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Solemn Moments In Mons

by Ray Dick

“I was in a trench on the outskirts of Mons when the firing stopped,” said Fred Evans, a 101-year-old WW I veteran from Summerville, N.B., while gazing out over the now-peaceful Belgian countryside he hadn’t seen for 80 years.

Evans was part of a cavalcade of Great War veterans who had travelled thousands of miles to Mons last November for a Remembrance Day ceremony in a city made famous by war and peace. For it was in Mons where the Allies were first drawn into the war, where the war ended and where the tradition of remembrance began.

“We thought it was only a ceasefire, not the end of the war,” added Evans. “We didn’t even get an extra shot of rum that morning.”

He recalls walking into Mons the day the Armistice was signed at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. He explained that he had been participating as a message runner to and from the front lines for his unit, the 24th Victoria Rifles, a Montreal regiment. He had been through the battles of Passchendaele, Amiens, the second battle of Arras and the pursuit to Mons.

Tom Spear, an active 102-year-old veteran from Calgary who served with a signals unit with the Canadian Engineers, also had a special interest in the ceremony. He remembers receiving the message from his corps headquarters advising the troops of the ceasefire, a message he still keeps: “Hostilities will cease at 1100 hours. Troops will stand fast at points reached and report location. Military precautions will be taken. There will be no intercourse with the enemy.”

Henry Botterell was a Canadian pilot serving with the RAF in WW I. He had a bird’s eye view of the front lines as the war ended in Mons. The Mississauga, Ont., resident was flying his Sopwith Camel over the war zones as the Canadian troops pushed forward to liberate Mons in the farthest advance of the Allied forces in the war. Still in good physical shape and taking no medications, Botterell celebrated more than the end of the war on his pilgrimage to the WW I battlefields. There was a party for him at the pilgrimage’s base hotel in Lille, France, for his 102nd birthday. Botterell does not remember how he celebrated his 22nd birthday four days before the Armistice in 1918.

The three veterans were among 17 brought over to France and Belgium for the 80th anniversary of the signing of the Armistice. The historic signing brought to an end a war in which Canada contributed more than 625,000 men and women in the years between 1914 and 1918 at a cost of more than 66,500 Canadian lives. For the veterans, the pilgrimage culminated in the Nov. 11 ceremony in Mons, and at a special ceremony in Ypres where 10 of the veterans met Canada’s Queen Elizabeth and King Albert of Belgium in a remembrance ceremony at the historic Menin Gate. “For your citizens–and our soldiers–Mons was the city of beginnings and endings,” Veterans Affairs Minister Fred Mifflin told a crowd of hundreds who jammed into the narrow stone passageways and courtyards at Mons city hall. “This morning we visited Saint-Symphorien Cemetery, the final resting place for many who were slain in the Battle of Mons on Aug. 23, 1914.”

The cemetery is a few miles southeast of Mons and among those interred there is Private J. Parr of the British Middlesex Regiment, believed to be the first Commonwealth soldier to die in battle on the Western front.

“There are two other soldiers who rest here,” said Mifflin. “They are Private G.E. Ellison of the 5th Royal Irish Lancers and a Canadian, Pte. George Price of the 28th Battalion, Saskatchewan Regiment. They both died on the last day of the war. Tragically, Pte. Price was killed by sniper at 10:58 a.m., two minutes before the Armistice. He was the only Canadian who lost his life that day.”

“It’s where the first shots were fired and the last shots were fired,” said historian and retired Canadian Forces member Laurence O’Neill of Calgary. There are also some Germans buried in the Mons cemeteries. “It was still a chivalrous war in 1914.”

Little of that chivalry was remembered by the WW I veterans whose lasting memories are the mud, the cold, the rats, the wholesale slaughter and other deprivations of trench warfare. These memories were brought home to the veterans even before they left Canada as Veterans Affairs arranged several events in the Ottawa area, including a tour of the Chronicles of the Unknown Soldier display in the Hull, Que., Armouries, complete with a skit on life in the trenches in WW I. They also visited the Canadian War Museum and attended a reception at Rideau Hall with the Governor General before leaving for Europe Nov. 4.

