The men who ‘ won the war’

Solihull News - - FIRST WORLD WAR ARMISTICE 100 YEARS ON - RICHARD PURSEHOUSE Spe­cial Cor­re­spon­dent

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

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