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Breaking the Hindenburg Line: The capture of St Quentin Canal


The St Quentin Canal had been incorporated within the defences of the German held Hindenburg Line. Known as the ‘Siegfried Stellung’ to its German defenders it was considered an impregnable series of fortified redoubts, machine gun positions and fields of thick wire entanglements, ten miles deep and measuring a distance of forty miles from Cambrai to Le Fère.  The St. Quentin Canal sector of the Hindenburg Line was regarded to be the most strongly defended section and the audacious operation launched by the 137th Brigade, 46th Division to assault and capture it on 29 September 1918 was considered to be a suicide mission.

The British Cabinet were not confident that the operation would succeed and fearful of heavy losses they were reluctant to support Haig in this attack. Haig had no choice but to push forward. The operation’s success in breaking the Hindenburg Line resulted in German capitulation and the signing of the armistice five weeks later.

By the summer of 1918 the German Army had become exhausted by their failed attempts to destroy the Allied armies during the Michael, Lys and Chemin des Dames offensives launched during the spring and there was a strong pessimistic feeling being felt throughout the German Army that they would not win the war. The Allies too were worn out through four years of relentless fighting and they were on the verge of being completely broken in 1918. Both sides had lost heavy casualties during this atrocious war of attrition. By early June 1918 troops from the American Expeditionary Force were deemed ready by General Pershing to be deployed and  had engaged with German forces at Cantigny and Belleau Wood.  The injection of new troops from the USA would provide the Allies with a new impetus that they could go on the offensive and deliver a decisive victory over Germany later that year.

The tide began to turn in favour of the Allies on 4th July 1918 when the Australian Corps commanded by General John Monash, supported by four companies from the 33rd US Division, in a well-coordinated use of infantry, artillery, tank and aerial support secured the village of Le Hamel and surrounding German trenches and defences within 93 minutes. The strategy implemented by Monash showed British and French commanders how to break though German trenches and defences using modern technology while sustaining low casualties. He had presented them with a template for victory, for which General Sir Henry Rawlinson, commanding the British Fourth Army applied on 8 August 1918 during the offensive launched at Amiens. German forces lost heavy casualties that day and General Eric von Ludendorff would regard the defeat at Amiens as his ‘blackest day’.

Subsequent allied offensives with small objectives continued to be launched throughout August towards the end of September, sweeping across the Somme, pressing German forces to withdraw eastwards towards the Hindenburg Line. This German occupied defensive position was of great importance to the German Army both for military and political reasons; for they regarded it as impregnable and it was hoped that the advancing Allies would become exhausted and loose the will to fight, in trying to penetrate its defences.  Here they intended to hold the line here until the spring of 1919 then work towards a peaceful solution to ending the war. With the German forces still occupying French territory they would be in a position to negotiate favourably acceptable peace terms. The Germans anxiously anticipated an Allied attempt to break through the Hindenburg Line. They were fearful that if the Allies succeeded in crossing the Hindenburg Line, then Germany would be defeated and confronted with humiliating and unacceptable peace terms, which would affect the German nation economically. The Hindenburg Line was the last line of defence and was expected to force the Allies into talking peace. It was therefore imperative that the soldiers of Germany hold this ground.

As Haig’s British Army was advancing closer to the formidable defences of the Hindenburg Line, the British Government became increasingly worried that an assault upon this position could potentially fail with the loss of heavy British casualties. General Sir Henry Wilson, Chief of the Imperial General Staff expressed the concerns of the War Cabinet in the following telegram received by Haig on 1 September 1918:

Just a word of caution in regard to incurring heavy losses in attack on the Hindenburg Line, as opposed to losses when driving the enemy back to that line. I do not mean that you have incurred such losses, but I know that the war cabinet would become anxious if we received heavy punishment in attacking the Hindenburg Line without success. (Field Marshal Earl Haig by Brigadier General John Charteris, Cassell & Company, 1919)

The British attack upon the Hindenburg Line was inevitable, but the Government did not have any confidence in Haig breaking through that German defensive system. They were unwilling to accept responsibility if the assault failed, but Haig was left in a position where he had no choice but to push the advance forward. If the operation succeeded he would retain his position as Commander-in-Chief, if he failed he would surely be dismissed. Brigadier General Charteris commented, ‘the Cabinet were ready to meddle and interfere in his plans, but would not accept the responsibility for their own views. The implication was clear. If the attack succeeded, Haig would continue in his command; if it failed, he would be forthwith replaced’ (Field Marshal Earl Haig).

