The Official History of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade
Chapter XVII. The Battle of Cambrai and the Hindenburg Line
Chapter XVII. The Battle of Cambrai and the Hindenburg Line.
Part 1.—The General Attack.
Object—General line—Plan of operations—Nature of the German defensive position—Attack opens September 27th—Continued 28th and 29th—New Zealanders engaged—1st and 2nd Brigades penetrate to the Escaut Canal—Continued September 30th and October 1st—1st Brigade forces the Escaut Canal and takes Crevecoeur.
The hour had now come for striking the blow at the Hindenburg Line with the object of breaking a way through in the direction of the great strategic objective, the railway centre of Maubeuge.
The Fourth, Third and First Armies, in the order named, occupied a line running from the village of Selency (west of St. Quentin) through Havrincourt and Moeuvres, and thence along the west side of the Canal du Nord to the Sensee River at Ecourt St. Quentin. The enemy occupied the Hindenburg Line as far as the vicinity of Havrincourt. South of that village he still held some formidable positions forward of the main defensive system. To the north he held equally strong positions between the Nord and Scheldt Canals. Thus the approaches to Cambrai were well covered, while the bend in the enemy's line made it difficult to carry out, to the best advantage, an attack by the three armies simultaneously. It was therefore decided to open a very heavy bombardment of the whole line during the night of 26th/27th September, to be followed on the morning of the 27th by an attack on the left by the Third and First Armies only. Then, if success should attend these efforts, the Fourth Army would join the battle and strike at the remainder of the Hindenburg defences on its front.
The Canal du Nord, which was under construction at the outbreak of the war, runs northward about six miles to the page 397cast of Cambrai. The Scheldt Canal is also known as the Escaut Canal, or the St. Quentin Canal. It is the canalized Escaut River, and runs northward in a circuitous course to within four and a half miles of Cambrai. Here it takes a wide sweep to the west, and then back to the western outskirts of the town. Between St. Quentin and the village of Bantouzelle, some eight miles south of Cambrai, the principal defences of the Hindenburg system lay in parts to the west, but more generally to the east of the Scheldt Canal, which afforded cover to resting troops and to the garrisons of the main defensive trench lines during bombardment. About midway between St. Quentin and Cambrai the canal passes through the now famous Le Tronquoy Tunnel, 6,000 yards long, which was connected by shafts with the trenches above. The whole series of defences known as the Hindenburg Line, with the numerous defended villages and deep cuttings contained in it, covered a belt of country varying from 7,000 to 10,000 yards in depth, organized by the employment of every available means into a most powerful system, well meriting the great reputation it had gained. One of the outstanding characteristics was the skill with which it was sited so as to deny to the attacking forces effective artillery positions from which to bombard it.
The attack carried out on September 27th, as planned, met with instant and striking success. By the end of the day the British troops had passed the Canal du Nord, had reached the general line Beaucamp—Ribecourt—Fontaine-Notre-Dame and thence northward to Oisy-le-Verger, and had taken 10,000 prisoners and 200 guns. On September 28th, the advance on this front was continued and the line pushed forward in places to the Escaut (Scheldt) Canal immediately south-west of Cambrai.
On September 29th, the front of attack stretched from Marcoing, about four miles south-west of Cambrai, away south to St. Quentin. On this day, Sunday, the Vth and IVth Corps of the Third Army opened the attack at 3.30 a.m., in the moonlight, on an eight-mile front between Vendhuille and Marcoing. On the right, the Fourth Army attacked two hours later on a twelve-mile front between Holnon and Vendhuille, and the line of attack was continued in the St. Quentin sector by the French First Army. Of the New Zealand Division (IVth Corps, Third page 398Army) the 1st and 2nd Brigades were employed. Their attack on Welsh Ridge, La Vacquerie village, and Bonavis Spur, the last of the high ground west of the canal on our front, met with marvellous success. They penetrated a distance of from 5,000 to 6,000 yards into the intricate Hindenburg system, and reached points on the Escaut Canal, capturing 1,450 prisoners, 44 guns, and hundreds of machine-guns, yet suffering only 200 casualties.
Equal success crowned the efforts of other Divisions all along the line. To the Third Army fell the village of Masnieres and the crossings of the Escaut Canal between that village and Cambrai. On the Fourth Army front the capture of Bellicourt and Bellenglise stands out conspicuously.
The attacks on all fronts were continued on September 30th, when the gap in the Hindenburg Line was enlarged by the capture of Thorigny and Le Tronquoy Tunnel. The enemy, threatened with envelopment about Villers Guislan and Gonnelieu, south-west of the sector captured by our 1st and 2nd Brigades on the previous day, abandoned those villages and withdrew behind the Escaut.
On October 1st a great advance was made in the St. Quentin sector, many villages as well as the town of St. Quentin being taken by the French and Australians. In the Cambrai sector, our 1st Brigade took Crevecoeur after forcing the passage of the Escaut Canal, while the 3rd Division captured Rumilly. North of Cambrai the Canadians exploited their successes of the previous day, cleared the high ground west of Ramillies, and entered Blecourt.
