Battle of the Canal du Nord
The Battle of Canal du Nord was part of a general Allied offensive against German positions on the Western Front during the Hundred Days Offensive of World War I. The battle took place in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region of France, along an incomplete portion of the Canal du Nord and on the outskirts of Cambrai between 27 September and 1 October 1918. To avoid the risk of having extensive German reserves massed against a single Allied attack, the assault along the Canal du Nord was undertaken as part of a number of closely sequenced Allied attacks at separate points along the Western Front. It began one day after the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, one day before an offensive in the Flanders region of Belgium and two days before the Battle of St. Quentin Canal.
The assault position was directly along the inter-army boundary between the British First Army and Third Army. Both armies were tasked with continuing the advance started with the Battle of the Drocourt-Quéant Line, Battle of Havrincourt and Battle of Epehy. The British First Army was operating in a framework whereby its main task was to lead the crossing of the Canal du Nord and secure the northern flank of the British Third Army as both advanced towards Cambrai. The British Third Army was additionally tasked with securing the Escaut (Scheldt) Canal so as to be in a position to support the British Fourth Army during the Battle of St. Quentin Canal.
The construction of the Canal du Nord began in 1913 and was intended link the Oise River to the Dunkirk-Scheldt Canal. However, with the outbreak of the First World War construction was halted and the work was left in varying stages of completion. During their retreat, the Germans made the area along the canal north of Sains-lès-Marquion virtually impassable by taking advantage of the naturally swampy ground and deliberately damming and flooding the entire area. The only passable ground was to the south where a small 4,000-yard (3,700 m) section of the canal between Sains-lès-Marquion and Mœuvres remained largely dry on account of its incomplete state. Even in a partially excavated state the dry section of the canal was still a major obstacle. The canal was approximately 40 yards (37 m) wide, with a western bank that was between 10 and 15 feet (3.0 and 4.6 m) high and an eastern bank that was approximately 5 feet (1.5 m) high. As a result, British First Army commander General Henry Horne was forced to cease major offensive operations until an operation could be executed to secure a route across the canal.
The British assault on the Drocourt-Quéant Line on 2 September 1918 resulted in the Germans being overrun along a 7,000-yard (6,400 m) front. A number of formations in the German forward line quickly yielded to the British advance, but as the British advanced they met more resolute opposition from regiments of the German 1st Guards Reserve Division, 2nd Guards Reserve Division and the 3rd Reserve Division. In an effort to gain direct observation of all bridges over the Sensée River and the Canal du Nord the British attack was supposed to continue the following day. However, the German preempted the British attack by withdrawing along a wide front.
The German High Command had ordered the German Seventeenth Army to retreat behind the Sensée River and the Canal du Nord on the night of 2 September and the German Second Army to withdraw to the Hindenburg Line the following night. Further to the south, the German Eighteenth and Ninth Armies were to follow in succession, resulting in the abandonment of the entire salient gained during the Spring Offensive by 9 September. In the north the German Fourth and Sixth Armies retreated between Lens and Ypres, abandoning without a fight the Lys salient and the gains made during the Battle of the Lys.
British air patrols on the morning of 3 September reported seeing no Germans between the Dury Ridge and the Canal du Nord. Likewise, the British Third Army was able to occupy the towns of Quéant and Pronville without any fighting and observed the Germans widely falling back. As the British troops advanced to meet the new German front line they reported the east bank of the Canal du Nord strongly held and all bridges crossing the canal destroyed. The only exception was at Palluel where the Germans maintained a bridgehead on the western side of the canal.
Tactical plan and preparations
On 3 September Supreme Commander of the Allied Armies Généralissime Ferdinand Foch outlined the future course of the Allied offensive campaign along the Western Front. To avoid the risk of having extensive German reserves massed against a single Allied attack, Foch devised a plan for a general offensive between Verdun and the Belgian coast. The plan called for Allied attacks at four separate points in the German line, to be launched on four successive days. Army Group Flanders under King Albert I of Belgium would conduct the most northern operation and attack German positions in Flanders and move towards Ghent and Bruges. The British First and Third Armies would attack and cross the Canal du Nord, move across the northern extension of the Hindenburg Line and capture the city of Cambrai, a crucial German communications and supply centre. The British Fourth Army and French First Army would attack the Germans along the Saint-Quentin Canal in an effort to breach the Hindenburg Line between Holnon and Vendhuile. To the south, the First United States Army and French Fourth Army would mount the Meuse-Argonne Offensive between Reims and Verdun, moving along the Meuse River and through the Argonne Forest.
