The Canal de Saint-Quentin, the waterway that connected the River Oise and the Somme, had been one of the great engineering marvels of the 19th Century. At first a sleepy little spillway during the 1700s, the Napoleonic Era saw the canal widened and given more depth, with a series of locks and tunnels that turned the route into the busiest man-made waterway by freight in France until the 1960s.
By the fall of 1918, the Canal de Saint-Quentin found itself a part of another major engineering marvel, this time of the 20th Century – the Hindenburg Line. Indeed, the canal was viewed by both the Allies and the Germans as the most impenetrable section of the entire line, as between the canal’s rushing waters and the Hindenburg Line’s mixture of barbed wire, trenches and massive, reinforced concrete defenses, the ability to cross the Line was for all intends and purposes impossible. Any attacker would have to wade through the canal under fire, limiting the ability to get tanks and heavy equipment across while going through an additional a no-man’s-land covered by machine guns and artillery. Given the Great War’s track record of amphibious operations and plans, an offensive against Saint-Quentin seemed borderline suicidal.
As September 26th, 1918 was about to become September 27th, 1,044 British field guns and howitzers and 593 medium and heavy guns lashed out at Saint-Quentin, along with 30,000 poison gas shells in the largest British bombardment of the war. The barrage was to open the way for the first wave of 30 British/Australian divisions and 2 American divisions, with the inexperienced Americans tasked to charge in first. The attack had been hotly contested at the highest levels of the Allied governments and even mid-level British officers thought the offensive was nothing more than a “sacrificial stunt” to vainly attempt to keep Germany on the ropes as they retreated from their Spring Offensive gains.
For the first time, the fearsome Hindenburg Line would be fully engaged by the Allies. The momentum of the war rested upon the outcome.
One hardly had to be clairvoyant in late September of 1918 to see that the Great War was finally, mercifully, coming to a head. Since their “Black Day” in Amiens in early August, the German army had been in a headlong retreat back to the Hindenburg Line, surrendering tens of thousands of prisoners as well as miles of ground that had cost them a million men earlier in the year. The Austro-Hungarian attempts at forcing a conclusion in Italy had been stymied, the Ottomans were being driven out of the Middle East with horrific casualties and the Bulgarians were in the process of surrendering. The Central Powers were no longer on the verge of collapse – they were actively collapsing.
But this was a play that the political leaders in London and Paris felt they had seen before. Throughout 1917, the military leadership of the Allies had repeatedly assured their civilian authorities that the German army was about to disintegrate. Before launching his ill-fated offensive that drove the French army to mutiny, Gen. Robert Nivelle had told his superiors that after one more gigantic battle, “the German Army will run away; they only want to be off.” Sir Douglas Haig of the British Expeditionary Force had assured Prime Minister David Lloyd George that his Passchendaele offensive would drive through the Germans given the state of their morale. It would end with Haig’s own generals refusing to sacrifice anymore of their men.
Yet the events of the summer of 1918 had divided Allied opinion about the best next steps. Clearly, the war of maneuver that had alluded both sides in the West since late 1914 had somewhat returned and the evidence that average German troops had little interest in continuing the war could be seen in the rolls of prisoners each successive battle captured. Supreme Allied Commander Ferdinand Foch, speaking for many of the top-level military brass of the Allied powers, saw blood in the water and the opportunity to end the war immediately. Foch argued for constant pressure on the Western Front. There would be no rest for either side as the Allies pursued the Germans as they retreated. For the general who once said “the most powerful weapon on earth is the human soul on fire,” Foch was consumed with winning what he now saw as a battle of wills with a decaying Germany. And the Allies’ victories after the German Spring Offensive were seemingly proving Foch right.
Allied morale in the trenches was as high as it had been in years, but these were also armies that just months earlier had been beaten soundly by the Germans and at the cost of around 860,000 casualties. And with the exception of the over 1 million Americans on the Western Front, these were also men who looked on the verge of defeat in late 1917. What would happen to that newfound optimism if the static warfare of the trenches returned as the Allies beat themselves against the Hindenburg Line? For London, in particular, the strategy would be to wait. Haig was informed by Winston Churchill himself that the War Council refused to authorize further offensives as the British wanted to stockpile men and munitions for the final, “war-winning” offensive…in July of 1919. The concept of another year in the trenches horrified Haig. If London was worried about losing morale, giving the Germans a year to retrench themselves and potentially recover their fighting spirit was every bit as risky as losing thousands in battle again for no gain. The moment appeared to favor the strategies of the generals; four years of experience seemingly favored the plans of the politicians.
Foch’s demands for constant offensive action would win the day, but barely. And for Haig, already infamous among his soldiers and the British press as “The Butcher” for his supposed indifference to losses, his orders were clear (in a British sort of way) – he could attack the Hindenburg Line, but if he racked up “unnecessary losses”, the “Cabinet [was] ready to meddle and interfere in his plans.” Haig would be fighting for his job and the Allies braced for what they assumed would a return to the bloodletting that had defined the Western Front.
