In September 1918 the Canal du Nord was still under construction. In the north between the Sensée River and écluse No 3 at Sains lès Marquion the canal had been finished and it was filled with water. Below that the canal was still under construction as far as the Havrincourt Tunnel.
The canal would not be finished until after both World Wars in the sixties.
The canal was between twenty-five and thirty-five metres wide with an average depth of ten metres, a formidable obstacle then, even in the dry area.
Whilst the Canadians in front of Marquion were only now confronted by the canal (including a sector that was complete) much of the Third Army had already crossed it and it was only in the area of Moeuvres that the canal would pose a problem. In front of them, however, was the Hindenburg line. Perversely, because the Hindenburg system was anchored, in the north, on the Arras defence system the Canadians had needed to deal with that almost immediately back in August.
The great push by the Allies out of Soissons in July and Amiens in August had shortened their line, releasing the French Third into reserve, and brought the British almost back to where they had been at the end of 1917. In the intervening months tactical changes had been forced on both sides.
The Germans had lost their ability to apply their elastic defence (giving ground and then striking back) and the lack of reserves meant that the doctrine of yielding not an inch of ground was also out of the question. Instead, they had compromised with a system of light outposts heavily armed with machine guns and then a battle zone where the reserve divisions would be entered into the fray in order to block the attack (as opposed to counter-attack it).
The Allies were required to rethink their offensives as the ability to manoeuvre increased as the war (unbeknown to them) drew to its conclusion. The German Army was still powerful but it increasingly relied on its weapons, artillery and machine guns, as opposed to its soldiers who were neither as plentiful nor as well trained as they had been the year before.
We hear a lot about the waste of soldiers lives by butchering Allied generals sending their men over the top into the teeth of the German machine guns, what is often overlooked is that the German infantry were subjected to the same when they attacked.
The German infantry had been cut down in swathes by British marksmanship in 1914 but had won the day by their superiority in artillery and weight of numbers. In the spring of 1918 the well trained storm troopers had indeed punched holes into the Allied lines but their losses had been terrible. They may have had far more to show than the grinding slug it out fashion of the Allied efforts but, and it is an important matter to consider, they had not achieved the breakthrough needed. As in 1914, the German Army had shown itself to be a formidable fighting machine but once again it had failed to get beyond the Marne.
Within a matter of weeks of the events on the Canal du Nord the Germans would be seeking an Armistice. That does not mean though that they were broken. They still occupied part of Belgium and had certainly not been pursued back into Germany (as General Pershing, commanding the US forces, wished to do) but the two old world warring parties were exhausted. Neither had ever managed to truly break the other — that, sadly, would require putting a later generation through the grinder.
General Sir Julian Byng’s Third Army had carried out the Battle of Cambrai across much of this ground in November 1917 so it was familiar with what lie immediately ahead.
Byng planned his attack in conjunction with that of the First Army (General Sir Henry Horne) on his left, where the Canadian Corps had the Canal du Nord immediately to their front. The Third Army would initially attack with its three left hand Corps, in order to keep abreast of the Canadians objectives. V Corps would stand-fast.
Next to the Canadians, the XVII Corps were also confronted by a section of the unfinished Canal du Nord and would then run into the Hindenburg Support Line. They were to reach as far as the St Quentin Canal and seize its crossings. On their right the VI Corps would capture the Flesquières Ridge (where the failure of the 51st (Highland) Division had caused many of the knock on problems in November 1917) and clear the Hindenburg Support Line.
Both Corps had set ZERO Hour at the same time as the Canadians : 0520 hours, 27th September 1918.
The St Quentin Canal runs immediately alongside the Escaut River which will become, on crossing the Belgian frontier, the Scheldt — pronounced Sk-eldt in Dutch).
The IV Corps had the task of gaining Highland Ridge which ran from Gouzeaucourt down to Ribecourt. If it turned out that VI Corps managed to secure the St Quentin canal, the IV Corps were to continue on as far as Welsh Ridge just in front of the hamlet of La Vacquerie. Their ZERO was to be set at a few hours after the left wing of Third Army — in part because their own line was already slightly further forward than the others.
As already stated the V Corps would simply remain on stand-by, waiting to see how things turned out.
The planning may seem a little unusual as, in isolation, you might believe that the objective was to drive northwards towards Belgium (more so because the Canadians would reach Mons, where everything had begun for the BEF four years before). However, at this stage the drive towards Cambrai is still definitely west to east. As the V Corps were already well ahead of its compatriots in Third Army the others needed to catch up, before V Corps needed to move on.