The men who ‘ won the war’
ON a shaded track between the French villages of Bellicourt and Bellenglise can be found two German blockhouses.
Beyond them is a brick pillar sporting a metal plaque commissioned 25 years ago by the Western Front Association ( WFA).
And beyond the pillar, stretched 60 feet above the water of the St Quentin Canal, is the singletrack Riqueval Bridge, built in the time of Napoleon.
The memorial was erected for what Prime Minister Lloyd George described in 1918 as “the greatest chapter in British military history”.
It was the storming of the St Quentin Canal and the capture of the Riqueval Bridge by the ‘ Terriers’ of the South and North Staffordshire Regiments of the 137th ( Staffordshire) Brigade.
There is no denying the remarkable achievement of these Midland men.
After the attack, a report declared: “The 46th [ North Midland] Division inserted the tactical key that unlocked the door for our entry into the main Hindenburg system in its most formidable part.”
It has been said the capture of the bridge shortened the war by at least a year.
Indeed, Professor John Bourne from Wolverhampton University War Studies Department, sums up the whole event as “the day the men of Staffordshire won the war”.
The date was September 29, 1918.
The St Quentin Canal formed an immense, ready- made anti- tank ditch with the main Hindenburg Line trench system to the east.
The 46th Division’s final objective for September 29 was a line of high ground beyond the villages of Lehaucourt and Magny- la- Fosse.
The British 32nd Division, following behind, would then leapfrog the 46th Division.
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 crossChannel steamers to cross the water.
Scaling ladders were then used to climb the brick wall lining the edge of the canal.
Some men of the 1/ 6th Battalion, the North Staffordshire Regiment, led by Captain Humphrey Charlton, managed to seize the still- intact Riqueval Bridge before the Germans had a chance to fire their explosive charges.
The bridge across the canal was captured in the early hours in a nine- man bayonet charge led by Charlton.
His men secured the eastern side of the bridge and covered him from above as he ripped away explosive charges attached below.
The bravery of the captain and his band was revealed by the London
Gazette of October 3, 1919. It reported: “On September 29, 1918, during the storming of the St Quentin Canal, north of Bellenglise, Captain Charlton and his company were held up by machinegun fire from a trench guarding the approach to a bridge.
“He took forward a party of nine men, captured the gun, killing all the crew by bayonet, and then carried on to the bridge, which he captured, killing a large number of the enemy, and saving the bridge from destruction. He did fine work.”
He certainly did. For his bravery Charlton was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and, five days later, the Military Cross.
Holding the bridge enabled the other two brigades of the 46th ( North Midland) Division to pass through and move on to their next objectives.
On October 2, the British 46th and 32nd Divisions, supported by the Australian 2nd Division, planned to capture the Beaurevoir Line ( the third line of defences of the Hindenburg Line), the village of Beaurevoir and the heights overlooking the Beaurevoir Line.
While the attack succeeded in widening the breach in the Beaurevoir Line, it was unable to seize the high ground further on.
However, by October 2, the attack had resulted in a 17 km breach in the Hindenburg Line.
Continuing attacks until October 10 managed to clear the fortified villages behind the Beaurevoir Line, and capture the heights overlooking the Beaurevoir Line – resulting in a total break in the Hindenburg Line.
The long war was near its end.
Soldiers of the South Stafford and North Stafford Regiments being addressed by Brigadier General JC Campbell on Riqueval Bridge on September 29, 1918. The men crossed the St Quentin Canal ( part of the Hindenburg line) in lifebelts and captured two bridges which allowed guns to be taken across the canal