Breaking the Hindenburg Line/Part 1
The Battle of Bellenglise
(29th September, 1918)
Preliminary operations and preparations for the attack
“At an hour and date to be notified later, the 46th Division, as part of a major operation, will cross the St. Quentin Canal, capture the Hindenburg Line, and advance to a position shown on the attached Map A.”
Such was the opening paragraph of the preliminary order issued by the General Staff on the 25th September, notifying all concerned of the general scope of the operation which was fated to bring fame to the Division. At this period of the war the eyes of the whole of Europe were focussed in the main on one thing and one thing only. Would the Hindenburg Line suffice, as the Germans hoped and believed, to hold up the (up to that time) irresistible tide of conquest sweeping back slowly but steadily across France; or would that last bulwark of German Imperialism be broken asunder like lesser obstacles, and trampled underfoot by the victorious Armies of the Allies? The answer to that question was to be given on the 29th September, and in the solving of the problem the 46th Division was destined to play a glorious and decisive part.
The General Staff, who, under instructions from the IX Corps, had planned the attack, and who had better means of estimating such doubtful features as the moral of the forces opposed to us and the general disposition of the enemy's forces, may have been confident of success. Many, however, who could only judge from direct observation of the enemy's positions, or from aeroplane photographs, were of opinion that the Division had been given an impossible task.
At the best it seemed likely that the efforts and sacrifices of the 46th Division might pin down the enemy on the Bellenglise front, and attract his reserves, whilst the Americans and Australians broke through on the left, where they were faced with no natural obstacle.
If this northern attack succeeded, the resultant pressure on the enemy's front to the north might then save the situation on the Bellenglise front, and enable the 46th Division to get forward at a later period.
The sequel was to show which of these opinions was justified, and incidentally to admit for ever the claim of the 46th Division to be classed with what the Germans would call “Sturmtruppen.”
On the 12th September, 1918, after fifteen months of almost continuous defensive warfare, the Division moved from the Bethune area to the neighbourhood of Beaucourt sur l'Hallue and passed into G.H.Q. reserve for a few days' rest and training before proceeding into action near the southern limit of the British front.
On the 21st September, after one or two days in the Tertry area, where the Division was still in reserve while the various Commanders were reconnoitring their future area and the various preparations for the hand-over were made, the relief of part of the 1st and 4th Australian Divisions by the 46th Division was carried out, and all ranks settled down to learn the new area in which they were to fight.
The new front line consisted of some 2,500 to 3,000 yards length of an old German trench system to the west of the St. Quentin Canal which had been captured from the Germans by our predecessors and reorganized by them to suit defence in the opposite direction. It formed a splendid defensive position and a very fair jumping-off ground for any future projected operations against the Canal and the immensely strong Hindenburg Line to the east of it.
At the time the North Midland Division took over the line the enemy still held a strong system of trenches, with outposts in advance of them, on the west bank of the Canal, which he held in considerable strength and which prevented any near reconnaissance of the banks and of the approaches to the Canal. This was, however, in a measure counteracted by the fact that along the greater part of our front our troops were on high ground overlooking the German defences. The country to the east of the Canal was spread out before their eyes like a map, only the valleys being concealed from view by the ridges between them and our line.
From vantage positions on our front line almost the whole extent of the Canal opposite to us could be seen, and the villages of Nauroy and Levergies, the latter of which was to become intimately known to the Division in the future fighting, were plainly visible. Into Bellenglise itself, immediately below our trenches, it appeared possible to throw a cricket-ball, and every movement of the Germans in the neighbourhood of the Canal and the village was plainly to be seen.
Behind our line the country was of a very open nature, consisting of broad rolling downs intersected by long and broad, rather shallow valleys, with very few outstanding points or features. Such isolated features of the landscape as did strike the eye were a few partially destroyed woods and copses, sunken roads, and an occasional artificial strong point of German origin, the latter plainly marked out from the surrounding country by the white scars left by the chalky soil thrown out from dug-outs and trenches. All round such points, which had naturally been favourite targets for our own and—after they had passed into our hands—for the German artillery, the ground was pock-marked by shell-holes. Their neighbourhood was distinctly unhealthy except for the inhabitants of the dug-outs, saps, and trenches, which were the only shelters available in the vicinity. Perhaps the favourite target for the enemy's guns and the most prominent feature of all was the small conical-shaped hill known as the “Tumulus,” which stood near the fork of the Vadencourt-Bellenglise and the Vadencourt-Berthaucourt Roads. This little mound was a usual registration point for the enemy Artillery, and had been struck again and again until it stood out as a stark white landmark stripped of all its original greenery by the impact and blasting action of the shells. Here, especially, was a spot near which it was dangerous to linger—transport made their way by the hill at the trot, and no one whose business took him in the neighbourhood of the hill let the grass grow under his feet.
Certain of the strong points, such as those at Collin's Quarry and Hudson's Post, subsequently became important nodal points in the divisional system of communications, while the shelter afforded by the groups of dug-outs, in country where otherwise shelter was not, caused them to be chosen as sites for the headquarters of Brigades and Artillery Groups during the forming up on the night previous to the attack.
As usual in the case of an attack on prepared positions of considerable strength, which involved the concentration of a large force of artillery and other units not normally associated with a Division in the line, one of the chief problems to be overcome was the question of transportation to and from the line. In overcoming this difficulty the weather, which remained in the main dry and fine both immediately before and during the battle, was very helpful. In the sector of the attack the only main approaches to the front line were the two metalled roads which ran respectively through Le Verguier and through Vadencourt; the latter, which forked into two roads just west of the Tumulus, being the main divisional line of approach. These in themselves were not nearly sufficient to cope with the forward traffic, but the country between them was seamed with “dry-weather tracks,” which were passable for horse traffic under the weather conditions then prevailing, while, in addition, the open nature of the country made it unnecessary to keep to tracks at all in dry weather.
Preparation for an attack of any magnitude was much hampered by the sharp bend back of the line upon our right flank. A glance at the map showing the tactical situation on the 23rd September betrays at once this backward bend of the British line on the right of the front held on that date by the Division. The enemy held Pontruet in force, and even had strong posts well up in and about the group of farm buildings known as St. Helène and situated on the Vadencourt-Bellenglise Road. On the 24th September a minor operation was undertaken by the 1st and 6th Divisions on our right, having in view the capture of certain high ground in front of their line to the south of Pontruet. As a part of this operation the 46th Division was allotted the task of capturing Pontruet and the medley of trenches and strong-points which were based on this village.
The main attack was to be carried out by troops detailed from the 138th Infantry Brigade, two companies of which were ordered to advance from the forming-up line along the Vadencourt-Bellenglise Road from St. Helène eastward for 500 yards; their object being to outflank the village of Pontruet and establish strong-posts due east of it. The advance was to be covered by a creeping barrage fired by the five Brigades of Artillery covering the front of the Division.
Meanwhile, two other companies of the same battalion were detailed to clear Pontruet itself, and the 139th Infantry Brigade were ordered to provide a mopping-up party to deal with certain trenches south-west of the village. The Artillery, in addition to the creeping barrage covering the assault, were to concentrate on Pontruet village and strong points in its immediate neighbourhood during the early part of the assault. It was thus hoped to pin the enemy to his positions until the outflanking party had succeeded in reaching their objective, when he would be compelled to retreat under enfilade fire from these companies. Tactically, the attack, although on a small scale, was very prettily conceived; and it was hoped that the whole of the garrison of Pontruet and the trenches round it, which were known to be held in force by the enemy, would be either captured or killed.
All preparations having been completed, zero was fixed for 5 a.m. on the 24th. At that hour the barrage opened and the two companies of the 5th Leicesters, to whom was allotted the task of outflanking the village, advanced to the attack. At the same time the 5th Sherwood Foresters made an assault on Beux and Leduc Trenches, and, easily over-running these works and capturing or killing the garrison of the trenches, endeavoured to enter the village from the south-east.
Almost at the outset of the attack two Stokes mortars, which had been detailed to assist in the attack from north of the village, were knocked out by enemy artillery fire, and this hampered the attack from that side materially. For some time the attack sped fairly well, and good progress was made by our men, who penetrated into the northern elements of Pontruet and captured the strongly defended cemetery and the blockhouse. Their success was short-lived, however, for the enemy, reacting strongly with fresh reinforcements, bombed their way back down the Forgan's Trench—an enemy work running south-east and north-west right up the area attacked—and drove our men back almost to the forming-up line, forcing us to give up our hold on the part of Pontruet which remained in our hands. Hard fighting continued for several hours, but, according to statements of prisoners captured from the garrison, the enemy had been expecting an attack on Pontruet and was able to bring up strong reserves. A second attack in the evening by the 5th Leicesters, reinforced by a company of the 5th Sherwood Foresters, was repulsed, without our obtaining a footing in the village. At 1.40 a.m. on the 25th, the order was therefore given to withdraw from Pontruet, but to hold on to the captured posts to the north and west of the village.
The attack was thus in a great measure a tactical failure, though it left our positions somewhat improved. It had resulted, however, in the capture of one officer and one hundred and thirty-six other ranks, and had given the enemy a foretaste of the fighting quality of the Division. The moral of the men throughout was excellent: they fought with great dash and initiative, and held on with tenacity to captured posts against superior forces and under heavy shell fire. An instance of the good work done is afforded by the behaviour of the crew of one of the Stokes mortars knocked out early in the fight. Although shaken by the shelling to which they had been exposed and discouraged by the loss of their gun, these men took to their rifles and fought gallantly throughout the action, killing many of the enemy and taking several prisoners.
