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
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.
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.
How was this all achieved?
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):
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:
468th Field Company (working with 138th Infantry Brigade):
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.
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.
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.
This video clip from the Imperial War Museum includes good contemporary footage of the area.