Symphony of Fire: Valenciennes

On 1 November 1918 the Canadian Corps would take Valenciennes. The small city was only 30 kilometres from Le Cateau but the artillery tactics and techniques were four years apart, and it made a world of difference.

In late October Haig reckoned the Germans were on their last legs, with Turkey and Bulgaria knocked out of the war and Italy preparing to attack the tottering Austrians. With the Americans and French attacking, it was time for the BEF to launch one final blow. To get the British First Army in position for the anticipated Battle of the Scheldt, they first needed to take Valenciennes, which lay east of the Scheldt Canal. Because of the rain and German-controlled flooding, the low ground west of the canal was flooded for a distance of perhaps a thousand yards; in addition, there was barbed wire on the eastern bank and the German troops (and machine guns) were safely positioned in houses. A frontal assault across the canal was out of the question. However, the canal swung round the city and to the south XXII Corps had got across. If the Germans could be thrown off Mt Houy (which was only 150ft high, but about 50ft higher than the surrounding country-side, and blocking observation of German artillery to the east), they could be levered out of Valenciennes.

However, the Germans recognised the key ground and they had plenty of guns; in addition, troop morale was reasonably firm. From 24 to 28 October several British attacks were made, all rushed and poorly supported, more in hopes that the Germans were weak than in confidence that the attacks would succeed. But the British troops were at the limit of their supply lines (railheads were 30 miles back, and lorries were in short supply), casualties had thinned the ranks and everyone was tired. The Scots of the 51st (Highland) Division pushed up Mt Houy, but their last attack on 28 October was driven back from the crest by a German counter-attack, despite support from nine brigades of field artillery and fourteen batteries of heavies.

The Canadian Corps was now moved in to make the attack. The Canadians had been facing the canal, but since the main thrust could not be made there, they were available. The 4th Canadian Division relieved the 51st Highlanders, and moved up guns and shells; they took several days to plan their attack. Few infantry and plenty of support was a key element of their plan: ‘to pay the price of victory, so far as possible, in shells and not in the lives of men’. The delay also allowed time to coordinate infantry, machine guns and artillery. The Canadians knew there had been several failed efforts to take Mt Houy, and steadily increasing German artillery fire showed the enemy’s determination to hold the position; however, the Canadian gunners were just as determined to crush German resistance by weight of shell.

The attack would be some 2,500 yards wide (about 1½ miles). One Canadian infantry brigade would attack (by this stage of the war, that meant about 1,200 men). Generally speaking, about 10 per cent of any unit was left out of battle in case there were heavy casualties. For that one infantry brigade, there were eight brigades of field artillery and six of heavy artillery. The first objective was basically Mt Houy, and the second was 2,000 yards beyond it, clearing a few villages and the suburbs of Valenciennes.

There was no preliminary bombardment, but most of the heavy artillery fired well ahead of the infantry, hitting the German defence in depth and the reserves. No fewer than 39 6-inch howitzers were assigned to fire one round per minute over the front of the attack, a ratio that equated to 1.6 shells per 100 yards and the bursting radius was over 500 yards. McNaughton was putting ‘a practically continuous rain of chunks of steel across the whole front of the attack’. That was the first phase; when the Germans were pushed off Mt Houy and lost their observation posts there, more Canadian guns could fire, and the second phase of the attack narrowed to 1,000 yards. Some 55 howitzers would fire 2 rounds every 3 minutes, so it became 3.6 rounds per minute per 100 yards.