The Cabinet further intimated through General Sir Henry Wilson that they did not wish Haig to attack the Hindenburg Line as they tried to absolve responsibility for heavy casualties. Despite not having the confidence of the Cabinet, Haig felt total confidence in the abilities of his soldiers who had advanced across the Somme during the past two months.  Brigadier General Charteris observed:

The whole responsibility thus rested on Haig, and to him alone must be ascribed the whole credit. With absolute confidence in his own judgment, with unflinching determination and that steadfast faith in God that was his mainstay, Haig resolved to commit his armies to the attack. No weightier decision has ever fallen to the lot of any British soldier, none had greater results. (Field Marshal Earl Haig)

The objective of capturing the St. Quentin Canal and breaking through the Hindenburg Line north of St. Quentin was part of a large offensive on four sections of the Western Front co-ordinated by the Supreme Allied Commander, Marshal Ferdinand Foch. Rawlinson’s Fourth Army was ordered to assault the Hindenburg Line between Cambrai and St Quentin, including the St Quentin Canal on 29 September 1918. The British looked upon this stretch of the Hindenburg Line with great reverence.

Major R.E. Priestley wrote that the defences of the St Quentin Canal ‘might easily have proved insuperable in the face of a determined enemy. The mere sight of it from our front line trenches inspired respect, and might well have caused fear in the hearts of any but the stoutest soldiers’ (Breaking the Hindenburg Line: The Story of the 46th (North Midland) Division by Major R.E. Priestley, 1919). After all, the St. Quentin Canal was an effective physical obstruction, which prevented the use of tanks, which were strongly relied upon by the British during their 1918 offensives.

The British 46th Division (1st North Midland) Division, a Territorial unit raised from industrial towns, had suffered heavily during the 1st July 1916 at Gommecourt, during the first day of the Somme campaign. Two years later during the autumn 1918 they were allocated the difficult objective of securing the St Quentin Canal and its bridges. The 137th Infantry Brigade commanded by Brigadier-General J. Campbell VC was selected to lead the onslaught upon the St. Quentin Canal on 29 September 1918. Their objective was to capture and secure the canal and then assault the Hindenburg Line Trench further east. Once they had succeeded in their objective the advance would hold for three hours while units thoroughly mopped up and consolidated the area. The 137th Infantry Brigade comprised of the 1/5th and 1/6th South Staffordshire and the 1/6th North Staffordshire Battalions. Each man would wear a life belt.  The first wave would carry ropes and ladders, with following waves carrying collapsible boats.  The Royal Engineers and the Monmouthshire Battalion with additional rafts and bridging material would closely support the Staffordshire Battalions. The 138th and 139th Infantry Brigades were held back in support of the 137th Infantry Brigade. The St Quentin Canal ran through a tunnel at Bellicourt and the American 27th and 30th Divisions supported by the 3rd and 5th Australian Divisions would advance on the 46th Division’s left flank across open ground above the Bellicourt Tunnel. If the 137th Infantry Brigade were unsuccessful in capturing their objectives in the south, then the 138th and 139th Infantry Brigades would cross the canal further northwards on the American - Australian sector and attack the canal positions from the east. If the 137th Infantry Brigade captured the canal defences, but could not secure their gains then these two Brigades could provide support in consolidating the captured ground.

