Article written by Master-Corporal Brigitte O’Driscoll, 1 Section Commander, 5 Platoon, Bravo Company, The Royal Montreal Regiment
On the morning of September 2nd 1918, a handful of soldiers from the Royal Montreal Regiment, led by Captain McKean, liberated the town of Cagnicourt, France. 100 years later to the day, members of the Royal Montreal Regiment were once again in Cagnicourt to commemorate the liberation. Indeed, Major Talarico and myself had the honour of representing the regiment during the village’s commemorations of their liberation and McKean’s heroic actions.
The four-day trip was short, but packed with commemorations, visits to World War 1 memorials, cemeteries, and battlefields. Although we had been sent to France just for the commemoration in Cagnicourt, the Major and I made the most of the other days and visited as many areas relating to the Regiment as possible. To be able to visit the different areas of France where a century earlier, members of the Regiment had fought and died and brought honour to the unit, was both an incredible and humbling experience. As well, I wouldn’t have believed it possible, but those four days in France made me even prouder to be a member of the Royal Montreal Regiment and to wear the same cap badge as the men who sacrificed so much on those battlefields. Having had the opportunity to visit these areas, I now feel it is my duty to talk about those sacrifices and to spread awareness about the Regiment’s proud history.
Once in Arras, we quickly toured the city and came across the main square, called “Place des Héros”. The square was quite impressive, with its cobblestone streets and 17th century architecture. In the same square, we came across a sign that stated that 80% of the city of Arras had been destroyed during World War 1 and that it had been completely rebuilt afterwards so that it would look the same. Once again, I tried to put myself in the shoes of the Allied soldiers from a century ago as they walked through the same streets we were now walking through. Whereas their biggest concern would have been trying to avoid getting shot or ambushed by Germans hiding out in the different buildings and rubble, here we were a century later, trying to find a decent restaurant where we could enjoy a peaceful meal and French wine out on the square. Another reminder that we were only able to enjoy this freedom because of what these veterans had
Day 2, September 1st: Day 2 started off early enough as our first planned stop was Vimy ridge and we wanted to get there before the crowds. And so, we left our hotel at about 0900 that morning and headed to Vimy, located about 15km from our hotel. We were fortunate enough to have beautiful weather that morning and as we arrived, the sun reflecting off the epic monument was almost blinding. The first thing that crossed my mind as we walked towards the memorial, was how eerily quiet and peaceful the morning was.
Where 100 years ago, the deafening sounds of artillery fire reigned, the only sounds now were those of the birds chirping. The views from the monument overlooking the French country side were absolutely breathtaking. The land around the monument is absolutely littered with craters from the hundreds of thousands of artillery shells and explosives that were used during the battle. Much of the land is closed off to the public for safety reasons due to the many unexploded munitions that can still be found throughout the area. It is absolutely mind boggling to see these massive crater holes for kilometers on end and see how the land still hasn’t recovered more than a century later.
Vimy of course, stands as one of the most important battles in Canadian military history in terms of its significance. It is where the 4 Canadian divisions fought together for the very first time and it quickly became a Canadian symbol of achievement and sacrifice. The Canadian corps did in three days what they English and French had been unable to do in two years. Indeed, despite insurmountable odds, the Canadians, led by General Sir Arthur Currie, took the ridge from the Germans on April 12th 1917. The victory came at a great cost as 3 598 Canadians were killed and another 7 004 men were wounded. For many, the battle is considered as the coming of age of Canada as a nation. It showed to the Allies that the Canadians were a force to be reckoned with. The Canadians demonstrated superior military skill and success on a world stage and this battle proved to the world that the Canadians were a valiant fighting force. Following the war, the French gave the land to Canada so that the Canadians may use the land as a memorial and battlefield park. The monument took 11 years to build and is a symbol of remembrance as well as a tribute to all those who served during the First World War. Engraved on the monument are the names of 11 285 Canadians who were killed during the Great War and who have no known graves.
