The Military Museums

Battle of Cambrai

The Second Battle of Cambrai was a battle between troops of British and Canadian forces against German Empire forces during the Hundred Days Offensive of the First World War.

Battle of Cambrai

The Second Battle of Cambrai was a battle between troops of British and Canadian forces against German Empire forces during the Hundred Days Offensive of the First World War.

Battle of Cambrai

The 2nd Battle of Cambrai took place on 8-10 Oct 1918 in an effort to take advantage of the audacious and daring breakthrough of the Canal du Nord by the Canadian Corps on 27 Sept 1918, a significant obstacle along the heavily fortified German Hindenburg Line. Canadian and British forces had breached this barrier supported by over 300 tanks, and in a matter of days, the road to Cambrai was open.

In the early hours of Oct 8th under cover of darkness, the 2nd Canadian Division encircled the northeast outskirts of Cambrai while detachments of the 3rd Canadian Division entered Cambrai and completely cleared it. Many Germans had evacuated the city the night before, but had destroyed much of the town as they retreated in disarray and panic. In the following weeks the Germans were pursued by the relentless pressure of Canadian and British Divisions towards Mons, where the war would finally end, just a month later.

The Canadian Railway Troops

One of the most remarkable features of this war is the record of the Canadian Railway Troops. You can imagine the military structure of an well-organized Army not unlike a monstrous human being.

The brain is General Head Quarters, the heart is G.H.Q. Railway Troops; the arteries and veins are the endless lines of track supplemented by the roads department and the mechanical transport which take the place of capillaries, or smaller veins on the surface of the war god; the stomach, liver and kidneys are the Army Service Corps producing and distributing nourishment.

The battles are the blood corpuscles fighting along the veins and arteries; the lungs are the Red Cross, the Army Medical Corps, the hospitals, convalescent homes and rest camps, cleansing and renewing the blood; the nerves are the engineers with the wires, telephones and wireless overhead, along the tracks and underground.

The morale of the army is its soul or spirit, dependent upon its general condition of health. Keep that in mind and you will see the importance of the work of the Railway Troops. When the body is attacking or being attacked the outcome hangs in no small degree upon the unbroken transportation of nourishment to every part and more particularly to the part in danger. From Rail Canadian, 1993

Who was "Israel Joseph Friedman"?

On October 28, 1918, Israel Joseph Friedman of Medicine Hat, Alberta was killed in action in France, a Canadian casualty of the First World War. He was buried near where he fell, his name fading from memory, not recited at the slow cadence of Names, not listed as a Jewish War Veteran of Southern Alberta nor remembered by the few who remain from the once vibrant Jewish Community of Medicine Hat.

Friedman may have remained forgotten except for the intersection of a photograph and an inquisitive mind. A few years ago, Terence Etherton of London, England, while taking photographs in a military cemetery in the French Village of Romeries, snapped two pictures of a headstone chiseled with both the Maple Leaf and a Magen David and inscribed "Sapper, Israel Joseph Friedman, Canadian Rly. Troops, 28th October 1918 age 29". Within the Magen David was carved, in Hebrew, the abbreviation for "May his soul be bound in the bonds of life".

Etherton thinking that the photographs might have some value for the Jewish community of Canada sent copies to Montrealor, Ralph Charad of the Jewish War Veterans of Canada. Charad, in turn, published a letter in The Canadian Jewish News, inquiring if any of Friedman's relatives might be interested in having the photographs.

Charad had checked with Veteran's Affairs Canada who listed Friedman's place of residence on enlistment as being Medicine Hat, Alberta and Charad included that information in his letter. No relatives responded to the letter. However, the letter was read by Joe Spier of Calgary who became intrigued with its contents. Upon checking with some Medicine Hat old timers, none had any recollection of Friedman nor did the Calgary Post of the Jewish War Veterans of Canada have any record of his service.

