Breaching the Hindenburg Line - Cambrai / St Quentin Canal (World War 1, 28 September 1918 to 5 October 1918)

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About This Campaign

Breaching the Hindenburg Line - Cambrai / St Quentin Canal

The final phase of the War for the AIF took place in late September early October 1918 in the area from Bony-Riqueval through Bellicourt and on to Montbrehain.  

The Hindenburg Line conformed to the track of the Cambrai - St Quentin canal which formed a daunting obstacle for much of its length.  It tracked under a ridge via the Riqueval Tunnel, so this feature took on particular significance.

These battles were notable in that many Australian officers and NCO were attached as advisers to the US forces involved in the attacks. A total of nine of them were awarded the United States Distinguished Service Cross for gallantry.

Bellicourt and the Cambrai St Quentin Canal

Planning for the attack was delegated to LTGEN Monash, the Australian Corps Commander, who developed his plan with his characteristic thoroughness. Monash planned to attack across the St Quentin Canal Tunnel (a width of about 6,000 metres) but Gen Rawlinson insisted the width be doubled to include an actual crossing of the canal itself. (See map below.)

Accordingly Monash was given 27 and 30 US Divisions to be under command and the 46 and 32 UK Divisions would co-ordinate their amphibious assault across the canal with the Australian/American attack across the St Quentin Canal Tunnel.

The attack was to be spearheaded on the 27 September by the two American Divisions the 30th US on the right and the 27 US on the left.

The Americans would be supported by 86 tanks and were tasked to capture the tunnel sector from Bellicourt in the south to Vendhuille in the north. (See map above.)

The two Australian divisions - 3 Division and 5 - supported by 76 tanks would then leap frog through the Americans for a further 3,500m and capture the Beaurevoir Line the last of the German defensive lines. (See map above.)

Throughout the attack the difference was the formidable Allied “Creeping Barrage” that was planned to fall on the German defenders in their successive positions. From the far bank of the canal to their final objective for every 450 m of front the infantry were to be supported by 50,000 shells.

Instead of capturing the objectives in a single day, which was the original plan the capture of the last objective the Beaurevoir line took almost nine days of almost continuous assaults. The major problem was in the north where the failed 27th US Division preliminary attack on the 27th September was repeated in dense fog on the 29th September when the 27 US Division was unable to capture the areas of the Knoll, Gillemont Farm and Quennemont farm as its attack faltered and stopped 2,000 metres short of the objective.

3 AUS Division was forced to leap frog through them early and as they passed through the Americans a member of D Company, 40 Battalion, AIF, noted:

The scene in the trench was appalling, great numbers of Americans were huddled in the trench their rifles and machine guns lay beside them. They made no attempt to use them as the Germans pushed forward with their counter attack. It was not because they were cowards, for they would have fought if they had known how. They lacked experience and discipline while under fire from seasoned soldiers with machine guns … …… … … the remaining Americans were placed among the Australians with immediate results as the confidence and expertise of the Australians rubbed off onto them. They threw into the work with great energy and in some cases suggested an immediate attack. They wanted to show us that they could make good, but we understood having at a heavy price bought our own level of experience.

BREAKING THE HINDENBURG LINE by WILL LONGSTAFF

By advancing early 3 Division was not supported by the creeping barrage and also came to a halt in piecemeal confusion and with heavy casualties.

In the south the American 30 US Division did better and the 5th AUS Division was able to advance to and capture Bellicourt while American units cleared the southern entrance to the St Quentin Canal on their right.

Meanwhile further south below Nauroy 46 UK Division achieved a stunning success in their amphibious crossing which was followed up by 32 UK Division which passed through the beachhead and by successfully turning the German’s southern flank helped the American and Australian Divisions in the north to resume their stalled attack and go forward and to close up to and break through the last objective the Beaurevoir line by 4 October.

Montbrehain

The last major operation took pace on the 5th October near Montbrehain.  The AIF was by this stage 'bled white' by casualties and spent such that some Battalions numbered only 250 men or so.  It was rested out of the line where it remained until the cessation of hostilities on the 11th November.

The Australian attack on 5 October was the last in which Australian troops would participate in the Great War. 2nd Australian Division had been brought forward following the successes of 3 and 5 Divisions in breaking through the two forward defensive lines and the exhausted Australian were taken out of the line to rest.

 

The 6th Australian Infantry Brigade was chosen to be the last Australian brigade to be employed on operations on the Western Front when, after a delayed handover to II American Corps the brigade fought for and took Montbrehain village. This highly successful attack is considered to be one of the greatest Australian actions of the war.