The hero of the attack on Pontruet, however, was a subaltern of the 1/5th Leicesters, Lieutenant J. C. Barrett. He was the leader of a party attacking the strong and stoutly-defended work known as Forgan's Trench. In spite of an intense fire from the machine guns and riflemen defending the trench, he led a party of men against it, and, although wounded in the advance to the attack, he succeeded in reaching the trench and sprang into it, himself disposing of two machine guns and inflicting many casualties. During the mêlée which followed he was again severely wounded, but managed to climb out of the trench with the object of finding out his own exact position and locating the enemy. This he succeeded in doing, and, despite loss of blood and the exhaustion consequent on his wounds, gave detailed orders to his men, directing them to cut their way back to their battalion, from which they had become isolated. The party managed to rejoin their comrades, but during the retreat Lieutenant Barrett, who had refused offers of help for himself, was again wounded, this time so seriously that he could not move, and was then carried back by his men. It was undoubtedly due to Lieutenant Barrett's splendid example and good leadership that any of the party managed to return alive, and he was subsequently awarded the Victoria Cross for his bravery in this action.
On the 25th of September the first Divisional Order for the main attack on the St. Quentin Canal was issued, and from that time forward all energies were devoted to preparations for the assault. The general idea of the operations was the breaking of the Hindenburg Line north of St. Quentin, and to the 46th Division was assigned the task of storming the Canal between the village of Bellenglise and Riqueval Bridge, and capturing the defences behind the Canal, with Bellenglise itself, which contained the entrance to the famous tunnel whose existence was already well known from statements of captured prisoners. The final objective of the Division was a line on the high ground beyond the villages of Lehaucourt and Magny-la-Fosse. The 1st Division on our right were ordered to protect our right flank and to hold themselves in readiness to advance eastwards south of the Canal and conform to the movements of the enemy should he retire, occupying the village of Thorigny and the high ground around that village. In the event, the enemy resistance proved too stubborn on the day of the attack; the 1st Division did not advance; Thorigny was not taken until the following day, and artillery and machine-gun fire from the high ground on our right flank was the cause of much trouble during the later stages of the battle.
On our left the 30th American Division was ordered to storm the Bellicourt defences and cross the Canal where it disappeared underground in the Bellicourt Tunnel. Then, turning south, they were to join our own troops in the neighbourhood of Etricourt. The Americans, however, also experienced considerable resistance and were delayed in reaching their final objectives, thus leaving this flank also in the air for some time.
It was intended, finally, that when the final objective were reached by ourselves and the 30th American Division, the 32nd British Division and the 2nd Australian Division should pass through and exploit success, seizing if possible the general line Le Tronquay-Levergies and to the north.
In order to fully realize the magnitude of the task which confronted the Division, a short description of the defences opposed to us is necessary. The front line occupied by our troops on the date when the attack was first ordered has already been described. Immediately in front of our line the country dipped towards the St. Quentin Canal. The main natural features were two steepish ravines roughly at right angles to the Canal—one to the left of our positions, down which ran the main Vadencourt Road over Riqueval Bridge, the road known to us as Watling Street; and the other ravine facing towards Bellenglise. Across the ridge between these two ravines ran the first strong system of German defences—a continuous line of trenches protected by a broad belt of wire and with frequent strong-points and machine-gun posts.
At either flank of the divisional sector the main crossings of the Canal—Bellenglise and Riqueval Bridges—were further protected by more belts of wire and by well-sited posts of machine gunners and riflemen.
The St. Quentin Canal on the front to be attacked by the 46th Division was in itself an obstacle which 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 of the outcome of the attack in the hearts of any but the stoutest soldiers. It divided naturally into two portions. The northern half, whilst less strongly prepared for defence, was much more of a natural obstacle than the southern. From Riqueval Bridge to opposite La Baraque crossroads, the Canal runs between almost perpendicular cliffs, which for the greater part of this distance vary between fifty and thirty feet high. South of this it runs practically at ground level with, in places, a slight embankment. Right throughout, the Canal wall formed a perpendicular obstacle faced with brick, both west and east banks being strongly wired. The southern portion of the Canal was practically dry, but over considerably more than half of the front covered by the Division a depth of from six to eight feet of water had to be reckoned with.
In addition to the natural strength of the Canal as an obstacle to advancing troops, no pains had been spared to strengthen the whole length, which bristled with well-sited concrete and steel machine-gun emplacements, and had been generally rendered as nearly as possible impregnable. Indeed, we know from statements of German prisoners that it was considered by them to be capable of defence against any possible attack. It is probable that this fact helped to lull the Germans into a false state of security which may in a measure have been responsible for the fact that all our preparations passed unheeded and that the attack did not seem to have been suspected until it actually took place.
The two weak points about the Canal which were destined to have a decisive effect on the outcome of the battle were: (1) the bridges which were necessary for the supply of the enemy troops on the western bank, and so could not be destroyed in good time; and (2) the existence of certain concrete dams which had presumably been built by the enemy to serve as locks to retain the water. Where the Canal crosses the valley of the Omignon, south of Bellenglise, it is banked up above the level of the surrounding country; and without these concrete dams, there was risk of our guns breaching the banks, allowing the water to drain away, and so diminishing the value of the Canal as an obstacle.
These concrete dams would certainly have served their purpose in such an event, but, although protected above by strips of concertina wire and on their sides by “crows' feet” and other devices, they were a possible means of our troops crossing. There were several of these stoutly built dams along the divisional front, and some of them were actually made use of by the Infantry in the assault.
Beyond the Canal was an extremely strong system of trenches, heavily protected by wire belts, and based upon the village of Bellenglise, the farm of La Baraque, and Harry and Nigger Copses. This line was continued parallel with the Canal to Lehaucourt; but the portion south of Bellenglise was not directly assaulted by our troops, being attacked from the rear by the Brigade detailed to advance on Lehaucourt itself. Between Bellenglise and Magny-la-Fosse were two more continuous lines of trenches protected by wire, while all over the ground to be traversed were sited individual strong-points and machine-gun emplacements disposed after the principle of “defence in depth” much used by the Germans in the last two years of the war.
Altogether, the defences of the Hindenburg Line at this point were as thorough as the science of military engineering, backed by unlimited time and labour, could devise, and the defenders had every reason to believe that no troops in the world could be expected to storm them without colossal losses.
The effect of the battle of the 29th September must be considered in the light of these facts. The confidence of the Germans in both their troops and their defence system was fated to be shattered in one mighty blow, and the effect of this reverse on the moral of the German Army and the German people must have been tremendous indeed.
The fall of St. Quentin following on the breaching of the Hindenburg Line was inevitable. Perhaps the best tribute to the work of the Division on this day of days in their history is seen in the remark of a staff officer of another formation, who, in reply to a question as to who took the city of St. Quentin, replied: “The French walked into St. Quentin, but the 46th Division captured it when they took Bellenglise.”
On the evening of the 27th September the 138th Infantry Brigade, then holding the northern portion of our line, was ordered to attack the trenches on the ridge between the two ravines west of Bellenglise and Riqueval. This preliminary operation was quite local, and was undertaken with the object of ensuring that our troops should meet with little resistance west of the Canal on the day of the main assault. All went well with the attack. After a preliminary bombardment, the companies of the 4th Leicesters detailed for the assault left the forming-up line in good order, and, following the barrage closely, occupied the line of trenches which was their objective without difficulty and with very little fighting. The attack resulted in the capture of two officers and one hundred and forty-six other ranks, and all concerned had good reason to be satisfied with the work, and to trust that it was an omen of greater success to follow shortly, when the preparations for the attack on the Canal were completed.
Our new line was immediately consolidated, and communication trenches leading towards the enemy were blocked; and at the conclusion of this operation the 137th Infantry Brigade relieved the 138th Infantry Brigade, who retired to the area about Le Verguier for a short rest.
The relief took place without trouble, though the enemy subjected the captured positions to a desultory fire throughout the night, but at 7 a.m. on the 28th September bombing attacks were commenced on the outpost company of the 5th South Staffords, and at 10 a.m. the enemy counter-attacked heavily under a barrage on the whole front which had been the scene of our attack of the evening before.
The attack was accompanied by heavy artillery fire on our support positions and on the main lines of communication up which reinforcements and supplies for the troops occupying the captured trenches would have to pass. The infantry attack was pressed by the enemy with unusual determination, bombing parties working up the communication trenches leading from the enemy's positions as well as across the open. Severe in-and-out fighting continued for some hours, and the outpost companies were very hard pressed and finally were forced to yield ground owing to the impossibility of keeping the troops supplied with S.A.A. and bombs. The attack was particularly severe on the front held by the outpost company of the 1/5th South Staffords, and after an hour and a half's fighting the enemy forced their way into the trenches held by this company. A local counterattack was at once organized, however, and the Germans were driven out.
Later in the morning this company was once more driven back, fighting every step of the way, but gradually running out of small-arm ammunition and bombs. By this time 60 per cent. of the company had become casualties, and it was forced to withdraw to the trenches south-west of Pike Wood, where it was reorganized and held on until dark.
Similar fine work was done by the 1/6th North Staffords during the attack. The outpost company of this battalion was for six hours completely cut off from communication with Battalion Headquarters, all lines having been cut by artillery fire. The company, however, held on to its position against superior numbers for the whole of this time, although suffering very much from the prevailing lack of ammunition. Casualties were very high, but the men, inspired by the heroic example of their officers, fought with an utter disregard of personal safety, inflicting heavy losses on the attackers, who were only able to make very insignificant gains of ground. Where all the men did so well it is difficult to draw distinctions, but prominence should be given to the work of Private B. Mountford, of the 1/6th North Staffords, who during the shortage of ammunition was mainly responsible for saving the situation on the front occupied by his company. Finding a German machine gun and ammunition in the captured trenches, he at once set to work, got the gun into working order, brought it into action, and caused many casualties to the enemy. For five hours under heavy fire from German rifles and machine guns he manned this gun, firing short bursts of fire when enemy attacks appeared likely to develop with success, thus assisting materially in slowing down his advance and helping to repulse thrusts which were unusually determined and long-sustained.
