Battle of St. Quentin Canal

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Battle of St Quentin Canal
Part of the Hundred Days Offensive of World War I
"Breaking the Hindenburg Line" by William Longstaff
Breaking the Hindenburg Line by William Longstaff.
Date 29 September – 10 October 1918
Location Hindenburg Line, France
Result Allied victory
Belligerents

 British Empire

 United States
 German Empire
Commanders and leaders
Australia John Monash
United States Hunter Liggett
Adolph von Carlowitz
Strength
14 divisions
(including 2 from the AEF)[1]
At least 13 divisions [2]
Casualties and losses
United Kingdom ?
United States 13,182[3]
German Empire ?
II American Corps serving under British Fourth Army September 1918

The Battle of St Quentin Canal was a pivotal battle of World War I that began on 29 September 1918 and involved British, Australian and American forces in the spearhead attack and as a single combined force against the German Siegfried Stellung of the Hindenburg Line. Under the command of Australian general Sir John Monash, the assault achieved all its objectives, resulting in the first full breach of the Hindenburg Line, in the face of heavy German resistance and, in concert with other attacks of the Great Offensive along the length of the line, convinced the German high command that there was little hope of an ultimate German victory.

British 4th Army commander Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Rawlinson, 1st Baron Rawlinson wanted the Australian forces, with their well-earned reputation, to spearhead the attack. Monash was unhappy, because the Australian Corps was short of manpower and many soldiers were now showing signs of strain, having been heavily engaged in fighting for several months. There had been some episodes of mutiny by troops who were feeling unfairly put upon. Monash was however delighted when Rawlinson offered him American II Corps (the US 27th and 30th Divisions), which still remained at the disposal of the British command, since American divisions were twice the numerical strength of their British counterparts. 200 Australian Officers were assigned to the US troops to provide both experience and leadership. British high command considered that German morale was suffering badly and that their capacity to resist was much weakened. This proved to be a dangerous assumption.[4]

Monash was tasked with drawing up the battle plan. He intended to use the Americans to breach the Hindenburg Line and the Australian 3rd and 5th Divisions to follow behind and then exploit the breakthrough. Monash intended to attack the Hindenburg Line south of Vendhuile where the St Quentin Canal runs underground for some 6,000 yards through Bellicourt Tunnel. British III and IX Corps would be in support. To Monash's plan Rawlinson made a very significant change: IX Corps would launch an assault directly across the deep canal cutting south of Bellicourt Tunnel, led by 46th (North Midland) Division. Monash felt such an assault to be doomed to failure and would never have planned for it himself, believing it to be too risky (a view shared by many in 46th Division).[5] The Germans believed the canal cutting to be impregnable.

The Hundred Days Offensive, August-november 1918 Q9525


Prelude[edit]

After the German Spring Offensive, British Empire, French and American counterattacks during the Hundred Days Offensive brought the Allies back up against the outposts of the Hindenburg Line close to the village of Bellicourt by the Autumn of 1918 where the Battle of Épehy was fought on 18 September 1918.

American forces were ordered to attack on 27 September, to finish clearing German forces from outposts in front of the line. (British III Corps had previously failed to capture these, but that failure had been attributed by Field Marshal Douglas Haig and Rawlinson to tired troops and poor command). The American soldiers were inexperienced and problems were compounded by a shortage of American officers (there were only 18 officers in the 12 attacking companies – the remainder were absent receiving further training). The U.S. attack was unsuccessful. Monash asked Rawlinson for permission to delay the main attack due on September 29th, but this was refused because of the priority given to Marshal Ferdinand Foch's strategy of keeping the Germans under relentless pressure along the front. As a result of the confusion created by the failed attack (with the corps command being unsure of where the American troops were), the battle on 29 September in the American 27th Division sector had to be started without the customary (and highly effective) close artillery support – this was to have a large negative effect on the initial operations of the battle.

Battle[edit]

Brigadier General J V Campbell addressing troops of the 137th Brigade (46th Division) from the Riqueval Bridge over the St Quentin Canal

By this stage in the war the Tank Corps had suffered greatly and there were far fewer tanks available for the battle than had been deployed at Amiens in August, and the September 29th attack would highlight the vulnerability of tanks to strong German anti-tank measures. The battle was preceded by the greatest British artillery bombardment of the war, with the firing of more than one million shells over a comparatively short period of time. Included in these were 30,000 mustard gas (sulfur mustard) shells (the first British use of this weapon). Additionally, many of the high explosive shells fired had special fuses which were very effective in destroying the German barbed wire.

The British were greatly helped by the fact that they were in possession of highly detailed captured plans of the enemy defences. Monash's battle plan for September 29th envisaged breaking through the main Hindenburg Line defences, crossing the canal tunnel mound, breaching the fortified Le Catelet-Nauroy Line beyond that, and reaching the Beaurevoir Line beyond that (the final fortified line) as the objective.

