The artillery always consider themselves invisible. "The great question in everybody's mind was, "Does the Hun know?" He seemed to have nervous premonitions, for the sky was constantly lighted with all kinds of flares—" every colour except black," as one man put it: "Heinie certainly can get a job after the war in the fireworks department of Toronto Exhibition."
An hour before zero the Germans suddenly began a bombardment on our lines. They must have heard something. The whole ground shook with the explosion of the shells. The platoon wit expressed the situation exactly, "He heaved over everything, from his false teeth to the kitchen stove." The men lay flat on the ground, while flares shot up every few moments, and clearly revealed any object standing against the sky."
"Over the Top"
At 4.20 to the moment a blaze of crimson lighted the whole horizon behind us for miles. Three seconds later there was a deafening roar from hundreds of guns. The enemy's noise was instantly lost in the din — the shells screamed overhead like countless legions of destroying angels. In front the green turf was churned by an invisible harrow. It was impossible to distinguish the sound of the individual guns, but rather the concussion resembled the throbbing of an engine built to drive a planet on its course.
With one accord along the whole line the men leaped on the parapet and went "over the top." The company officers with synchronised watches and compasses, led their men as if on parade. Stories of the first moments came to us from other sectors. One unit was led over by its pipe band. In another place the Tank "Dominion" led the procession with a piper skirling from its top. The tanks looked like prehistoric monsters as they lumbered over the trenches into the mist with their noses to the ground on the trail of the machine-gun nests.
As wave after wave passed, the Colonel sat in the trench sending messages to Brigade that all was well. Finally he disconnected the wire, and lame as he was, followed his battalion into the haze, now made sulphurous by the smoke of the guns.
After passing over the German trenches the dead and wounded began to appear, the Boche much more numerous than our own. There were evidences of many hand-to-hand conflicts in which the personal superiority of the Canadian was evident. Within a mile the prisoners began to appear, running unarmed from shell hole to shell hole, shouting "Kamarad," as they lifted both hands to any approaching soldier. The conquering spirit was surely with the Canadians that day. We would take no denial. The mist over the corn-fields caused some of the tanks to overlook the machine-gun posts which were dotted everywhere.
Stories of Personal Gallantry
There were numerous stories of personal gallantry. Two men, Fenwick and McPhee, with a Lewis gun, after their party was broken up, made a business of capturing machine guns. One man handled the gun and the other carried several spare drums of ammunition, and rushed. post after post single-handed. When the battalion captured Marcelcave (with due respect to the correspondent who credits it to the Australians) Fenwick and McPhee were seen with their helmets askew, loaded with souvenirs and fortified with Hun refreshments, simply eating up the town — the very personification of the Canadian conquering spirit. Every man was slung with all kinds of trophies, which symbolised, not the material gain, but the victory of the Spirit.
The Colonel was hit with a machine-gun bullet about a mile from the town. The wound was mortal. He died in five minutes without a word. He was a very perfect, gentle knight and a most gallant gentleman. He was carried shoulder high by four prisoners, two of them officers, who were informed by the Colonel's batman that they had never performed a more honourable task.
The return was a sight for a great painter. The dead and wounded lay upon the ground. Already the stretcher-bearers were hurrying to the sign of the rifle stuck by a bayonet into the sod, with the cap stuck on the butt. Streams of dejected prisoners came through the fields, and soon were set to work carrying out the wounded. The Horse Artillery had already galloped forward, and one could not help admiring these glorious animals, who stood unmoved by their blazing guns, while many of their number lay dying all around.
The Arrival of the Cavalry
As the sun rose victoriously over the mist the long lines of Canadian cavalry were seen advancing. They cantered by, squadron after squadron. The moment for which they had waited had come. They were about to write a new chapter in the military history of our time. The gleaming lances of the Lancers slanted to the east of Cache Wood, and the Inniskilling Dragoons added a historic touch to the epic of the day. The words, as if by magic, were already marked. "Walking wounded this way," or " Lorries only," while traffic managers stood at crossings, which three hours before were within the German lines, and answered questions.
With perfect omniscience our path lay through the ruins of a large town, captured by the Australians some weeks before. Here one could appreciate the complete desolation caused by modern heavy artillery. Already the roads were crowded with all the conglomerate traffic of an advancing army. Nothing seemed to have been forgotten. Men ten miles beyond the German trenches would receive their letters from home that night.