Who was Israel Joseph Friedman? A mystery, which prompted an odyssey of inquiry. Joe Spier took the search to the National Archives of Canada, Department of Veterans Affairs, Canadian Jewish Congress, Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Museum of the Regiments, Medicine Hat Museum, Medicine Hat News, the "War Diaries of the Canadian Railway Troops" and the manuscript "Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1918", the official history of the Canadian Army in the First World War.

That question can now be answered, at least in part, although much remains unknown, perhaps yet to be discovered by other enterprising inquirers.

Early Life

Israel Joseph Friedman was born on October 11th, 1888 in Disna (Dzisna), Russia, the son of Joseph and Sarah Friedman. Disna, located in the Pale of Settlement, the area in which the permanent residence of Jews was allowed. It had at that time, a strong Jewish presence. In 1897, of the almost 6800 inhabitants, over 4600 were Jewish. Jews dominated trade in the town, especially handicrafts, tailoring and shoemaking.

Jewish life in Disna, which traced its roots back to the 17th Century, ended on June 15, 1942 when German troops, who had previously occupied the town and herded the Jewish population into a Ghetto, encircled and destroyed the Ghetto. The Jewish inhabitants were forced to dig two large ditches into which they were led in groups, having first been stripped down to their underwear to be sure that they were not concealing any gold or jewels, stretched out into rows and murdered.

The first record of Friedman being in Medicine Hat was 1914. At that time his parents lived in Brooklyn but how long they lived there is unknown. When Friedman left Russia and how he got to Medicine Hat, perhaps from Brooklyn, remains a mystery. Friedman's occupation in Medicine Hat was a school teacher.

In 1914 Friedman enrolled in a Military Officers training course in Calgary but for whatever reason, perhaps physical limitations (he was short, slight of build and required glasses) did not pass and was deemed unfit for army duty.

By 1917, the Canadian Government unable to maintain, through voluntary service, their manpower commitment to the war effort, passed the Military Service Act introducing mandatory conscription and the draft. At that time Friedman, a school teacher was probably in an exempt class. Later, as the Government's need for reinforcements increased, their standards dropped and they eliminated exempt classes.

In April 1918 Friedman was drafted and ordered to report for military service in Calgary. He took his physical on April 13th, 1918. His Medical History Sheet reports that he was 29 years of age, 5 feet 4 inches tall, weighed 135 pounds and had low vision requiring glasses. Not exactly one's image of a soldier but nevertheless deemed fit for duty. Incidentally, Friedman's eyes were blue, his complexion and hair were fair and his two lower wisdom teeth had been previously extracted.

He was enrolled in the army on April 29th, 1918 and placed in the Canadian Railway Troops, as a Sapper, the lowest rank, equivalent to that of a private. His enrollment papers list him as being single and residing at 233, 5th Street B, Medicine Hat. Friedman listed his religion as "Hebrew". On the day of his enrollment Friedman executed a Will, a requirement of military service, naming his father as sole beneficiary.

Canadian Railway Troops

Canadian Railway Troops were responsible for the work of construction, repair, maintenance and protection of the railway service behind allied front lines, a dangerous line of work since the troops were subject to intermittent heavy shelling and rail lines were often mined by retreating German troops. Canadian Railway Troops were composed for the most part of men beyond normal military age, which would explain why Friedman was assigned to that unit.

While training in Calgary, Friedman resided in the Victoria Barracks. Although he was to be engaged at the front in work of a mechanical nature he, like all others, would have been trained as a fighting soldier.

By June 1918 Friedman's unit was ready for overseas service. On June 20th he, together with 4 officers and 444 enlisted men of the Canadian Railway Troop, boarded the troop ship, SS Waimana and set sail for England. The Waimana, a 10,400 ton steamship was built in 1911 and plied United Kingdom to New Zealand shipping lanes until pressed into service as a First World War armed troop transport. She also served during the Second World War. After coming through both wars unscathed, the Waimana was unceremoniously scrapped in 1952.