In all, 144 18-pounders and 48 4.5-inch howitzers would fire a creeping barrage (effectively 7 tons of shells per minute), deliberately moving at only 100 yards in four minutes (later slowing to five minutes) so that the infantry would have no problem keeping up. The field from the foremost howitzers would fire some smoke shells but would also hit selected strong-points ahead of the 18-pounders. The infantry, in turn, pulled back from the foremost positions on the lower slopes of Mt Houy so the artillery would have a straight (and convenient) line for its starting barrage. Machine guns fired both forward and flanking barrages, taking advantage of the topography: Mt Houy was an exposed salient. The infantry would be attacking from the southwest with machine guns firing from the south and heavy artillery firing from the north. Additional machine-gun and heavy artillery barrages were planned for the right flank of the attack, covering the ground with fire instead of sending more infantry into battle. Planning also took into account where German reserves were likely to be and thus where counter-attacks were likely to start. Since the towns and villages were full of refugees, the French had forbidden unnecessary shelling. (The Germans were continuing to use gas shells, and the Canadian troops were upset about its use around unprotected civilians; they were prone to confiscate gas-masks from German prisoners and give them to civilians. They were also taking relatively few prisoners at this stage in the war.) The Canadians decided only to hit counter-attacks on the edge of towns; this meant that the Germans had a good night’s sleep in a building but they were easier to kill in the open. The half-circle of British positions allowed enfilade fire not only on the front line but on roads (for harassing fire) and on reserves. Counter-battery work was not neglected, with 49 guns assigned to obliterate the 26 known German battery positions. The gunners slept by their guns in case the Germans got wind of the attack.

One battery was assigned a particularly devious mission. It was deliberately sited where it could fire into the rear of the German positions, and shortened its range as the attack progressed. Not only did this prevent it from hitting the Canadian infantry, but the Germans would think their own artillery was shelling them and their morale would suffer accordingly.

At dawn, 05.15 hrs, on All Saints’ Day the bombardment crashed out and the infantry moved forwards. German artillery fired promptly and accurately but mainly at the British artillery, with little or no effect. (Gibbs called it a ‘fierce line of fire’ but noted that it quickly ended as counter-battery fire took effect.) The hapless German infantry soldiers, meanwhile, were deluged with shell-fire. Gibbs wrote, ‘our barrage rolled like a tide wiping them off the map of France’, and the New York Times headlined the story ‘British Gunfire Paralyses Foe’. Prisoners, ‘stupefied and demoralised’, surrendered freely, including a complete company that was trapped in the fog and smoke; perhaps the first thing they saw of the Canadians was their bayonet points. With these advantages, the first objective was reached on time. A few machine-gun nests and a single field gun held out during the advance to the second objective, inflicting casualties before being overrun by the experienced infantry. The heavy artillery fire stayed ahead of the barrage and deliberately smashed some rows of houses where the Germans were known to have positions (any refugees killed here were regarded as collateral damage). Once the objectives were secured, it was time to see what the Germans would do. Each of the infantry battalions moved a 6-inch trench mortar forwards, and three brigades of field artillery moved on to the slopes of Mt Houy. Their observers moved to the top, so they could quickly engage any target they saw. Shortly after noon German infantry was seen forming up and the planned protective barrage was employed: 11 batteries of 6-inch howitzers rolled a barrage over the Germans. The survivors lost all interest in attacking. Between 15.00 and 16.00 hrs more movement was seen on the right flank, and on-the-fly plans were made to hit the Germans once they had fully formed up. At 16.35 hrs the situation was judged ripe, and 9 batteries of 6-inch howitzers obliterated another counter-attack.

The results were gratifying. Mt Houy was taken and the Germans were levered out of Valenciennes. (Another Canadian brigade had squelched forwards to the canal to test the German positions, and found almost no resistance. By mid-morning two Canadian battalions were solidly across. The German infantry had withdrawn very quickly, probably realising from the noise of the bombardment on their left rear flank that their comrades could not hold under such a maelstrom.) Over 800 dead Germans were found around Mt Houy alone, and 1,800 prisoners taken. The 2,149 tons of shells had done their work. But the Canadians also suffered 501 casualties, out of the 1, 200 infantry in the attack. Massive (and well handled) firepower could reduce casualties – not least by allowing fewer infantry to attack – but there was no avoiding a substantial percentage of casualties. The three British divisions attacking further to the south took over 1,600 prisoners and counted 300 dead; their casualties were higher than the Canadians’, but by this stage of the war a well supported Allied attack could easily break any German line. The Canadians had used every trick in the Allied arsenal and noted a number of ideas for the future but their brutally effective use of artillery had not solved all the problems of the Great War.