Fighting continued well on into the day, but after his initial success the enemy made very little progress along any part of the front attacked. With few exceptions our men were able to retain their positions until dark, but the outpost companies were in a very unfavourable position, being observed and enfiladed from both flanks. It was therefore decided to withdraw to our original line under cover of darkness, not only because the position of the men was unsatisfactory, but in order that a straight barrage could be put down for the main attack.
During the few days of preparation, every care was taken to prevent the enemy from realizing the imminence and magnitude of the attack. Reconnoitring parties were warned to keep themselves scattered and as inconspicuous as possible when in view of the enemy. There was to be no flourishing of maps in full view of enemy airmen or of direct observation from the enemy trenches. All troops in the front line were instructed to keep their heads down and to let as little movement as possible be seen, while movement of transport behind the lines, beyond the normal activity inseparable from the supply and maintenance of a division in comparatively peaceful times, was restricted to the hours of darkness.
The enemy airmen at this time were very active and daring, and frequently his reconnaissance machines would, in spite of machine-gun and rifle fire, swoop down and pass over our front and support trenches at a very low altitude, watching for signs of unusual activity. With their scarlet-painted bodies the machines presented a striking appearance, looking for all the world like huge red birds diving down on the look-out for their prey on the ground beneath. Very little could have escaped the knowledge of the skilled observers in the planes, and the result speaks well for the thoroughness of the precautions taken against observation, and for the skill with which officers and men carried out the orders given to them.
One of the first preparations to be made in all cases of attack where moves of Headquarters are likely to take place as a preliminary to the assault, is the choosing of suitable sites for the Headquarters of the higher formations. On the 26th, therefore, a party of the General Staff, with one representative from each Brigade and the O.C. Signal Company, made a tour of the country behind the front line and of the front line itself, and settled on a joint Brigade Headquarters in a portion of the line where three or four deep dug-outs, sufficient to shelter the Staffs from moderately heavy shell fire, existed. This position, unnamed except by a map reference (G, 2I, c, 2.1), subsequently became the headquarters of the 137th Infantry Brigade when this Brigade stormed the Canal, and was later used as Divisional Headquarters by the 32nd Division when it passed through the 46th Division after the attack. At the same time it was decided to move forward Advanced Divisional Headquarters to Small Post Wood, a small copse about a mile N.N.E. of Vendelles, from which place communication forward could be maintained more satisfactorily.
The problem of communication in a battle such as the one projected was a difficult one. Both our own troops and the enemy were strongly entrenched, and a preliminary bombardment of exceptional intensity was necessary before our assaulting columns could be hurled at the enemy entrenchments with any chance of success, while such a bombardment necessarily invited heavy retaliatory fire. It was practically a trench warfare attack without the buried cable system which alone had rendered communication in trench warfare possible.
A strong system of overland cables was designed to meet the case, but these lines were, as they were bound to be, cut by shell fire again and again before the attack commenced. In fact, the party laying the forward lines was out working during the whole of the night preceding the attack, and during the morning of the attack, without succeeding in getting the lines through to the leading Brigade, which was thus for some time, at a critical period of the battle, cut off from communication with the Division altogether. To add to the troubles of the Signal company, the very openness of the country, while facilitating the laying of cables across country, was fatal to their maintenance. During the dark nights of the 27th/28th and 28th/29th September, transport made little or no attempt to keep to the roads, but was driven across country, intent only on reaching its destination by the shortest route. Lines were cut not once or twice, but twenty or thirty times a night, and linemen were out working practically continuously. Perhaps the most exasperating incident occurred, however, when, on the night before the battle, a cavalry unit which shall be nameless settled down for the night midway between Divisional Headquarters and an important forward communication post, and signalized its arrival by cutting out some hundred yards or so of the three twin cables which formed the main divisional route, in order to use them as a picket line for their horses. After this “Signals” felt that Fate could have no harder blows in store for them.
Communications had to be extended considerably and lines laid to deal with the many extra units which were attached to the Division for the battle. New signal officers appeared every few minutes, bringing with them N.C.O.s dragging new lines to be placed on the Divisional Exchange. Tanks, Cavalry, Artillery, Cyclists—all were represented—but the most numerous of all were the attached Artillery Brigades. Between the arrival of the Division in the area and the night of the 28th September, the strength of the Division in artillery increased from two Brigades of R.F.A. to eight Brigades of R.F.A. and one of R.H.A., all of them being placed under the command of Brigadier-General Sir Hill Child, C.M.G., D.S.O., C.R.A., 46th Division. In addition several Brigades of the Corps Heavy Artillery were firing on the front of the Division.
Artillery preparation for the attack was commenced on the night of the 26th/27th September, when a concentrated bombardment of the Bellenglise salient was carried out with a mixture of high explosive and gas shells. At the same time the normal “harassing” fire on the whole of the IX Corps front was considerably increased in order to mask the guns engaged in pumping gas into selected areas behind the front to be attacked. This gas bombardment was carried out on a scale which had not previously been attempted by any of the Allies, but results were not commensurate with the expenditure of ammunition. Prisoners stated that the only effect of the bombardment, so far as gas was concerned, was to cause them to retreat to the deep dug-outs and tunnels with which this particular enemy area was so plentifully provided, and thus very few gas casualties were caused.
Far otherwise, however, was the result of the destructive bombardment with high-explosive shells from guns of all calibres which commenced on the following day. All evidence, whether that of air photographs taken during the bombardment itself, the close examination of the shelled area when the battle was over, or the reports of the dazed and demoralized prisoners taken during the action, goes to show that the effect of the whirlwind of shells from our guns was absolutely devastating both to the German positions and to their moral. For the two days preceding the assault no rations or reinforcements reached the unfortunate occupants of the defences on either bank of the Canal.
This intensive artillery preparation was carried on without pause until the morning selected for the attack. In the meantime, careful barrage time-tables had been worked out for the attack itself, and every gun of the Field Artillery had been assigned its task, either in the barrage which should cover the advance of the infantry, in the shelling of specially selected areas where enemy concentrations might be expected, or in assisting the Heavy Artillery in its task of neutralizing or annihilating suspected enemy strong-points and machine-gun emplacements.
In an attack on a position which is fronted by a water obstacle of the size and depth of the St. Quentin Canal it is naturally to be expected that towards the overcoming of that obstacle a large and even dominating part of the preparation for the attack should be directed. The crossing of the Canal was the task of the Infantry, but the work of enabling the Infantry to cross was essentially the rôle of the Engineers, and the preparations made by the C.R.E., Lieutenant-Colonel H. T. Morshead, D.S.O., R.E., were extremely thorough.
Unfortunately the C.R.E. himself, while reconnoitring forward routes for pontoon wagons in the vicinity of Le Verguier on the 25th, was wounded in the leg by a a piece of a shell which exploded near him, and his wound, though not serious, was sufficient to incapacitate him for some weeks.
In his absence, and until his successor, Lieutenant-Colonel W. Garforth, D.S.O., M.C., R.E., joined the Division, the R.E. preparation was carried out under the direction of the Adjutant and Assistant Adjutant. These preparations consisted mainly in the collection of material for, and the construction of, various means of crossing the Canal. Amongst the most successful of the means devised were small piers built of a framework of wood supported either by empty petrol tins or by bundles of cork slabs: piers which were so devised that they could be used either as rafts to carry a single man across the Canal or as supports for foot-bridges for taking a continuous stream of men in single file. In addition collapsible boats had been provided, together with mud-mats and scaling-ladders for negotiating stretches of mud and the steep brick walls of the Canal banks. Finally, some genius hit on the novel idea of making use of life-belts on a considerable scale. The latter idea in particular promised considerable prospects of success; the authorities at Boulogne were telegraphed for the life-belts from some of the leave-boats, and over 3,000 were collected and were sent up and issued to the storming troops.
On the 27th September arrangements were made for a dress rehearsal to take place, and men loaded with full kit as for a storming party were detailed to test each type of means for crossing the Canal. The first attempt was made near Bihecourt, but enemy shelling of batteries in the vicinity was so persistent and interfered so much with the preparations for the trial that it was postponed by order of General Campbell until the next day. On the 28th, therefore, the party proceeded to the moat at Brie Château on the Somme, where the practice was carried out in front of the Divisional Commander in the pouring rain, but with good results. It was discovered by actual experience that the collapsible boats, which required four men apiece to carry them, could be opened and launched in twenty seconds, while men, weighted with their storming kit but supported with life-belts fixed high up on their bodies, were able to swim across a stretch of deep water, forty yards in breadth, and could not drown. Similar experiments were made with a man who could not swim, and he was able by means of a life-line to pull himself across hand over hand, being convinced, and in a position to convince his companions, that there was no danger of men thus equipped getting into difficulties. These trials were actually carried out by men of the Stafford Brigade, which was to have the honour of leading the Division across the Canal and making the initial breach in the Hindenburg Line beyond.
The trial having been successful, nothing now remained but to continue the manufacture of the different devices until the number required was completed and, during the night of the 28th/29th, to collect all this material as close as possible to the front line, ready to be carried forward to the appointed places on the banks of the Canal at the first opportunity after the attack had been launched. This was successfully accomplished by the personnel of the Divisional Field Companies, assisted by the 1/1st Monmouthshire Regiment, the Pioneer Battalion of the Division. The Engineers, including the whole of the Engineers of the 32nd Division, were then divided up according to the tasks allotted to them for the assault. Some sections were sent with the Infantry to assist mopping-up parties and to examine dug-outs, strong-points, etc., for mines and demolition charges: others were told off respectively as bridge-building parties or for work on the roads leading to and forward of the horse-transport bridges which were to be thrown across the Canal as soon as possible after the assault had succeeded.