Friedman's troop arrived in Purfleet, Essex, the English headquarters of the Canadian Railway Troops, on July 7th 1918 where they continued to be drilled and trained in anti-gas measures and musketry. On September 5th Friedman, was sent to France and on September 9th was "taken on strength" by the 1st Battalion, Canadian Railway Troops who at that time were working directly behind Canadian and other Commonwealth front line troops preparing to attack Cambrai in northern France near her border with Belgium.

By the time Friedman arrived at the front the Allied victory was pretty well assured provided they could breach the formidable Hindenburg Line, a vast system of deep and wide trenches, thick belts of barbed wire, machine-gun positions, concrete bunkers and tunnels constructed by the Germans who considered the line impregnable. The Germans were wrong. The Allied strategy was to attack the Line at different points, one being at Cambrai.

The task of Friedman's Battalion was to push railway track forward to the advancing front troops as well as maintain and repair existing lines. The work was critical as success depended on keeping up supplies of food and ammunition for the troops lining the front. The work was hard and arduous, the men putting in 10 to 12 hour days without rest and also dangerous as the troops were subject to aerial bombardment, artillery shelling and hidden mines.

On the day Friedman arrived at the front, German aircraft bombed his Battalion. All indications are that the Battalion performed admirably, the Commanding Officer noting at the end of September 1918 that theirs was the "finest performance of any railway construction in France". Canadian Railway Troops were building rail at a rate that made European engineers gasp with astonishment.

Battle of Cambrai

Friedman, from the beginning, was thrown into the battle for Cambrai. For 47 days Canadian forces were engaged in that battle, fighting forward some 23 miles against very strong resistance, liberating 54 French towns and villages and finally smashing through the Hindenburg Line and liberating Cambrai.

The ferocity of the battles is evidenced by the fact that Canadians suffered over 30,000 casualties, wounded, killed or captured. Canadian troops then continued to push on for a further 35 miles and were engaged in the battle for the town of Valenciennes, at France's border with Belgium, where the war ended for Friedman.

October 28, 1918 was a fine day greatly appreciated by Friedman's battalion who had earlier been struggling in the rain and mud. It was also a day in which little action was reported. The Battalion spent the day repairing and cleaning track and bridges. Both contact and delayed action mines plagued them during this work.

By the end of the day Friedman had been killed in action. The precise manner of his death may never be known but it is likely that he was involved in the dangerous work of de-mining and was killed during that process. This would account for the fact that Friedman was an isolated Canadian casualty.

Fourteen days following Friedman's death, Germany surrendered and the First World War, the war to end all wars, was over.


Friedman was likely buried near where he fell and his remains moved shortly following the end of the war to his final resting place in the nearest Commonwealth war cemetery, the Romeries Communal Cemetery Extension, located in northeast France near her border with Belgium, one of 2,931 Commonwealth war cemeteries in France.

Friedman lies in Grave IV.B.II, beside 719 soldiers of the United Kingdom and 112 from New Zealand, he being the sole Canadian. Of these, 129 were never identified, resting in honoured glory known but to God. Each headstone is uniform. In death all are equal with no distinction made on account of military rank or civilian status.

Interestingly, Friedman's headstone lists his age on the date of his death as being 29. This was an error as he turned 30, 17 days before he was killed in action.

To tidy matters up, the Canadian Military, as a final act, in 1921, mailed Friedman's service decorations, a memorial plaque and scroll and his unspent pay of $42.44 to his parents in Brooklyn. Incidentally, Friedman's pay as a soldier was $15.00 a month.

Friedman's personnel record was then archived, where it remained undisturbed for over 80 years.

Each Remembrance Day features the recitation of the Ode from Laurence Binyon's poem, For the Fallen, in remembrance of the war dead who gave up their today for our tomorrow.

They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

Israel Joseph Friedman "alav hasholem" is remembered.
Story contributed by Joe Spier.

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