The Greatest Victory: Author, 5105 Jack Granatstein; Review, 12570 Mike Kennedy
One hundred years ago at this time, combatants on both sides of the Great War found themselves faced with a very grim situation indeed. The war that many had expected would be over by Christmas of 1914 had dragged on in in a seemingly never-ending stalemate, and in the process had precipitated the collapse of the Russian Empire and bled the French and British armies white. The United States had entered the war in April 1917, but by early 1918 American troops had yet to arrive in numbers that would be large enough to make a difference. The Germans, meanwhile, had resisted Allied advances with remarkable skill and tenacity, but the Royal Navy’s blockade had placed severe pressure on their economy, resulting in widespread shortages that brought the Kaiser’s subjects perilously close to the brink of starvation.
No one knew it at the time, but in late summer of 1918 everything was to suddenly change, bringing the war to a dramatic finale barely three months later. In The Greatest Victory, noted historian 5105 Jack Granatstein chronicles the epic of the closing days of the Great War, highlighting in particular the front-and-centre role that the soldiers of the Canadian Corps played in helping lead the Allied forces to victory.
The men who filled the Canadian ranks in 1918 were a vastly different lot than the well-intentioned but naïve volunteers who had flooded the recruiting offices four years earlier. For one thing, they were far better kitted out than their forebears who had first tasted battle at Ypres in 1915. Gone were ill-conceived weapons such as the much despised Ross Rifle, and standard issue now included steel helmets and small-box respirators used to protect the men from the risk of head wounds and poison gas.
But perhaps more importantly, the Canadian troops had learned much over the previous three years that left them well-prepared to spearhead the final push against the Germans. The unremitting grind of many months of combat had transformed the Canadian Corps into seasoned warriors who were experts in the art of trench warfare and the usage of artillery. Moreover, the Canadians’ triumph at Vimy Ridge the previous spring had provided an incalculable boost to their morale and sense of esprit de corps. When the Corps went forth into battle in 1918, they did so as a unified formation, confident in their ability to meet any challenge that was likely to be put in front of them. Little wonder, then, that the Canadians were rapidly making a name for themselves as being the “shock troops” of the British Empire.
The beginning of the end came on August 8, when a British force spearheaded by Canadian and Australian troops launched an offensive near the French city of Amiens, 120 kilometers north of Paris. The operation began by unleashing a maelstrom of artillery, tanks, airpower and infantry, and it succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations. On the first day alone – which would later be known as the “Black Day” of the German Army – the Canadians advanced as far as 13 kilometers into hostile territory, a remarkable accomplishment in a war that had previously been defined largely by static trench fighting. By the time the battle ended three days later, the Germans had lost an estimated 30,000 killed or wounded, and two Canadians had earned Victoria Crosses for their heroism.
Over the next thirteen weeks, the Canadians would go on to add further lustre to their already impressive reputation with a string of successes at the Drocourt-Quéant Line, the Canal du Nord, Cambrai, Valciennes, and finally, Mons, where the British Expeditionary Force had fought its first major action four years earlier. Though it was becoming increasingly apparent that the Germans were on the ropes, the dying days of the war were still far from a carefree sprint to the finish line. The Germans fought furiously almost to the bitter end, and in the final three months of the war the Canadian Corps suffered over 45,000 casualties killed or wounded. The very last to die, on November 11, was George Price, a 25 year-old Private from Nova Scotia. Official records show that 15 other soldiers were wounded that day.
Throughout the book Granatstein devotes considerable attention to discussing the factors that helped make the Canadian Corps the huge success that it became. One critically important contributor to the Canadians’ achievements was the quality of their logistical support. Keeping the troops adequately supplied with the massive amounts of food, water, ammunition, and other essentials was no easy task, and this unglamorous but nonetheless essential task fell to members of various support units, many of who took the same risks as their comrades on the front lines to fulfill their duties.
Also important, of course, was the quality of leadership provided by officers, and in this respect, a strong argument can be made that the Canadians stood head and shoulders above most if not all of their allies. The most prominent Canadian military figure of the war was Sir Arthur Currie, who rose from obscurity as a Victoria-based militia officer to become Commander of the Canadian Corps in the summer of 1917. Never warmly loved by his troops, Currie was nonetheless blessed with a superb military mind, and some historians have speculated that had the war continued for another year, he might likely have been offered command of all of the forces of the British Empire. Throughout his tenure, Currie faced the dual challenges of trying to achieve objectives with the lowest cost in soldiers’ lives that was possible under the circumstances, while at the same time having to protect himself from Sam Hughes’ incessant backstabbing.
Granatstein also notes that products of RMC figured prominently in leading the Canadian Corps to eventual victory. Notable Ex-Cadets who distinguished themselves included 151 Sir Archibald Macdonnell (“Batty Mac”) and 246 Sir Henry Burstall, who commanded respectively the 1st and 2nd Canadian Divisions. But in addition, numerous others served in key leadership positions, and by 1918, 53 of the 233 commanders and staff officers in the Corps were Ex-Cadets. As Granatstein notes, this was a remarkable achievement for a College that had admitted only slightly more than 1,000 recruits between the time the Old 18 reported in 1876 and the outbreak of hostilities in 1914.
Throughout the book, Granatstein makes the argument that the last three months of the Great War were arguably Canada’s finest hour during that conflict. Notwithstanding the undeniably huge psychological boost that had resulted from the Canadians’ triumph at Vimy Ridge eighteen months earlier, the fact remains that the victory at Vimy itself did little to alter the subsequent course of the war. In contrast, the tremendous successes the Canadians achieved during the Hundred Days that followed Amiens played a decisive role in bringing the war to an end, and did much to help cement their reputation as being an extraordinarily courageous and effective fighting force.
In conclusion, The Greatest Victory presents a gripping, thoroughly readable account of one of the most critically important periods in Canadian military history. Once again, Jack Granatstein has done a commendable job of the trials and triumphs of his country’s soldiers, in an era when the future course of world history was being forever redefined. This book is a must-read for anyone with an interest in Canada’s role and contributions during the Great War.
The Greatest Victory: Canada’s One Hundred Days, 1918
By 5105 J. L. Granatstein
Published by Oxford University Press – 216 pp. $29.95
Review by 12570 Mike Kennedy