The 137th Infantry Brigade had to advance from their front-line positions down an incline towards the St. Quentin Canal. This incline shielded them from view from German lines defending the Hindenburg Line and together with the misty conditions they could advance without being seen. Before reaching the canal, the 46th Division would have to capture three strongly defended lines of trenches west of the canal. After overwhelming these trenches, they would be met by the 79th Reserve and 2nd German Divisions and a detachment of the 75th Reserve and 11th Divisions defending the canal waiting to confront them.

The northern sector of the St Quentin Canal was deemed an impenetrable obstacle, measuring 35 feet wide and depth of the canal ranging between 7 to 10 feet. It was a daunting, almost impossible task for troops heavily laden with arms and equipment to consider attacking such a position directly and succeed. With the bricked canal walls which enclosed the canal being 10 foot high the St Quentin Canal was similar to a medieval fortress protected by a moat. Above these walls, each bank contained a steep incline of 50 degrees, of height ranging from thirty to fifty feet, which contained hidden hazards such as concealed machine gun posts in strategically placed positions which would cause maximum devastation to an attacking force. The crossings across the St Quentin Canal at Bellenglise and Riqueval were strongly defended.

The southern sector of the canal near Bellenglise was more heavily fortified than the northern sector, because the canal, which contained little water in this sector, was the same level as the surface. Here the canal contained 8 foot of mud. Barbed wire was also positioned on the bottom of the canal in the stagnant water. The canal also ran through the Bellenglise Tunnel.

In order to get across the canal three thousand life belts were obtained from cross channel leave boats that sailed between Folkestone and Boulogne to provide the attackers with buoyancy as they swam across the canal. Floating piers and rafts were constructed using petrol tins or corkslabs within wooden frames, collapsible boats, mud mats (rolls of canvas), ropes and scaling ladders measuring 9 foot were given to enable men, ammunition and supplies to get across to the eastern bank of the canal. This equipment was tested in a rehearsal on the Somme during 28 September, the day preceding the attack. It was proved that a life belt could support a soldier laden with equipment, provided that the weight carried was carried low on his body.  This gave the soldiers and especially non-swimmers confidence in crossing the canal. They would also be supported by twelve engineer companies who would repair the damaged bridges and the construct new bridges across the canal once the canal had been captured.

Once the canal had been crossed the 46th Division would have to capture four strongly defended villages and the main Hindenburg Line Trench which was positioned 400 yards east of the canal. Here the 137th Infantry Brigade would be faced with another line of formidable defences consisting of concrete machine gun installations, deep dugouts, and thick barbed wire, which were supported by three strong trench support lines.

The assault upon the Hindenburg Line along the St Quentin Canal was preceded by a bombardment fired by Allied artillery consisting of 1,044 field guns and howitzers and 593 medium and heavy guns and howitzers. This barrage was originally scheduled to begin at 06:00 on 27 September, however once it was realised that 30,000 gas shells had arrived earlier than expected, General Rawlinson had decided to use this ammunition immediately and so the allied bombardment commenced at 22:30 on 26 September. For several hours British artillery fired BB Gas against German strongpoints. BB Gas was similar to German Mustard Gas and this was the first time that the British Army had used this type of terrible gas as a weapon of war. From 06:00 on 27 September, gas shells were followed by high explosives and shrapnel, which were aimed at entrances to the tunnels close to the canal at Bellicourt and Bellenglise, destroying lines of communication and barbed wire defences. It was hoped that this bombardment would cause the earth from the steep canal embankment to break and fall into the canal, which would lower the water level assisting an infantry crossing along the deeper stretches of the canal, but this failed. The intention to demoralize and force the enemy to keep cover was equally important. Roads leading to the German front line were also targeted by allied guns making them unusable, with the intention of preventing supplies supplied to front-line garrisons. With no ammunition for their guns or hot food reaching men defending the Hindenburg Line morale would be further reduced.

