Private Elmer Sager
The Liberation of Pequencourt
Elmer Sager wrote the following first hand account of the liberation on October, 14, 1918 of the french village of Pequencourt (located near Cambrai). It was originally pasted to the back of the above painting (done by Sager in 1918) which shows the inhabitants of the village greeting the Canadian soldiers.
The Marseillaise by Elmer Sager
Every famous wartime song seems to evoke a responsive chord in an old soldier's memory. "Tipperary" recalls the Old Contemptibles of 1914. "Pack up your Troubles in the Old Kitbag" reminds us of the long cobblestone roads of France, while "Mademoiselle from Armentiers" takes us back to the billets behind the line. But the "Marseillaise" will ever be associated with the most poignant days of the first World War. The distance from Arras in Northern France to Cambrai, along its famous road, is scarcely twenty-two miles - less than a half hour's drive by car.
In 1918, it took the Canadian Corps thirty-two days (August 26 to September 27) to smash through their allotted segment of the incredible maze of German defenses, east of Arras, known as the Hindenburg Line, and to effect a crossing of the Canal du Nord. Another eight miles and a dozen more days of hard fighting and heavy losses brought about the capture of Cambrai on October 9. At long last, we were beginning to emerge from the old devastated war zone.
By October 14, the First Canadian Division, after a five mile advance in two days, found itself held up along the formidable water barrier of the Canal de la Sensee, behind which the enemy displayed "strong retaliation" when an attempt was made to establish a bridgehead.
"Don" Battery of the First Canadian Machine Gun Battalion had marched up the line during the night of October 13-14. At early dawn, we unloaded our guns from the limbers and flopped for a breathing spell while a three-man patrol - lieutenant, sergeant and one weary private (you guessed it) went forward to make a daylight reconnaissance of a thick woods up front near the canal.
Following the 'recce' and report, each gun crew -six men if up to full strength, loaded up in the usual battle order: Number One, balanced the forty pound tripod on his shoulders, two short legs of the tripod in front and the long rear leg behind - an easily identified target, by the way, for enemy gunners. - Number Two, shouldered the equally heavy Vickers machine gun. Each remaining member, of the crew carried three belt boxes of .303 ammunition (250 round per belt), tied together and balanced on the shoulders, plus a Lee-Enfield rifle slung over one shoulder. (This latter weapon had an annoying tendency to catch on strands of barbed wire and fall off while its owner was absorbed in hanging on to his precious belt boxes). Jake Miller, our kindly, taciturn sergeant who hailed from Newfoundland, carried as usual the spare barrel, an extra petrol tin of water, a sandbag of rations, and other odds and ends. Our gun crews, well spaced out in single file, trudged forward and reached the cover of the woods, planning to move out to gun positions in the field at dusk, as support to the "Mad Fourth" Infantry Battalion who were already strung out in front of the canal opposite the enemy-held village of Ferin.
In the meantime, after posting guard, we found the leafy woods, unscarred by war and deceptively peaceful, a pleasant little shelter. I went exploring with Millington, a new lad, fresh, stalwart, and friendly. We found a patch of blackberries in a nearby thicket and filled our messtins, anticipating a delectable supplement to our crew's customary evening meal. We should have eaten the berries then and there. For some reason - perhaps to get rid of surplus hardware - the unpredictable enemy suddenly unleashed a barrage of overhead shrapnel, interspersed with gas shells, on our virgin little grove. The shells seemed to detonate in the treetops and the crash of limbs and leafy branches was somewhat disconcerting.
The 'strafe' ended as abruptly as it began. Millington was killed with shrapnel through his head; Evans was gassed; Charlie Smith my closest chum of long standing, was severely wounded in the right arm near the shoulder. Our 'unflappable' corporal, Jimmy Bryden from British Columbia, who never lost his cool while I knew him, (Where are you today, Jimmy?) sat through the strafe, seated on the ground, back against the biggest tree, arms folded, and smoking a pipe. He now took charge of first aid for Charlie, gently binding his right arm to the side of his chest, his forearm supported by a sling with a bayonet as a splint, and then delegated me, as Charlie's buddy, to take him out. We started back. Since Fritz was still dropping a few gas shells, we both donned gas masks for a time, but extra exertions made breathing difficult and we threw them off.
About dusk, we reached Battery HQ, an advanced aid post. I stayed with Charlie until the ambulance finally came. Then, picking up a sandbag of rations and mail, I trudged forward again, finally locating our depleted machine gun crews late at night in a shallow ditch on the right of the woods. It had been a long day.
The next two days were relatively quiet and we managed to move our guns from "Frog Alley"- as Jimmy called our wet ditch - to a better post commanding a clear field of fire. It never occurred to us that Jerry was planning a large scale withdrawal to yet another prepared line of defense.
Thursday morning, October 17, dawned clear with only a small 'strafe' from Jerry's whiz-bang batteries, hardly meriting the formality of a 'stand-to'. Our own artillery's regular morning test barrage received no reply from beyond the canal. The prolonged eerie silence finally lured us up from our wet pits to sit on top of the ground. Soon, others were sitting bolt upright across the field. For some whimsical reason, I recalled a picture in our old Ontario school geography of a western 'prairie-dog town', in which scores of the little rodents were depicted sitting alertly erect on the level plain beside their burrows.