The Staffords cross the St. Quentin Canal and breach the Hindenburg Line
Preparations being sufficiently far advanced by that date, the 29th September was chosen as “Z” day, or the day of the attack, and the night of the 28th/29th was spent by the General Staff and Headquarter Administrative Services in putting the final touches to the plans to which I have already referred, and to arrangements for the evacuation of the wounded, and for dealing with the inrush of enemy prisoners which might be expected if the attack was successful. During the same time the fighting troops were moving up to their assembly positions. The 137th Infantry Brigade, composed entirely of Staffordshire troops, under Brigadier-General J. V. Campbell, V.C., C.M.G., D.S.O., had been chosen to lead the Division in the assault on the Canal; and the Headquarters of this Brigade was moved on this night to the dug-outs in the support line of trenches which had already been selected for them. The troops themselves were disposed on the forming-up line which had been taped out under the direction of Engineer officers, the tapes being laid parallel to, and two hundred yards behind, the starting-line for the creeping barrage.
The troops of the supporting Brigade, the 138th Infantry Brigade of Leicesters and Lincolns, under Brigadier-General F. G. M. Rowley, C.M.G., D.S.O., and the 139th Infantry Brigade of Sherwood Foresters, under Brigadier-General J. Harington, D.S.O., were also moved up into their positions during the night. They were thus disposed so that immediately the situation had cleared sufficiently, they could move forward to the forming-up position at which they were to take over from the 137th Infantry Brigade and continue to press the attack until the final objectives of the Division were reached and consolidated.
Similar positions for Brigade Headquarters had been selected, and the troops of both Brigades were concentrated where as much shelter as possible from the enemy's retaliatory fire was available, in order to avoid unnecessary casualties. Casualties in all three Brigades were caused during the night by enemy gas and high explosive shells, and work was much interfered with by this shelling, which, however, died away towards morning, giving satisfactory proof that the enemy did not anticipate any immediate attack on a large scale.
The general dispositions of the Division for the attack were as follows:—
The area to be occupied had been divided into two main objectives, each limited by a line running almost due north and south. These were marked respectively on the map issued by the General Staff before the action by a red and a green line, and for convenience of reference may be referred to as the Red and the Green objectives.
These main objectives were again subdivided, the first into two portions by a blue line, and the second into three approximately equal portions by a green and a dotted blue line. These subdivisions were made to enable the assaulting troops to rest and reorganize under a protective barrage of a few minutes' duration, and each line was chosen as being either a definite element of the enemy organization or a natural feature of the ground over which the attack was taking place.
Their positions would, of course, also be indicated by the halt of the artillery barrage behind which the troops would organize. The intermediate objectives were made use of to enable “leap-frog” tactics to be utilized within the attacking Brigades—one battalion passing through another to the attack, the tired battalion meanwhile remaining behind to mop up and consolidate a defensive line, while it was at the same time available to reinforce the fresh attacking battalion if necessary.
To the 137th Infantry Brigade, as already stated, was allotted the task of leading the Division across the Canal. This Brigade was detailed to overcome any enemy resistance west of the Canal, to cross the Canal itself, break through the main defences of the Hindenburg Line east of the Canal, capture Bellenglise, and advance to the Red objective, where a defensive position was to be consolidated and the other Brigades would pass through to continue the attack.
On this line the artillery barrage under which the troops advanced was scheduled to halt for three hours, a dense protective barrage being put down meanwhile to cover the work of consolidation, to conceal the movements of the advancing Brigades, and to prevent enemy counter-attacks.
During this interval of three hours the troops told off for the purpose were to complete the mopping-up of the area occupied by the 137th Infantry Brigade, and the remaining two Brigades, the 138th Infantry Brigade on the left and the 139th Infantry Brigade on the right, were to move up, deploy on the Red objective, and, when the barrage lifted, to move forward to the capture of the Green objective, where they in their turn were to consolidate and allow the 32nd Division to pass through them to a distant objective. As will be seen the programme allotted was, so far as the 46th Division was concerned, carried through according to plan. To the storming Infantry was allotted a few sections of Engineers for purposes as already outlined when describing Engineer preparations, while the remainder of the Divisional Engineers and the Pioneer Battalion followed close in the rear of the assaulting columns, bringing up bridging and road-making material.
The artillery programme has already been referred to above. The particular feature of both the creeping barrages was the inclusion of a proportion of “smoke” shell, this being intended to aid the concealment of movement behind our lines, and also to emphasize the “lifts” of the barrage, thus enabling the Infantry to judge more easily when a forward move was taking place. Certainly the first object of the “smoke” was achieved, though how far the artificial smoke was aided by natural fog is difficult to estimate. Owing to the fog, however, the second object was not so successful, and the lifts were not so well defined as they would have been in clear weather. In order to thicken the barrage in its initial stages, a machine-gun barrage was arranged to be super-imposed upon it. For this purpose the 2nd Life Guards M.G. Battalion and the 100th M.G. Battalion were attached to the Division, and placed under the command of the O.C. 46th M.G. Battalion, Lieutenant-Colonel D. Mathew Lannowe, D.S.O.
Two companies of tanks had been detailed by the IX Corps to cross over the Bellicourt Tunnel as soon as the Americans on the left of the Division had captured their first objectives. They were then to move down south on to the front of the 46th Division, when they were to assist the 138th and 139th Infantry Brigades, one company of tanks to each Brigade, in the advance from the Red line.
Forming-up was successfully carried out on the night before the attack, the 137th Infantry Brigade lining up on the jumping-off tape on a three-battalion front; while the 138th and 139th Infantry Brigades formed up some distance in rear on a one-battalion front, with orders that their leading battalions should occupy our old front line as soon as the attacking Brigade had left. These leading battalions were instructed to detail one company each to follow the assaulting troops closely and assist in mopping up the area west of the Canal. At the same time the battalion commanders were instructed to hold themselves in readiness to reinforce the 137th Infantry Brigade should this Brigade, having crossed the Canal, be in danger of being outfought in the trench system beyond it. The remainder of the supporting Brigades were instructed not to move forward until orders were received from Divisional Headquarters.
Zero hour was fixed for 5.50 a.m. on September 29th.
Even without an intimate knowledge of the ground a study of the trench-map of the Canal defences will show the magnitude of the task which confronted the attacking Brigade. Well might the enemy be of the opinion that their positions were impregnable. As zero hour approached there was no thought of rest for the Staff who had planned the attack, and who realized how much might hang on the result of the next few hours. If the attack proceeded according to schedule, there was no end to the possibilities opened up. Indeed, the end of the war would be brought very appreciably nearer. A successful attack on positions so strong as those opposed to us would be proof positive that the enemy's hopes of holding up the Allied ride of conquest by building a series of such dams across Europe were founded on folly. On the other hand, if the attack was vigorously pressed and failed, the chances were that the rôle of the 46th Division in the present war was played for good and all.
As the hours rolled on towards the fateful moment when the barrage was due to open, a hush of expectancy seemed to settle over the whole front of the Division. The enemy fire was fitful—an occasional shell, only, falling on such well-known targets as “The Tumulus,” Hudson's Post, or the roads and tracks through Ascension Valley, the most shell-torn area behind our lines. Our own artillery fired sporadically, guns having been told off to simulate an appearance of normal activity. Suddenly, to the minute agreed upon, the preliminary gun of the barrage boomed forth and, in a second, flashes appeared to spring from every square yard of the “gun-lines,” while a perfect tornado of furious sound, a hellish compound of the voices of guns of all calibres, rent the air and caused the very earth to shake. The enemy lines were already hidden in thick mist, so that the grandest sight of a modern battle—the striking of the steel storm on his front—was hidden from the sight of the watchers in our trenches, though the crash and roar of the exploding shells was proof enough of what was happening in front of us. As the barrage opened, officers and men of the leading Brigade gave a sigh of relief from the intolerable tension of the preparation; the men sprang from their forming-up positions and, led by their officers, poured down the slopes toward the nearest enemy trenches, keeping close to the barrage. In these initial stages of the attack, direction was maintained fairly well, in spite of the thickening of the mist due to the smoke from the shells, which soon produced an impenetrable fog. Keeping direction in an early-morning attack is a sign of good leadership at the best of times, but on this foggy day—when, even behind the lines so far back as Divisional Headquarters, officers and men were wandering about in vain endeavour to find their way—it required positive genius to succeed in leading straight to prearranged objectives. A certain amount of confusion did result from this fact, but fortunately the very nature of the obstacles to be encountered helped the advancing troops, and the Brigade fell upon the first-line trenches in fair order and fleshed their bayonets, killing most of the garrison, who, to do them justice, in spite of the barrage and their surprise at the unexpected attack, put up a stout enough resistance. Taking this first system of trenches in their stride and leaving stray Germans and individual strong-points to be dealt with by the mopping-up parties of the supporting companies, the Staffordshire men, with barely a pause to reorganize, swept on to the banks of the Canal well up to time, whilst the 1st Division, in accordance with Corps orders for the battle, formed a strong defensive right flank from our original trenches along the spur towards Bellenglise.