The soldiers of the 46th Division felt anxious about the impending operation because they had been given a difficult and unobtainable objective, with little chance of success. In effect they were being sent on a suicide mission.  Major H.J.C. Marshall (468th Field Company Royal Engineers, 46th Division) had little confidence in penetrating the Hindenburg defences and later wrote:

There was no doubt in the minds of our Divisional Staff that the main attack, from which everything was expected, was that to be delivered across the open ground by the American Corps on our left. The task given to the 46th Division being held to be a ‘sacrificial stunt’ At the best we might get a foothold on the further bank of the Canal, but at a cost which would leave us no longer a fighting force. (Imperial War Museum Department of Documents: IWM Ref: 84/11/2: Major H.J.C. Marshall, 468th Field Company RE, 46th Division)

The bombardment of enemy positions, including the canal banks was maintained right up to Zero hour on 29 September 1918. Soldiers from the 137th Infantry Brigade left their starting line located 3,000 yards west of the canal at 05:50 Brigadier-General John Campbell V.C. led his brigade blowing his hunting horn, as he usually did in any attack. The dispositions of the 137th Infantry Brigade were as follows, the 1/6th North Stafford’s attack on the left flank advancing towards the northern sector of the canal towards Riqueval. The 1/5th South Stafford’s was the centre battalion, and the 1/6th South Stafford’s assaulted the southern sector of the canal advancing in the direction of Bellenglise. The artillery bombardment proved effective, because there was little difficulty in crossing the enemy wire as they advanced, because the artillery had successfully cut it during the bombardment. A barrage with a pace of hundred yards in two minutes supported them. The rate of this barrage was twice as fast as the standard barrage. A combination of fog and smoke from the bombardment concealed the advance of the allied attackers. The 1/6th South Stafford’s found the German outpost line to be well defended. With heavy and light machine guns, but these were soon overwhelmed with small casualties sustained. The poor visibility meant that the attacking Staffordshire Brigade had to employ the use of compasses in order to advance in the correct direction. The 1/6th South Stafford’s lost direction and deviated off course to the right.  The restricted visibility also meant that they could not see the positions of German Machine Gunners until they were actually on top of them. The 137th Infantry Brigade overwhelmed the first line of German trenches west of the canal with few casualties, capturing 150 prisoners. Here they discovered 1,000 Germans killed by the allied bombardment.

Five minutes after zero hour, German artillery fired a counter barrage that fell upon British and German troops. As they advanced towards the canal bank, trench mortars continued to fire upon the canal defences. They soon reached the west bank of the St. Quentin Canal and with little casualties. Here they found many machine gun posts. German soldiers who were sheltering in the dug outs within the tunnels and underground bunkers rushed to the surface and utilized the many shell craters that pockmarked the western bank of the canal as machine gun positions, but these were soon put out action. The German defenders could not see the rapidly advancing Stafford’s because of the dense fog and were so demoralised and shaken as a result of the bombardment, that they offered little resistance.

On reaching the canal bank, the brigade had to cross the canal. This was achieved in the southern sector by means of rafts, life –lines and by a wooden bridge, which was undamaged during the bombardment and left intact, by the Germans who retreated. The water level in this section of the canal was shallow and few soldiers were forced to swim across. As a result of the fog, some British soldiers plunged into the cold, stagnant canal unnecessarily, because they could not see nearby footbridges. Major H.J.C. Marshall observed Captain Teeton make this unnecessary effort. 

Our men, by hook or crook, got across the Canal. My friend Capt. Teeton, (killed four days later) was much disgusted to find that he had swum across the canal, in ice-cold water while a tiny footbridge existed within ten yards of him which had been invisible, owing to the mist. From every gun position sprang continuous streams of fire, while a perfect tornado of sound rent the air. (Imperial War Museum Department of Documents: IWM Ref: 84/11/2: Major H.J.C. Marshall, 468th Field Company RE, 46th Division)

The 1/5th South Stafford’s and 1/6th North Stafford’s found the water level in the northern sector of the canal to be deeper. The officers swam across the canal first with ropes then they would pull men on planks and rafts. As soon as they had crossed they climbed the bricked walled east bank with scaling ladders. As they tried to ascend the East bank of the canal they were harassed by light machine guns fired by machine gun nests and emplacements concealed in the banks of the canal. The men who participated in this attack were carrying heavy equipment and were wet as they endeavoured to break the Hindenburg Line, but despite their discomfort and enemy resistance, their expedience in climbing the eastern bank and silencing the enemy, prevented severe casualties and ensured that they captured this section of the St Quentin’s Canal.