One fastidious soldier, stripped to his waist, began to 'read' his shirt in the morning sunlight. Others began to stroll nonchalantly across to chat with neighboring gun crews. Meanwhile, two members of the Fourth Battalion crossed the canal, reconnoitered the empty village of Ferin and signaled back "Nobody Home". Soon, a jubilant little Cockney runner came zigzagging breathlessly back crying: "Jerry's 'opped it!"
This WAS news! I hurriedly stored the remnants of a rich cake from home into my haversack and tied my three belt boxes together, expecting orders to advance. Instead, we decided to eat a leisurely breakfast, on top of the ground for once. We cooked oatmeal mush in a petrol tin, fried bacon, soaked our bread ration in the hot grease, and boiled up a mess tin of tea. Presently, we heard motors and along came the First Division Engineers, riding at ease on vehicles loaded down with pontoons, and other bridge-building equipment. They grinned cheerfully as they ran the gauntlet of good-natured banter from the infantry lads. "Welcome, boys, to the Front Line! Where've you been all morning? Don't you know there's a war on?" Actually we were amazed at their speed in getting their equipment up to the canal.
Meanwhile, our limbers, drawn by tough Texas mules, arrived from the horse-lines and we gladly loaded our guns and belt boxes on the vehicles. We marched off, limbers following, to find that the canal had just been bridged by the sappers. A footbridge of planks, resting on pontoons, provided room for us to cross in single file. Another bridge, further along the canal, wide enough for vehicles, had just been built. We all crossed safely, marched through the deserted village of Ferin, crossed the Douai-Cambrai road, and halted for the night in another empty hamlet with still no sign of Fritz.
We enjoyed a good sleep on the tile of a kitchen floor softened with straw from the barnyard next door. Reveille came early. We marched off at six o'clock in a thick morning fog. Rumor had it that we were to try to catch up with the enemy but do nothing to hinder his retreat. That sounded reasonable enough, but catching up was the problem. We were delayed at every crossroad by gaping holes blown up by mines. Railway over-passes had been efficiently demolished, blocking the road underneath, while the ends of every alternate pair of rails along the track had a curious curl as a result of demolition charges.
As the morning fog lifted, we could still see no sign of the enemy. No shell craters marred the landscape, the trees were beautiful, the fields were green, and the roads were dry. Presently, we saw a field of turnips, evidence, at long last, that inhabited farm villages were near. Nearly half the men broke ranks to get fresh vegetables and we marched along, munching away at raw turnips - a welcome change from a diet of canned meat and 'mackonicie'. At noon, we halted in a sunken road and began to hear muffled sounds up ahead indicating that the enemy was still blowing up cross-roads. Resuming our march, we saw an undamaged church spire on the horizon, and at two p.m. we entered the village of Pequencourt, our first inhabited French town!
As we entered, the street was empty. The Germans, we were told later, had warned the people to stay in their cellars. Soon, faces peered from windows. Then, in an instant, the villagers began to pour from doorways, singing and shouting: "Vive les Canadians!" Children danced. Old women rushed out with mugs and steaming pots of ersatz coffee and slices of brown bread. It was about all they had but they insisted on sharing it with us. One venerable old gentleman, dressed in a frock coat and wearing medals of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, alternately danced a jig on what passed for a sidewalk, presented arms with his cane, and waved his tall silk hat.
Our march halted and we unloaded our machine guns from the limbers. The enemy, who had gone out the east end of the village scarcely two hours before, now began to send back gas shells while a few machine gun bullets began to ricochet along the walls of the main street. We tried in vain to get the civilians back into their houses. They were determined to welcome us and give vent to their pent up emotions.
When they saw how our transport was halted by a gaping mine crater that blocked the whole cross-road, old men, old women, and children - there seemed to be a real 'generation gap' between old and young - worked feverishly with bare hands to hurl cobblestones and rubble into the hole.
To avoid drawing enemy fire on the center of the village we carried our guns to the outskirts - to the immediate dismay of the inhabitants who thought we were planning to retreat. We set up our guns in a garden with a good field of fire on the road ahead and dug in, for we still had a healthy respect for the retreating foe.
Our orders were to carry out overhead night-firing from ten p.m. to six - in short bursts every few minutes - of some ten or twelve thousand rounds at a range of 2800 yards on the road ahead, thus providing a protective screen for our infantry. As usual, night-firing, like guard duty, was carried on in shifts - two hours on and four hours off. My partner and I ended our firing stint at 6 a.m. Just as we stood up at dawn to stretch our limbs and shake off the chill of a frosty night, we heard a sound that made us forget fatigue!
From the distant market square of Pequencourt, came an unmistakable melody on the crisp morning air- La Marseillaise!
Those poor citizens of France had risen and assembled in their village square at daybreak to celebrate their first morning liberty in four long years by singing their proud national anthem, and they sang it with the choking fervency that only those can sing whose freedom, once lost, has been regained.
Freedom, whether it be in 1918, in 1776, or in the free world today is a priceless heritage!