Tending the Wounded
At the advanced dressing station the incoming wounded were already being cared for with tenderness and skill. Some of the finest medical skill in the world is to be found in the C.A.M.C., whose staff worked night and day with a devotion beyond all praise. For the following days at every dressing station and camp on every road, everything was wide open. The Y.M.C.A., the Chaplain Services, and the Red Cross all worked together, their personnel and materials being pooled. No wounded man or tired driver went away empty. Coffee stalls ran day and night while the evacuation continued. Without these services much of the work done would have been quite impossible.
We buried the Colonel in a little British cemetery on the main road in an eastern suburb of the city which he had helped to deliver. The evening sun went down over the glorious pile of the cathedral only a mile away. When a few days later a great Thanksgiving Service was held there for the deliverance of the city, his spirit must have felt the reward of duty done for France, for Canada and mankind. A rough oak cross, made from a shovel handle, marks his grave, with the silver identification disc from his wrist as his temporary epitaph.
At three o'clock on the first afternoon there were 2,000 prisoners in a single wire cage. They were petrified with surprise. A German officer told me that it was impossible that we should be Canadians. "We have the most certain information from our Intelligence Department that the Canadians are in Belgium," he said.
They are a remarkable people. Individually they seem very quiet, docile, and most sentimental. On all occasions they are anxious to show the photographs of their women-folks, and yet a "Princess Pat," whose battalion suffered in a counter-attack two days later, told of our wounded who were stabbed in the barbed wire. The sentimental Hun is a psychological mystery - we must let it go at that.
Chateau as Hospital.
There is a beautiful, deserted château standing in noble grounds shaded with stately trees which, however glorious its history, never played such a distinguished role or sheltered such a splendid gathering as on a certain August day in this year of its desertion.
Early in the morning the G.O.C. of the Canadian Corps might have been seen arriving at its gates, followed by his banner and his orderlies on the way to the front. In the early afternoon we saw him riding over the battlefield, a soldierly figure of Canada in action as he rode resolutely forward. The great rooms of the château were fitted with operating tables, while all the grounds were covered with stretchers of the wounded. The walking cases, dusty, tired and blood-stained, but full of fight and enthusiasm, came by as the hours passed in a great procession. Their spirit was wonderful. As for the more seriously wounded, the sight was the greatest lesson that many a Chaplain ever learned.
The striking heroism and resignation of the average man - the greatest sermon I ever hope to hear - was preached to me that day. Some, of course, were terribly wounded, but not many - for as they lay there, waiting their turn, there was not one complaint. I saw one hero with his head bandaged, except for a bright blue eye, who held a cigarette at a jaunty angle through a hole in the bandage. Another man, badly wounded in both legs, lay on a stretcher sound asleep, while his arm was around his little dog who slept beside him. They had gone over the top together that morning. Another happy warrior, badly gassed, lay weak, but smiling, with his haversack full of "souvenirs!" He had captured a battalion headquarters, including a major, two captains and a couple of subalterns - he said he had enough compasses and glasses for all his girls, and he had four Iron Crosses.
As the later wounded came in the magnitude of the victory became more apparent. As the men lay in their suffering they refused to talk of themselves, but only of their comrades at the front and Canada. "What would I not give to be at home to night when the news comes in," was the cry of more than one who had earned his rest. Among the very happiest of all were the very moderately wounded men who had a certain "Blighty.'' They had done their part and looked forward to their rest.
Canadians' Greatest Achievement
On the whole, and considering the magnitude of the operation, the casualties were remarkably light and the proportion of killed small. The preparations had been well made, and the work of the various branches of the Corps was perfect. We gladly recognise that we are part of a great organisation. The advance of the French towards Lassigny on our right, and the indomitable work of the Australians on our left, was a matter of pride and congratulation. But this is a story of Canada's part of the struggle - already 10,000 prisoners have been captured and 165 guns. Our line has advanced nearly fifteen miles.
Altogether it will live as the greatest achievement of the Canadian Army. And this has been accomplished by our own people, who, four years ago, never dreamt that Canada would write her name in letters of gold on the portico of one of the most ancient shrines of Christian civilisation.