The enemy barrage fell on our trenches five minutes after the troops had left, showing that, while his batteries were on the alert, no particular attack had been expected. By that time, our troops were fighting in the enemy outpost line, and suffered very few casualties from his shells. His Artillery Command, however, were quick to realize that their guns were not likely to do much to hinder our attack unless the range was shortened, and, before our troops were over the Canal, they took the risk of shooting down their own men who would be intermingled with ours and, in a last attempt to smother the attack on the Canal, laid down a barrage just to the west of it. This was well-directed and powerful, and caused many casualties to all three of the attacking battalions before the Canal was crossed.
The attack was carried out on a three-battalion front, the 1/6th South Staffords being on the right, the 1/5th South Staffords in the centre, and the 1/6th North Staffords on the left. All three battalions reached the west bank of the Canal without too much difficulty, though here and there individual companies were held up by machine-gun posts and opportunity was thus given for the display of initiative by officers and N.C.O.s in overcoming these obstacles. The experiences of the different battalions at the Canal and beyond it, however, differ to such a marked extent that a clearer view of the action can be obtained if their adventures are considered separately and in detail.
On the right the 6th South Staffords attacked in four waves, each of one company, on a front of four hundred yards. Few casualties were suffered in overrunning the German outpost line, and on reaching the Canal it was found to be dry, or nearly dry, on almost the whole battalion front. What little water existed was on the left, and here officers swam across, taking lines with them, their men following without much difficulty on rafts, or by pulling themselves along the life-lines already placed in position by the officers. In the centre and on the right of the battalion front, the attacking troops waded across, or crossed by means of rafts of cork and petrol tins thrown down on the mud in front of them. There was a little wire under the water—where water existed—near the eastern bank of the Canal, but this did not give much trouble. The enemy defended the eastern bank of the Canal with bombs, and with machine guns which were sited in concrete emplacements so arranged as to enfilade the Canal. The sting had been taken out of the resistance, however, by the intensity of the barrage, which had been so heavy, so well directed, and so closely followed up by our Infantry, that in many cases garrisons of enemy strong-points and trenches were unable to emerge before the positions were rushed by the advancing troops. For a few minutes some difficulty was experienced in gaining a footing on the eastern bank, but, owing to the fog, accurate machine-gun fire at anything but point-blank range was impossible and considerable parties of our men made good their positions. The enemy then surrendered freely, prisoners being collected in batches and sent back under the care of one or two slightly wounded men.
As soon as the machine-gun nests and posts immediately on the bank of the Canal had been cleared sufficiently to enable our men to deploy, the officers sorted out their commands as far as possible, and the leading companies advanced to the attack of the Blue line, a continuous line of trenches with numerous and well-constructed strong-points.
Great as the task had been, the crossing was accomplished up to time; the reorganization of the companies engaged took place under a protective barrage as arranged, and the advance to the Blue line was commenced as soon as the barrage lifted, at zero plus one hour and forty minutes.
Here again, the troops were faced with an obstacle that might well have sufficed to hold them up for several hours and the trench system was very stubbornly defended, enemy machine gunners fighting well, many of them being bayoneted at their guns. Nothing could withstand the dash of the troops, however, inspired as they were by the splendid leading of their officers. In small parties and protected by the fog, they worked their way up to within a short distance of the enemy trenches, then, rising with a shout, dashed in with the bayonet, the enemy giving way in all directions and many of them making good their escape through the fog, in spite of considerable casualties inflicted by the artillery as they retired.
At the Blue line, a slight pause was made while the much disorganized companies sorted themselves out as far as possible—N.C.O.s collecting small parties of men, and officers rearranging these parties into platoons and companies, and explaining to the section leaders under them their next objective in the attack on the Red line, which was commenced immediately the barrage lifted and permitted forward movement to be resumed.
A slight adjustment had to be made first, however, and the first and third companies advanced behind the creeping barrage, while the second and fourth companies turned aside, changing direction to the right and entering Bellenglise.
The organized defences of this village had meanwhile been dealt with as a possible menace to the attack to right and left of them. Special groups of heavy artillery had been told off to pay particular attention to them and, during the initial stages of the assault, Bellenglise had been so well pounded that the machine gunners and Infantry holding the village had had little opportunity to assist in repulsing the general attack.
Now, in accordance with plan—a phrase common enough in German communiqués but significant in the present connection—the heavy guns switched on to the villages of Lehaucourt and Magny-la-Fosse, which lay within the objectives of the leap-frogging Brigades, and the Infantry rushed in on the village of Bellenglise and mopped it up, paying particular attention to the cellars and the entrances to the famous Bellenglise tunnel. It was from this tunnel that the 137th Infantry Brigade drew the greater part of the prisoners captured by them, nearly a thousand officers and men being discovered in this retreat alone.
Having thus accomplished their task the battalion, which had suffered surprisingly few casualties, proceeded to organize the Red line, in which task they were much hampered by enemy machine-gun fire from the eastern end of Magny Valley, until this harassing fire was finally silenced by some of our own Lewis gun detachments. Runners were then despatched to the rear with the news that the first objective had been taken, and the men found what shelter they could and settled down to rest, prepared to repulse a counter-attack should any be made.
The centre battalion, the 1/5th South Staffords, who were detailed to attack on a somewhat wider front than the troops on their right, formed up with two companies in line, each on a frontage of 500 yards.
Owing to the severe casualties this battalion had suffered while repulsing the enemy counter-attacks on the 28th September, the orders for the attack were altered at the last moment, the third and fourth companies being combined into one supporting company. When the battalion advanced to the attack of the trenches west of the Canal, the right company, owing to the fog and smoke, lost direction and bore slightly too far to the right. This error of direction was detected in time by the battalion commander, however, and under his orders the gap between the two companies was filled by a section of the 137th Trench Mortar Battery. Here again, little trouble was experienced in overrunning the enemy trench system west of the Canal, from which 160 prisoners were taken and despatched to the rear under escort.
The Canal itself contained at this point deep water and, no bridges being found intact, the men who, in common with all the assaulting troops, were equipped with life-belts in addition to their normal equipment, crossed by swimming or were hauled over by means of heaving lines and planks. It was in such a situation as this that the fog proved so invaluable. The farther bank of the Canal was strongly defended by the enemy with rifle fire and light machine guns fired from concrete emplacements, but at this period of the day it was impossible to see more than a few yards, and the enemy could not tell with any certainty where our troops were until they were right upon them, when the latter lost no time in charging, and quickly silenced the enemy machine guns by the destruction of the guns' crews. So quickly indeed was progress made, that comparatively few casualties were suffered in this very difficult operation. This was again in great measure due to the splendid leading of both officers and N.C.O.s. Any hesitation at this juncture would have been fatal and might have resulted in the total failure of the attack. It was absolutely essential for success that the troops should keep up with the barrage and make the utmost use of the fog. The courage and determination of all ranks was beyond praise, but, even at this high level, certain individual leaders did so extraordinarily well and showed such resource and initiative that their efforts had a marked effect in the storming of the Canal.
Such an instance is that of Corporal A. E Ferguson, who, after overcoming all resistance on the west side of the Canal, collected together his own section and a party of men from different units who had become lost in the fog, and personally led them across the Canal, scaling the east bank against considerable opposition, chasing the enemy down their own dug-outs, and clearing the trench line opposed to him. In this way, this N.C.O., with a small party of about fifteen men, was responsible for the capture of ninety-eight prisoners and ten machine guns. Another name which will remain associated with the capture of this portion of the Canal is that of Sergeant W. Cahill who, although unable to swim, plunged into the Canal and got across as best he could with a number of men he had collected round him. These men he at once led to the top of the eastern bank, where he found an Officer and a small party of our men in difficulties. Without hesitation he attacked the enemy, captured four machine guns, and held on to his position on the Canal bank until the remainder of our men had crossed and the enemy resistance was completely overcome.
The thickness of the fog had caused the companies at this point to be very mixed up indeed, and other similar cases occurred of parties composed of men of several different units being collected by an officer who had lost his own men. Second Lieutenant W. B. Brown, collecting a small party of twenty men in this manner, plunged into the Canal at the head of them and obtained a footing on the right bank of the Canal, capturing four machine guns and their crews. Having secured this post, he returned into the water and remained waist-deep for nearly an hour, hauling men across, then finally reorganized them and led them forward in the next advance.
In spite of the greater difficulty caused by the water in the Canal, this battalion also succeeded in keeping up with the barrage on the east bank of the Canal, and reorganized under the protective barrage, before advancing to the capture of the system of trenches beyond. Here the support company joined up with the advanced companies, and the whole moved forward to the Red objective, which was taken without further trouble. One of the companies of the battalion, at this time under Second Lieutenant C. Jones, who had taken over command of the company when his company commander was severely wounded, was detailed to assist the right battalion by clearing the northern portion of the village of Bellenglise. This he did so successfully and speedily that he was able to take it almost in his stride, and advanced with the remaining companies of the battalion to the final objective, after capturing eight machine guns and four field guns on his way. This enemy battery, like many others met with during the day, remained in action until the last moment, when they were surprised by our troops and captured. It is likely that the delay in limbering up and falling back was due in this case to a lack of knowledge of the exact situation owing to the fog, but it is noteworthy that, in this and in subsequent actions in which the Division took part, the enemy artillerymen, like his machine gunners, fought very well indeed. The former manned their guns until the last moment, firing over open sights at our advancing troops, and often fought bravely with their rifles when no longer able to use their guns with effect. Far different was their action from that of the Infantry, who, with a few exceptions, were demoralized from the first, and seldom put up a stiff resistance, surrendering freely, as they did on this occasion, as soon as there was any reasonable excuse for doing so. Had it not been for the machine gunners in particular the Division could have reached its objective very much quicker and with much fewer casualties than it did, though as it was the success of the attack was phenomenal.
