Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, December 18, 2022

What Happened at Mont Houy?

Valenciennes in Flames: Fires Set by Retreating German Forces

After the capture of Cambrai in October 1918, the British Third Army, including the Canadian Corps and accompanying units continued to crawl toward Valenciennes. 

In late October, the men of the 51st British Divisions had crossed the Ecaillon, a small stream branching off from the Scheldt River. Punching through the village of Maing, the Highlanders were stopped just south of Valenciennes, the last German held city in northern France. The new line afforded a direct, if dangerous view of the German positions along Mount Houy.

Mount Houy in itself posed a difficult problem. Rising to a height of over 150 feet high, the vantage point from the top afforded a commanding view of the area southeast of Valenciennes. This natural barrier was fortified by German engineers. Rows of barbed wire and deep trenches added artificial strength to a natural obstacle.

Note Position of Mont Houy North of Famars

While the Canadian Corps waited in the wings, their compatriots in the 51st British Division assaulted Mont Houy. The 154th Brigade attacked at 5:15 a.m., supported by nine brigades of British artillery. Initial waves had captured Mont Houy by the early afternoon, but they were soon driven back by determined German counterattacks.

Following the failed British attempt to capture Mont Houy, it once again fell to the Canadian Corps to shatter the German defenses. David Watson’s 4th Division relieved the British 51st Division, assuming their positions just south of Mont Houy. The right end of the line was taken over by the 49th British Division, while the right wing was filled by the 10th Canadian Brigade. 

The overall plans had not changed—the capture of Houy and Valenciennes was still of utmost importance. The method of attack had been adjusted, though. Instead of a full-frontal attack on Mont Houy, a huge artillery barrage would serve as a shattering force aimed at the German defences. 

Kinks were being worked out of the Canadian plans, but the kick-off date for the assault drew ever closer. Canadian Forces continued to assemble around Valenciennes, anxiously anticipating the forthcoming assault on the city. 

Destroyed German Trench atop Mont Houy

The taking of Mount Houy, on 1 November 1918, by the Canadian Corps, was an interesting and impressive operation. General Currie—interested in limiting casualties as the war was cleary drawing to a conclusion—asked his artillery to do a special job, as Mount Houy and Valenciennes might very well be the last set-piece battles that the Canadians might attempt in the war.

To keep Canadian casualties low, Currie ordered the artillery barrage and counter-battery to precede the infantry assault with especial thoroughness. Using a total of 303 guns of various calibres, Canadian gunners buried Mont Houy in an avalanche of artillery fire. 

Brigadier General Andy McNaughton described how the fire plan was made so heavy that the enemy was blown away in its defenses with two kilotons of munitions.

The result was that with 60 killed and 360 wounded, the Canadian Corps reaped 800 enemy dead, 1,379 un-wounded prisoners, and 75 wounded. It also increased its reputation as unstoppable shock troops. 

Canadian Forces Entering Valenciennes

Once the high ground had been taken, the assault on the city began. The fighting around the city was severe despite the artillery barrage. It was a two-pronged attack from the south and west. The attackers from the west had to cross over a canal while under fire using small boats and a cork bridge (shown above).  Fires were set to supply and ammunition dumps by the withdrawing enemy troops.

By 2 November, Valenciennes had been surrounded and all German forces left defending the city had been killed or captured. The next stop for the British Army was Mons.

Sources: The Canadian War Museum; The Last 100 Days


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