After a day of rest in Lille, the pilgrimage got in full swing Nov. 6 with an official ceremony at Le Quesnel Memorial which pays tribute to the achievements of the Canadian Corps in the Battle of Amiens, Aug. 8-11, 1918. This was the battle that became known as the start of Canada’s 100 days, a gathering of momentum that carried allied forces toward victory after four long and gruelling years of war. As the German chief of staff commented after the battle: “Aug. 8 was the black day of the German army in the history of this war. Everything I had feared, and of which I had so often given a warning, had here, in one place, become a reality.”

“At the end of the black day the Germans lost 27,000 men,” said Senator Lucie Pépin, speaking for Mifflin who joined the delegation the following day after being delayed in Ottawa on government business. “The Allied forces lost one third that number. Canadians captured more than 5,000 prisoners and 161 guns. This in spite of a loss of 4,000 Canadian troops.”

It was at Le Quesnel that historian O’Neill related the story of the horses. Faced with a flat and treeless plain and a well-entrenched German position, some 1,800 horses were driven out onto the battlefield and mowed down by machine-gun fire. “The Canadians advanced, from dead horse to dead horse,” he said.

Saturday, Nov.7, was a big day for the WW I vets. They boarded special buses for the shorter journey to Vimy Ridge. A mist hung like a shroud over the historic battlefield in the early morning hours. The vets were given blankets against a cold wind and then they were wheeled into a tent that was open on one side so they could view the ceremony.

“It was dawn on Easter Monday,” said Mifflin, “a day when Christians celebrate renewed life. And in 1917, a day when so many lives would be lost. Brief and brutal, the battle was all over in three days. The ridge was taken…four Victoria Crosses were won (by Canadians)…. The price at Vimy was the blood of 3,500 Canadians who paid with their lives. And another 7,000 were wounded…. The Canadian war record, crowned by the achievements at Vimy, won for Canada a separate signature on the peace treaty ending WW I. We had become a nation.”

The Vimy ceremony, in which all 17 Canadian veterans were presented with the Legion of Honour, France’s highest award for valour, by French Veterans Affairs Minister Jean Masseret, held extra meaning for three of the Canadian veterans. They were there that Easter dawn 81 years ago.

Walter Loudon, a 99-year-old resident of Ste-Anne’s Hospital at Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue, Que., said he didn’t particularly have a hard time in the battle as his unit, the 56th Canadian Infantry Bn., attacked alongside the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada. He grew up in Calgary and enlisted in 1915 at age 16 after being turned down a year earlier because he was too young. “I was scared that it would be finished before I got there.” He saw plenty of action at both the Battle of the Somme, where he received a head wound, and the Battle of Vimy Ridge, where he was hit in the left hand.

Loudon said he was impressed with the ceremony at Vimy and with the Legion of Honour medal from the French government. “Everyone has been very good to us on this trip,” he said, referring to Veterans Affairs Canada officials who organized the trip and the welcome the veterans received by the French and the Belgians. “It has been a tiring trip, but I’m glad I came.”

Stephan Thorlakson, 101, of Lillooet, B.C., and Lawrence Morton, also 101, from Toronto were also at the historic battle. Thorlakson, nicknamed the Big Swede despite his Icelandic heritage, enlisted in Winnipeg in 1915 with a machine-gun company. At Vimy he remembers the troops being in “mud up to our knees, pretty near.” Morton, nicknamed Mort, enlisted in 1915 at age 18 with the 1st Army Troop of the Canadian Engineers and worked with the group responsible for mining Vimy Ridge. One of his most vivid memories involves his best friends in the war, Boss and Charley Chaplin, the horses who drew the cart that he drove. “It has been a fantastic trip,” said Thorlakson.

“I’m glad I came,” added Morton.

It was windy, wet and cold on Nov. 8 as the buses made their way on a 45-minute drive through the valley of the Somme to the memorial at Beaumont Hamel. This is the site of the infamous first day of the Battle of the Somme. It is where the Newfoundland Regiment was virtually destroyed. “There are a lot of graveyards here,” commented O’Neill of the Somme battlegrounds. “It was just pure bloody murder. We’re driving over a million bodies today.”

