Topic: BatzWF - Westn Front
The Battle of St Quentin Canal
France, 29 September - 1 October 1918
The St. Quentin Canal from the air
St Quentin Canal, scene of an attack on 29 September-1 October 1918 by the Australian Corps commanded by Lieut.-General Sir John Monash, aimed at breaking through the main defence system of the Hindenburg Line. The German complex of trenches had been constructed mainly east of the St Quentin Canal (connecting the sources of the Somme and Scheldt rivers) to utilise that waterway as an additional obstacle to an attacker, except where the canal passed into a tunnel for nearly six kilometres through hills between Bellicourt and Venhuille; here it actually bulged west beyond the line followed by the canal underground. Monash was ordered to make his assault along this section of front, since the canal posed no obstacle at this point except that the tunnel possibly provided deep shelter for enemy reserves. The importance of this bridged approach was, however, obvious to the Germans and the defences of the area had been thickened accordingly.
Map of the St. Quentin region.
With the divisions which had taken the Hindenburg Outpost Line (q.v.) now in need of rest, Monash found himself with only two divisions-the 3rd and 5th-in reasonable condition for combat. For the operation contemplated, therefore, the Australian Corps was reinforced by two American divisions-the 27th (New York) and 30th (Tennessee)-which took over the left and right sectors of the corps area. These formations contained as many as three times the number of infantry available in any of the Australian divisions at this time, but the troops were newly trained and lacked battle experience. To overcome this deficiency, the 1st and 4th divisions were each required to provide about 200 experienced officers and men for an advisory 'mission' to assist in preparing the Americans for the coming operation.
Close-up aerial view of the high ground above the St. Quentin Canal.
In the plan which Monash devised-as usual, elaborate but carefully constructed - he decided to utilise the Americans to attack the first objective, the main Hindenburg Line above the tunnel, and also the second line a kilometre or more behind that. lie would then pass through the two Australian divisions to carry on the assault for another four kilometres through the third and final objective, the Beaurevoir Line.
Since concealment of the point of attack was an impossibility, a two-day preliminary bombardment was settled upon. Apart from' smashing up the defences, this would use a consignment of 30,000 mustard-gas shells just arrived from English factories. Tanks would also he used in the attack; 60 supporting the Americans in the first phase, 30 with the Australians in the second.
Captured German machine gun positions on the bank of the St Quentin Canal.
Monash's plan did not envisage flanking corps trying to cross the sections of canal on either flank, since he considered this likely to be too costly, but in the event Rawlinson directed that the British 9th Corps would make such an attempt at the Bellicourt end of the tunnel in the south. A major problem which quickly emerged was, however, the fact that the chosen start-line for the attack had not yet been secured, and would entail a separate preliminary operation to wrest control of the required ground from the enemy. This attack, launched at 5.30 a.m. on 27 September by a regiment of the 27th Division, failed-largely due to the Americans not heeding advice about clearing trenches and dugouts properly, and thus leaving significant pockets of Germans who emerged behind the attackers with machine guns.
The consequence of this botched attempt was that capture of the start-line became the first requirement of the main attack launched at 5.55 a.m. two days later. In the confusion of this advance, carried out amid thick mist made worse by smoke, the Americans were reported to be on their objective when they were not. The men of the 3rd Australian Division, going forward at 9 a.m. to begin the second phase, thus found themselves engaged in securing even the first phase objective. With all the tanks knocked out by mines and enemy fire, and use of artillery disallowed because of uncertainty concerning the positions actually reached and held by the Americans, the situation in the centre and left degenerated into a desperate struggle by small parties to overcome enemy strong points with Lewis guns and hand grenades. This fighting raged for the next three days on this part of the battlefront.
To the south matters had gone somewhat better. The 30th Division made good progress, thanks to the accuracy of the bombardment, and enabled the 5th Australian Division to pass through and capture Bellicourt village at the mouth of the canal. The situation to the north now placed this gain in peril, since German fire from this flank stopped any further movement forward. The battle might have lapsed into stalemate at this point, but for the astonishing achievement of the flanking British 9th Corps in getting across the canal and striking out halfway towards the Beaurevoir Line. This success threatened the Germans with being outflanked and forced their gradual withdrawal. The whole operation up to 2 October had cost the two Australian divisions involved 2,577 casualties, but the main Hindenburg Line had been breached.
The steep, wooded banks of the St Quentin Canal, in the Hindenburg Main Line, looking towards Bellenglise from near Riqueval.
Extracted from the book produced by Chris Coulthard-Clark, Where Australians Fought - The Encyclopaedia of Australia's Battles, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1998, pp. 162-164.
Additional References cited by Chris Coulthard-Clark:
C.E.W. Bean (1937) The Australian Imperial Force in France during the Main German Offensive, 1918, Sydney: Angus & Robertson.
The Battle of St Quentin Canal, France, 29 September - 1 October 1918
The Battle of St Quentin Canal, France, 29 September - 1 October 1918, Roll of Honour
Battles where Australians fought, 1899-1920
Citation: The Battle of St Quentin Canal, France, 29 September - 1 October 1918, Outline