Of course, Vimy also stands as one of the Royal Montreal Regiment’s battle honours. The Regiment lost 98 members during the battle and another 176 soldiers were wounded. This represented close to a 50% casualty rate for the Regiment. And so, it was with a huge amount of regimental pride that the Major and I posed for several photos with the RMR flag. Before leaving, we also left an RMR centennial coin at the monument to show that the unit has not forgotten its history nor all those who died and sacrificed so much wearing the RMR cap badge.
Following our visit of the Vimy monument and trenches, it was off to Beaumont-Hamel. Although the Royal Montreal Regiment did not fight at Beaumont-Hamel, it was a battlefield and memorial site that Major Talarico and I felt we had to visit. On July 1st 1916, during the first day of the Battle of the Somme, the Royal Newfoundland Regiment was practically wiped out during the first 30 minutes of the battle.
Of the 780 Newfoundlanders who went over the trenches on that morning, only 68 returned the next morning for roll call. All of the Regiment’s officers and 658 members became casualties. The consequences of this battle resounded throughout Newfoundland, not yet part of Canada at that point in history, and led to chronic financial problems for the dominion as well as a huge hole in its workforce. This undoubtedly led to Newfoundland joining the Canadian Confederation in order to resolve its financial situation. Whereas most of the Canadian population now celebrates Canada Day on July 1st, Newfoundlanders observe Memorial Day in honour of all the men they lost on that fateful day in 1916.
Similar to Vimy, the Beaumont-Hamel is the only other National Historic Site of Canada located outside of Canada. Many of the trenches have been preserved and the surrounding land is also characterized by hundreds of crater holes. Overlooking the site stands the Newfoundland Regiment memorial. Above the memorial stands a massive bronze Caribou, the emblem of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment. At the base of the monument are three bronze tablets engraved with the names of 820 Newfoundlanders who gave their lives during the First World War and who have no known grave. This is where Major Talarico and myself once again paid our respects and placed another RMR centennial coin.
From Beaumont-Hamel, it was off to the Thiepval memorial. The memorial commemorates the more than 72 000 men of the British and South African forces who were killed at the Somme and who have no known grave. The monument is almost as
impressive as Vimy. It stands 45m in height and it is the largest Commonwealth memorial to the missing in the world. On each of the monument’s pillars are inscribed the names of those 72 337 unfortunate soldiers who were never found. An inscription on the monument reads: “Here are recorded the names of officers and men of the British Armies who fell on the Somme Battlefields July 1915 February 1918 but to whom the fortune of war denied the known and honoured burial given to their comrades in death”. Behind the monument also stands an Anglo-French cemetery containing 300 British and 300 French graves. The entire time we were there, I could think of no worse fate than going off to war only to be killed and never found. Many of these people were buried by the mud scattered by artillery shells, pulverised by massive explosions, or just simply never found. To this day, farmers still find many human remains in the fields of France. Fortunately, with today’s science, some of these are identified. However, many of them will always remain unknown. How hard it must have been for the families to hold on to hope that their family member, reported missing and presumed dead, would someday turn up. So many families had to accept the fact that their son, father, or brother would never be seen again and that they would have no grave to visit to pay their respects.
Day 3, September 2nd, started off in Dury, France, where Major Talarico and I took part in a renaming ceremony. Roundabout “L’Espérance” was renamed roundabout “7 Victoria Crosses”. This was to commemorate the 7 Canadians that were awarded the Victoria Cross on the first day of the assault on the Drocourt-Quéant line. These 7 Canadians were Captain Hutcheson of the Canadian Army Medical Corps, Sergeant Knight of the Calgary Highlanders (posthumous), Lance Corporal Metcalf of the Canadian Scottish, Corporal Nunney of the Cameron Highlanders (posthumous), Lieutenant-Colonel Peck of the Canadian Scottish, Private Rayfield of the 1st British Columbia, and Private Young of the Canadian Grenadier Guards. A maple tree was planted for each of the recipients in the middle of the roundabout, located at the intersection of two busy highways which sees more than 13 000 vehicles pass through it every day. At night, a light will illuminate each tree. As well, during the ceremony, portraits of the recipients were placed at the base of their tree. Present at the ceremony were several dignitaries, many of whom spoke of the incredible courage of the seven men, and the immense gratitude that the French people have towards the Canadians who crossed the ocean to liberate their towns and ultimately, their country. What stood out to me the most during the ceremony was how genuinely thankful the French people are to the Canadians who crossed the ocean and left everything behind to come liberate them from the Germans.
