The battle of Cambrai-St. Quentin, 27 September-9 October 1918, was the main British contribution to Marshal Foch’s all out attack on the Hindenburg line (the Hundred Days). It saw three British and one French army force the Germans out of their strong defensive line and back to the River Selle.
Foch’s plan involved a Franco-American attack between Reims and Verdun (Meuse-Argonne Offensive), a combined French, British and Belgian attack in Flanders, and a mainly British offensive between Cambrai and St. Quentin. Here four allied armies (three British and one French), under the overall attack of Douglas Haig, would attack the strongest part of the German line.
Haig’s four armies, from north to south, were the British First (Horne), Third (Byng) and Fourth (Rawlinson) and the French First (General Marie Eugene Debeney). On 25 September the British had 22 divisions in the front line, with twenty more in reserve. Amongst them were two divisions of the American II Corps, the equivalent of four normal divisions. Debeney had a further eight divisions in the line. The Germans had fifty seven divisions opposing the British. Rawlinson’s fourth army, which was to make the central attack, was faced by von der Marwitz’s Second Army.
The German defensive position had been carefully chosen towards the end of 1916. Long sections of it were based on the Canal du Nord and the St. Quentin Canal, which ran through steep sided 60ft deep cuttings. The British plan was to launch their main attack between Vendhuille and Bellicourt, where the canal ran through a tunnel. The elite Australian corps and the fresh US II Corps would carry out the attack. Elsewhere attacks would be made on the line of the canal, but less was expected of them.
The battle began on 27 September with an attack by the First and Third Armies on the Canal du Nord. They advanced four miles along a thirteen mile front, captured 10,000 prisoners and cleared the canal.
The southern attack began on 29 September. It did not go according to plan. A preliminary attack on 28 September had failed, leaving American troops in isolated advanced position close to German strong points. The artillery bombardment couldn’t fire on these strong points for fear of hitting the Americans, and nor could the first part of the advance be protected by a creeping barrage. The American attack was soon bogged down (although elements from the 30th Division were able to seize control of the southern end of the St. Quentin Canal), forcing the Australians to join in much sooner than expected. The attack on the St. Quentin Canal was in serious trouble.
Further south the canal itself was also under attack. IX Corps had prepared carefully for the water crossing, providing their men with collapsible boats, life jackets and even floating piers, in the expectation that the Germans would destroy every bridge over the canal. Instead, as the 46th (North Midland) Division advanced towards the canal they realised that the bridge at Riquaval was still intact. The 137th (Staffordshire) Brigade captured the western bank of the canal, and the 1/6th North Staffords rushed the bridge. By the end of the day two divisions were across the canal, and IX Corps had captured four miles of the main Hindenburg Line. The attack at Riquaval produced one of the most famous pictures of the war, taken on 2 October 1918 and showing the men of the 137th Brigade lining the steep banks of the cutting listening to a speech by Brigadier-General J V Campbell.
The following day the 3rd Army were in the western suburbs of Cambrai and by 2 October the line of the St. Quentin Canal had been captured. General Max von Boehm, commanding the local German army group, was forced to retreat to a new line running south from Cambrai.
This line only held for a few days. On 8 October the British Third and Fourth and French First Armies, launched a set-piece attack along a 17 mile front, forcing the Germans out of the new line. Cambrai was liberated on 9 October, and the Germans forced back to a new line on the River Selle, near Le Cateau. The BEF was returning to the battlefields of 1914.
The battle of Cambrai-St. Quentin is also know as the battle for the Hindenburg Line. Officially it was the battles for the Hindenburg Line, further broken down into the battle of the Canal du Nord, 27 September-1 October 1918 (the British First and Second Armies) and the battle of the St. Quentin Canal, 29 September-2 October 1918 (the Fourth and French First Armies), followed by the battle of Beaurevoir, 3-6 October 1918 and then the battle of Cambrai of 1918, 8-9 October 1918.
After 9 October the fighting died down for a few days while the British prepared to attack the line of the Selle. Having pushed the Germans out of their main defensive lines, Haig was determined not to give them the time to create strong new positions. The battles of the Selle, 17-25 October, Valenciennes, 1-2 November 1918 and the Sambre, 4 November 1918, followed by the Pursuit to Mons, 4-11 November 1918, saw the Germans pushed out of a series of defensive positions, until on the morning of 11 November the Canadians entered Mons, just in advance of the armistice.