 

On the misty morning of 5 October, the assault battalions – 21st and 24th bolstered by Pioneers from 2nd Pioneer Battalion fighting as Infantry – attacked uphill from the little village of Ramicourt across five hundred metres of fire-swept ground. They scrambled through barbed wire entanglements, captured trenches, cleared dugouts and repeatedly assaulted machine gun positions “riding them down in a manner which delighted our men” according the 24 Battalions Diary. By capturing Montbrehain and holding it against determined German counter attacks the much vaunted Hindenburg Line was completely broken. The defence of this sector was then handed over to Americans troops, while the Australians, exhausted and depleted, were withdrawn for a rest.

By this time, most Australian troops had been fighting for six months without a break, 11 out of 60 battalions were disbanded because there were so few men left in them, and 27,000 men had been killed or wounded since the Battle of Amiens. The troops were tired and worn out and war weary.

Captain Francis Fairweather wrote in late September:

Unless one understands the position it would seem that the Australians are being worked to death as we have been going continuously since 27th March but they are the only troops that would have the initiative for this type of warfare.

Some Australian units continued to support British and US forces until early November, and the Australian Flying Corps (which had remained an independent force, even though small compared with the Royal Air Force) also stayed in action until the war's end.

The last Australian casualties killed in action took place among these two groups of men;  four Engineers of the 1st Tunnelling Company died in support of British operations in the vicinity of the Sambre -Oise Canal, and four aviators of No. 4 Squadron AFC all met their fate on 4 November 1918;  the last Australian personnel killed in action.

 

Steve Larkins  Nov 2017

 

 

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Stories

Australian Advisers to US Forces awarded the Distinguished Service Cross

The Distinguished Service Cross was established by Act of Congress July 9, 1918

(amended by Act of July 25, 1963), 10 U.S.C. 3742.

It is awarded to a person who, while serving in any capacity with the Army, distinguishes himself or herself by extraordinary heroism not justifying the award of a Medal of Honor while engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States; while engaged in military operations involving conflict with an opposing force, or while serving with friendly foreign forces engaged in an armed conflict against an opposing Armed Force in which the United States is not a belligerent party.

The act or acts of heroism must have been so notable and have involved risk of life so extraordinary as to set the individual apart from his comrades.1

BRADY, Lieutenant Vincent John Joseph

13th Australian Field Artillery Brigade, AIF

CADDY, Sergeant Thomas Ernest

43rd Australian Infantry Battalion, AIF 

ERRINGTON, Sergeant Arthur

32nd Australian Infantry Battalion, AIF 

HILL, Lieutenant John Holroyd

50th Australian Infantry Battalion, AIF 

MORISSET, Captain Vaux Liddiard

31st Australian Infantry Battalion, AIF 

PADGETT, Lance-Corporal John Rush

44th Australian Infantry Battalion, AIF

PARKES, Private Thomas

55th Australian Infantry Battalion, AIF

RODAKIS, Sergeant Nicholas

4th Australian Machine Gun Company, AIF

TREWARN, Private Frederick

5th Machine Gun Battalion, AIF 

1    Title 32 - National Defense. Subtitle A - Department of Defense (Continued). Chapter V - Department Of The Army. Subchapter F - Personnel. Part 578 - Decorations, Medals, Ribbons, And Similar Devices. - General.

 

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Names

Showing 8 people of interest from campaign

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BENSON, Spencer Adrian

Service number Officer
Captain
54th Infantry Battalion
AIF WW1
Born 5 Nov 1894

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STEPHENS, George (George Edwin)

Service number 2394
Private
22nd Infantry Battalion
AIF WW1
Born 1897

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BRANSON, Charles Henry

Service number 661
Private
41st Infantry Battalion
AIF WW1
Born Jun 1890

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CAHILL, Victor Michael

Service number 2382A
Private
38th Infantry Battalion
AIF WW1
Born 1898

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MACULLY (MCCULLY), Arnold Alexander

Service number 5689
Gunner
14th Field Artillery Brigade
AIF WW1
Born 16 Jul 1894

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TUBB, Frederick Harold

Service number Officer
Major
7th Infantry Battalion
AIF WW1
Born 28 Nov 1881

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MCGILL, Roy Alva

Service number 6097
Lance Corporal
24th Infantry Battalion
AIF WW1
Born Feb 1895

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NORTON, Fred Arnold

Service number 6857
Private
27th Infantry Battalion
AIF WW1
Born 1893

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