Riqueval Bridge looks inconspicuous enough, but the goosebumps climbing my legs, arms and neck know otherwise.
A hundred years ago it was here the men of the Midlands broke through the Hindenburg Line.
Spanning high above the narrow San Quentin canal, the bridge was witness to one of the most audacious assaults of WW1.
A century ago, le Pont de Riqueval was a crossing point of a heavily fortified barrier that divided the Western Front and provided the Germans with a quite remarkable shelter.
It was at this site the wearied soldiers of the 48th North Midland Division decided enough was enough.
“The reason it was so important it was because it was the only bridge for miles over the canal where they could get the guns across,” says Royal Leicestershire Regiment historian Richard Lane.
Physically, its span is wide enough for a single car to pass, and shorter in length than a swimming pool. There was once a sign for battlefield tourists, but that’s long gone. The bridge, snug between rich, undulating farmland, is as naked as it must have been before it became a central player in that perilous final chapter of the First World War.
The division, the oldest of the Territorials, was built on the strength of 6,000 men from Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire, Staffordshire and Derbyshire.
These were war-weary Midlanders who had seen action at Loos and the Somme. They would be responsible for what the press dubbed “The miracle of the war.”
On the morning of Sunday, September 29, 1918, the division lined up where the Hindenburg met the San Quentin Canal.
The canal, 60ft wide and steep sided, had water 10ft deep in places and a trickle in others. It was wrapped in barbed wire with concrete artillery posts on its banks. Any who saw it would have thought twice about launching an attack.
“Well might the enemy be of the opinion that their positions were impregnable,” wrote Major Raymond Priestly, of the 46th’s signals company.
“As zero hour approached, there was no thought of rest for the staff who had planned the attack and who realised how much might hang on the result of the next few hours.
“If the attack proceeded according to schedule, there was no end to the possibilities opened up. Indeed, the end of the war would be brought very appreciably nearer.
“A successful attack on positions so strong as those opposed to us would be proof positive that the enemy’s hopes of holding up the Allied tide of conquest by building a series of such dams across Europe were founded on folly.”
September 29 began cold and misty. The fog, bolstered by the 46th’s smoke shells, cloaked the waiting men as their moment in history approached.
“To the Staffordshire Brigade was allotted the crossing of the canal and the taking of the Hindenburg Line,” recorded Captain John Hills, Adjutant with A Company of 1/5 Leicestershire Regiment, part of the 138th Brigade, along with the 1/4 Leicestershire.
“Then, after a pause to allow the tanks to come round, the Sherwood Foresters on the right and our brigade (138th) on the left would sweep on, still under a barrage, to the final objective.
“We should have to deal with Magny village, the right brigade (139th Sherwood Foresters) with Bellenglise and Lehaucourt.”
At 5.50am the assault began.
Major Priestly was ready: “Suddenly, to the minute agreed upon, the preliminary gun of the barrage boomed forth and, in a second, flashes appeared to spring from every square yard of the gunlines, while a perfect tornado of furious sound, a hellish compound of the voices of guns of all calibres, rent the air and caused the very earth to shake.”
The brave men of the 1/6 North Staffords went first down the canal, forming two lines with bayonets at the ready as they approached the Riqueval Bridge, which crossed the canal to the Hindenburg.
Machine gun fire rained down as the soldiers wormed through belts of barbed wire.
An advance group of nine, led by the 1/6th’s Captain AH Charlton, attacked a forward machine gun position, killing the crew with bayonets.
An NCO shot four Germans who tried to blow the bridge and an officer cut the leads of the charges, throwing them into the canal.
The whole company stormed forward, taking out the enemy posts on the banks of the canal and, by 8.30am, the Staffords had met all their objectives.
Meanwhile, the Leicesters and Lincolns waited anxiously in line to follow them.
“Between 7am and 8am the mist lifted only once, for a few seconds only, and, looking northwards, we could see the top of the next ridge,” revealed Captain Hills.
“Along the skyline as far as the eye could see from west to east stretched a long column of horses, guns and wagons – moving forward. Below them, in the shadow, moved a long procession of tanks. Then the mist closed down and we saw no more.”
At 9am, it was time for the Leicesters, who, along with the Lincolns. had mopping up duties, before being expected to relieve the Staffords at the front.
A journalist from the Observer was there. “The Midlanders – boot makers, miners, laceworkers, potters who had never pretended in their lives to heroism or poetry, or the traditions of a crack regiment – went at the canal at San Quentin with mats, rafts, lifebelts, wading, swimming, floating, they crossed the water and stormed over the astonished enemy and clean through the Hindenburg defences. Their day’s work was the immortal epic of the ordinary man.”
The Leicesters and Lincolns ploughed on over the bridge, following the Staffords.
“We moved off in single file,” said Major Priestly. “It was terribly difficult to keep up, as, with many oaths, we stumbled over ditches and holes until we reached the lane from Le Verguier to Grand Priel.
“Here…we were much cheered by wounded soldiers who told us the Boche was running away for all he was worth.”
FB Pearson was feeding news from the frontline back to the readers of the Leicester Daily Mercury.
“We had been lying in bits of shelter while the endless lines of transport rolled towards the front.
“Soon our turn came and we took our places in the wagons. By many devious paths we wended our way towards the line. Punctually, to the second, the barrage opened.
“Meanwhile the mist thickened and it was difficult to see a yard ahead.
“It was not long before our first casualties emerged, like spectres out of the mist, followed by thousands of Boche prisoners.”
Many of the Germans were smiling – for them the war was over.
“One could not help feeling sorry for these misguided people,” says Pearson. “Some had had no food for three or four days. Many were boys and stared with big, wondering eyes at the sturdy, resolute British soldiers who were making their way towards the line.”