Perhaps the most dramatic scenes of the attack on the Canal occurred on the front attacked by the left battalion, the 1/6th North Staffords. This battalion was given a frontage of attack of 800 yards, and formed up with two companies in line and two in support. It was known to the staff that the Riqueval Bridge on the left of the battalion objective was the main artery of supply for the German troops on the west side of the Canal and that this bridge had remained undestroyed up to the previous evening. There was therefore a possible chance of the bridge being seized intact, and Captain A. H. Charlton with his company were detailed to attempt its capture. This officer led his company by compass bearing towards the bridge, but when descending the ravine leading towards it was held up by machine-gun fire from a trench defending the approach to the bridge. Captain Charlton, realizing the urgency of the situation, took forward a party of nine men, captured the gun, killing all the crew with the bayonet, and then rushed the bridge. The sentries on the bridge and the pioneers who had been detailed to blow it up had been forced to take shelter from our bombardment, but seeing our men approaching rushed out to fire the charges. A race ensued, which was won by the assaulting troops, the nearest N.C.O. shooting all four of the Germans, while the officer seized the leads, cut them, and threw the charges into the Canal. Sentries were then posted on the bridge, and the whole of the company stormed across and mopped up the trenches and enemy posts on the east side of the Canal.
In addition to this bridge, on to the repair of which the 466th Field Company was immediately turned, the battalion was fortunate enough to find several foot-bridges over the Canal, and use was also made of a concrete dam of stout construction, from which the enemy's wire was quickly cleared. In consequence of the presence of these bridges little trouble was experienced by this battalion crossing the Canal, and our troops poured over so quickly that the enemy garrison was taken by surprise and was unable to oppose our advance.
The company first over the Riqueval Bridge itself captured 130 prisoners in one trench, including a battalion commander and his staff.
At the Blue line, when the slight pause for reorganization took place, the supporting companies passed through the advanced companies, who in their turn formed up behind them. The whole battalion then swept forward to the capture of their final objective, which was reached by the leading companies immediately after the barrage had passed over it and halted beyond. Here the battalion consolidated, sent up success signals, and despatched runners back to Brigade Headquarters to report.
Thus by 8.30 a.m., in the space of two hours and thirty minutes, exactly according to time-table as laid down by the Divisional Staff, the troops of the 137th Infantry Brigade had overcome enemy opposition west of the St. Quentin Canal, crossed that obstacle, and stormed through a line which the Germans believed to be impregnable, and which had been strengthened with every device that the Masters of modern fortifications could invent. Well might the men of the Brigade, resting on their objectives and awaiting relief by the supporting troops, feel content with their morning's work. Already some 2,000 enemy prisoners were on their way back towards the divisional cage, and a considerable number of machine guns and field guns were among the captured material. The casualties of the Brigade, including those sustained during the counter-attack of the night of the 27th/28th September, amounted in all to some 25 officers and 555 men. The majority of the wounds were due to machine-gun fire and were comparatively slight, and the total was amazingly small compared with the results gained, being in all probability considerably less than the total of enemy dead and wounded, exclusive of the prisoners already referred to.
Success exploited by the Sherwoods, Lincolns, and Leicesters
While the Infantry of the Division was thus engaged in making history east of the Canal, the administrative services behind were struggling manfully against adverse circumstances. The fog, which had so materially assisted in front, was here the cause of endless trouble and confusion. Elaborate arrangements had been made for the evacuation of the wounded and prisoners, but the fog, which from the beginning of the action had been enough to tender path-finding extremely difficult, was intensified to such an extent by the smoke drifting from the scene of action that it was impossible to see more than a few yards ahead. All landmarks were blotted out, and the boundary between tracks ordinarily well enough defined and the open country was indistinguishable. To make confusion worse confounded, the country far and wide was seamed with the occasional ruts made by transport wagons, which in clear weather had been accustomed to avoid tracks as being likely places for the enemy to shell, and to make straight for the particular camp or bivouac which was their destination. The result was that Ascension Valley and the whole region immediately behind the old front line were soon filled with columns of prisoners, returning wounded, stragglers, reinforcements and a medley of orderlies and odds and ends of transport of every description, wandering about in all directions, and with little hope of finding their way anywhere until the mist cleared. From time to time a slight clearing of the mist would enable men with their wits about them to sight some well-known landmark and to make progress in the right direction, so that gradually the whole mass worked away from the sound of the guns and so drifted back towards Le Verguier, Vadencourt and other posts, where they were sorted out by the Traffic Control, placed on their correct roads, and started off to their destinations. The stream continued, however, and until the fog cleared shortly after noon there was little relief in the situation behind the line. Much suffering must have been caused to the walking wounded through their inability to find the aid-posts prepared for their reception.
The effect of the fog on the Divisional communications was especially noticeable. A complete visual scheme, on which a great deal of energy had been expended, was rendered useless by the fog. Lines which were intact before the fog commenced were continually broken, more by traffic than by shell fire, and, once broken, it was a matter of hours sometimes before the far end of the line, which might have been dragged several hundred yards by transport, could be discovered. Still more difficulty was experienced in laying forward lines during the early stages of the battle. Enemy shelling caused frequent breaks in the lines as they were being laid, and the broken ends, hurled outwards by the force of the explosion, could only be collected and brought together with difficulty, by which time a “test” would betray the fact that a similar accident had occurred farther back, and the whole work was “to do” over again. The remaining resource of “Signals,” a system of despatch riders and orderlies, reinforced before the commencement of the action by a platoon of corps cyclists and a troop of Cavalry, was of more use. But even here trouble was experienced. The roads were badly cut up behind our lines and were non-existent in front of them, so that motor-cycle despatch riders were forced to work on foot. Here again the fog was a serious obstacle; Formation Headquarters were almost indiscoverable, and orderly after orderly left Divisional Headquarters not to return until well on in the afternoon.
In a similar manner, stretcher-bearers going out after wounded cases were again and again lost, and were in some cases several hours before returning to their unit.
One such case is worthy of particular mention as typical of the initiative which was perhaps the most characteristic feature of the behaviour of the rank and file throughout the action, and which helped to make the Battle of Bellenglise, which, like the Battle of Inkerman in the Crimean War, was essentially a soldier's battle, such a marked success.
Private H. Mosley, of the 1/2nd North Midland Field Ambulance, together with Private H. George of the same unit, were attached to the 1/5th Leicesters and followed them up closely in their advance. They then found a wounded infantryman, dressed him, and, having no stretchers with them, they took waterproof sheets from four German prisoners and made them carry the case, intending to make for the Advanced Dressing Station at Jeancourt.
On the way down, groans were heard from a dug-out, so Mosley went down and found six wounded Germans, who gave him to understand that our men had thrown a bomb into the dug-out. The two men dressed the Germans, and, taking waterproof sheets from a further twelve prisoners, they made up rough stretchers and forced these men to carry their wounded comrades.
They then carried on towards the A.D.S., but came across a tank which had been knocked out and from which they drew a wounded officer and two wounded men, whose wounds they dressed, and then made prisoners carry them also.
Near the St. Quentin Canal, the party had to take cover for some time owing to the intense shelling, and during this time three more of the prisoners were wounded. When again able to go forward, another party of twenty Germans was requisitioned and made to take their turn at carrying the patients.
On arrival at the Bellenglise Tunnel, Private Mosley then round four of our own wounded men and six wounded Germans. He therefore foraged around and discovered a party of thirty more German prisoners, dressed the wounded, improvised stretchers in the same manner as before and once more resumed the road to the dressing-station, which was reached without incident and without further addition to the convoy. This now consisted of twenty stretcher cases and seventy-five unwounded prisoners; quite a large enough command for two full privates of the British Army, and one which proved a source of some embarrassment to the British Field Ambulance attached to the Americans, to whom the command was handed over. A rolling stone may not gather moss, but on this occasion the wandering R.A.M.C. private acted rather on the principle of the snowball rolling downhill through fresh snow, and managed to collect as many prisoners as are normally captured as the result of a successful action of some size. The fact that no attempt at escape was made is a significant comment on the moral of the German prisoners generally, who in all cases showed a marked desire to reach the British cages.
Meanwhile Divisional Headquarters were anxiously awaiting some definite news of success, although all rumours pointed that way. The G.O.C. was, however, quite confident that once the Staffords crossed the Canal, he could rely on them being resolutely and closely supported by the Sherwood Foresters, Lincolns, and Leicesters. Every officer and man knew the task ahead and few orders were needed. There was no thought of failure, and every battalion of the Division backed up closely like the members of a trained football team.
At about nine o'clock the welcome news was received from General Campbell that his left and centre battalions had crossed the Canal, though there was no definite news from the right battalion. Later a message came in from Lieutenant Reid, R.F.A., commanding the Divisional Mounted Detachment, that a wounded sergeant had reported definitely that the 8th Sherwoods were crossing the Canal.
It was enough. Orders were instantly issued for the whole Division to press forward to the barrage and to advance straight on their objectives.
The Divisional Commander's confidence in his leaders was fully justified, and before the orders reached the Brigades the troops were already in motion. A great victory appeared to be in sight.
The whole Division was now definitely launched across the Canal. On the south, the 1st Division had gallantly and quickly carried through its task of protecting our flank. From the north reports were at first favourable but became more disquieting later.
This was, however, no occasion for thinking about flanks; a break-through was intended—and break through we did, holding every yard gained and taking every inch of our allotted objectives.
