Breaking the Hindenburg Line/Introductory Chapter
Breaking the Hindenburg Line
Outline of the previous history of the 46th (North Midland) Division in the war
In writing this introductory chapter it should at once be stated that it is not in any way intended to be a history of the Division since its arrival in France, nor does it attempt to do justice to the bravery and tenacity exhibited at all times during the years it was on the Western front. It is just an attempt to outline its doings and movements from the time of its mobilization until, in September 1918, it joined the Fourth Army.
The 46th Division, which was responsible for what was described in the Press as the “Miracle of the War,” and whose exploits during the “Hundred Days” are described in the following chapters, is one of the pre-war Territorial Divisions.
In days of peace it was known as the North Midland Division, and was composed of men from the counties of Derby, Nottingham, Lincoln, Leicester, and Stafford. It was then commanded by Major-General the Hon. E. J. Montagu-Stuart-Wortley, C.B., C.M.G., M.V.O., D.S.O.
On the outbreak of war the Division mobilized, its headquarters being first at Derby, and afterwards at Luton and Bishop's Stortford. After less than seven months' training in England it was ordered to France in February 1915, enjoying the distinction of being the first complete Territorial Division to arrive in any theatre of war.
In less than two weeks after its arrival the Division was placed in reserve for the Battle of Neuve-Chapelle, 12th–13th March, 1915, but was not used. It received its baptism of fire at Ploegsteert, and later took over the line in front of Kemmel and Neuve-Eglise, whence its next move was to the Ypres salient. Here it settled down for nearly four months, part of which was spent in front of the notorious Hill 60.
Whilst in this area the first “Flammenwerfer” attack made by the enemy was launched on the Division on its left, which, stunned by the unexpectedness of the new weapon, recoiled, leaving the left flank of the 46th Division in the air. What might have been a serious disaster was averted by the stubborn fighting of the 139th Brigade.
The Division was next moved to the Bethune area, and on the 13th October, 1915, it relieved the Guards Division and made an attack on “The Quarries” and “Fosse 8.” This was the first big attack the 46th Division had been called upon to perform. The casualties were very high, reducing its strength by nearly one-half.
In December 1915 the Division was selected to proceed to Egypt, and two Brigades actually arrived there. The orders were then countermanded, however, the Brigades were recalled, and the whole Division returned to the North of France in February 1916. Here they took over the line before the famous Vimy Ridge, which was at that time in the hands of the enemy. The unit relieved was a famous French Division, and this was the first time British troops had held this particular sector of the line.
The next big effort demanded of the 46th Division was the attack on Gommecourt, a village which was the apex of the most westerly portion of the enemy line at that time. The attack, which was carried out on the 1st July, 1916, was the extreme left of the great Somme offensive, and had been foreseen by the enemy and was not successful. Very heavy casualties were again sustained, and no gain of ground was made. It is pleasant to record in parenthesis that in 1917 it was the privilege of the 46th Division to chase the Germans out of the village where so many of their comrades had fought their last fight only a few months before.
Whilst following up the retiring army in this area, there was on March 13th, 1917, some sharp fighting, as he took up a position in a strongly-wired trench known as Rettemoy Graben. This position, after being bombarded for a day, was attacked by the 5th North Staffords and 5th South Staffords; the 7th Division attacking on their right, with Bucquoy as their objective.
The attack was made at 11 p.m. on a very dark night, but owing to the wire only being partially cut (due to the limited time at the disposal of the Artillery), and the enemy fighting a very stubborn rearguard action, the attack was unsuccessful, and the two battalions mentioned suffered heavy casualties.
In March 1917 the Division relieved the 24th Division in front of Lens in the Lievin sector, and it remained there for four months. During this time much hard fighting took place, which culminated in the operations of July 1st, 1917. From the time the sector was taken over the line was advanced an average of 2,000 yards, and the ground captured included Cité St. Edward, Cité St. Theodore, Cité Jeanne d'Arc, Cité de Riaumont, the Bois de Lievin, the Bois de Riaumont, and the important tactical point Hill 65.
For the next fourteen months the Division was engaged in trench warfare in various parts of the Cambrai-Lens front, during which time the Canadian Corps on its immediate right, assisted by the 46th Divisional Artillery, made their successful attack on Hill 70. During this action the Infantry of the Division broke up at least one of the enemy's counter-attacks by enfilade fire, causing many casualties. From this neighbourhood the next move was to the Givenchy area, where a line was taken over between the Lawe Canal and Givenchy, including the famous Route “A” Keep, which had a few weeks earlier been so gallantly defended by the 55th Division when they stemmed the German offensive in this part of the line.
During this long spell of trench warfare, “raiding” became the order of the day. Major-General W. Thwaites, C.B., who had assumed command shortly after the Battle of Gommecourt, was a keen disciplinarian and a popular leader. He encouraged, and indeed insisted upon, “raiding” to the utmost, as being the type of warfare best calculated to improve the offensive spirit of the men. Many very clever coups were effected during the next fifteen months. Numerous prisoners were captured in these raids, which materially assisted the process of wearing down the enemy moral. This system of training improved the fighting condition and capacity of the Division to such an extent that former reverses were forgotten, or remembered only in the determination to wipe them out by achieving decisive success in the future. The 46th Division arrived at the scene of the actions described in the following chapters as hard as nails and fit for anything.
General Thwaites handed over to his successor, Major-General G. F. Boyd, C.B., C.M.G., D.S.O., D.C.M., a fighting force which proved itself thoroughly efficient, and whose deeds in the last and most decisive months of the Great War will live in history.
During the operations outlined in this chapter the 46th Division had served in the First, Second, Third, and Fifth Armies, and in the I, II, III, V, VII, XI, XIII, XIV, XVII, and XVIII Corps. Though called on to defend some of the most important parts of the Western front, not one inch of ground was ever lost.
The severity of the fighting in which the Division has been engaged during the War is best seen from an examination of its casualty list. The total losses between February 1915 and November 11th, 1918, were:
Such figures do indeed speak for themselves.