Primary Documents - Sir Frederick Maurice on the Battle of the Canal du Nord, 27 September 1918
Reproduced below is an extract from the post-war memoirs of British General Sir Frederick Maurice (published in The Last Four Months, 1919) in which he recounted the events of the Battle of the Canal du Nord, which ran from 27 September-1 October 1918.
The battle comprised one of the closing actions of the war and was part of an overall Allied attack along the northern and central sectors of the Western Front.
General Sir Frederick Maurice on the Battle of the Canal du Nord, 27 September-1 October 1918
The British part in the great general attack upon the whole German front was timed to begin in the early morning of September 27th. On the evening before a great bombardment opened on a thirty-mile front, from a point about two miles northwest of St: Quentin, as far as the Sensee River northwest of Cambrai.
Then in the grey light of early dawn the 4th, 6th, 17th and Canadian Corps, thirteen divisions in all, of Byng's Third Army and Horne's First Army advanced on the Cambrai front, stormed the immensely strong Canal du Nord, swept beyond Bourlon Wood and Fontaine-Notre-Dame, the extreme limits of our advance in the first battle of Cambrai of November, 1917, and captured Sailly, more than six miles from their starting point, taking over 10,000 prisoners and 200 guns.
By this blow Cambrai was threatened from the north, whereas in the previous battle we had attempted to approach the town from the southeast, where the St. Quentin Canal was a formidable obstacle to our troops, and we had in one bound got sufficiently near to the railway lines (which converged on Cambrai and made of it one of the most important junctions in the hands of the Germans) to he able to deny their use to the enemy.
Ludendorff, in his anxiety to protect Cambrai, had been withdrawing troops from Flanders. Doubtless he remembered our experiences in the third battle of Ypres, and recalled the fact that the Flanders mud had there done more to check our progress than had the German troops.
The season was already far advanced and there had been a good deal of rain. The state of his reserves was such that in order to meet the American advance west of the Meuse, and the British advance on Cambrai, both of them blows aimed at his vitals, he had to take chances somewhere, and he decided to take them on the Flanders front.
He left less than five divisions to hold the seventeen miles of front, from near Vormezeele, four and a half miles south of Ypres, to Dixmude, and on September 28th this thin line was attacked and overwhelmed by the Belgian army, supported by some French divisions, and by six divisions of Plumer's Second Army, the whole under the command of King Albert.
The success won by the gallant Belgian king, who had seen his army cooped in for four years behind the floods of the Yser, and had only left it at rare intervals, living with his Queen in a little villa within range of the German guns and in a district incessantly attacked by the enemy's bombing aeroplanes, was startlingly complete and exceeded the wildest expectations.
The Flanders ridges, up which we had hewn our way at heavy cost in three and a half months of fighting in the autumn of 1917, were won in less than forty-eight hours. The French and Belgians, following up this success vigorously on the left of the battle, swept forward beyond Passchendaele, and by the evening of October 1st had penetrated almost to the outskirts of Roulers, while Plumer, throwing in three more divisions, drove across the Messines Ridge, cleared the Lys valley from Armentieres to Comines, and advanced to within two miles of Menin.
Thus Lille, like Cambrai, was menaced from the north.
While King Albert was putting the finishing touches to his victory the crisis of the great battle had been reached and passed. The bombardment which had begun on the evening of September 26th on the front of the British Fourth, Third and First Armies, had been continued on the front of the Fourth Army throughout the twenty-seventh and twenty-eighth, while the other two armies were fighting their way towards Cambrai.
During the final stage of that bombardment nearly one million shells, weighing some twenty five thousand tons, were poured into the German lines. This wholesale expenditure of ammunition took place during about one-tenth of the period of the whole battle, and on considerably less than one-tenth of the fronts attacked.