The Canal du Nord defensive system was the German's last major prepared defensive position opposite the British First Army. It was nevertheless a significant obstacle as the Germans had taken measures to incorporate the unfinished canal into their defensive system. Beyond the damage done to make crossing the canal as difficult as possible, north of Mœuvres a lesser arm of the Hindenburg Support Line, the Canal du Nord Line, ran directly behind the east side of the canal. The greater arm of the Hindenburg Support Line crossed the canal at Mœuvres and thus remained well established on the eastern side of the canal south of Mœuvres. This was supplemented by the Marquion-Cantaing Line which ran along a north-south axis one mile east of the canal and the Marcoing Line located just west of Cambrai. The attack on the Canal du Nord was to begin on 27 September 1918, a day after the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, one day before the offensive in Flanders and two days before the Battle of St. Quentin Canal.
The British First Army was operating in a framework whereby its main task was to secure the northern flank of the British Third Army. The British Third Army was tasked with securing the Escaut (Scheldt) Canal so as to be in a position to support the British Fourth Army during the Battle of St. Quentin Canal. On the British First Army front, the Canadian Corps would lead the attack under the direction of Arthur Currie, crossing the largely dry canal on a front of only 2,700 yards (2,500 m) between Sains-lès-Marquion and Mœuvres. Once over the canal the corps was to capture the Marquoin Line, the villages of Marquion and Bourlon, Bourlon Woods lastly secure a general line running from Fontaine-Notre-Dame to Sauchy-Lestrée. Currie separated the Canadian Corps' objectives into two phases; the first to take Canal du Nord and Bourlon Wood, the second taking the bridges at Canal de l'Escaut and "high ground near Cambrai".
In an attempt to make the Germans second guess or question the location of the main assault, XXII Corps was instructed to engage German positions along the Canal du Nord between Sauchy-Lestrée and Palluel. Likewise, VII Corps and the remainder of XXII Corps were instructed to carry out minor attacks north of the Scarpe River to prevent the Germans from moving units from that area to the location of the main attack. If the Canadian Corps was successful in its advance the intention was to immediately and quickly exploit the territorial gain with the support of the British Third Army's XVII, VI and IV Corps.
Over the next week, Currie and Byng prepared for the engagement. Two divisions were sent south, to cross the canal at a weaker point, while Canadian combat engineers worked to construct the wooden bridges for the assault. The bridges were necessary because where the Canadians were crossing the Canal du Nord was flooded and the only locations that had no flooding were being guarded by the German defences. Currie had the Canadians cross mostly through flooded area, but included a "narrow strip" of unflooded area to hit the German flank.
At 5:20 on the morning of September 27, all four divisions attacked under total darkness, taking the German defenders of the 1st Prussian Guards Reserve Division and the 3rd German Naval Division by absolute surprise. By mid morning, all defenders had retreated or been captured. Stiffening resistance east of the canal proved that only a surprise attack had the possibility of ending in victory.
The Canadian Corps had the important objective of capturing Bourlon Woods, the German army used the high ground of the woods for their guns. The objectives of the Canadian Corps were reached by the end of the day, including the Red, Green and Blue lines.
The British attack was supported to the south by the French First Army during the Battle of Saint Quentin (French: Bataille de Saint-Quentin). (However this attack was a secondary attack, and did not start until after the Canadian Corps had penetrated the German defenses along the canal.)
Because of Canal du Nord's capture, the final road to Cambrai was open.
The battle penetrated a majority of the defenses of the Hindenburg Line and allowed the next attack (the Battle of Cambrai (1918)) to complete the penetration and begin the advance beyond the Hindenburg Line.
- Acting Lieutenant-Colonel John Vereker, 6th Viscount Gort of the 1st Battalion, Grenadier Guards.
- Captain John MacGregor, 2nd Battalion, Canadian Mounted Rifles.
- Captain Cyril Hubert Frisby, 1st Battalion, Coldstream Guards.
- Lieutenant Graham Thomson Lyall, 102nd (North British Columbia) Battalion, CEF.
- Lieutenant Samuel Lewis Honey, 78th Battalion (Winnipeg Grenadiers), CEF.
- Lieutenant George Fraser Kerr, 3rd Battalion (Toronto Regiment), CEF.
- Lieutenant Milton Fowler Gregg, Royal Canadian Regiment.
- Sergeant William Merrifield, 4th (Central Ontario) Battalion, CEF.
- Sergeant Frederick Charles Riggs, 6th Battalion, York and Lancaster Regiment.
- Corporal Thomas Neely, 8th Battalion, The King's Own Royal Regiment (Lancaster).
- Lance-Corporal Thomas Norman Jackson, 1st Battalion, Coldstream Guards.
- Private Henry Tandey, 5th Battalion, Duke of Wellington's Regiment (West Riding).
The Canadian participation in the Battle of the Canal du Nord is commemorated at the Canadian Bourlon Wood Memorial, located southeast of the town of Bourlon. The memorial is located on high ground beside the Bourlon Woods, giving a view of the town.
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