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

The St Quentin Canal

IV Corps

28th September 1918

On the second day of battle the major objectives were once again in the hands of the XVII and VI Corps (seizing the crossings over the St Quentin Canal) but this required that their southern flank had been secured.

42nd Division memorial at Trescault
42nd Division’s monument at Trescault

It was therefore ordered that IV Corps would commence its attack at 0230 hours and attempt to gain the ground that it should have taken the previous day.

On the 42nd (East Lancashire) Division’s front the early start proved to be a complete success. On a wet, dark night the attack caught the defenders by surprise and the Division with the 187th Brigade of 62nd Division on its left advanced to the Hindenburg Support Line with little opposition.

On its right the 5th Division encountered stout opposition once again at Beaucamp which held out until about 0800 hours. From their it was back to grenade and bayonet in the trenches as the 95th Brigade slowly forced its way forward through the trenches towards Welsh Ridge on the far side of Villers-Plouich.

Whilst this was happening the 13th Brigade on the right, which had suffered so many casualties that it was for the moment ineffective, had been forced to endure yet another shelling before being relieved by the 15th Brigade.

Then news began to filter in from the RAF that the Germans were retiring from Gouzeaucourt (on their forward right flank). The advance continued.

The 21st Division (V Corps) took the opportunity and pushed the line forward into Gauche Wood drawing level with the 5th Division.


VI Corps

Now that its right flank was becoming better secured the northern sector of the Third Army could begin its assault and it is perhaps worth mentioning that with the greater freedom of movement, now encountered on the battlefield, it was becoming harder for the artillery to know exactly where the Allied troops were.

The 62nd (2nd West Riding) Division advanced at 0630 hours as far as Marcoing and having cleared it set about trying to get across the St Quentin Canal. The lock gates in the centre of town (that on the D 15) had been destroyed leaving a muddy swamp but a party from the 4th Bn Hampshire Regiment managed to get across by the northern lock (which can be easily missed from the D56) whilst Royal Engineers got a bridge across the damaged lock allowing the 5th Bn Duke of Wellington’s Regiment to get across about 1100 hours. By the evening the Division’s line stretched around Marcoing Copse and back towards the 42nd Division (IV Corps).

During the night the 2nd Division had relieved the Guards and found themselves confronted by the same wide open fields that you can see today and for that reason it was decided that they would attack a little earlier at 0515 hours. Their objective was to break through the Marquion-Cantaing Line. This subsidiary to the Hindenburg System ran in a near straight line from Bourlon Wood, which can be seen from nigh on everywhere, to Marcoing.

The attack was a success and both Brigades were through the Cantaing Line by 0900 hours. On the right the 99th Brigade couldn’t get across the Canal but prevented the destruction of the bridges by subjecting them to harassing fire. On the left the 6th Brigade managed to get men across the lock at Cantaing and despite being counter-attacked in the small hours of the following morning managed to retain their toe-hold on the far bank.


XVII Corps

On the immediate right of the Canadian Corps (First Army) the XVII Corps had some catching up to do as the Canadians were about a kilometre in front of them.

Like the 2nd Division of VI Corps the 57th Division had the Marquion-Cantaing Line running diagonally across their front (The line had already been crossed by the Canadians as it lay in front of Bourlon Wood in their sector). Their objective however was beyond that — the Saint Quentin Canal. Once achieved, the 63rd (Royal Naval) Division would pass through and exploit any weaknesses.

At 0615 hours the 57th Division commenced its attack and encountered little in the way of opposition. By 0830 hours they had drawn up alongside Fontaine Notre Dame. From there the 170th Brigade passed through the two leading Brigades and continued on towards the canal. There they discovered the bridges strongly defended. Even so by late afternoon some troops had got across and secured enough of both banks to allow the engineers to lay pontoon bridges across the canal during the night.


End of Battle

Having gained a foothold on the eastern bank of the St Quentin Canal it was now important that the Third Army get its southernmost Divisions forward. On 29th September the Fourth Army (General Sir Henry Rawlinson) had commenced its own offensive to the south. There was no longer any need to guard the flank on that side.

The ground gained by Third Army looked a bit like the letter V with the base on Gouzeaucourt. It was time for V Corps to properly enter the battle in the area of Villers Guislain and Gonnelieu.

At 0330 hours (a couple of hours before Fourth Army was due to begin) the 33rd and 21st Divisions launched their assaults. Both were stopped almost immediately. The Germans having withdrawn from Gouzeaucourt during the previous day had been able to install themselves in their new positions.

Major General Sir Reginal Pinney, commanding the 33rd Division, is the General referred to in Siegfried Sassoon’s poem, The General : “Good-morning ; good-morning !” the General said…

On their left flank 5th Division (IV Corps) also made heavy weather of their assault on the Bonavis Ridge only getting forward by about a kilometre.

On the other hand the New Zealand Division, which had taken over from the 42nd during the evening, stormed over Welsh Ridge and made its way to La Vacquerie and the Bonavis Ridge by 1300 hours where they became mingled with units from 5th Division. The 1st New Zealand Brigade forced their passage through the Marcoing Line and by 0800 hours was secure in a trench about a kilometre east and running parallel to the main Cambrai Road.

In the northern sector, next to the Canadians of First Army, the XVII and VI Corps both succeeded in enlarging their bridgeheads across the far side of the Canal and breaking through the Marcoing Line. The important town of Rumilly however, remained well defended and resisted all attempts to take it.

The following days saw the Third Army’s role diminish as that of the Fourth Army became increasingly more important in the overall scheme of things. On the 30th September it was discovered that the Germans had withdrawn from Villers Guislain and Gonnelieu allowing the V Corps to approach the Canal.

The New Zealand Division now in the bend of the canal in front of Les Rues des Vignes seized all the crossing points but further to the north the Germans were evidently intent on trying to hold on to Cambrai and the other Divisions made few further gains.

The following day Rumilly fell and preparations were drawn up to cross the remaining sectors of the St Quentin Canal. On the morning of the 5th October it was realised that the Germans had withdrawn from the banks and bridging materials were immediately brought forward.

By the 7th October 1918 the Third Army front ran in a line southwards out of Proville to Aubencheul au Bois. The next tasks to accomplish were the Masnières- Beaurevoir Line and Cambrai itself.