By a series of minor operations the battle was completed on October 5th, by which date the right of the Third Army was able to cross the canal and occupy the Hindenburg Line to the east of it, thus greatly simplifying arrangements for the next great attack.page 399
Part 2.—Crevecoeur, October 5th.
New Zealand Rifle Brigade relieves 1st Brigade at Crevecoeur—Heavy shelling—Patrols—Canterbury and 4th Battalion companies cross the Canal and advance towards Masnieres Switch—Stiff fighting—1st Battalion's fighting patrols to the Old Mill and the village of Lesdain—3rd Battalion's patrols north of Crevecoeur—General results of the main battle.
In the minor operations just referred to, the New Zealand Rifle Brigade took part.* On the night of 30th Sept./1st Oct. the Brigade, in Divisional reserve, was disposed in an area actually in the Hindenburg Line two miles east of Trescault, and during the afternoon of 1st October we moved eastward to a position of readiness two miles south of Mareoing, transport being up with battalions.
* Lieut.-Col. R. C. Allen, D.S.O., assumed command of the 1st Battalion on September 30th, and Major Shepherd left for the United Kingdom on duty. Lieut.-Col. Allen, formerly of the Auckland Regiment, had been wounded at Messines. He had been invalided to New Zealand, but had now returned to the front. Major Murphy having gone to Aldershot for the Senior Officers' course, Major A. H. Carrington assumed command of the 3rd Battalion until the arrival of Major G. W. Cockroft on October 4th.
† At Crevecoeur, two Maoris of the Pioneer Battalion unofficially attached themselves to one of the companies of the 3rd Battalion. They expressed great dissatisfaction at being retained on non-combatant duties in the rear area—"0Te big men having to sweep te roads"—and exclaimed, "Why, Tommy he see us to big fellow sweeping, and he laugh! No good to us. We join to Dinks!" Notwithstanding a refusal to take them on the strength, they remained. Both, by the way, had amassed enough food to last at least a week. One was afterwards badly wounded on patrol. To the medical officer he remarked: "Just out for te walk on patrol. I stop one. But I get well—I join te Dinks again."
There had been very heavy shelling on Crevecoeur during the morning of the 2nd, and again during the evening of the 3rd, while the relief was in progress; and on the following morning there were signs that the enemy was about to deliver a counter-attack against the village. The expected action did not follow, however, and our patrols began to feel cautiously forward to ascertain the position and strength of the enemy with a view to a possible peaceful penetration.
Along our Brigade front the enemy was found to be very alert, but at 9 a.m. on the morning of the 5th, 2nd Canterbury reported unmistakable signs of the slackening of his hold on the eastern bank of the canal in the sector to the south of us. Major Barrowclough passed on the information to Brigade Headquarters and at once proceeded to essay the crossing on his own front. His left company, "C," under Capt. D. W. McClurg, was already on the eastern side, holding a position immediately south of Crevecoeur. "A" Company (Lieut. H. S. Kenrick) was on the western bank in occupation of two bridge-heads, while "D" and "B" were in support and reserve, respectively. On receipt of orders Lieut. Kenrick promptly commenced the forward movement, sending. 2nd Lieut. C. W. Rule's platoon against the northern bridge, while 2nd Lieut. V. R. Bernard was instructed to force that to the south. It was at once evident that if the enemy had really commenced a withdrawal it was not his intention to retire to any great distance. Rule's men crossed with comparative ease. Bernard's platoon, however, was confronted with a machine-gun post established in the lock-keeper's house, but this was successfully dealt with, and the garrison of eighteen men with their two machine-guns was captured and sent to the rear. The initial stage thus successfully completed, the leading platoons, followed by the third (for at this time the company, being only ninety strong, was organized in three platoons) pressed on with the object of gaining a footing in Masnieres Switch, a strongly-wired trench running due south from Crevecoeur, and lying from 1,000 to 1,500 yards to their front. They had not gone far before intense machine-gun fire page 401opened up from Masnieres Switch, as well as from vantage-points at the Factory by the railway-sidings to the north and at Bel Aise Farm to the south; and to this fire "D" Company, following in support under Capt. A. E. Brown, was also subjected as its foremost sections reached the bridges. Nevertheless the advance proceeded well, and, with the support of Capt. McClurg's men, who co-operated by working down the trench from the north, the leading lines effected an entry into the Switch at various points. On the right, however, the position was far from satisfactory, for the Canterbury troops, who had also crossed, were not in touch, and a counter-attack from the south appeared to be imminent. To meet this danger, Lieut. Kenrick took his supporting platoon up the sunken road leading to Bel Aise Farm, and with them formed a defensive flank, strengthening this with a platoon drawn from Capt. Brown's company.
