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Webmatters : 19th Bn CEF memorial at Marcelcave

19th Battalion Canadian Infantry

Location

Marcelcave is situated approximately 24 kilometres east of Amiens and a few minutes drive from Villers-Bretonneux..

From Amiens take the Route Nationale N29 to Villers Bretonneux. Turn onto the D23 in the direction of Demuin. Take the first road to the left D136 to reach the village of Marcelcave. On arriving at Marcelcave stay on this road and then turn left at the crossroads towards the French Military Cemetery.

The monument is situated just outside the village and just before the railway crossing. The French Military Cemetery is on the far side of the railway.

GPS N E Wikimapia
Decimal 49.854773 2.568312 Map

19th Bn CEF plaque at Marcelcave

 

Background

On the 1st July 1916 the Allies opened the battle of the Somme with the British to the north of the battlefield and the French to the south. After a number of weeks of intense fighting, the French front had progressed to the east of Warvillers along the Amiens-Roye Road just to the south of Marcelcave.

Two years later, on 21st March 1918, the Germans launched their Spring offensive the Kaiserschlacht against the British at St Quentin. The sheer fire power of the bombardment and their superiority in numbers brushed the British aside.

Swathes of terrain fell to the Germans but the Storm Troopers were now exhausted and their losses had been enormous. Under the supreme command of Général Ferdinand Foch, the Allies retook the initiative.

On the 18th July Général Mangin launched his offensive at Soissons and a few weeks later it was the turn of Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig commanding the British to return to the offensive on the 8th August.

Foch proposed three limited offensives with the aim of clearing important lines of communication.

The Warvillers Plaque

General map of the offensive
It also shows the location of the 15th Bn Candian Infantry’s plaque at Warvillers

The second concerned the British. From Amiens their Fourth Army, with the French First Army on its right would take the Montdidier-Moreuil salient, thus freeing the railway line towards Paris from the current menace created by the proximity of the Germans. Both of these armies would be under Haig’s command.

No more “bite and hold” objectives as had been carried out in the previous couple of years. Foch ordered that the line be pushed as far as possible towards Roye : in effect back to the French 1916 trenches.

The boundary between the French First Army and the Australian Corps (on the British right flank) was moved seven kilometres to the south along the Amiens-Roye Road.

The Germans had no idea that this apparent weakening of the line masked the arrival of the Canadian Corps — supposedly still in Artois.

The transfer of the Canadian Corps was subjected to the highest levels of secrecy. Even some Brigade Commanders had no idea where they were going when they boarded the trains on the 30th July. Everybody was under the impression that they were bound once again for Flanders but the trains turned south.

The Canadians relieved the Australians during the night of the 6th/7th August. Their sector was the zone between the Villers-Bretonneux-Chaulnes railway line (immediately in front of the Marcelcave Plaque) and the Amiens-Roye Road. The Australians on the left and the French on their right.

Zero hour was set for 0420 hours on the 8th August 1918. In order to achieve the maximum surprise there would not be a preliminary bombardment on either the Australian or Canadian front. The commanders were counting on the power of four hundred heavy and light tanks and the rolling barrage that would precede the infantry.

The Canadian divisions were distributed as follows : 1st in the centre ; 2nd on the left ; 3rd on the right and the 4th Division in reserve.

 

Marcelcave 8th August 1918

Canadians and Australians together

As the left flank of the Canadian Corps, the 19th Battalion were to advance from the edge of Villers-Bretonneux to just the far side of Marcelcave.

The advance was made difficult by very heavy fog. The tanks had a terrible time trying to get forward because the drivers could see nothing at all and were forced to drive so slowly that they were soon outpaced by the infantry.

In the opening moments of the battle the fog assisted the attackers as the German machine-gunners couldn’t make out targets but even so, after the first lines of defence the going became tougher for the Canadians.

On the left, Jaffa Trench halted the 19th Battalion’s ‘B’ Company. According to the plans the strong point was to have been cleared by the tanks but they were still a long way behind. On the other hand the same trench was creating problems for the 21st Battalion Australian Infantry on the far side of the railway. The Australians brought up their machine guns and swept the trench with machine-gun fire and the advance continued.

Marcelcave battlefield

Looking back towards Villers-Bretonneux from the area of Jean Rouxin Mill
The Canadians are on the left of the railway line and the Australians on the right

Approaching Marcelcave Lieutenant Ernest Mason from the Australian battalion went forward to recce a German strong point in an orchard known as Jean Rouxin Mill which was located close to where the plaque stands today.

Mason ran into a Canadian messenger from Captain Robert Bliss who was requesting assistance in clearing out the machine-gun nest. Together, the soldiers from both colonies organised an assault on the strong point which did not surrender until after a grenade assault lasting five minutes. Two of the Australians were killed but the position was taken along with five prisoners.

Mason’s day was far from finished. A short while later, whilst checking his map, he was rushed by a half dozen Germans who threw a grenade at him, wounding him in the face and arm. With a few nearby soldiers he rushed the Germans capturing two of them. For his leadership throughout the day he was awarded a Bar to his Military Cross.

Marcelcave was subjected to its own bombardment by the Canadian artillery and, with the final resistance of the defenders broken, the soldiers of the 19th and 21st Canadian Infantry liberated Marcelcave from the west whilst Australians entered the northern part of the town.

The battle was not yet over because the 19th Battalion had still to reach their “Green Line” at Pieuret Wood just to the east of Marcelcave.

It is possible that the fighting in this area was the only time during the war when Australians and Canadians fighting side by side mutually assisted each other, in an impromptu fashion, on the battlefield.

On returning to the Artois front as part of the Canadian Corps advance on Cambrai the Battalion would encounter German tanks in October 1918 – the last time that their tanks would be used.

 

The plaque

19th Bn CEF plaque at Marcelcave

The plaque was inaugurated on the 22nd September 2015 in the presence of members of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada and members of the Commune.

The Canadian Militia helped sponsor a number of the CEF’s infantry battalions. In the case of the 19th Battalion one of the parent units was the 91st Regiment Canadian Highlanders (of Hamilton, Ontario). For this reason soldiers of the 19th Battalion wore a kilt.

In May 1920 the 91st regiment were renamed the : Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada, who continue to maintain the heritage of the 19th Battalion.

Only four of the casualties have no known grave and are commemorated on the Vimy memorial.
The others are buried at :

  • Adelaide Cemetery, Villers-Bretonneux (1)
  • Crucifix Corner Cemetery, Villers-Bretonneux (15)
  • Villers-Bretonneux Military Cemetery (8)
  • Wood Cemetery, Marcelcave (2)
  • Longueau British Cemetery (1)
  • Crouy British Cemetery (4)

Lt Colonel Elmer Jones of the 21st Bn Canadian Infantry was killed this day and he is also buried at Longueau British Cemetery.

 

Other monuments in the area