In previous posts about the 46th (North Midland) Division, I have often highlighted the, what I believe to be, unfair assessments made of the division’s capabilities after the attack on the village of Gommecourt on 1st July 1916. The reputation of having ‘a lack of offensive spirit’ followed the division until almost the end of the war, but the division’s fortunes were about to change on 29th September 1918 with the Battle of the St Quentin Canal.
The Battle of the St Quentin Canal was a phase of the Hundred Days Offensive and was to be undertaken by British, Australian and American forces operating as part of the British Fourth Army under the overall command of General Sir Henry Rawlinson. Further north, part of the British Third Army also supported the attack and to the south, the French First Army launched a coordinated attack. The objective was to break through one of the most heavily defended stretches of the Hindenburg Line, which in this sector utilised the St Quentin Canal as part of its defences.
There was one key element of the plan that was causing concern for the 46th (North Midland) Division. The plan was slightly altered, and the division was tasked with assaulting directly across a deep canal cutting south of the Bellicourt Tunnel and north of the village of Bellenglise. The Americans and Australians involved in the battle would advance on the left flank of the 46th Division across upon ground over the Bellicourt Tunnel. It was felt that this assault was too risky and couldn’t possibly succeed, but was a required task, nonetheless. On the 28th September, Major-General Boyd, Officer Commanding 46th Division, sent a memorandum to the entire division as follows:
The attack was to be spearheaded by the 137th (Staffordshire) Brigade – made up of 1/5th and 1/6th South Staffordshires and 1/6th North Staffordshires – with elements of the 138th (Lincoln and Leicester) Brigade and 139th (Sherwood Foresters) Brigade in support. The objective to was capture and secure the canal – after having already taken German positions west of the canal – and then assault the Hindenburg Line trenches further east and capture four strongly defended villages. These objectives were all formidably defended with concrete machine gun posts, deep dugouts and barbed wire. If the brigade were unsuccessful in capturing their objectives, the 138th and 139th would move northwards to attack the positions from the American/Australian sectors. If the attack were a success, but the 137th were struggling to hold on, the two brigades could move forward to provide support.
The canal itself in the northern sector was 35ft wide and anywhere between 7-10ft deep. As such, each man in the brigade was given a life belt to wear. It had been proved in a practice run the day before that the lifebelts could be worn by a soldier laden with equipment, so long as the weight was distributed across the lower parts of the body. A comfort for the soldiers, most particularly non-swimmers, of which I imagine many of them were (how many of them really needed to know how to swim in the Midlands)! In the southern sector, the canal was the same level as the surface but was more heavily fortified and contained little water, but there was 8ft of mud in its place. Collapsible boats, ropes and ladders were also provided to the units to traverse the canal.
The assault was preceded by a bombardment by Allied artillery, consisting of 1044 field guns and howitzers and 593 medium and heavy guns, which commenced at 2230 on 26th September. It was hoped that a bombardment of that intensity would cause the banks of the canal to break up and fall into the water, which would make the crossing easier for the soldiers, but how successful this was is debatable. The bombardment was supposed to ensure that the Germans were forced to stay in their defensive positions and make their resupplying almost impossible. The routes used to resupply were targeted intensely, resulting in a lack of ammunition and food being brought to the Germans in those positions. The bombardment lasted right up until Zero Hour on 29th September.
The morning of the 29th September was extremely misty. Whilst this was beneficial to the attackers as it obscured them from the view of the Germans, it also meant that their own vision would be hindered during the offensive. At 0550, Brigadier-General John Campbell VC, the commander of the brigade, led his unit from the front, blowing his hunting horn as he usually did in any attack. In fact, in the action for which he was awarded the VC, he did the same thing and was then dubbed the ‘Tally Ho VC’ in the media. On the left flank, advancing towards the northern sector of the canal at Riqueval was the 1/6th North Staffords. The 1/5th South Staffords was the centre battalion and the 1/6th South Staffords was on the right flank advancing towards the southern sector of the canal in the direction of Bellenglise. Almost immediately, the artillery bombardment proved its worth, as there was little difficulty for the brigade in crossing the enemy wire. A mixture of the smoke from the bombardment and the fog provided the attackers with plenty of coverage, but also disoriented the attackers, who required the use of compasses to advance in the right direction. The 1/6th South Staffords in the southern sector found the German positions well defended but with the assistance of machine guns, managed to take the positions with few casualties. The whole of the first line of German positions were taken by the brigade very swiftly with few British casualties and the capture of 150 prisoners. Additionally, 1000 Germans were discovered to have been killed by the bombardment. The brigade advanced further on and soon reached the west bank of the canal, where many machine gun posts were discovered. Germans who had been sheltering in dugouts rushed to the surface in order to stop the rapid advance with machine guns, but these were soon taken out of action.
