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

The Canal du Nord

A Canal under construction

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. From there as far as the village of Inchy the war and German occupation had stopped all work and the foundations remained only half dug.

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.

The Canal du Nord at Sains-lès-Marquion

The canal to day looking towards Marquion
In 1918 this section was navigable.

Obviously the Germans had not simply left their line of defence like that and they had built up three heavily wired lines (including the Marquion Line) on the eastern banks of the canal, and scattered machine gun posts in the fields and woods overlooking the approaches to the canal.

On the other hand their trenches were nowhere near as well prepared as those that the Canadians had already broken through.

There was one advantage that the Canadians held as they prepared to tackle the problem of the canal. Because the Germans had blown the bridges and flooded the marshland areas they themselves were in no position to counter-attack in the area of Marquion.

The Canadians were able to sit back, away from the range of the German machine guns.

 

27th September 1918

It was quite obvious to General Currie that a frontal assault on the canal would be madness but the orders coming from Headquarters were quite clear :

The Canadian Corps will force the Canal du Nord, take the Marquion Line, the village of Bourlon and Bourlon Wood. From this new position all possibilities of continuing the advance will be taken.

Currie chose to launch his assault in two phases : firstly, in front of and to the south of Sains lès Marquion, the soldiers of his 1st and 4th Divisions would cross the canal and seize Bourlon Wood — the height of which gave the Germans a major advantage in observation. Then, with the canal secured, he would widen the front with the British 11th Division on the left and the Canadian 3rd Division on the right.

Thus, from a front of only two kilometres Currie would force a breach in the German defence and open the front up to nine kilometres.

There were three objectives marked up on the maps : The Red Line marked the First Objective, the Green Line, the second and finally the Blue Line.

Obviously the Germans knew that the “English” were going to attack but they did not know the when nor the how.

To give his men some element of surprise General Currie decided to dispense with a preliminary bombardment.

Sir Arthur Currie’s plan was an extremely bold one and his superiors questioned his confidence in his soldiers’ ability to carry it off. He replied that he was in no doubts as to their capacity to deliver the Canal.

 

3rd Brigade Canadian Infantry

The 3rd Canadian Infantry Brigade was made up of four battalions :

  • 13th Battalion Canadian Infantry (Royal Highlanders of Canada)
  • 14th Battalion Canadian Infantry (Royal Montreal Regiment)
  • 15th Battalion Canadian Infantry (48th Highlanders of Canada)
  • 16th Battalion Canadian Infantry (Canadian Scottish)

Many of the Canadian Infantry Battalions were sponsored by Militia units back in Canada and it was from these units that they took their secondary titles and traditions. The soldiers from the three ‘Scottish’ battalions wore the kilt.

On the 27th September the task of the 3rd Brigade was to attack on a front of slightly less than a kilometre. On their right was the 1st Brigade (1st Canadian Division) and then the 10th Brigade (4th Canadian Division)

Whilst the 14th Battalion dealt with the lock and village of Sains lès Marquion the 15th Battalion would cross the canal a little further to the north in the navigable zone.

As already explained the launch base for this assault was extremely narrow and the infantrymen of the two divisions were bunched together under the noses of the Germans waiting on Zero Hour at 0520 hours. At that moment the silence was broken by the roar of the Canadian artillery.