On August 24, 1918, the valiant Canadian soldiers of the 38th Battalion of Ottawa marched into the French town of Vis-en-Artois and liberated it from its German invaders.
More than one hundred years later, the town is now recognizing this heroic act by honouring the Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa, the regiment that perpetuates the history of the 38th Battalion, by granting them the Freedom of the City.
Receiving the Freedom of the City is a significant honour as it has only been granted to fewer than five Canadian regiments by French communities.
“It’s a great honour. It’s the highest honour any city can bestow on a military unit.
“It’s a symbol of the trust between the regiment and the city,” said Maj. Jim MacInnis, DCO of the Cameron Highlanders.
This trust was garnered at the end of the First World War when the 38th Battalion, part of the Canadian Expeditionary Force of the 4th Division, made a significant contribution during the Hundred Days Offensive. The town of Vis-en-Artois was liberated when the 38th Battalion was making its way towards German fortified trenches that made the Drocourt Queant Line.
It was said to be a gruesome battle and not a single building was left standing in the town, says MacInnis, much of it caused by the Allies who were pushing through.
“Despite all of that, the villagers have since seen us as their liberators. For them to see us as their liberators despite the damage that was done to their town, goes to show what they thought of us in particular, and the Canadian Army in general,” added MacInnis.
Not only was liberating this town, and playing a vital role in weakening the German forces, an achievement for the battalion but because of his heroic efforts, one of the battalion’s own was recognized with three distinct medals. Private Claude Nunney not only inspired soldiers around him but fought fearlessly throughout the war and during the last 100 days. Private Nunney was awarded the Victoria Cross, the Distinguished Conduct Medal and the Military Medal. He is said to be the most highly decorated other rank in the Canadian Army in the Great War.
The regiment and the town have kept their relationship alive over the years. Just last year, the town celebrated the 100th anniversary of their liberation and erected a monument to Pte Claude Nunney. They also renamed a major highway Canada’s Highway of Heroes. Three soldiers from the Cameron Highlanders attended the ceremonies.
Not long after the ceremony, the town council voted on bestowing the Freedom of the City to the Highlanders.
“Freedom of the City traditionally means we are allowed to march through their city at will, under arms, with bayonets fixed and our colours flying,” explained MacInnis.
A parade will be held Thursday, May 9 at Cartier Square Drill Hall in Ottawa and Mr. Phillippe DeGroote, a municipal councillor from the city of Vis-en-Artois, will be in attendance to formally deliver the proclamation of the mayor of Vis-en-Artois.
The day will also include the regiment’s traditional end of the training year BBQ. A number of awards and promotions will be announced that day as well.
For a regiment that is extremely proud of its heritage and history, this achievement is a great moment of honour.
“It’s a big deal to be recognized this way. We’re immensely proud,” said MacInnis.