While the main corps commander tasked with getting the Allies across the canal and Hindenburg Line naively summarized the operation as “more a matter of engineering and organization than of fighting,” the technological hurdles of attacking across the canal were nevertheless sizable.
The sector of the canal they would assault was 35 feet wide anywhere from 7 to 10 feet deep. The bricked walls which enclosed the canal were 10 feet high, with each bank contained a steep incline of 50 degrees, of heights ranging from 30 to 50 feet, all containing hidden hazards such as concealed machine gun posts. Even the shallower sections of the canal had rows of barbed wire laid at the muddy bottom, designed to entangle and shred the feet of any man trying to swim or wade across. The solution to such obstacles would be a series of floating piers and a pulley system in which soldiers wearing life vests could be hooked to and pulled over (not many soldiers could swim). Once across, ladders would allow them to go “over the top” and attack the Hindenburg Line directly. All of this would have to be done under heavy fire with many men either experiencing their first taste of real combat or already strained from the months of hard fighting that the summer of 1918 had brought.
The American 27th Division at Saint-Quentin was an entirely New York-based National Guard unit that had only recently arrived on the Western Front. The attacking companies were painful short of officers – only 18 would be able to participate in the assault – and had neither combat experience nor were trained as engineers. The 27th (and the 30th American Division) would be responsible for clearing what little German-held ground remained before crossing the canal, and had been placed under Australian command since the Aussies would constitute the first wave to try and cross the canal itself. That didn’t sit well with the Australian Corps commander, Lt. General Sir John Monash, whose divisions were already significantly undermanned and who was now contending with several cases of mutiny among his veterans. These tired, wounded men were being asked to assault a defensive position that one British Major stated upon seeing the objective: “The mere sight of it from our front line trenches inspired respect, and might well have caused fear in the hearts of any but the stoutest soldiers.” Monash knew he was being ordered to lead his men, and the Americans, into a slaughter.
The initial assault on the canal would not realize those worst fears, but was nevertheless a grisly setback. The British gas and artillery attacks had struck the German rear lines, preparing for the full offensive which was ordered to commence a couple of days later and hence, had little impact on the first phase of the operation. The inexperienced Americans would rack up most of their 13,000 casualties on the first day while the veteran Australians found slightly more success but were unable to completely clear the banks of German troops. Haig would not be deterred – the main assault would continue, as planned.
On September 29th, the main offensive against the canal would begin as British, Australian and American troops flung themselves at the canal’s banks. And the failures of September 27th would show to have produced unexpected victories.
As the main assault begin, what remained of the German troops on the other side of the banks hurriedly attempted to cross under the monstrous British artillery fire. In their haste, the Germans didn’t destroy some of their makeshift bridges. Gas and fog concealed the Allied attack and as it lifted, the Germans would soon discover the 150 Allied tanks of the 4th and 5th Tank Brigades, that had managed to get over the canal in part due to the German mistake. Had the canal been cleared of German resistance two days earlier, it’s unlikely the bridges would have remained intact.
The crossings were every bit as difficult as the Allies had expected, but rarely had the battlefield truism of “the fog of war” been as accurate. The American 30th Infantry Division managed to sneak past a number of German defenses, quite by accident due to the fog, and captured the town of Nauroy, past the Hindenburg Line. The confusion hurt both sides badly as German and Allied units stumbled upon each other in the fog, but as the Allies pressed ahead, managing to get behind the Line and into the communications and staging areas for the German front, the defense of the Canal de Saint-Quentin began to fall apart. Even while the Allies lost many of their tanks, some wandering into minefields, by the beginning of October the main objective of the operation had been achieved – the Allies had gotten past the Hindenburg Line and with it, had captured hundreds of pieces of German artillery and 36,000 prisoners, all for the loss of fewer than 25,000 casualties. The lynchpin of the German war plan – the last line of defense for the German Empire – had been (partially) defeated.
As the Allies began crossing the Canal de Saint-Quentin on September 29th, 1918, Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff requested an audience with Kaiser Wilhelm II. The crossing of the Hindenburg Line meant that they could no longer guarantee the German army could hold the Western Front for more than “two hours.” All of this was happening concurrently with the Ottoman defeat in the Middle East and the Bulgarians being driven out of the war; thus everything seemed to be falling apart at once for the Central Powers. Both Hindenburg and Ludendorff laid out what they meant to the Kaiser – Germany had to sue for peace (although Ludendorff viewed the request for an armistice as more a stall for time).
The German parliamentary government folded the next day and Prince Maximilian of Baden, considered a liberal member of the Prussian nobility, was appointed as Chancellor by Wilhelm with only one order – request an armistice from the Allies. Maximilian, otherwise known as Max von Baden, was aghast at the request and initially refused, knowing full well that he was being asked to drink from the poisoned chalice by being the German Chancellor who essentially surrendered. But without support from the military, save an increasingly irrational Ludendorff, the Kaiser saw no other realistic option. On October 4th, 1918, the Germans announced their willingness to accept an armistice based on President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points. The Great War had but weeks left to go.