During the war of 1870-1871 the total number of rounds fired by the German artillery in the field amounted to 360,000, as compared with 4,362,500 tons of shells fired by the British artillery alone on the Western Front, and yet, so tremendous had the effect of the German guns appeared to be in those days, that Napoleon III told his enemies after his surrender at Sedan that he felt himself beaten by their artillery.
Science and industry have in less than fifty years developed man's power of destruction to an extent which makes comparison with the past futile.
With this artillery attack we reverted to former methods, and the reason for doing so was that immediately behind that part of the German front to be attacked by the Fourth Army ran the St. Quentin Canal, which merges near Cambrai in the navigable Scheldt, is capable of taking the largest barges and is unfordable.
With such an obstacle in their path tanks could not be used to prepare the way for the infantry, except against such portions of the German line as lay west of the canal, and against the two stretches where the canal ran underground, one of about four and a half miles between Bellicourt and Vendhuile, the other of about a thousand yards long just north of St. Quentin known as the Le Tronquoy Tunnel.
So the guns came into their own. It was long since the Germans had been subjected to such a dose of shelling, and many of their troops having come from the Eastern Front, or being fresh drafts from Germany, had never experienced a really intense and prolonged bombardment.
The moral effect of this cannonade was therefore very great. It drove the enemy into his deep dug-outs and tunnels, and prevented his carrying parties from bringing up food and ammunition to them.
At 5.30 a.m. on September 29th Rawlinson's Fourth Army attacked the heart of the Hindenburg Line on a front of twelve miles with the 9th and 3rd British Corps and the 2nd American Corps, with the Australian Corps in support behind it.
Debeney's First French Army extended the battle front to the south and attacked St. Quentin, while two corps of the Third British Army prolonged it to the north as far as the loop in the St. Quentin Canal at Marcoing. This was the decisive day of the great battle and was marked by many glorious feats of arms.
The 9th Corps attacked the St. Quentin Canal at and north of Bellenglise, the 46th Division, North Midland Territorials, leading, the men advancing equipped with life-belts, requisitioned from the Channel steamboats, and carrying mats and rafts.
Here and there they managed to cross by foot bridges, which the enemy had been unable to destroy, but the majority dropped down the sheer sides of the canal, swam across, clambered out and stormed the German trenches on the top of the eastern bank. Then swinging southward they surprised the enemy before he had realized the new direction of the attack, and on this one day the division captured over 4,000 prisoners and 70 guns.
The 2nd American Corps attacked the Bellicourt Tunnel front, which the Germans, knowing that it was exposed to tank attack, had fortified with especial care. The 30th American Division stormed through the intricate web of barbed wire and the network of trenches which surrounded Bellicourt, and breaking clean through this section of the main Hindenburg Line, carried the village, only to be attacked in the rear by the German machine gunners who had come out of their subterranean shelters in the tunnel.
The Australians coming up in support had to tackle these pests without the aid of artillery or tanks, for both the barrage and the tanks had gone forward with the Americans, but they overcame them, and another breach in the Hindenburg Line was effected.
The 27th American Division, attacking on the left of the Thirtieth, had an especially difficult task, for the westerly bend in the canal at Vendhuile made it impossible for the British troops farther north to keep pace with the advance of the Twenty-seventh, and its left flank was exposed to cross-fire of artillery and machine guns from the ridge northeast of Vendhuile on the eastern bank of the canal.
Two regiments of the division, the 106th and 107th, had therefore to fight desperately hard to safeguard the left of the division, while the right and centre pushed on to the village of Bony. Later the British 12th and 18th Divisions forced their way across the canal to the north of the tunnel, and relieved the pressure on the left flank of the 27th American Division which had beaten off repeated and fierce German counter-attacks.
On September 30th and on the following days the yielding enemy was driven back on the whole front of the Fourth, Third and First Armies. On the right of the Fourth Army the 1st British Division had, by the thirtieth, gained possession of the Le Tronquoy Tunnel, and crossed the canal to the north of St. Quentin, a feat as splendid as that of the 46th Division on the previous day.