Following the ceremony in Dury, it was off to Cagnicourt. On the morning of September 2nd 1918 at 0500 hours, the assault on the Drocourt-Quéant line was launched by the Canadian Corps. At 0800 hours of the same morning, a scouting party of the Royal Montreal Regiment led by Lieutenant McKean, arrived at the outskirts of the French town of Cagnicourt. Most of the assault had either been killed or wounded during the advance and McKean, himself injured by shrapnel in his right leg from a 5.9inch shell, was accompanied by the few remaining men of the regiment. The village was occupied by several hundred Germans, but for McKean, who had already been awarded the Military Medal and the Victoria Cross for previous actions, this mattered little. Indeed, with fewer than 10 men, he led the charge on the village, shooting surprised Germans and gesturing to non-existing units on either side of him. The Germans, believing they had been outflanked and outmanoeuvered, surrendered to McKean and his handful of men. As they came out of their reinforced positions, they were shocked to see that they had been captured by only a handful of Canadian soldiers. For his actions, McKean was awarded the Military Cross. Due to the injury he suffered to his leg, McKean would be removed from combat until the end of the war.
A century later to the day, Major Talarico and I had the honour of representing the Regiment during the day of commemorations the town of Cagincourt had planned. It all started off at Dominion Cemetery located, like most other Commonwealth cemeteries, in the middle of farmer’s fields just on the outskirts of Cagnicourt. The cemetery was made by Canadian units following the assault on the Drocourt-Quéant Line and contains the remains of 214 Canadians and 17 soldiers from the British Empire. Of these, just under 30 of those are members of the Royal Montreal Regiment. The ceremony kicked off with the laying of wreaths by the Mayor of Cagnicourt, the Mayor of Hendecourt-Les-Cagnicourt and was then followed by the playing of both the British and Canadian National anthems, the reading of “In Flanders Fields”, and the release of several white balloons featuring French and Canadian flags. The balloons were quite a nice touch to the ceremony. Before leaving the cemetery, Major Talarico and I paid our respects and left another RMR centennial coin at the cemetery. Present at the ceremony were many French dignitaries, myself and Major Talarico, as well as Mckean’s granddaughter Susan Harris, accompanied by her husband, a Warrant Officer in the British army, and their toddler son. It was a very special experience for me to meet McKean’s granddaughter and I thought it fantastic that she had been able to make it out for the ceremonies.
From the cemetery, the contingent moved on to McKean place, located in the center of Cagnicourt. A monument for Lt George McKean is featured in the middle of the grassy area and on it, a bronze plaque reads: “In memory of Lieutenant George Burdon McKean, scout officer of the Royal Montreal Regiment and the soldiers of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Brigade, who liberated Cagnicourt on September 2nd 1918”. On either
side of the monument flies a Canadian flag and a Royal Montreal Regiment flag. Seeing the RMR flag fly in a foreign country at a monument for the RMR’s most decorated soldier, was pretty special. During the ceremony, wreaths were laid at the monument by McKean’s family, Major Talarico and myself on behalf of the RMR, and by the Mayor of Cagnicourt. Following the laying of wreaths, the British and Canadian national anthems were played and the town’s church bells rang out for 2 minutes as everyone in attendance stood silent. Major Talarico also took the opportunity to present the Mayor of Cagnicourt with a plaque on behalf of the Royal Montreal Regiment, highlighting the 100 years of friendship between the town and the Regiment. The crowds were quite impressive as most of the town turned out for the ceremony. Again, I was moved by how immensely thankful the French people were and how intent they were on not letting the events of WWI be forgotten.