Perhaps at no time during the battle was better work done than the feat performed by the officers and guides who were responsible for bringing the 138th and 139th Brigades into position on their forming-up line in time for the final assault from the Red objective. Both west and east of the Canal the roads were choked with the human flotsam and jetsam from the battle, and with transport and details moving towards the front line. The fog was as thick as at any time during the morning, and on occasion it was difficult to see one's hand before one's face, while a great portion of the march had to be made over ill-defined tracks, which were difficult enough to pick out even in moderately clear weather. The compass had to be relied on almost entirely, and the only help received was at the various bridges over the Canal. Here Engineer officers with compasses were able to take bearings and to assist such small companies of men as had been separated from the main column, by giving them the direction they would have to keep in order to reach their correct positions in the line. Here again, as in other phases of the battle, the fog afforded unlimited opportunities for the exercise of the qualities of leadership on the part of subordinate commanders, and seldom indeed did these fail to make the best of a difficult situation.
The new forward move entailed a certain rearrangement of the Artillery, those batteries in position at a distance from our old front line being now firing at extreme range. To adjust matters, the Brigades moved forward immediately the Red objective was reached to positions already selected, where lines of fire had been previously marked out. The forward move was carried out most expeditiously, and the Brigades came into action again and were able to take their part in the creeping barrage when the advance from the Red line was commenced after the three hours' halt. Finally when the attack had recommenced, three more Brigades in rearward positions ceased fire, limbered up, and moved across No Man's Land, taking up positions between our old front line and the Canal, from which they were able to take their part in the final protective barrage. One of these latter Brigades was heavily shelled and suffered many casualties, and the personnel was withdrawn from the guns for a short time until the worst of the shelling was over.
During the pause between the two phases of the attack, the Engineers of the Division were engaged mainly in superintending the work on forward roads, both west and east of the Canal, and in repairing existing bridges over the Canal. In particular, it was discovered that the stout concrete dam, already mentioned as having been utilized by the Infantry of the 137th Brigade in crossing the Canal, might easily be repaired and adapted to take horsed transport, so with praiseworthy initiative Lieutenant T. H. Midgley, of the 466th Field Company, who had already distinguished himself by his dash during the attack on the Canal, at once set his men to this work. The bridges were repaired or adapted by the early afternoon, and, at 3 p.m., field guns and horsed transport commenced to cross the Canal.
The sections attached to the 137th Infantry Brigade had rendered the Riqueval Bridge serviceable very early in the day, and had withdrawn the demolition charges from several other bridges which had been mined by the enemy, but left by him undestroyed. One N.C.O., Corporal Openshaw of the 466th Field Company, R.E., was in the forefront of the attack on one of the German bridges, personally accounting for a machine-gun nest to the west of the bridge, bayoneting two of the pioneers who were guarding it, and receiving the surrender of the third, who was able to point out the position of the demolition charges.
In the meantime, the Engineers of the 32nd Division, to whom had been handed over all the pontoons and normal bridging material of our own field companies, were building the pontoon bridges over which their own transport and artillery was to pass that evening and the following day.
During the reconnaissance of the Canal bank and the strengthening of the bridges some 250 of the enemy were discovered and surrendered to the various parties of the field companies, and were sent back under escort.
Another piece of useful work carried out during the afternoon and the following day was the clearing of the Bellenglise Tunnel. In this tunnel many charges were found and removed, and, by happy thought, the German personnel who had been in charge of the electric-light plant were searched for, discovered, and set to work. The mechanics then readily divulged the fact that the German dynamo was connected to a mine, so that the tunnel would be blown up when the engine was started. From this admission to the pointing-out of the mine was but a small step, and the mine was removed and the electric-light plant set working. This proved to be in perfect order, so that the remainder of the search within the tunnel, which incidentally brought to light a certain amount of valuable and interesting signalling and other stores, was carried out by the light of a German electric plant worked by German soldiers.
At 11.20 a.m., the barrage commenced to move forward from its protective position in front of the Red line, and the troops of the 138th and 139th Infantry Brigades, keeping close behind it, advanced towards the line of trenches which formed the main obstacle on the way to the next objective. The country over which the fresh attack was to take place was of a much more open nature than that which had been the scene of the exploits of the Staffords, and the enemy's defences were not suitably sited for an attack from the direction from which he was now threatened. Towards the southern limit of the objective of the Division the St. Quentin Canal sweeps round at right angles and runs east and west for several thousand yards before bending back again in a south-easterly direction. It was along this portion of the Canal that the assaulting troops would now advance, the Canal itself thus forming a strong defensive flank. The principal support lines of the Hindenburg trench system were disposed parallel to the Canal, and thus ran more or less parallel with the direction of our advance. They had therefore already been partially turned, our troops advancing up them instead of in face of them. The solitary exceptions, and they were exceptions which had to be taken very much into consideration, were the strong lines of trenches running in front of the village of Magny-la-Fosse and the defences of the village of Lehaucourt itself. These were both very strong trench systems which mutually supported each other, though both villages might be outflanked by an advance along the ridge between them.
The advance to the next objective, the first Green line, which was carried out in the same fog as the earlier part of the attack, was, on the left flank, almost without incident, the Brigade meeting with little determined opposition and not having to employ the tanks allotted to it. On the right flank, however, very stout resistance was experienced from strongly-posted enemy detachments on the high ground to the north of Bellenglise. Here, the whole attack was held up by strong artillery fire from the front, while the attacking troops were galled by heavy machine-gun and rifle fire from the right flank. It was one of those moments when battles are won and lost, but the man capable of dealing with the situation was there to meet the emergency. Lieutenant-Colonel B. W. Vann, M.C., of the 1/6th Sherwood Foresters, seeing that his men were held up and that the barrage was gradually outstripping them, with a corresponding increase of enemy resistance, rushed forward to the firing-line, exposing himself without thought for his own safety. Running from group to group of his men and encouraging them with precept and example, he reorganized and led the whole line forward. By his prompt action and absolute contempt of danger the whole situation was changed, the men were encouraged, and the line once more swept forward, catching up with the barrage and proceeding without further hitch to the Green line. In the final assault on the village of Lehaucourt, this officer again distinguished himself, rushing the team of a field gun which was firing at point-blank range. He shot with his revolver one of the gunners who was on the point of firing and clubbed two others. The success of the day, in fact, was in no small degree due to the splendid gallantry and fine leadership displayed by him.
After passing the first Green objective, the fog commenced to clear considerably, and the whole right flank of the attack was much troubled by the enemy occupying the high ground to the south of the Canal. Machine guns from this direction swept our right flank continuously, and enemy field guns firing over open sights quickly put out of action all five tanks allotted to the 139th Infantry Brigade. This battery was in its turn, however, put out of action by a small party of our men, who, with great gallantry and on their own initiative, recrossed the Canal and shot or bayoneted the gunners. Little trouble from infantry was experienced from this direction, though several feeble counter-attacks were made, one mounted German officer making three separate attempts to rally his men and continuing his efforts until well-directed shots killed both himself and his horse, whereupon the men whom he was trying to rally immediately retired.
It would appear that here the enemy lost his great chance to retrieve the fortunes of the day. The 1st Division Artillery put down a heavy smoke barrage on this flank, which was intended as a protection against enemy action as well as cover from observation for our own troops. In the event the barrage did not prove thick enough to afford a screen for our movements, though the fog at first proved an excellent substitute. Certainly it placed an obstacle in the way of a counter-attack, but a well-organized counter-offensive, supported by plenty of reserves and carried through with as much determination as our troops had shown in the attack, might have placed the 46th Division in an awkward position.
The most charitable explanation of the lack of reaction which was so conspicuous a feature of the enemy's fighting during the day is that he was pinned down to his positions by the demonstrations made by the 1st Division, and was afraid to involve any considerable number of troops in case of our attack extending farther to the south. The ultimate objective of our advance on the right flank of the Division included the village of Lehaucourt, and, in the attack on this village, individual action once more played a conspicuous part. Lieutenant J. N. Wightman, of the 1/6th Sherwoods, having reached his own objective and taken several machine guns, two trench mortars and two field guns at small cost, led his men forward and pushed right through the village. In spite of opposition he managed to secure the bridge across the Canal, and succeeded in cutting off many prisoners and putting several guns out of action. He then organized his company for defence and retained his hold on the village until the arrival of the support companies, when the whole body moved forward and occupied the line of the final objective.
On the left of the attack the 138th Infantry Brigade, advancing from the first Green line, was faced by the strong trench system in front of the village of Magny-la-Fosse, beyond which was a sunken road strongly organized for defence with numerous machine-gun posts. In the capture of this line the tanks of the Brigade played an important part, cutting broad swathes through the wire entanglements, which here had been very little damaged by our artillery fire. Wheeling after their passage through the wire, the tanks then proceeded northward along the line of the trench and sunken road, enfilading them and giving the crews of the machine guns such a bad time that they fell comparatively easy victims to the Infantry pouring through the gaps in the wire. The tanks, closely followed by the Infantry, then advanced towards the village, and, after a little street fighting, the resistance of the enemy garrison was overcome. At 1.15 p.m. the battalion in question, the 5th Lincolns, reached its objective and reorganized, throwing out a screen of Lewis-gun posts, behind which the line was quickly consolidated. In the meantime, the 5th Leicesters, following the Lincolns, reached Knobkerry Ridge by 12 noon and halted there, while company commanders, in consultation with the commanders of the tanks attached to them, made their plans for the attack on the final objective. At 12.35 p.m., the battalion halted immediately behind the Dotted Blue line, and at 1.40 p.m., passing through the Lincolns, moved steadily forward to the capture of the second Green line, which was reached about 2 p.m. The work of consolidation was commenced at once, and at 3 p.m. touch was gained with the 139th Infantry Brigade on the right flank.
At 1 p.m. the Divisional Commander rode to the battlefield to congratulate the Brigadiers. The mist by then had completely cleared and the sight was one for which every commander worth the name had lived during the long years of the war.