On reaching the canal, the brigade needed to cross it. This was accomplished by many means. In the southern sector, where the canal was shallower, the provided rafts and ropes were used and also a small wooden bridge which had been left intact by the Germans. Some soldiers even swam across in the freezing cold water, not realising that there was a bridge until after they had done so. For the 1/5th South Staffords and 1/6th North Staffords in the north, the water was much better. Officers swam across the canal with ropes, and then pulled some men over on rafts and boats. As soon as they had crossed, ascents were made up the east bank. The Germans fired upon these soldiers with light machine guns. Despite carrying heavy equipment and being soaking wet from the crossing, these soldiers managed to overrun the German positions and ensuring the start of the capture of the canal. Additional parties from the 1/6th North Staffords in the northern sector, did manage to find small footbridges that had not been destroyed by the Germans in cases of resupply or retreat and crossed the canal in this manner.
It was at this point that quite possibly the most well known incident of this battle took place. Men from B Company of the 1/6th North Staffords, led by Captain A.H. Charlton rushed the still intact Riqueval Bridge – the largest in that area – and overwhelmed a machine gun post on the east bank. They seized the bridge and Captain Charlton went down the side of it to cut the wires to the explosives around the bridge that a German demolition team were about to detonate, and then threw the charge into the canal. This incident happened so quickly, and under the cover of the fog, that the Germans simply didn’t have time to react. The group then fully crossed onto the east bank, where a bridgehead was secured and 130 prisoners were captured, including a senior German officer and his staff. For his role in the action, Captain Charlton was awarded the D.S.O. and the bridge was temporarily named after him. The capture of this bridge was incredibly important as the bridge would become a significant route in furthering the advance of the Allies and being able to resupply the soldiers as they went forward.
Once the bridge had been captured and the surrounding area consolidated, the brigade reorganised under the protection of a standing barrage on the intermediate positions of the Hindenburg line 400 yards away, which they advanced upon at 0730. The Germans forces in this position, much like the front line, could not withstand the assault and retired from the position. Again, the brigade halted for half an hour, before advancing again. Elements of the 1/6th South Staffords headed south to capture positions around the Bellenglise tunnel, including supply dumps and an underground field hospital which they managed successfully, taking over 800 prisoners.
By 0830, the 137th Brigade had captured the St Quentin Canal from Bellicourt to Bellenglise, including the Riqueval Bridge, and had reached the second system of the Hindenburg Line. By the end of the day the 46th Division had taken 4200 German prisoners (out of a total for the Fourth Army of 5100) and over 70 guns. The assault across the canal met all of its objectives, on schedule, at a cost of fewer than 800 casualties to the division.
After the battle, the division was inundated with congratulations from previous commanders, other divisions, the authorities at home and even Field Marshal Haig himself.
Against the odds of what was considered a futile action, the 46th (North Midland) Division, in particular the 137th Brigade, managed to achieve what was considered impossible. The breaking of the Hindenburg Line was a necessary task to bring the end of the war closer and was an absolute success in the St Quentin Canal area. The photo below shows the brigade sitting on the west bank of the canal on 2nd October for the official photographer, being addressed by Brigadier-General Campbell, well aware of what they had accomplished. The action here is arguably one of, if not the most significant action that took place during the First World War. The Hindenburg line had been broken, and the armistice would be signed six weeks later. I like to think that the role of the 46th (North Midland) Division, in particular the role played by the 137th (Staffordshire) Brigade, played a key part in bringing the First World War to its conclusion.