Following the commemorations, we gathered at a hall where the people of Cagnicourt had set up an exhibition about the Royal Montreal Regiment and the liberation of Cagnicourt. I was awe struck by the amount of information they had gathered about the Regiment and certain individual soldiers of the Regiment. Featured in the exhibition were the stories of about 15 members of the RMR. I was absolutely fascinated by these and took the time to read every single one of them. Not only did these stories include where these soldiers had fought, and for some, where they had been injured or killed, but where these soldiers where from and even what had happened to family members that were also involved in the war. Also in the exhibition were several artifacts including old artillery shells, shovels, pic axes, and rifles that had been found in the surrounding fields. Finally, featured in the exhibition was also a decent sized painting of McKean. The Major and I made the most of the opportunity to present McKean’s granddaughter Susan Harris, with an RMR centennial coin. She was moved by this and assured us that the coin would stay in her family as a keepsake.
Day 3 of the trip ended with an amazing three course meal and lots of French wine in the home of one of Cagnicourt’s residents. Once again, this demonstrated the extreme generosity of the people we encountered and the gratitude they felt towards the Canadian military.
As the 2016 recipient of the Captain G.B. McKean trophy, I felt absolutely privileged to have had the opportunity to take part in the commemorations and to have paid my respects to one of the RMR’s greatest soldiers and heroes. Captain McKean is one of Canada’s most decorated soldiers for bravery and the fact that he wore an RMR cap badge is a massive source of pride for all members who have the privilege of wearing that same cap badge. The commemorations allowed me to learn so much more about him and the incredible things he did during the war. He is a source of inspiration for all members of the unit and is proof that ordinary people can do absolutely extraordinary things. I was also shocked by how much the people of Cagnicourt knew about the Royal Montreal Regiment and its history. I learned an incredible amount about the unit’s history through the residents of the town and what they had put together for the commemorations. They were all so eager to come to talk to us and show us different areas of the town and different artifacts they had collected. We also had a historian, Michel Gravel with us. Being able to walk through the same areas the unit would have marched through a century ago, and have the areas where McKean had entered the village and where several events had taken place pointed out to us as we walked through the different areas, was an incredible experience.
Day 4, September 3rd: Suddenly, the last day of the trip was upon us and we wanted to pack it with as many visits relating to the RMR as possible. Our first stop of the day was at the Nine Elms cemetery. Nine Elms cemetery is where the Royal Montreal Regiment’s casualties from the battle of Vimy Ridge are buried and is the unit’s largest burial site. It is the final resting place of more than 75 members of the RMR. Major Talarico and I took the time to stop and read every single one of their headstones. We felt it our duty to stop and pay our respects to every one of them. The visit was extremely moving and we were especially touched by one tombstone in particular. The headstone indicated the final resting place of Pte B.J. West and Pte A. West, 19 and 27 years old respectively. Both had been killed on the first day of the battle of Vimy Ridge on April 9th 1917. Below their names read the inscription “In loving memory of our beloved sons who died for King and Country”. Here were two brothers from the RMR who had died on the same day and who were buried together thousands of miles away from home and family. Both Major Talarico and I were taken aback by the emotions that arose when we read their headstone. We decided that these brothers deserved their own RMR centennial coin and so we left one on their headstone. The whole experience at that specific cemetery was a little surreal. To be standing among so many fallen RMR comrades was an emotional experience. It made things much more personal and we felt a deep connection with all the poor souls that were buried there.
The next stop was at Sains-Les-Marquion where the RMR earned the Canal du Nord battle honour. We first visited the cemetery where about 30 RMR members were buried following the capture of the village. Sains-Les-Marquions was captured by the 1st Canadian Division on the 27th of September 1918 and the cemetery was started the following day. It holds the remains of over 250 WWI casualties, 30 of which are unidentified. The Royal Montreal Regiment had actually erected a memorial at the cemetery but unfortunately, this memorial was no longer present. Once again, Major Talarico and I took the time to visit the graves of every RMR member buried there and left a centennial coin at the cemetery’s memorial.
