Breaking the Hindenburg Line
Is it something deep in the English national soul, that fascination with valiant defeat in battle? It is a trait bound up inextricably with others such as doggedness in the face of superior odds; a determination not to bow down to an aggressor, no matter how mighty he may be; a resolve to stay loyal to our pals and not abandon them when endangered; and a refusal to cry for quarter even when outnumbered and facing certain death.
Those characteristics are deeply rooted and are at the heart of an epic Anglo-Saxon poem recounting the Battle of Maldon in 991. England was but a new nation, having been hammered into being over the previous century upon the anvil of conflict between Anglo Saxons and Vikings. Now, renewed Viking raids threatened the independence of England, ruled as it was by a weak king, Ethelred the Unready.
But if he was prepared to pay off the invaders with Danegeld, his people were not so feeble, as were shown by the men of Essex. Led by their ealdorman, Byrhtnoth, they faced up to a larger Viking force at the River Blackwater. The fearless earl ordered his men to drive away their horses, ensuring that there could be no retreat. Deaf to the threats of the Danes and their demands to be paid off, he then placed three strong warriors on the causeway across the river to hold off the enemy.
Fair even in the midst of a bloody fight, Byrhtnoth harked to the Viking’s calls for them to be allowed across the river to join full combat – and chivalrously he gave up his defensive strongpoint. Fierce battle was joined and at last the earl was felled. A few of his men fled, but the greater part vowed to fight on to the death. And so they did.
The manner of their deaths was so courageous and so defiant that it was they, the defeated, who were recalled in a wonderful poem of alliterative verse, only part of which has survived. The final verses tell of how the last of the proud thanes went forth: “Brave men – hastened eagerly, And willed they all – for one of two things: their lives to lose, or their loved lord to avenge”.
Echoes of the Battle of Maldon abound in English and indeed in British history: from the Charge of the Light Brigade in 1854 during the Crimean War to the death of General Gordon when Khartoum in the Sudan fell to the Mahdi’s forces in 1885; and from the Retreat from Mons in 1914 to the Evacuation from Dunkirk in 1940.
Yet with such a fascination for glorious failure, stubborn resistance and gallant death, too often we know too little about remarkable victories that should be acclaimed. One such came on September 29, 1918 when the last German defensive barrier on the Western Front was broken. This was the much-vaunted Hindenburg Line and the soldiers who forced their way through it were men of 137th Staffordshire Brigade.
By storming the formidable enemy position on the St Quentin Canal at Belleglise, soldiers mostly from in and around Wolverhampton, Walsall, Burton-on-Trent and Hanley heralded a catastrophic defeat for the Germans and the imminent end of the First World War. Within ten days of the breach, the British had captured 36,000 prisoners of war and 380 guns – by which time the German Government had resigned and its Army had been weakened so badly that General Ludendorff realised that an end to the war had to be sought. The Armistice followed quickly and at 11.00 am on November 11 1918 hostilities on the Western Front ceased.
The 137th Staffordshire Brigade that had made such a vital and momentous contribution to victory belonged to the 46th North Midland Division. It was one of the fourteen peace-time divisions of the Territorial Force, which had been organised in 1908 with the aim of training part-time soldiers for home defence in the event of war; and it also included battalions of men from the Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Lincolnshire.
As for the 137th Staffordshire Brigade it was made up of four battalions: two each from North and South Staffordshire. The 5th South Staffordshire Regiment had its headquarters and four companies at Walsall, with other companies at Bloxwich, Hednesford, Handsworth and Wednesbury; whilst the 6th battalion was based in Wolverhampton, where it had three companies, with others in Willenhall, Sedgley, Darlaston, Bilston and Tettenhall.
Like all Territorial soldiers, the men of the 46th North Midland Division were mobilised when was declared on August 4, 1914. Its 18,000 infantrymen, gunners, engineers, and medics then trained strenuously until early March 1915 when they were shipped to France – thus becoming the first complete Territorial Division to take the field.
By now the two Staffordshire battalions had become the 1/5th and 1/6th. Unlike regular Army units that could be reinforced from the Depot and Special Reserve, the Territorial Force had to find its own reserves. In the case of the Staffordshire battalions these were the newlyformed 2/5th and 2/6th, and later – after these units were made ready for active service – the 3/5th and 3/6th.
After a period in the trenches at Messines, the 46th North Midland Division was moved to the Ypres Salient – that bulge of British-held territory in the German line. Then, at the start of October 1915, the Division was moved south to take part in the Battle of Loos. On the 13th they attacked the Hohenzollern Redoubt, a most forbidding fortification that was linked to the German lines behind it by two well-protected trenches called Little Willie and Big Willie. The 1/5th and 1/6th South Staffordshire Regiment were enjoined to capture Big Willie and then move on to take a defensive site called Fosse 8, a mine at the base of a slagheap.
According to James P. Jones in his ‘History of the South Staffordshire Regiment’ (1923), as soon as the South Staffs attacked they ‘came under a deadly cross-fire from three sides. With a rush they captured the main trench, but owing to heavy machine gun fire swift progress was impossible and the attack resolved itself into a struggle of bombing parties.’
Resolutely the South Staffs battled along Big Willie and ‘far into the night this soldiers’ battle continued, for it had become an affair of individual gallantry and endurance rather than any battle plan. Here, for three days, they fought and endured like the heroes of old, until they were relieved by the 2nd Guards Brigade.’
Casualties were heavy. The 1/5 and 1/6th had lost 31 officers whilst 695 other ranks had been killed or wounded or were missing. Blame for the terrible loss of life for but little gain was laid on the artillery bombardment which ‘had been insufficient to clear the obstacles and make progress possible across that awful ground’. Unhappily a lack of co-ordination was also to bedevil the 46th North Midland Division’s next major engagement on July 1, 1916 – the blood-stained first day of the Battle of the Somme.
