The bridges at Bellenglise and Riqueval

This article covers an aspect of one of the British Expeditionary Force’s most challenging and critical operations of the Great War: the attack to break the formidable enemy defensive zone known as the Hindenburg Line in late September 1918.

The breaking of the Hindenburg Line at Bellenglise and Riqueval is now generally recognised as one of the British Army’s finest feats of arms. The vital bridging work that formed part of it is all too often unmentioned

Part of a map from the British Official History of Military Operations in France and Flanders in 1918. It illustrates the progress made by the two southernmost of the five British Armies in the period often unofficially known as the “Hundred Days Offensive”. This article is concerned with Fourth Army, which faced a particularly difficult task as the “Hindenburg Line” had been constructed to incorporate the Saint-Quentin Canal. I have highlighted the area of relevance in yellow.
From the British Official History of Military Operations in France and Flanders in 1918. Fourth Army’s advance closes in on the Hindenburg Line and the St. Quentin Canal which had been incorporated into the defences. The 46th (North Midland) Division had come into line facing Bellenglise, and on 29 September achieved the great feat of crossing the canal, clearing Bellenglise and pushing on beyond it. The division was under command of IX Corps at the time.
This is a present-day map. I have highlighted (black) the two road bridges which cross the St. Quentin Canal. One is at Bellenglise, the other at Riqueval. In 1914, as now, they were the only two crossing points above the deep cutting through which the canal runs. The cutting was dug in the Napoleonic era. North of Riqueval, the land rises and the canal goes through a long tunnel.
Part of a map from the war diary of the General Staff at IX Corps headquarters (National Archives WO95/837) with my highlight picking our Bellenglise (yellow) and the two main bridges (black). It illustrates the objectives set for the operation, which were well beyond the canal. But it was not enough to have passed infantry troops across the canal. To continue the advance beyond the objective shown, Fourth Army would need bridges across which field and heavy artillery, tanks, and huge numbers of motorised and horsed supply transport vehicles could cross – and if momentum was to be maintained, these bridges would need to be constructed quickly.
Pre-war postcard image of the bridge at Riqueval.
A grid map showing the German trenches and defences (dark blue) as at 19 September 1918. I have highlighted Riqueval bridge. On the left, the forward defensive system protects the approach to the canal. A light railway line ran out to it from the Riqueval bridge, and a number of footbridges had been built on either side of that bridge. They would almost inevitably be damaged or destroyed in the British assault. A second trench defence system ran on the eastern side of the canal.
The forward defences were closer to Bellenglise. The steel girder bridge there was destroyed before the assault, and would need to be replaced. The canal banks were much flatter here and the canal in this section was dry at the time.
A pre-war postcard image of the steel girder bridge at Bellenglise.
Australian War Memorial photo H13415 sourced from Deutsche Reichsarchiv. A wooden horse bridge, one of many that the Germans had built across the canal in this area. This is said to be at Bellenglise.

IX Corps Chief Engineer

By 22 September, the Corps Chief Engineer and that of Fourth Army were discussing the best way of bridging the canal once it had been captured. A Heavy Inglis bridge was suggested. Two days later, discussions went on with the 32nd and 46th Divisional Commanders Royal Engineers, and material was issued to the 46th (North Midland) division for construction of 400 feet of corduroy pathway.

“Breaking the Hindenburg Line: the story of the 46th (North Midland) Division” by Major R. E. Priestley MC RE (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1919) summarises the role of the divisional engineers during the assault.
IX Corps Chief Engineer allocates the resources for bridge work. Note the presence of three Tunnelling Companies: their underground role in the static warfare of former years had been left behind and they were now employed on demolition and construction.

By 28 September, the Light Inglis bridge intended for the Riqueval area had failed to arrive*, so 567th Army Troops Company was instead instructed to make a trestle bridge that would be suitable for horse transport. 216th Army Troops Company (Nuneaton) was made responsible for work at Bellenglise and 567th Army Troops Company (Devon) at Riqueval. *It arrived by rail on 30 September but was then redirected to the River Somme crossing at Brie.

Transport for the bridging material was organised.
From the British Official History of Military Operations in France and Flanders in 1918. By the morning of 30 September 1918, the British Fourth Army had broken the German defences of the “Hindenburg Line” and established a bridgehead from which the advance could be continued. 46th (North) Midland Division had forced the crossing of the Saint-Quentin canal on 29 September, and 32nd Division had passed through to hold the line shown. To the north came 5th Australian Division and to the south the British 1st Division with French forces beyond.

How was this all achieved?

Imperial War Museum photograph Q9538, captioned, “Battle of St. Quentin Canal. Men of the 137th Brigade (46th Division) on the slope of the St. Quentin Canal, near Bellenglise, which they crossed on 29 September. Photograph taken on 2 October 1918.” A very familiar and oft-used photograph: it shows men who have just broken the “Hindenburg Line”. Note that many men are wearing lifejackets. The assault had relied on “all arms” combination of air support, long distance heavy artillery fire, creeping artillery barrages, standing machine gun barrages and the extraordinary ingenuity and bravery of the foot soldiers crossing the canal.
Less often used is Q9509, which shows the same men of 137th Infantry Brigade, and for the purposes of this article is valuable as it illustrates the width of the St-Quentin Canal and the deep cutting in this area. Note the flimsy footbridges which have already been constructed or repaired as part of the assault. The view looks south towards Bellenglise.

46th (North Midland) Division

The division’s orders for the assault stated that its 465th and 468th Field Companies would erect footbridges by which the units of 139th and 139th Infantry Brigades would cross the canal. Both would allocate two of theirs four Sections to erecting two cork pier bridges and repairing any existing footbridges. This would take place once 137th Infantry Brigade had crossed the canal by other means (in which they would be assisted by 466th Field Company) and reached its objectives on the far bank. 200 men of the divisional pioneer battalion, the 1/1st Monmouthshire Regiment, would be provided to assist the Field Companies in their task. All would advance close behind 137th Infantry Brigade and get the bridges into place as early as possible.

