Horse Drawn Wagon Crossing Canal Du Nord. National Library of Scotland under the sequence number or Shelfmark ID L.1180 and under the Digital Archive ID number 74548956
The Canal du Nord was under construction when the war started in 1914, so parts of the unfinished waterway were dry. After the fall of the Drocourt-Queant line, German forces retreated behind the canal.
The plan called for the Canadian troops to rush across the dry section of the canal and then fan out to take other objectives. Engineers would then build bridges so that artillery could cross and support the infantry. The Germans thought an attack across the canal would be suicidal, and believed their position safe. Arthur Currie’s plan was a gamble, and other Allied generals thought it would fail, but Currie was confident in his Corps.
The artillery barrage leading up to the attack was intense. With 785 guns firing, there was one gun per 14 metres of front providing an absolute storm of steel and smoke for the Canadians to advance behind. At 5:20 AM on the morning of the attack every artillery piece in the line began firing at once. The infantry jumped out of their holes and began to follow their steel shield.
Upon reaching the canal they climbed down in and rushed to cross to the other side. They brought ladders to climb the 1.5 metre wall on the opposite bank. When the soldiers reached the other side they found a shattered landscape of shell holes, fire, twisted barbed wire, and body parts. The Canadians pressed on, attacking bunkers and taking prisoners.
Behind the soldiers ran engineers who began building a bridge across the canal only minutes after the infantry had secured the crossing. Though under enemy fire, the first artillery pieces were being pulled across at 8:40 AM. By 6:00 PM that evening, eight bridges had been built, allowing artillery and supplies to stream across.
While the engineers were working, the infantry pressed forward, spreading out to their objectives. The Canadian attack was a shocking success, and advanced eight kilometres in a single day. The fighting continued in the following days, with the Canadians stopping on the doorstep of Cambrai on October 6. As the Canadians prepared their assault for October 8, German troops abandoned the city, though not before setting it on fire. The Canadian infantry fought the fires and while the engineers disarmed booby traps. By October 11 Cambrai had been liberated and saved from further destruction.
In a daring and complex plan that many thought was suicide, but in only a few days the Canadian Corps had crossed the Canal du Nord and taken the important rail hub of Cambrai, cutting supply lines to most of the German front. This, along with other Allied victories, was a haymaker that would knock out Germany only one month later.
Sergeant George Thompson was an original member of Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. Organized in Ottawa just a week after Britain declared war, PPCLI was the first Canadian infantry battalion to be sent to France.
George grew up in Rat Portage (Kenora) but was working for the CPR in Moose Jaw when the war began. He went overseas in October 1914 and served for four long years before being killed near Cambrai on September 28, 1918.
For 80 years George’s marker at Crest Cemetery in France read simply: Sergeant, Princess Patricia’s CLI. In 1998, after extensive research, the grave was identified as Sergeant Thompson’s and a memorial service was held in November of the same year.
With family and PPCLI members present, Sergeant Thompson’s grave was re-consecrated and the Last Post and Reveille were played in his honour. His relatives chose the wording for the bottom of his new marker: In remembrance of the sacrifice made for freedoms enjoyed today.