Canadian troops constructing a bridge across Canal-du-Nord, September 1918.
Start Date: September 27, 1918
End Date: October 1, 1918
Critical battle in the final Entente offensive of 1918, part of an overall Allied offensive on the Western Front. The engagement occurred in the Nord and Pas-de-Calais region of France, in the extreme northern part of the country. The Canal Du Nord campaign, part of the general offensive that began the final campaign on the Western Front, commenced a day after the beginning of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive (September 26–November 11) to the south and two days before the attack on the Saint-Quentin Canal (September 29–October 8). The Canal du Nord attack was mounted against the strongest portion of the Siegfriedstellung (Siegfried Line, called the Hindenburg Line by the Allies).
The Canal du Nord area seemed an unpromising place for a major attack. The canal connects the Canal latéral à l’Oise at Pont-l’Évêque to the Sensée Canal at Arleux and was designed primarily to assist French coal mining companies in the movement of coal. Construction began in 1908 but halted in 1914 because of the war.
The canal itself presented a formidable obstacle for infantry and was almost impassable for tanks. The Germans had flooded some areas, but most of the canal was incomplete and dry. Nonetheless, the canal was more than 100 feet wide, with a 10- to 12-foot-high western bank and a 4- to 5-foot-high eastern bank. Behind the latter was the German Canal du Nord Line, a defensive position well equipped with barbed wire and machine guns, although the trenches here were not as deep as other German positions on the Western Front. Seven German divisions occupied the line, with four others in reserve. They held the high ground and could thus easily observe Entente preparations for offensive operations.
Entente forces committed to the offensive included Lieutenant General Sir Henry Horne’s First Army and General Sir Julian Byng’s Third Army. The goal was for the First Army, led by Lieutenant General Arthur Currie’s Canadian Corps, to cross the canal and occupy Bourlon Woods, the high ground on the left of the battlefield overlooking the village of Cambrai. Covered by the Canadians, the remainder of the First Army, along with portions of Byng’s Third Army, would then strike toward Cambrai and occupy this important German railhead and supply point.
Allied planners knew that the Germans would easily detect the buildup and aimed to conceal not the fact of the buildup itself but rather the timing of the attack. As a result, some artillery barrages began on September 18 and continued until the attack itself, but there was no major bombardment preceding the attack.
The offensive began on September 27 and achieved immediate success. The Canadian 1st and 4th Divisions, accompanied by 16 tanks, were able to cross the canal with minimal casualties behind a creeping barrage from 31 battalions of artillery. The Canadians were so successful that when the British 11th Division, to their left, attacked at noon, it crossed the canal unopposed.
By nightfall the Canadians had occupied Bourlon Woods and achieved the planned first day’s objectives. On the First Army’s right, XVII, VI, and IV Corps of Byng’s Third Army, starting their attacks in that order, also made substantial gains, although not as great as those of the First Army. In the Third Army sector, wounded Lieutenant Colonel (later field marshal and lord) John Gort rose from his stretcher to lead his men into a renewed attack, an action for which he was awarded the Victoria Cross.
On September 28 the Allied advance recommenced although more slowly, as the Germans were now fully alerted. The First Army pushed forward beyond Bourlon Wood, but more important, the Third Army reached the outskirts of Cambrai, essentially rendering the place useless as a German supply depot. After September 28, although the Canadians and British continued their assault, the main Entente effort shifted to the north to General Sir Henry Rawlinson’s Fourth Army.
The British suspended operations in the Canal du Nord area on October 1, by which time the First and Third Armies had driven a salient 12 miles wide and 6 miles deep into the German lines and captured more than 10,000 prisoners. The Canadians took heavy casualties: 13,500 out of 68,000 assaulting troops. British casualties were similar, and German casualties seem to have been about the sum of those for the Allies. Although costly for the Allies, this success at the Canal du Nord, coupled with their other victories along the Western Front and the Balkan front, convinced the German Army leadership that it could no longer win the war.