Orders also said that 32nd Division (see below) would erect bridges for horse transport. The rest of the 1/1st Monmouthshire would work on tracks that led forward to the sites where 32nd Division would build the horse bridges.

Pontoon and trestle bridge carrying wagons with teams and brakesmen would move and come under orders of 32nd Division.

466th Field Company RE (crossing the canal with 137th Infantry Brigade):

From the war diary of 46th Divisional Commander Royal Engineers (National Archives WO95/2672). Corporal Openshaw led the way across the existing but damaged Riqueval Bridge, a vital capture.
IWM photograph Q9511, taken by Second Lieutenant David McLellan. “Infantry passing over Riqueval Bridge on 2 October 1918”. It was Fred Openshaw who made sure the Germans did not destroy the bridge.

Sapper, Acting Lance-Corporal, 97483 Fred Openshaw was awarded with the Distinguished Conduct Medal. His citation reads, “For marked courage and devotion to duty on 29th September, 1918. He accompanied the first wave of attacking infantry, and was one of the first to reach the St. Quentin Canal. He succeeded in killing two enemy on one of the footbridges, and then, running across to the eastern bank, he rushed an enemy machine-gun post and silenced it, thereby facilitating the passage of the infantry. By his courage, determination, and
prompt action he rendered yeoman service

The company’s war diary mentions that four men were wounded during the operations.

465th Field Company RE:

From the war diary of 46th Divisional Commander Royal Engineers (National Archives WO95/2672). Grid reference G.34.d.6.5 was the site of the destroyed bridge at Bellenglise.
The company’s war diary for 29 September 1918 (National Archives WO95/2676). Only minor repairs were required as the Germans had failed to destroy the footbridges and little damage had been done by British shellfire. “… 139th Brigade crossed without delay”. About noon, the company also found an existing feature that could soon be converted into a causeway suitable for horse transport to cross.
AWM photo E03675, said to be 4 October 1918. “The bridge on the main Bellenglise-St Quentin Road [sic], after it had been destroyed by the retreating Germans. The wooden [trestle] bridge in the rear of the wreckage was immediately built by the Royal Engineers, and traffic was resumed without any appreciable loss of time. The St Quentin Canal was dry at this point. Note the wire on the bank on right of the picture”.

468th Field Company (working with 138th Infantry Brigade):

From the war diary of 46th Divisional Commander Royal Engineers (National Archives WO95/2672). “Watling Street” was the name given to the lane that ran up to and across Riqueval Bridge.
Same source.

32nd Division

This division was made responsible for the horse transport bridges and the Field Companies of 46th (North Midland) Division handed over their stock of pontoons and trestles for the purpose. At the start of 29 September 1918, the division’s Field Companies were disposed as follows: 206th (Glasgow) at Jeancourt, 218th Field Company at grid reference R.16.b.0.2 and 219th Field Company at Le Verguier. At 9.15am orders were sent to 206th (Glasgow) and 219th Field Companies to send bridging equipment up to the canal; at 10am the Divisional CRE visited 218th Field Company and instructed them to send up bridging stores for a Mechanical Transport bridge to the canal. At 11.30am headquarters received word that 46th Division had constructed pack bridges at G.22.b.8.0 and G.22.b.85.25, and that the bridges at G.35.d.6.5 and G.22.d.8.9 were still standing and fit for field guns to cross.

206th (Glasgow) Field Company:

At 8.30am the company began to move forward with its bridging equipment. It sustained the loss of 7 men wounded to enemy shellfire. Its war diary is otherwise uninformative.

218th Field Company:

The war diary of this company is also uninformative, only stating that it was employed on constructing a heavy motor transport bridge at Bellenglise.

219th Field Company:

Captain R A Kerr of this unit was wounded by shellfire while conducting the bridge equipment forward. This goes unmentioned in another poor war diary which only reports that the company was engaged in constructing a bridge.

Corps Troops

216th (Nuneaton) Army Troops Company (work at Bellenglise)

This unit had begun construction of a Light Inglis bridge at Vraignes on 24 September 1918. It moved to Poeuilly two days later, taking heavy bridging stores with it, but was then put on work of water supplies at Catelet and Montigny Farm. On 29 September it moved forward to Bellenglise and began preparations for construction of the new bridge. Work on the Heavy Inglis bridge was completed at 1pm on 30 September 1918. Two days later, a second span was sent there and erected.

IQM Q46944. “A “Heavy Inglis” type bridge carrying the Bray-Chuignolles Road over River Somme at Bray. Railway bridge in background. September 1918″. This type of bridge was built at Bellenglise and within a day or so of the attack, it was carrying transport into the newly captured area.

567th (Devon) Army Troops Company (work at Riqueval)

This company reached Poeuilly on 27 September 1918, having come from the Arras area. It found that only repair work was needed at the Riqueval bridge once it was in the hands of 137th Infantry Brigade, and sent 40 men under Lieutenant Charles Bridgen (aptly named!) to carry it out (it is not clear how this differs from work carried out by 468th Field Company). Over the next two days it worked on various other bridge repairs and construction in the Bellenglise area.

The breaking of the Hindenburg Line at Bellenglise and Riqueval is now generally recognised as one of the British Army’s finest feats of arms. The vital bridging work is all too often unmentioned: a pity, for the army’s logistic and engineering capabilities had been developed to become a war-winning factor.


This video clip from the Imperial War Museum includes good contemporary footage of the area.


Corps of Royal Engineers

46th (North Midland) Division

32nd Division