Webmatters Title
Webmatters : The Battle of the Canal du Nord September 1918
Rough Map of Area

The Canal du Nord

XVII Corps

The 52nd Division had been so reduced in numbers during the preceding weeks that its task was reduced to getting across the Canal du Nord and making for the Hindenburg Support line on a 500 metre frontage. By 0730 hours (Zero had been 0520 hours) the canal banks had been cleared and by 1100 hours a bridge, capable of supporting artillery, had been put across the canal on the Graincourt road (probably in the same area as the modern one visible today).

The 63rd (Royal Naval) Division had inherited much of the 52nd Division’s objectives and at Zero found itself crammed into a 500 metre front, squashed between the 52nd Division and the Canadian Corps 4th Division on its left. As its boundary was the Moeuvres-Graincourt Road this meant that its front would widen considerably, to three kilometres, as it advanced.

Leading the way the 190th Brigade got across the canal and made good progress until halted by machine guns at the sugar beet factory on the main Bapaume Road. This was at the cross roads where you will see the sign for Sucrerie CWGC Cemetery (Sucrerie meaning sugar factory in French).

Attempts to take the position by rushing it were unsuccessful and the decision was made to shell it between 1315 and 1415 hours. Once that had been done, it fell without too much resistance to a combined attack by the 188th and 189th Brigades and the advance continued towards Anneux and Graincourt.

These proved difficult and so the 172nd Brigade of the 57th Division was brought through to deal with them. By 1600 hours they had been taken and the 63rd Division had completed its task.

It was, in theory, the task of the 172nd and 171st Brigades to continue 57th Division’s advance. They had been following up on the 63rd Division and their artillery had taken part in the shelling of Graincourt and Anneux but now as they were supposed to move forward the plans unravelled. The Germans were firing so many flares that the British signals were rendered unreadable and it took until 1800 hours to get messages sent backwards and forwards to coordinate the infantry. By this time the Germans were attempting to dislodge the British in a local counter-attack.

Eventually the 172nd Brigade managed to push another kilometre forward out of Graincourt but that still left the Corps left flank hanging a couple of kilometres behind the Canadians in Bourlon Wood.

VI Corps

The situation for the VI Corps was that the Guards Division on the left was required to negotiate both the Canal du Nord and the Hindenburg Line whilst the 3rd Division on its right had both already behind them.

Sanders Keep Military Cemetery

Sanders Keep Cemetery on the hillside

The 3rd Bn Grenadier Guards (2nd Guards Brigade) had little difficulty in taking the Hindenburg Line but the 1st Bn Coldstream Guards were held up by a machine-gun post under the rubble of the Demicourt-Graincourt Road bridge. This was rushed but the delay meant that they had fallen behind their barrage, and with the XVII Corps also lagging at this stage they came under flanking fire as well.

Captain Cyril Frisby and L/Corporal T Jackson were both awarded the Victoria Cross for the attack on the machine-gun post. Jackson was killed a little later on and is buried in Sanders Keep Cemetery.

Although the Coldstream Guards were forced to ground until the afternoon ,when the XVII Corps drew alongside, the 1st Bn Scots Guards crossed the dry canal bed with comparative ease and captured their section of the Hindenburg Support Line by 0700 hours.

At 0710 hours the 1st Irish Guards (1st Guards Brigade) passed through the Scots and advanced on the north of Flesquières where they came up against strong opposition from the sugar mill on its eastern side (The site is now Flesquieres Hill British Cemetery where you will also find the Cambrai Tank 1917 exposition).

The arrival of three tanks in front of the sugar mill had somewhat unexpected results. The three tanks were all knocked out but they ended up serving as a diversion for soldiers from the 1st Grenadier Guards (3rd Guards Brigade) who managed to sneak up on the defenders and forced them to surrender.

Lt Colonel Lord Gort, commanding the 3rd Guards Brigade had been forced to wait whilst the sugar mill was taken but that taken (about noon) ordered his men forward. By the end of the day they had moved forward about another kilometre securing Orival Wood in the process.

Lord Gort who was wounded twice during the day and was awarded the Victoria Cross for his gallantry in leading the attack on the mill, would command the British Expeditionary Force in 1940 during its retreat to Dunkerque.

Canal du Nord near Havrincourt

The 3rd Division’s engineers had been hard at work over the previous twenty-four hours in order to ensure communication was possible across the canal to the west of Havrincourt where it runs through a 30 metre deep ravine (even today it is an impressive view).

In front of the infantry was the Grand Ravin running out of Havrincourt Wood towards Ribecourt and the Flesquières ridge. A railway line curved its way across towards Marcoing and this formed the boundary between the 8th Brigade (on the northern side) and the 9th Brigade.

62nd Division memorial at Havrincourt
62nd Division’s monument at Havrincourt

The 9th Brigade were required to form a defensive southern flank because the 42nd Division of IC Corps was not going to start its advance for another couple of hours.

Throughout the morning both Brigades made steady progress though the 8th Brigade was subjected to heavy fire from the railway embankment.

The 76th Brigade then passed through the 8th finally reached Flesquières with the aid of six tanks. There it came under heavy fire from the same sugar mill that was keeping the Guards at bay.

Ribecourt was bombed by the RAF and set on fire but still offered stout resistance until 1130 hours when the 4th Bn Royal Fusiliers with the aid of the 2/4th KOYLI (62nd Division) managed to finally gain possession of the village.

Having reached the Corps’ second objective the 62nd (2nd West Riding) Division was now due to pass through and continue the advance. With the Guards still held up, the 185th Brigade suffered heavy casualties in reaching the outskirts of Marcoing.

The Guards would eventually catch up on their left in the area of Premy Hill but both Divisions were then subjected to a strong counter-attack which forced them back.

On the right, with units of the 187th Brigade already deployed in the capture of Ribecourt the barrage was lost and the subsequent failure of the 42nd Division to capture its objectives meant that the 62nd Division was not going to get much further than they had already managed.

IV Corps

Forming the southern flank of the Third Army’s advance the Corps had two Zero hours. On the left, half of the 42nd (East Lancashire) Division would start at 0820 hours whilst the remainder of that Division and the 5th Division would start a little earlier at 0752 hours. The reason being to allow the latter to gain the high ground to the south before the remainder of 42nd Division began their assault.

The Hindenburg Line ran almost diagonally across the front from top left (actually passing through the 42nd Division’s position) to bottom right.

The 42nd Division’s 127th Brigade made good progress despite losing four of its six tanks from the get go. On its right however, the 125th Brigade which had started at 0752 hours was stopped in its tracks to the left of Beaucamp by heavy machine-gun fire on its own front and from Beaucamp which the 5th Division had failed to take.

These failures meant that the 127th Brigade found itself sitting out in front of both its flanking units and was in turn forced to conform with the line now running between Ribecourt and Beaucamp.

On the first day of battle the Divisions with the shortest distances to cover were those that failed to meet their objectives. Much needed to be done on the 28th September.