As far as the eye could see, our troops were pushing forward; batteries were crossing the Canal and coming into action; Engineers everywhere were at work; large bodies of prisoners were coming in from all sides; and the men of the 32nd Division were advancing fast. The enemy were shelling the line of the Canal and Bellenglise, but no one seemed to mind.
It was indeed a break-through.
Thus the battle ended early in the afternoon with the complete attainment of all objectives, and, at 5.30 p.m., the advanced troops of the 32nd Division passed through our front line in pursuit of the retreating enemy.
During the following night, however, the Division was continuously in action, as both flanks were exposed to the enemy. On the morning of the 30th September, the situation was eased through the capture of Thorigny and Talana Hill by the 1st Division, while, during the day, the 2nd Australian Division on our left also moved forward. Towards evening, both Divisions having established touch with the 32nd Division in front of us, the 46th Division was squeezed out of the line, and all three Brigades were withdrawn for a well-earned rest.
The cause of the signal defeat of the enemy in the Battle of Bellenglise was, first and foremost, undoubtedly the fine bearing and splendid determination of the Infantry engaged. Superbly led, the troops at every turn did justice to their leaders. Other conducing causes, however, were the magnificent support given to the assaulting troops by the Artillery, and the opportune fog which completely shrouded all movement from observation by the enemy, nullifying to a great extent the preparations for defence, which were based on the existence of a clear and comparatively open field of fire for his enfilading machine guns.
As regards the work of the Artillery, it is difficult to find words to describe its excellence. To those of us who had the opportunity of subsequently examining the battlefield, the state of the enemy defences after the preparatory work of the heavy guns was a revelation of what heavy artillery could do. The Field Artillery, in spite of the fact that most of the guns were in “silent” positions and had not registered, fired a barrage which was one of the finest under which troops have ever advanced during the war. No cases of short shooting were reported, and the Infantry throughout moved with a confidence which was fully justified. During the action the majority of the batteries moved forward into new positions which had been selected in advance, but, so expeditiously were the moves carried out and so well had they been planned, that they made little appreciable difference to the intensity of the barrage.
The enemy's footing on the west side of the Canal was a feature which might have been invaluable to him had he contemplated offensive action, yet proved in the event to be very largely the cause of his downfall. He was obliged to keep several of his bridges intact in order to supply and reinforce his men on the west side of the Canal, and it was over these bridges that the main body of the 137th Infantry Brigade eventually poured to the attack of the defences on the east bank.
If he had realized the magnitude of the projected attack and had retired over the Canal in good time, destroying his bridges behind him, there is little doubt that our casualties would have been immensely greater. Indeed, the attack might conceivably have failed, though in view of the satisfactory weather conditions the latter is unlikely.
A feature of the German resistance was the comparatively small amount of artillery retaliation. A strong barrage fell on our old front line after the troops had left it, and the range was shortened in time to cause us considerable casualties before the leading Brigade had crossed the Canal. Such obvious places as Ascension Valley and other depressions behind our line, where concentration might have been expected, were also heavily punished throughout the morning, until the enemy was compelled by our success to remove his guns in order to avoid their capture, and had lost those guns he had failed to remove. The failure of the enemy's artillery to give a good account of itself must also be attributed to the fog. Had observation been possible, fire could have been directed on our marching columns and transport, and the 138th and 139th Infantry Brigades in particular must have suffered heavy casualties while advancing to their forming-up position on the Red line. The same cause probably accounted for the slight use made by the enemy of his heavy artillery. All his firing in the early morning at such targets as Bellenglise Bridge, Bellenglise itself, and La Baraque had to be done by the map. When the fog cleared later in the day, he must have been feeling very doubtful regarding the safety of his guns, and was no doubt engaged in moving a large proportion of them to positions further back.
It is difficult to estimate how far the fog which played such a decisive part in the winning of the battle was due to natural causes, and how far to the general effect of the bombardment, and in particular to the proportion of smoke shell fired in the barrage. Undoubtedly the latter tended to thicken the fog considerably, but a heavy and persistent mist in the early morning is one of the features of the weather of Northern Europe in the neighbourhood of open water at this particular period of the year. It is likely that the possibility of the occurrence of such a mist had been taken into consideration when plans for the attack were made. In any case, conditions could not have been more favourable.
The enemy had based his defence almost entirely on a cunningly-devised system of machine-gun emplacements arranged to enfilade the Canal and, where possible, the ground west of the Canal. From concrete emplacements approached from behind through winding entrances and with roomy dug-outs beneath them, the “Boche” machine-gunners could sit in comfort with a good store of ammunition, water, and food, and rake the Canal in both directions without the slightest trouble and with very little danger to themselves. Nothing short of a direct hit from a heavy shell would have made an impression on many of these small forts—for they were nothing else—and, theoretically, in clear weather, the passage of the Canal should have been pretty well an impossibility. Nothing is more significant, therefore, than the fact that as one strolls along the banks of the St. Quentin Canal one can see emplacement after emplacement, immensely strong, well-sited and undamaged by our artillery fire. Yet the occupants of these fortresses have long ago gone either to swell the death-roll of Germany, or to add to the number of German prisoners who are working behind our lines.
The extraordinary features of the defensive scheme on our immediate front and on our left flank were undoubtedly the Bellenglise and Bellicourt Tunnels. The latter was simply a cunningly-adapted tunnel of civilian origin, where the Canal for some three miles passes through a subterranean cutting. The only local interest this tunnel held was due to the reported discovery within it of a series of cauldrons, one of which contained a dead German, and which were said to be the outward and visible sign of the presence of a plant for rendering down the bodies of German soldiers—a “Kadaververwendungsanstalt” in fact. A close examination of the cauldrons, however, shows nothing to uphold this view, and it is much more likely—indeed practically certain—that the cauldrons were used for disinfecting soldiers' clothes or some equally legitimate purpose.
Far more interesting from a military point of view is the Bellenglise Tunnel, which is probably the best existing monument of that painstaking thoroughness which is the chief racial characteristic of the “Boche.” This huge artificial dug-out, the spoil-heap of which has half buried the village of Bellenglise, and which must have taken many months of effort and endless labour to complete, is an excellent example of the futility of a great part of the human effort the sum of which goes to make up modern war. The pride of the German Engineers' hearts, it was destined to serve merely as a shelter for several hundred demoralized soldiers, who remained safely ensconced within it until, on the arrival of a small party of our men, they delivered themselves up, glad to be finished with the war.
Both of these tunnels were capable of housing several thousands of men, and were absolutely safe assembly-places where the enemy could laugh at the worst efforts of our artillery. For offensive operations they would have been invaluable reservoirs, but for the defence of the Canal they were too close to the front line to be ideal. The fog and the indomitable perseverance with which our men kept up with the barrage and so prevented the egress of these reserves, caused the Bellenglise Tunnel to become simply a means of swelling the tale of prisoners captured by our leading Brigade. Thus was the work of two years neutralized and more than neutralized in three or four hours. By the next day the victors themselves were snugly housed in the tunnel, lighted brilliantly by a Boche electric plant tended by Boche electricians, safe from the raids of German aeroplanes, and doubly safe from the shells from the German heavy guns which were at that time again making Bellenglise and La Baraque their principal targets.
Four thousand two hundred prisoners and seventy guns, at a cost of rather under 800 casualties—such was the record the 46th Division had to its credit on the night of the 29th September. The effect on the moral of the enemy was to be displayed in the days that were to come. Never again would his Infantry fight confident in the idea that, if the worst happened, they had behind them an impregnable line on which to fall back and reorganize. They knew—and we knew—that, whatever the German papers might say, there could be no line to come like the Hindenburg Line, which had taken two years to make and on which all the resources of German military engineering and an immense amount of money and labour had been expended.
The breaking of the Hindenburg Line marked a definite stage in the history of the war, for it opened the way to a war of movement which could only end in one way. The 46th Division had done its share. Next day we were to learn that, simultaneously, the line had been broken along the whole front on which it had been attacked by the First, Third, and Fourth British Armies; with it was broken the backbone of German resistance and the faith of the German people in the power of the German Army. In this connection a quotation from the column “Through German Eyes” in The Times of December 11th is significant, and emphasizes, as nothing else has done, the importance of the action in which the 46th Division played a conspicuous part. There Professor Hans Delbrück—a German of the Germans—writes:—
“The turn in our fortunes began with the collapse of our attack on Rheims and the successful advance of the French north of the Marne. According to certain observations which had been communicated to me, Ludendorff had then already become very uncertain at heart. Nevertheless he and Herr von Hintze during the next nine weeks did nothing to ease our position politically—until on September the 29th Ludendorff collapsed and completed our defeat by the offer of an armistice.”
The 46th Division, in spite of many changes since it had arrived in France in 1915, was still essentially a “Territorial” Division in the fullest and greatest sense of the word. Nothing could exceed the wave of feeling and pride which swept across the North Midland Counties on the receipt of news of this—one of the greatest achievements of the war—for which their own Division was responsible.
Dozens of congratulatory messages were received from individuals and from institutions personally interested in the exploit of the men of their own counties, who were engaged in making history and in creating traditions to uplift the hearts of those who should come after them, while setting a standard for future “Territorials” to strive to equal. Such messages, republished in Divisional Orders and read by all the troops, could not fail to intensify an ardour and raise a moral, already well above the average. Perhaps the message which most touched the hearts and steeled the nerves of men who not so long ago themselves had thronged the playing-grounds and class-rooms of Midland schools, was one from the Mayor of Buxton, worthy of record in its intimate appeal:—
“Two thousand boys and girls from Buxton schools, Derbyshire, assembled in the Market Place to-day and saluted the Union Jack in honour of the glorious deeds of the 46th Division. They thank you for all you have done for them, send their love, and pray God to bless you all.”