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 Lieutenant General 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 27th and 30th US Divisions to be under command. The 46th and 32nd 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 27th 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.
The two Australian divisions - 3rd and 5th - 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.
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 27th 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.
3rd Australian 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 3rd 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 30th US Division did better and the 5th Australian 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 46th UK Division achieved a stunning success in their amphibious crossing which was followed up by 32nd 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.
The last major operation took pace on the 5th October near Montbrehain. The AIF was by this stage 'bled white' by casualties and so spent 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 3rd and 5th 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 (/explore/units/54) 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