The 1/5th and 1/6th South Staffords attacked the Gommecourt road and village as a diversionary tactic to draw German troops from elsewhere. Unfortunately, the Germans were well prepared, alerted as they had been by the eight-day long British preliminary bombardment. The enemy’s barbed wire was mostly impassable and its fire was intense. The 1/6th suffered severely. There were 239 casualties; whilst the 1/5th South Staffords suffered 219 men killed or wounded.
Contrary to popular belief officers both in the line and the high command did learn from the terrible lessons of the Somme and previous battles. In particular there was a realisation that there need to better co-operation and communication between the infantry, artillery and divisional headquarter; whilst ineffective, uninspiring and unimaginative senior officers had to be replaced.
The changes in the British Army were reflected in the success of the 46th North Midland Division on July 1, 1917 when it captured the mining town Lens. An intense and accurate creeping artillery barrage was accompanied by a machine-gun barrage – which cut the German wire, disrupted their communications and battered their defences. Unfortunately a German counter-attack won back the ground that they had lost – leading to an awareness that advances needed to be backed up by reserves that could consolidate the gains made by the attacking troops.
Then in March 1918, General Ludendorff launched the German Spring offensive. Its initial successes were dramatic and demoralising but though pushed back the Allies held on to Paris and the Channel ports – and then counter-attacked with vigour. In his penetrating study of ‘Britain and the Great War’ (1989), John Bourne pronounced that ‘Ludendorff had staked all on winning a victory of total annihilation in the West. He had lost.’
Yet the war still had to be won and won it was through a series of stunning Allied victories in the ‘Hundred Days’ between August 8 and November 11, 1918. The British, led by Field Marshall Haig, contributed greatly to this astounding change in fortune and by the start of September, the Germans had been forced back to the Hindenberg Line.
This was a seemingly impregnable defence system in north-eastern France made up of concrete bunkers and machine gun emplacements, thick belts of barbed wire, deep trenches, tunnels, dug-outs, command posts and fortified villages: yet it was broken at its strongest sector, the St Quentin Canal at Bellenglise, by the 137th Staffordshire Brigade.
In his book ‘The Breaking of the Hindenburg Line. The Story of the 46th (North Midland) Division’ (1919) Major R. E. Priestley, MC described what happened at Zero Hour, 5.50 am, on September 29:
The preliminary gun of the barrage boomed forth and, in a second, flashes appeared to spring from every square yard of the “gun-lines,” while a perfect tornado of furious sound, a hellish compound of the voices of guns of all calibres, rent the air.
This massive creeping artillery barrage included smoke shell to conceal the advancing British troops and a machine-gun barrage. With a thick fog also aiding them, the Staffordshire Brigade attacked on a three-battalion front: the 1/6th South Staffords on the right; the 1/5th South Staffords in the centre; and the 1/6th North Staffords on the left.
Their objectives were to overcome enemy resistance west of the canal, cross the Canal, break through the main defences of the Hindenburg Line on the east side, capture Bellenglise, and advance to a defensive position. This was to be consolidated so that the other Brigades of the Division could pass through to continue the attack.
In his ‘History’, Jones quotes an observer who was amazed at the swiftness of the advance:
The canal before them was some 50 or 60 feet wide, sometimes as much as 10 deep in water. It was a morning of thick fog when, behind the tornado of the barrage, the Midlanders, carrying lifebelts and rafts, advanced to the attack. Some parts of the canal were impassable, so the crossing had to be made on a narrow front. Swimming or wading, in some cases using the footbridges which the enemy had left undestroyed, they passed the canal west and north of Bellenglise, swarmed up the farther wall, and took the German trenches on the far bank. Then, fanning out, they attacked in rear the position to the south, capturing many batteries still in action.
Major Ferguson, in his ‘Story’, stressed that the courage and determination of all ranks was beyond praise, but even so some individuals stood out as resourceful leaders whose ‘efforts had a marked effect in the storming of the Canal’. One such was Corporal A. E Ferguson.
After he and his men had overcome all resistance on the west side of the Canal, he collected together about fifteen soldiers his own section and men from different units who had become lost in the fog. Corporal Ferguson led them across the Canal, ‘scaling the east bank against considerable opposition, chasing the enemy down their own dug-outs, and clearing the trench line opposed to him’. They captured 98 prisoners and ten machine guns.
Sergeant W. Cahill was another redoubtable NCO. Unable to swim, yet did he plunge into the Canal and ‘got across as best he could with a number of men he had collected round him. These men he at once led to the top of the eastern bank, where he found an officer and a small party of our men in difficulties.’ Without hesitation, Sergeant Cahill led an attack on the enemy and captured four machine guns. He then held on to his position on the Canal bank “until the remainder of the 1/5th had crossed and the enemy resistance was completely overcome”.
Second Lieutenant W. B. Brown was as brave. In the fog he pulled together a small party of twenty men and then ‘plunged into the Canal at the head of them and obtained a footing on the right bank of the Canal, capturing four machine guns and their crews’. With this post secured, Second Lieutenant Brown “returned into the water and remained waist-deep for nearly an hour, hauling men across, then finally reorganized them and led them forward in the next advance”.
With its objectives achieved, the 137th Staffordshire Brigade was able to let the two other Brigades of the Division move forward and continue to force the Germans back. The Hindenburg Line was broken and would soon be broken along the whole front. But none could take away the honour of the 46th North Midland Division, which drew a special mention in his despatches from Field Marshall Haig: ‘So thorough and complete was the organisation for this attack, and so gallantly, rapidly, and well was it executed by the troops, that this one Division took on this day over 4,000 prisoners and 70 guns.’ Lest we forget.
First published in the Birmingham Mail’s First World War supplement.