How the “Burton Boys” Won the War
San Quentin Canal/Bellenglise
The Battle that Won the First World War
The Western Front battles of 1918 started with the German Spring Offensive where the German army pushed the allies back a considerable distance, but they failed to capture the allied supply railheads before the offensive petered out in July.
August saw the start of what has become know as the “100 Days” that saw the allies push the Germans back through many defensive lines until they withdrew to the Hindenburg Line, regarded as the ultimate defines position built during the winter of 1916–1917.
September 29th 1918 saw the start of the battle of San Quentin Canal and involved British, Australian and American forces operating as part of the British Fourth Army under the overall command of General Sir Henry Rawlinson. The Third army to the north and the French First Army to the south supported the attack.
The Americans on the northern flank of the Fourth Army did not make their intended progress or take their intended targets.
In the middle, the attack across the San Quentin Canal cutting, also known as the Battle of Bellenglise, saw IX Corps launch its assault between Riqueval and Bellenglise. The assault was spearheaded by the 46th (North Midland) Division under the command of Major-General Gerald Boyd. In this sector the St Quentin Canal formed an immense, ready-made anti-tank “ditch” and the main Hindenburg Line trench system lay on the east (German) side of the canal. IX Corps had to cross the formidable canal cutting (which increased in depth as it approached Riqueval until its very steep banks, strongly defended by fortified machine gun positions, were over 15 m (50 ft) deep in places, and then fight its way through the Hindenburg Line trenches.
The 46th Division’s final objective for 29 September was a line of high ground beyond the villages of Lehaucourt and Magny-la-Fosse. Following a devastating artillery bombardment (which was heaviest in this sector) and in thick fog and smoke the British 46th (North Midland) Division fought its way through the German trenches west of the canal and then across the waterway. The 137th (Staffordshire) Brigade spearheaded the attack.
The ferocity of the creeping artillery barrage contributed greatly to the success of the assault, keeping the Germans pinned in their dugouts. The soldiers used a variety of flotation aids devised by the Royal Engineers (including improvised floating piers and 3,000 lifebelts from cross-Channel steamers) to cross the water. Scaling ladders were used to climb the brick wall lining the canal. Some men of the 1/6th Battalion (“The Burton Boys”), the North Staffordshire Regiment, led by Captain A. H. Charlton (Kings Bromley and Tatenhill), managed to seize the still-intact Riqueval Bridge over the canal before the Germans had a chance to fire their explosive charges. The 46th Division captured the village of Bellenglise, including its great tunnel/troop shelter (which had been constructed as part of the Hindenburg Line defences). By the end of the day the 46th Division had taken 4,200 German prisoners (out of a total for the army of 5,100) and 70 guns.
The assault across the canal met all of its objectives, on schedule, at a cost of somewhat fewer than 800 casualties to the division. The great success of the day had come where many had least expected it. The 46th Division assault was considered to be one of the outstanding feats of arms of the war. Charles Bean described the attack as an “extraordinarily difficult task” and “a wonderful achievement” in his official Australian war history. Lieutenant General Monash, commander of the Australian Corps, wrote that it was “an astonishing success…[which] materially assisted me in the situation in which I was placed later on the same day”.
Later in the day the leading brigades of the 32nd Division (including Lt Wilfred Owen of the Manchester Regiment) crossed the canal and moved forward through 46th Division. The whole of the 32nd Division was east of the canal by nightfall.