Captain Hills continues: “As we reached the canal, a single tank was seen coming down from the north, another followed and then others. Our battalion had crossed successfully at Bellicourt, so the battle must be going well.
“After a short pause, the advance up to Knobkerry Ridge started. As we crossed Spingbok Valley we could see the 4th battalion consolidating their newly won positions at the top, and there was little opposition from this quarter.
“On our right, however, there seemed to be a stiff fight going on in Bellenglise and several shots from machine guns fell around us.”
Beyond the canal was an extremely strong system of trenches, heavily protected by wire belts, and based upon the village of Bellenglise, a farm of La Baraque and copses.
This line was continued parallel with the canal to Lehaucourt.
Between Bellenglise and Magny-la-Fosse were two more continuous lines of trenches protected by wire, while the ground to be crossed was peppered with machine gun posts.
“Altogether, the defences of the Hindenburg Line at this point were as thorough as the science of military engineering, backed by unlimited time and labour, could devise, and the defenders had every reason to believe that no troops in the world could be expected to storm them without colossal losses,” believed Major Priestly.
To the Mercury journalist, the full sight of the Hindenburg was doubly astounding.
“As our troops pressed on, our wonder increased, for there stood revealed ridge after ridge, and valley after valley, the most powerful natural fortifications, which only men of incredible pluck and determination and supported with the most modern artillery could reduce.
“But nothing could stop the charge of the gallant North Midlanders. They beat through with wonderful dash.
“If anyone thinks I am exaggerating, let them take a walk over these positions, now in our hands, and he will be consigned to take off his hat to the 46th, the oldest Territorial division.”
The 46th captured 4,200 prisoners of 5,500 taken that day, and 40 guns.
They also made possible the deepest penetration on the front – some 6,000 yards and with fewer than 600 casualties.
On Tuesday, October 1, 1918, the Leicester Mercury read ‘Midlands Troops’ Dash’ and beneath ‘Leicesters in a Brilliant Exploit.’
The dispatch read: “British Army Monday: Under the most cheerless conditions of howling wind and slashing rain, the great battle on the Cambrai-St Quentin front was resumed this morning.
“The great feature of yesterday’s battle was the magnificent fight put up by the 46th Division.
“And it has to be remembered that this was done on a section of the front which, in expert opinion, was probably as strong a defensive line as any in all France, and which the Germans had been conjured with every possible argument to hold at all costs and against all attacks.”
About 1,000 prisoners alone were taken when Sergeant Wallace, of the North Staffords, turned a German artillery piece around and fired at the entrance of a tunnel.
The 5th Leicesters had advanced four miles beyond the line, capturing eight guns and 100 prisoners. By the end of September 29, more than 945,052 shells had been fired. Seven Tigers had lost their lives and 30 had been wounded.
But the battle of San Quentin and Bellenglise was to continue for six days and not without incident.
Near Levergies, C Company came to a halt. Ahead, several German batters could be seen limbering up.
“CSM Angrave and Sgt Tunks took 20 men and pushed forward. They could not cross the open, but, using their rifles, drove off the gunners and killed the horses, so that the battery remained in our hands.”
D Company, meanwhile, had claimed a battery of abandoned field guns, a German officer and 50 men, and a further 20 German troops attempting to blow up a howitzer.
But as they stormed forward, our boys found there was nobody protecting their left flank.
“To the left of the Tigers, except for an Australian machine gun section and its sergeant, there was no-one,” said Captain Hills.
“The Americans were not up to their objective, they had not even taken Etricourt, and for nearly a mile back our left was ‘in the air.’
“We could do nothing except pray hard for the arrival of the 32nd Division.”
At high ground on Le Tronquoy, a Leicestershire tank had been set on fire by German gunners. Some of the crew escaped. Some were too injured to climb out and were trapped inside.
Hearing of this, Tigers chaplain, Captain Cyril Bernard Wilson Buck MC, raced to help the men but on route was mortally wounded by a shell. The reverend, known to everyone as Bernard, was carried back to the aid post but died soon afterwards. He was 38.
“The padre had been with us two years,” wrote Captain Hills, “and during all that time, there was never a trench or an outpost that he had not visited, no matter how dangerous or exposed. We felt his loss keenly.”
The troops, who had been in France since 1915, were familiar with loss but they weren’t used to credit.
Two days later the newspapers trilled with “The Finest Feats of Arms of the War.”
“The arrival of the mail and the discovery that at last the name North Midland figured in the headlines cheered us all immensely,” said Captain Hills.
“We were all very happy and said ‘Now we shall have a good rest to re-fit.’ Nothing, however, appeared to be further from the intentions of the higher command.”
The Leicestershire men would eventually get to recharge at Etricourt on October 4.
The Allies’ rout of the Hindenburg’s defences would be absolute by October 10. Significantly, just six weeks after the Midlanders threw their collective weight at the defences of the San Quentin Canal, the war was over.
On November 11, an armistice was signed at Ferdinand Foch’s headquarters at Compiegne.
Many military historians cite the destruction of the Hindenburg Line as the beginning of the end, although the German war effort was already disintegrating both at home and on the front line.
Major Priestly remained philosophical about the psychological effects of the attack at San Quentin in his book, Breaking the Hindenburg Line, The Story of the 46th (North Midland) Division.
“The effect on the morale of the enemy was displayed in the days that were to come,” he said.
“Never again would his infantry fight confident in the idea that, if the worst happened, they had behind them an impregnable line on which to fall back and reorganise.
“The breaking of the Hindenburg Line marked a definite stage in the history of the war, for it opened the way to a war of movement which could only end in one way.”
Thanks to our compadre Richard Lane for his enduring knowledge and book lending. Also to the Record Office for Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland.