A grateful nation's gift of a gun recalls a painful episode from Canada's military past

The Canadian war museum has unwrapped a bittersweet gift from the Belgian city of Mons just in time for a visit from the country's royal couple: an artillery piece used by Canadian troops and fired in the hours leading up the Nov. 11, 1918 armistice that ended the First World War.

The city of Mons was once a symbol for many Canadians of the futility of war

A First World War soldier places stones on a Canadian grave near Vimy, France in this June, 1917 archive photo. (National Archives of Canada)

It's a question that doubtless led to fisticuffs and a few black eyes in smoky Legion halls in the aftermath of the First World War:

Who was the first to liberate the city of Mons, Belgium? Was it the Royal Canadian Regiment — or the Royal Highlanders (42nd Battalion) of Canada?

The city's so-called "golden book" records the signatures of officers from both units. And so the debate has raged on — sometimes loudly — for years.

Few people living today appreciate what the city, deep in Belgium's former coal-mining country, meant to the lost generation of the Great War.

A cast-iron symbol of that bittersweet connection between Belgium and Canada was uncrated recently at the Canadian War Museum and will go on display Tuesday during the visit of Belgium's King Philippe and Queen Mathilde.

A former Canadian Army field piece - an 18 pounder - is removed from its crate at the Canadian War Museum on Friday March 9, 2018. It is on loan from the City of Mons to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War. (Kristen Everson/CBC News)

It's a field gun, known as an 18-pounder — the Commonwealth's most widely used artillery piece during the First World War.

The Belgians are now loaning out the piece — gifted to the City of Mons after the war — to the Ottawa museum as part of the celebrations marking the 100th anniversary of the Armistice.

When the guns fell silent

The gun is thought to have been in action right up until 11 o'clock on Nov. 11, 1918, making it one the last Canadian guns to fall silent in a war that claimed the lives of 59,544 Canadian soldiers.

A number of field artillery pieces were given to the Belgians, who had suffered through four years of German occupation and would do so again during the Second World War.

Each of the gifts was "cherished," said Raoul Delcorde, Belgium's ambassador to Canada in a recent interview.

"We wanted to return at least one of them."

It is a gracious gesture that may puzzle some Canadians unfamiliar with the city's painful legacy, and what it meant to the Europeans and Canadians who lived through those terrible days.

"I think that most Canadians wouldn't know the name Mons, or what it represents," said Tim Cook, the war museum's First World War historian. "It meant something at the time."

Mons was the place where the Canadian Army ended the war.

And for most of the British Commonwealth — perhaps even for its larger community of allies — the city was steeped in significance because it was along the nearby Mons Canal that the British Army fought its first major battle against the advancing Germans in 1914.

It took four more years of misery and millions of lives lost — on all sides — to get Britain and its allies back to that starting line in Mons.

The tragedy of Mons

After Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele, Canadian soldiers had established themselves as the shock troops of the Commonwealth armies.

They were in the vanguard of the advancing allies in the fall of 1918. Mons was in their path when, as the German army crumbled, the commander of the Canadian Corps, Gen. Sir Arthur Currie, was ordered to take the city. The battle unfolded late on Nov. 10, 1918.

The decision to engage the Germans at Mons was a controversial one, and it would turn out to have bloody and painful repercussions that have been all but forgotten today.

"I think the legacy of the battle of Mons is a conflicted one," said Cook, author of several acclaimed books, including The Madman and the Butcher: the Sensational Wars of Sam Hughes and General Arthur Currie.

"The soldiers at the sharp end, they didn't want to go there ... They didn't want to risk their lives as the war is winding down."

Historian Tim Cook. " I think Canadians could rightly be understood ... for wondering what had the war been fought for." (CBC)

But the Canadians did go. They liberated Mons — and the initial reaction of the people back home was ecstatic.

The tide of public opinion began to shift following the Armistice, when Sam Hughes, the former minister of militia, rose in the House of Commons and accused Currie of butchering his men for the glory of liberating the symbolic city.

'He had to defend the war'

In the decade that followed, the battle came to symbolize the futility of the war.

A Port Hope, Ont. newspaper repeated Hughes' claim and was sued by Currie in 1928. The ensuing libel case made front page news across the country and effectively put the conduct of the war on trial before a still-traumatized nation.

"He had to defend the war," said Cook. "He had to defend the 60,000 dead, and I think Canadians could rightly be understood — at the time in 1918 and perhaps 10 years later — for wondering what had the war been fought for."

The national soul-searching grappled with large, painful questions. Had the war been fought properly? Was the final casualty count higher than it had to be?

"And those are questions that, in fact, haunt us still 100 years later," said Cook.

It is unlikely that the gun going on display at the museum ever fired on the city itself.

Canadian troops were under strict orders not to shell Mons and had to instead eliminate German machine gun posts. Most of the action took place in Bois la Haut, a wooded hamlet southeast of Mons.

Was it the last gun to fire?

Flown over in a wooden crate, the field gun was unpacked last week by volunteers at the museum, some of them retired Canadian army gunners.

Once out the crate, Brian Earl, a former Canadian artillery officer, ran his hands across the seat where the gunner would have stationed himself and tugged on the bracket where the telescopic sight would have been.

Brian Earl, a retired major in the artillery and a volunteer at the Canadian War Museum, unpacks a field gun donated for display by the City of Mons. (CBC News)

"I'm curious to know what battery it was in," said Earl, a retired major. "Do we know any of the names of the people who were with it? And exactly when did it fire its last round on the 11th of November?"

Asked about the history of the gun, a spokeswoman for National Defence was unable to offer much in the way of detail, but research done independently by a retired gunner and provided through The Royal Regiment of Canadian Artillery shows the 18-pounder was one of two guns gifted to Mons on Aug. 15, 1919.

The piece now on display at the war museum fought with the 39th Battery, which belonged to the 3rd Canadian Division.

"It's part of the history of the corps I was in," said Earl. "Once a gunner, always a gunner."

A copy of the certificate of transfer for two Canadian Army artillery pieces gifted to the City of Mons in 1919, following the First World War. (Contributed/Glen Miller)


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.

With files from Kristen Everson