German heavy fortified defensive position on the Western Front. Called by the Germans the Siegfriedstellung, the Allies knew it as the Hindenburg Line. After the Battle of Verdun (February 21–December 15, 1916), German Army chief of staff Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg and German Army first quartermaster general General of Infantry Erich Ludendorff decided to stand temporarily on the defensive on the Western Front. To shorten their lines, increase defensive strength, and conserve men, Germany established a network of five linked, fortified zones named after Wagnerian gods and heroes. Siegfried, the oldest and most complex zone, stretched from Arras to Soissons. Wotan covered the coast to Arras. Alberich linked to Siegfried and stretched to Laon, Brünnhilde guarded the area of Champagne, and Kriemhilde (only partially finished) covered the area behind the Argonne Forest to the Metz. The Allies conflated these five zones under the term “Hindenburg Line.”
German colonel Fritz von Lossberg of the Second Army was the key figure in the development of German defensive tactics, an important principle of which was elastic defense. A thinly held outpost zone, about 600 yards deep, was designed to minimize casualties for defenders during an enemy’s preparatory barrage while serving to break up attacking infantry. Attackers then confronted the main battle zone, about 1,500 yards deep defined by two well-garrisoned lines of trenches reinforced by mutually supporting pillboxes. Often constructed of steel and concrete, these pillboxes were virtually impervious to all but direct hits by large-caliber artillery. After April 1917, third and fourth zones extended the depth of the position to 6,000–8,000 yards.
Carefully sited, the main battle zone exploited high ground as well as natural and man-made obstacles. Lossberg often positioned main trench lines on the reverse slope of hills, the crests being held only by light outpost forces to provide warning of enemy attack. Opposing artillery could thus not observe the defenders, while German artillery and machine guns could fire on attackers silhouetted on the crests. Besides ferro-concrete dugouts and pillboxes, a major feature was concentrations of concertina wire up to eight feet high. In seeking to avoid the wire, attackers would be funneled into areas already registered by German artillery and raked by machine-gun fire. German reserves waited just behind the battle zone, ready to stem breaches or to counterattack as enemy assaults lost impetus.
The Germans began withdrawing from the 90-mile Arras-Noyon-Soissons sector to the Siegfriedstellung in February 1917. By the time the Allies divined German plans, it was too late to disrupt or exploit them. The withdrawal, known as Operation ALBERICH, shortened the German lines on the Western Front by 25 miles, eliminated a dangerous salient, and freed up 13 divisions as a mobile reserve. A scorched-earth policy forced the Allies to advance cautiously across miles of shell-blasted, depopulated, and booby-trapped land.
Interpreting Germany’s withdrawal as a sign of weakness, optimists in the Allied camp concluded that the previous year’s attritional battles had left the German Army at the end of its tether. A concerted attack, concluded French Army commander General of Division Robert Nivelle, might snap it. Instead, the Nivelle Offensive of April 16–May 9, 1917, led to severe Allied losses and mutiny within French ranks. The defense in-depth system proved equally debilitating to the British during the Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele) (July 31–November 10, 1917).
Following their victory over the Russians on the Eastern Front at the end of 1917, in the spring of 1918 the Germans shifted to the operational offensive on the Western Front. The territory gained came at the price of nearly 1 million casualties and was less defensible. Lacking strong and meticulously prepared positions, the now-exhausted German units proved vulnerable to renewed Allied assaults reinforced by fresh U.S. troops. As a consequence of the Allied Amiens Offensive (August 8–15, 1918), Germany surrendered the initiative for good. Forced to withdraw back to the Hindenburg Line in September, the Germans lacked sufficient reserves to garrison it.
The Allies proceeded to show that they had learned from experience. Preceded by intense hurricane bombardments using high-explosive artillery and poison gas, infantry attacks now came with little warning, employed infiltration tactics, and were supported by tanks, aircraft, and effective creeping barrages. Combined arms tactics and continuous and sustained Allied pressure led to the exhaustion of German reserves. The French First Army, aided by the British Third and Fourth Armies, pierced the Hindenburg Line in a daring assault at the Canal de Saint-Quentin on September 29, 1918. A Belgian offensive also proved successful, and U.S. assaults in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive (September 26–November 11) broke through the Kriemhilde section of the line. Disruption of the Hindenburg Line in several areas by October spelled the end of Germany’s ability to sustain an effective defense.
The Siegfried Line ultimately failed, yet what the Allies remembered of it was the combat power of networked systems of mutually supporting pillboxes, the ability to conserve soldiers, and flexibility in providing rallying points for aggressive counterattacks. Flattering the Germans by imitation, the French developed their own version, the subsequently much-maligned Maginot Line, in the interwar period.
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