Following the visit to the cemetery, we went into the village where a small commemoration had been planned in the church’s courtyard. In the courtyard lay a plaque for the Royal Montreal Regiment. Part of the inscription on the plaque read: “The capture of Sains-Les-Marquions was a tactical masterpiece at the centre of the Battle of the Canal du Nord, one of the most complex operations of the Great War. This plaque is dedicated to those who made the ultimate sacrifice. We will remember them.”. Indeed, the capture of Canal du Nord was quite the feat. The Canadian engineers had had to build bridges in the cover of darkness that would allow the infantry troops to get across. Once across, the Canadian soldiers went around the right side of the village using a creeping barrage to advance through German lines. Once consolidated past the village, they used a tactic that had never been used before: the reverse creeping barrage. Indeed, the Canadian artillery started firing closer and closer to their own gun line in order to allow the infantry troops to come back to Sains-Les-Marquions from the rear! And so, the Germans having never seen this tactic and standing no chance against an attack from the rear, quickly surrendered. The offensive on Canal du Nord penetrated the majority of the defenses of the Hindenburg line and allowed the Allied troops to finally move past the German defenses. Defenses that had once been deemed impenetrable.
Once again, I was impressed by how much the residents of the village knew about the history of the conflict and the units that had fought in the area. They were intent on not letting the events be forgotten nor those soldiers who had liberated them. Indeed, even the children were taught about the events in school and were just as aware of what had happened during the war. I could not help but compare them to Canadian children who for the most part, know very little about Canadian military history and the incredible feats the Canadian military accomplished, not only during the First World War, but almost every conflict we have been involved with. Suddenly I felt a little embarrassed that all these people were taught from a young age about the Canadians and the War, and that most of the younger generation here in Canada, where these soldiers came from, would have very little knowledge about the whole thing. It became very clear to me that it was up to people like the Major and I, who are aware of this history, to pass it on to the next generation and to not let it be forgotten. I remember the Mayor of Sains-Les-Marquions mentioning that there were more Canadians buried in the village than there were people living there. Those Canadians who left home never to return again, need to be remembered, not only by the people they liberated, but by the Canadians who now also enjoy their freedom because they were willing to go fight for their country so many years ago…
The two last stops on our trip were to Canada Cemetery and Sancourt Cemetery. Both these cemeteries contained the remains of members of the Royal Montreal Regiment who had fallen at Canal du Nord. As with all previous cemeteries, Major Talarico took the time to pay our respects at every RMR grave, left an RMR centennial coin at both cemeteries’ memorials, and signed the log books to show that the RMR had not forgotten its fallen soldiers and that these soldiers had been checked on by their Regimental family.
Our last few hours in Arras very much resembled our first few hours in the city: gathered around a table at a restaurant at the “Place des Héros” eating delicious pizza and enjoying a few too many bottles of wine. We discussed the different ways the trip had affected us and how quickly it had gone by. One thing we agreed on was that the knowledge we had gained and the experiences we had had over the last 4 days had to be shared with as many people as possible.
For myself personally, someone who’s always been fascinated by military history, the four days in France were a reminder of how much we owe to those who sacrificed their lives for their country and all those veterans who have come before us. As members of the Royal Montreal Regiment and members of Canada’s military in general, we stand on the shoulders of giants. We need to honour their legacy and ensure that their sacrifices are never forgotten. Visiting the different memorials, battlefields, cemeteries, and seeing how grateful the French people we met were to the Canadian military, was an extremely moving experience. It is an experience I wish all Canadians could have. However, that not being possible, I feel it is now my duty to talk about it. This article is the first step to that. The experience has also encouraged me, someone who has always hated public speaking, to visit high schools and give Remembrance Day conferences for the first time in my career. As well, every time I walk in to the unit and salute the plaque, it has so much more meaning. I take the time as I stand there, to remember the graves and cemeteries I visited where so many members of the Regiment were buried.
People like me who took an oath to protect their country and who left to Europe representing the RMR, and who unfortunately, never got the chance to return to their families. I’m thrilled that I had the opportunity to visit so many of them and pay my respects at their graves. I hope that wherever they are now, it offered them some type of comfort to know that they are not forgotten and that their unit and fellow countrymen and women still remember and appreciate their sacrifice. The torch has been passed and it is up to us to hold it high and not break faith with those who died.
“They shall grow not old,
As we that are left grow old.
Age shall not weary them,
nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them”.
*I would also like to thank Laurie Simpson for taking many of the photos featured in this article*