Now came the inevitable direct counter-attacks on the two forward platoons in the Switch. The casualties, already heavy, became increasingly severe. 2nd Lieut. Rule was killed, his acting platoon-sergeant, Lance-Corporal A. M. Hyland, was mortally wounded, and two Lewis guns were disabled. Under the repeated blows the remnants were compelled to relinquish their hold and take up a position on the slopes some 200 yards to the west. Their advance had been greatly aided by the bold action of a Lewis gunner, Rifleman P. Manderson, who, working in the open, engaged the enemy machine-guns firing within 100 yards. Manderson now remained behind to cover their retirement, and, though heavily fired on, he succeeded both in this and in rejoining them later with his gun. The garrison of the new line, now so thinly held, was strengthened by the addition of the remaining two platoons of "D" Company; and the Canterbury troops, having driven the enemy from Cheneaux Wood, came up on the right, thus relieving us of further anxiety regarding the security of that flank.
In the meantime the 1st Battalion, in the centre, and the 3rd, on the left, had joined in the thrust forward. Under cover of patrols sent out by "A" Company, 1st Battalion, then on the forward edge of the village, two platoons of "D" Company advanced to attack a strong enemy position about the Old Mill of Lesdain, some 300 yards to the east. This was on a page 402slight eminence with a double escarpment, the first of which was successfully taken and held. Attempts were made to blind the position with smoke bombs, but it proved impossible to reduce materially the steady machine-gun fire, and the advance here was definitely hung up. The two platoons suffered 30 casualties. An attempt was now made to secure Lesdain, a village on the other side of the Escaut River to the south-east, with its nearer outskirts not more than 700 yards from those of Crevecoeur. For this task "A" Company was detailed. One platoon, under 2nd Lieut. W. Williams, worked down a small valley leading to Lesdain and took up a covering position. Two platoons then followed and were making ready to deploy for the rush forward through them, when a wounded runner crawled back with a message that 2nd Lieut. Williams and several of his men had been killed, and that the remainder were unable to move in any direction owing to the intense machine-gun fire which had suddenly opened up from the high ground to their right. Investigation showed that the platoons intended for attack could now do nothing but cover the retirement of their comrades, and even this latter operation could not be completed until after dark.
The ill-luck attending the efforts of the 1st Battalion had its effect also on the 3rd, whose patrols had made a fine advance of over 500 yards, for, both flanks being exposed, part of the ground captured had now to be given up.
Thus, except on the 4th Battalion's front, where useful deploying ground had been gained on the far side of the canal, the results of this attempted "peaceful penetration," which had been more or less spontaneous on the part of the units engaged, were inconsiderable. The information secured as to the enemy's dispositions and strength was, however, to prove of great value in the next set battle.
The casualties had been comparatively heavy, and the stretcher-bearers, amongst whom Riflemen J. G. Langrish, A. G. Smith and W. R. Douglas were conspicuous, had a trying time bringing in the wounded from exposed positions during daylight. Langrish himself was twice blown off his feet by shell-fire. Rifleman A. O. Williams, a 4th Battalion runner taking an important message to an advanced post, was severely wounded in the leg long before he reached his destina-page 403lion, but, though suffering great pain, he dragged himself slowly forward, and at last reached the post, fainting from loss of blood as he handed over the communication. A similar act of supreme devotion was performed by another 4th Battalion runner, whose name, unfortunately, has not been recorded. He was in "C" Company, and was a late reinforcement man who had only recently joined up. Sent back from his platoon with an urgent message to company headquarters, he was struck on the way by a shell which tore off one of his arms from the shoulder. Incredible as it may seem, he not only accomplished his mission but expressed his intention of returning with the answer! He was taken to the rear at once for medical attention, but sank and died before the dressing-station was reached.
The nine days' fighting, from 27th September to 5th October, had brought great results. Thirty-one British and two American Divisions had engaged thirty-nine German Divisions, had stormed the line of the Canal du Nord and broken the Hindenburg Line, taking over 36,000 prisoners and 380 guns.* "The enemy's defence in the last and strongest of his prepared positions had been shattered. The whole of the main Hindenburg defences had passed into our possession, and a wide gap had been driven through such rear trench systems as had existed behind them. The effect of the victory upon the subsequent course of the campaign was decisive. The threat to the enemy's communications was now direct and instant, for nothing but the natural obstacles of a wooded and well-watered countryside lay between our Armies and Maubeuge."†
* During the same period a great victory had been gained on the Flanders front. On September 28th a force commanded by the King of the Belgians, and comprising the Belgian Army, some French Divisions, and all of the artillery and certain Divisions of Plumer's Second Army, attacked from Dixmude on the left to a point five miles south of the Ypres-Zonnebeke Road on the right. By the end of the day the British Divisions had passed well beyond the farthest limits of the bloody battles of 1917, while the Belgians had made a corresponding advance on their front. By the evening of October 1st the line had been carried past Ploegsteert Wood and Messines, and was close up to Wervieq, Gheluwe and Ledeghem; and on the left the Belgians had gone beyond the line Moorslede—Staden—Dixmude. On October 2nd the enemy in the region of the Lys began to fall back before General Birdwood's Fifth Army on the whole front from Lens to Armentieres.
† Sir Doug'as Haig's Despatches.