Some parties from the 1/6th North Stafford’s were fortunate to discover footbridges across the canal. The Germans did not destroy these because they wanted to resupply and reinforce their troops holding positions west of the canal or in case of retreat, leave an escape route for comrades defending the west bank.

B Company of the 1/6th North Staffordshire’s including nine men led by Captain A.H. Charlton, most likely used a path that runs from where the 4 Australian Division Memorial now stands westwards down along wooded depression which concealed their movement westwards towards the Riqueval Bridge.  They overwhelmed a machine gun post and seized the bridge just before a desperate German demolition team was about to destroy it. The Germans were taken completely by surprise as Charlton and his party appeared from out of the fog, but it was too late for them to react. As the two opposing parties converged upon the bridge the British contingent killed all the German demolition team before they could detonate the charge, using rifles and bayonets. Once the bridge was seized, Captain Charlton cut the leads to the explosives and threw the charge into the canal.

It was an anxious time for Captain Charlton’s party for they feared that the enemy would blow the bridge while they were on it. Private A.G. Shennan belonged to B Company, recalled the discovery of the Riqueval Bridge by chance in the fog and feelings of apprehension and concern as they crossed it.

I eventually found myself on the bridge and was scared stiff that it would blow up at any minute so I returned to our side of the Canal and after walking South about twenty yards bumped into my Company Commander, Capt. Humphrey Charlton D.S.O. and about ten men from my Company. They were just lining up to go down the canal bank and Captain Charlton was amazed to hear that the bridge was intact – the visibility was still almost zero. I led the party back to the bridge and we moved slowly over to the German side meeting only slight opposition as they were taken by surprise and on account of the visibility had no idea our penetration was so deep. Captain Charlton then went down to the bank and cut the wires thus saving the bridge from demolition, which went without doubt saved countless lives and helped considerably in our attack and the following operations, allowing immediate support considerably in our attack and the following operations, allowing immediate support in capturing and holding a portion of the Hindenburg Line, including the tunnels at Bellenglise and Bellicourt where our trench mortars killed many Germans by concussion alone. (Imperial War Museum: IWM Ref: Miscellaneous 442: Pte. A. G. Shennan B Company, 1/6th North Staffordshire Regiment)

They crossed to the eastern bank at Riqueval where they secured a bridgehead and captured 130 prisoners including a battalion commander and his staff. For this action Captain Charlton received the D.S.O and the bridge at Riqueval renamed ‘Charlton Bridge’. The capture of the Riqueval Bridge was advantageous for the Allies, because it proved very useful in transporting artillery across the canal.

Once the bridge was captured and surrounding area consolidated the 137th Infantry Brigade was reorganised while protected by the cover of a standing barrage, at 07:30 they proceeded to advance with bayonets fixed to the intermediate line or the main Hindenburg Trench positioned 400 yards east of the canal. German forces dispersed and scattered from this trench line. They stopped for half an hour while they regrouped before they advanced towards the next German line eastwards. Some units headed south towards the Bellenglise Tunnel to capture this position which consisted of supply dumps and an underground field hospital. British artillery had blocked the western entrance with 12-inch shell fire.

Captain Teeton and his company from the 1/6th South Staffords achieved the capture of the Bellenglise Tunnel. According to Major H.J.C. Marshall ‘they dragged a German howitzer to the Magny end of the tunnel, and were cheerfully firing it down the opening. The shell bursts in the narrow tunnel cannot have been very comforting to our Bosche friends’ (Major H.J.C. Marshall, 468th Field Company RE, 46th Division, IWM Ref: 84/11/2 P10).