Its immediate consequence was that the Germans retired from St. Quentin, which fell into the hands of the French on October 1st. The Australians, passing through the Americans, sent the right centre of our battle-front forward to within touch of the last line of the Hindenburg system, which ran through Beaurevoir. The New Zealanders and the 3rd British Division crossed the canal to the south of Cambrai, while the Canadians all but encircled the town to the north.
By October 3rd the Fourth Army had broken through the Beaurevoir line, and by the fifth the whole line of the canal, and the Hindenburg defences along it, were in our hands.
The victory was complete and decisive, and in winning it the three British armies had captured 36,500 prisoners and 380 guns. Thirty British and two American divisions with a British cavalry division had defeated thirty-nine German divisions, holding the strongest defences ever devised by the wit of man.
At last after four years of dogged effort the great trench barriers had been pierced, for between the British army and its objective, Maubeuge, there lay but one German line, which the enemy, believing the Hindenburg system to be proof against all assaults, had not troubled to complete.
This line lay some fourteen miles back, and its artificial defences consisted of nothing more formidable than a thin fence of barbed wire, with the sites of the trenches to be dug behind it marked out upon the ground. The victors of Cambrai looked out over rolling, wooded, and well-watered country with something of the joy and wonder which filled the soldiers of Xenophon when at the end of their great march they first saw the sea.
The leafy trees, the harvested fields, the green meadow lands and the valleys were to an army which had lived and fought for four years surrounded by hideous devastation, with the stink of the blood-soaked, battle-torn ground ever in their nostrils, more convincing evidence of achievement than tens of thousands of prisoners and hundreds of guns.
The effect of the three great blows on the Meuse-Champagne front, on the St. Quentin-Cambrai front, and in Flanders was, as Foch had hoped it would be, to cause the Germans to yield in the intervals between those attacks.
By the end of September the enemy had begun to withdraw between Lens and Armentieres before the left of our First Army and our Fifth Army, and there were signs of retirement from the St. Gobain bulge. He was at once pressed by the French and British forces on these fronts, and the battle thereupon enveloped the whole 250 miles from Dixmude to the Meuse.
Foch's great conception had been realized; he had delivered his big kick and the whole German front was crumbling under it. For a time, on the British front at least, the German morale broke down, prisoners were taken from the German infantry in great numbers and without much resistance, and there were signs of confusion and disorder in the enemy ranks, though the German artillery retained much of its efficiency and the machine gunners continued to fight with their old devotion and skill.
More important still, the resolution of the German High Command was badly shaken. There were no men in Germany to replace the tremendous losses in the field, and many of Ludendorff's divisions were reduced to mere skeletons.
He had piled up behind his front, for his great offensive, enormous stocks of shell, and of military stores, and had had neither the time nor the transport to remove them. The Allies had captured thousands of guns. The output of the German munitions factories was quite incapable of making good these losses, and he had ample evidence that the Allied factories had not yet reached the zenith of their production.
In September Haig had more guns, more machine guns, more ammunition and more aeroplanes than he had ever possessed, while the growth of the American army was daily bringing more and more guns into line.
With dwindling resources, Ludendorff saw himself faced by three great dangers: in the east the Americans, more numerous and efficient than he had believed they could possibly be, were threatening his communications between Metz and Mezieres; in the centre the British army had beaten the best of his troops in their strongest defences, and he had no more Hindenburg lines to stay its progress; in Flanders the Belgians, whom he had classed as capable only of defence, had won their way into the open and were fighting with unexpected dash.
Lastly, Bulgaria had collapsed, Mackensen was in dire straits and was clamouring for reinforcements to enable him to escape from the Balkans.
Under the pressure of these calamities Ludendorff threw up the sponge on the evening of September 28th. The next day he and Hindenburg met the Kaiser and the Foreign Secretary, who had come to Headquarters, and insisted on an immediate request for an armistice.
Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. VI, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923
A "dogfight" signified air combat at close quarters.
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