The Hundred Days Offensive, August-november 1918 Q9365

On 29 September, the Australian Corps attacked with the two American divisions supported by approximately 150 tanks of the 4th and 5th Tank Brigades of the British Tank Corps (including the newly trained American 301st Heavy Tank Battalion) (which was equipped with British tanks). The US divisions launched the initial attack, with the Australian 3rd (behind the U.S. 27th) and 5th Divisions (behind the U.S. 30th) intended to "leapfrog" through the American forces.[6]

On the left of the front, where 27th U.S. Division began at a disadvantage, none of the objectives was met on the first day and the Americans suffered severe losses. To their right, the 30th Infantry Division broke through the Hindenburg Line on 29 September 1918 at Bellicourt winning the praise of General Pershing "... the 30th Division did especially well. It broke through the Hindenburg Line on its entire front and took Bellicourt and part of Nauroy by noon of the 29th."[7] (There has since been considerable debate over the extent to which the American forces were successful. Certainly, far too much was expected of such inexperienced troops. Many disorganized groups of Americans were taken under the leadership of the Australian forces who came across them as they moved forward). An added difficulty was thick fog across the battlefield in the earlier stages of the attack, which caused problems for infantry/tank cooperation. (The fog was however helpful to IX Corps).

Riqueval Bridge in 2003. The canal banks are much more overgrown than when the bridge was captured during the battle

On the right of the American and Australian Divisions, following a devastating artillery bombardment, British 46th (North Midland) Division crossed the formidable St Quentin Canal (the cutting being more than 50 feet deep in places, defended by fortified machine gun positions) in the thick fog. The soldiers used a variety of flotation aids (including lifebelts from cross-Channel steamers) to cross the water, whilst men of the 1/6th Battalion, the North Staffordshire Regiment, led by Captain A. H. Charlton, managed to seize the still-intact Riqueval Bridge over the canal before the Germans could fire their explosive charges.[8] They captured the village of Bellenglise, including its great tunnel/troop shelter[9] and took 4,200 German prisoners (out of a total for the army of 5,300).The 46th Division assault was considered to be one of the outstanding feats of arms of the war.[10]

On 2 October, the British 46th and 32nd Divisions, supported by the Australian 2nd Division, planned to capture the Beaurevoir Line (the third line of defences of the Hindenburg Line), the village of Beaurevoir and the heights overlooking the Beaurevoir Line. While the attack succeeded in widening the breach in the Beaurevoir Line, it was unable to seize the high ground further on. However, by 2 October, the attack had resulted in a 17 km breach in the Hindenburg Line. By any measure, and especially by World War I standards, it was a stunning and swift victory.

Continuing attacks from 3 to 10 October (including those by the Australian 2nd Division capturing Montbrehain on 5 October and the British 25th Division capturing the village of Beaurevoir on 5/6 October) managed to clear the fortified villages behind the Beaurevoir Line, and capture the heights overlooking the Beaurevoir Line – resulting in a total break in the Hindenburg Line.

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ "The Battles of the Hindenburg Line". The Long, Long Trail. Retrieved 7 February 2015. 
  2. ^ Bean, Charles (1942). The Australian Imperial Force in France during the Allied Offensive, 1918. Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918. Volume VI (1st ed.). Canberra, Australian Capital Territory: Australian War Memorial. pp. 984, 985, 986, 995, 1008, 1013 and 1027. OCLC 41008291.  lists the following German divisions facing the attack: 54th, 121st, 185th, 75th Reserve, 21st, 2nd Guards, 2nd, 119th, 241st, 54th, 24th, 8th and 21st Reserve divisions. Note: this list is incomplete, as it does not include the forces facing the Allies after 5 October.
  3. ^ "Micheal Clodfelter. Warfare and Armed Conflicts: A Statistical Reference to Casualty and Other Figures, 1500–2000". 2002. Page 454.
  4. ^ Blair, Dale. The Battle of Bellicourt Tunnel: Tommies, Diggers and Doughboys on the Hindenburg Line, 1918. Frontline Books, 2011.
  5. ^ Priestley 1919, p. 23.
  6. ^ Coulthard-Clark 2001, p. 163.
  7. ^ Pershing, John J., My Experiences In The World War. Volume II, Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1931, p. 304.
  8. ^ "(Supplement) no. 31583". The London Gazette. 3 October 1919. p. 12221. Retrieved 7 August 2013. 
  9. ^ Priestley 1919, p. [page needed].
  10. ^ Terraine, John. To Win a War. London, 1978

References[edit]

  • Coulthard-Clark, Chris (2001). The Encyclopaedia of Australia's Battles (Second ed.). Crows Nest, New South Wales: Allen & Unwin. ISBN 1865086347. 
  • Priestley, R. E. (1919). Breaking the Hindenburg Line. London: T. Fisher Unwin, Ltd. 

External links[edit]