Two companies assaulted this tunnel complex comprising of a labyrinth of dugouts and interconnecting cellars using bombs and quickly overwhelmed the occupants capturing 800 prisoners.

Soon after the capture of the Bellenglise Tunnel it was decided to utilize the field hospital inside, with its equipment and surgeons however the Royal Engineers had to confer with captured German engineers who were helpful and provided assistance to the Royal Engineers in re-establishing electrical power within this tunnel and revealed the location of charges which were intended to destroy this complex.

By 08.30 the 137th Infantry Brigade had captured the St Quentin Canal running from Bellicourt to Bellenglise, including the Riqueval Bridge intact; and had reached the second German trench defensive system of the Hindenburg Line.  The 1/6th North Stafford’s sustained 91 casualties including 3 wounded officers, 15 men killed, 3 missing and 70 wounded. It was an amazing achievement against insurmountable odds. The North Stafford’s demonstrated great courage and had achieved their objectives with low casualties in comparison to the enemy who suffered heavy losses.  Fog also played its part by providing cover for advancing troops so that once the Germans were aware of their presence; it would be too late to react.

During the Battle of the St. Quentin Canal the 46th Division alone captured 4,200 prisoners and 72 guns. This was a magnificent achievement for the 46th Division who sustained 800 casualties. Major H Marshall recalled:

Suddenly the mist rose, and the son of our “Austerlitz” appeared, strong and refulgent. Over the brow of the rise opposite to us came a great grey column. Never had we seen such a thing: we counted the files; there were nearly a thousand prisoners in the column. Half an hour later a similar column appeared, and then another and another, we had broken the Hindenburg Line (Imperial War Museum Department of Documents: IWM Ref: 84/11/2: Major H.J.C. Marshall, 468th Field Company RE, 46th Division).

The 46th Division’s capture of the Riqueval Bridge, the St Quentin Canal and successful assault upon the Hindenburg Line was an audacious and brave exploit. They were asked to break through what was considered at the time as an unassailable defence against all odds. The photo of the triumphant soldiers from the 137th Infantry Brigade adorned with life jackets standing along the western bank of the canal being addressed by Brigadier-General J. Campbell VC standing on the Riqueval Bridge is an iconic image from the First World War. This photograph was taken 100 years ago and the Riqueval Bridge still stands majestically over the St Quentin Canal today.

General Sir Henry Rawlinson wrote, ‘The forcing of the main Hindenburg Line on the Canal and the capture of Bellenglise ranks as one of the finest and most dashing exploits of the war.’ (1/6th Battalion North Staffordshire Regiment Special Order of the Day 29th November 1918, in which he relays this message from General Sir Henry Rawlinson, National Archives: WO 95/2685: 46th Division War Diary).

Immediate consequences of the successful breach of the Hindenburg Line on 29 September 1918 were significant. It resulted in the rapid evacuation by German forces from St. Quentin and its fall to the allies. Important north-south German railway line was vulnerable and threatened by Allied capture of this town. The loss of this railway line would deny the German’s the option of withdrawing its Army and equipment which it had accumulated during four years of war. The breaking of the Hindenburg Line had ensured that the war of movement would continue, that there would not be another stalemate of trench warfare and would lead to the eventual German defeat. The 137th Infantry Brigade’s role in capturing the St Quentin Canal played a significant role in the offensive carried out on this sector. The British, American and Australian forces had broken the St. Quentin – Cambrai sector of the Hindenburg Line on a front six miles wide. During the following three days 22,000 German prisoners and 300 guns would be captured (Wireless Press, 1 October 1918, WO95/2684: 137th Infantry Brigade War Diary). On that very day Ludendorff had made the decision that an Armistice must be offered and the war must be ended.

The Hindenburg Line had fallen, and the war would be over within six weeks.

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