The rain didn’t let up as the veterans huddled under umbrellas and blankets to listen to Mifflin as he described the morning of July 1, 1916, when the Newfoundlanders were ordered to attack the German lines into point-blank machine-gun fire. “Bravely they charged,” he told the audience gathered near the statue of the Caribou, symbol of the Royal Newfoundland Regt. “Bravely they fought. Bravely they died. It took less than half an hour.” There were more than 700 casualties, one third of which were fatal.

It rained again on Nov. 9 when the buses crossed the Canal du Nord on their way to a memorial ceremony at Bourlon Wood, a cemetery where 221 men of the 3rd and 4th divisions are buried. Two Canadians won the Victoria Cross in battles around Sept. 27, 1918, that forged an essential link in the march towards the end of the war.

“There was a sense of momentum in the autumn days of 1918 as Allied victories increased and German defences fell,” explained Mifflin. “Battles such as the one we commemorate here today at Bourlon Wood contributed to the Canadians’ reputation for honour and determination on the field of battle.” He quoted a diary entry of an enemy soldier of the Bourlon garrison: “On this day we buried all our hopes for victory.”

This was also a sad stop for veteran Tom Spear whose brother Will served with him in the same signals unit with the Canadian Engineers and who was killed in action Sept. 27, 1918 during the battle at Canal du Nord. He is buried at Bourlon Wood where Spear surprised everyone by climbing eight flights of concrete and stone steps to place a wreath at the base of the monument.

Just seven minutes away from Bourlon Wood, at Crest Cemetery near Cambrai, the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry contingent of the Canadian Forces honour guard paid tribute to one of their own in a rededication at the grave of a former unknown soldier, Sergeant George Ross Thompson of Kenora, Ont. The regiment lost six sergeants on Sept. 28, 1918, as it supported the Royal Canadian Regt. in an assault on the Marcoing Line, moving quickly past Cambrai towards Mons. All had known graves, except Thompson. His was identified after research by the regiment earlier in the year. On hand for the military rededication ceremony were relatives Les and Eva Thompson of Winnipeg. “This was the trip of a lifetime,” said Les. “If he was up there looking down on us he would be highly honoured. The regiment put their heart and soul into identifying this unknown soldier. To us, it means closure.”

It was cloudy, but not as cold on Nov. 10 and 11 as the delegation set out for Belgium. The WW I vets remained at the hotel to rest up for the big Remembrance Day ceremony in Mons on the 11th and for a meeting with the Queen at a remembrance observance at the Menin Gate in Ypres. The rest of the delegation visited Tyne Cot Cemetery and held a ceremony at the Passchendaele Memorial. It also visited the brooding soldier statue at the Saint-Julien Memorial where Canadians withstood the first gas attacks of the war, and the Essex Farm Cemetery where Colonel John McCrae wrote the poem In Flanders Fields.

On Remembrance Day, the delegation headed to the 11 a.m. ceremony in Mons. It later travelled to Ypres where–because of space and security provisions–only 10 of the WW I vets in the group attended the royal ceremonies at the Menin Gate. The Queen shook hands with each of the Canadian vets. “She asked me how old I was,” said Spear. “I told her. I also told her ‘we all love you.’”

The next day the WW I vets rested in the hotel at Lille while the rest of the delegation travelled south to Adanac–Canada spelled backwards–Cemetery near Courcelette for a military funeral for Pte. John J. McArthur of the 31st Bn. (Alberta Regiment) who was reported missing and presumed killed in action Sept. 27, 1916. His remains were discovered and identified in 1998 when workers were excavating along a road near Courcelette. “We got the letter edged in black,” said Donald McArthur of Hawkestone, Ont., a nephew of the missing private. “We never expected to hear any different. We were informed about three weeks before the trip that the remains had been found and invited to accompany the pilgrimage to France. It was a beautiful ceremony, more than we expected.”

On Nov. 13, the staff at the hotel gathered outside the front doors to wave goodbye to the Canadian WW I vets. “We had some health problems,” said Dr. Hyman Batalion of St. Anne’s Hospital. “But a trip like this sometimes brings out the best in them. I saw one veteran pushing his companion in the wheelchair.” As for what the veterans thought: “I’d come back any time if I’m able,” said Thorlakson.


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