Last road to Mons: Inside the frantic final hours of the First World War

At 3:30 p.m. on Nov. 8, 1918, hours after four German envoys drove through Belgium and arrived at a forest near Paris to negotiate their country’s capitulation, the 28th Northwest Battalion of the Canadian Corps left their billet homes in the French city of Valenciennes to march across the border heading the other way.

A few weeks away from the front had invigorated the unit, as much as any infantryman could muster energy this deep into a ruinous fight of attrition. The Canadians had relaxed and trained in a nearby village as Allied troops liberated town after town from Germans who had occupied them for years in the north of France. Canadian forces freed Denain in late October. They took Valenciennes on Nov. 2.

Now the soldiers of the 28th Battalion treaded the muddy path their comrades had blazed into Belgium. Their destination that afternoon was Quievrain, 15 kilometres east down country roads ravaged by shelling and detonated mines. They were to sleep there on the condition they could be roused to move again at two hours’ notice, ever closer to the German stronghold the senior military officers of Canada and Britain envisioned as the endpoint of this great surge forward: Mons.

Four years and tens of millions of people dead or maimed and the First World War was destined to end up back there, in precisely the place where British soldiers first battled Germany in August 1914. Heavily outnumbered then, the Brits had killed thousands of Germans but ceded control of the city. Retaking Mons was not an opportunity to be squandered — even if the enemy was slinking toward surrender at that very moment.

By the time the 28th Battalion settled at Quievrain for the night, another Canadian brigade had pushed as far as Elouges, a bit further down the road. Mons was within reach, possibly in the next couple of days. Across the front, Germany’s army was in disarray, depleted by the desertion of thousands of men who no longer cared to fight a war they couldn’t win.

Those who remained dutiful were massed between the Canadians and Mons with orders to dig in. They would protect their terrain or die trying until the second they were told to stop.

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