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The Story of the American Expeditionary Forces

II Corps





The St. Quentin Canal

Presented the Great War Society

The operation to outflank the German positions along the Somme began on August 21. Byng's Army attacked north of the Somme on a front of about nine miles. In a few hours, he had captured the enemy's main line of resistance along the Albert-An-as Railway. The following day, that part of Rawlinson's Army that was north of the Somme forced the passage of the Ancre and captured Albert. The British offensive was henceforth to be one of the major blows in the series which Marshal Foch was preparing to drive the enemy back across the Rhine. On August 22, Marshal Haig issued instructions to his army commanders in which he stated:

The methods which we have followed heretofore in our battles, with limited objectives, when the enemy was strong. are no longer suitable to his present condition. The enemy has not the means to deliver counterattacks on an extended scale, nor has he the numbers to hold a continuous position against the very extended advance which is being directed against him. In order to turn the present situation to account, the most resolute offensive is everywhere desirable. Risks which a month ago would have been criminal to incur ought now to be incurred as a duty. It is no longer necessary to advance in regular lines and step by step. On the contrary each division should be given a distant objective which must be reached independently of its neighbor, and even if one's flank is thereby exposed for the time being. Reinforcements must be directed on points where our troops are gaining ground, not where they are checked.

Damage in the Somme Sector

Locate the Sector on a Map of the Western Front.

With a wider purpose, the battle continued. On August 23, the main operation opened with a series of strong assaults on a front of over thirty miles, from Chaulnes to the vicinity of An-as. Under continued pressure, the enemy drew back to the line of the Somme. On August 29. Bapaume fell to the British, and Noyon to the French. On September 1, the Australians captured Peronne; and on September 2, the Canadians broke the Drocourt-Queant switch line and captured the maze of trenches at the junction of that line with the Hindenburg system. These important successes, in conjunction with the further advance of Humbert's French Third Army north and east of Noyon. forced the Germans to evacuate the line of the Somme and the Canal du Nord. By a series of local attacks, carried out in the second and third weeks of September, the British Armies of Home, Byng. and Rawlinson secured the remainder of the positions required for an attack on the main defenses of the Hindenburg Line. The line of resistance of the Hindenburg position ran mostly east of the St-Quentin Canal: but south of Vendhuile. for a distance of about 8.000 yards, the canal ran through a tunnel in which the Germans had anchored barges that furnished living accommodations for large numbers of troops. Leading out from the tunnel to the surface were numerous passages which provided ready exit to positions east and west of the canal. At the tunnel sector, the main German defenses were west of the canal. These defenses consisted of two strongly organized and heavily-wired lines of continuous trenches: the first was 1.000 yards distant from the canal: the second, 2.000 yards distant. To this tunnel sector came the American II Corps, with the American 27th and 30th Divisions, for participation in the assault on the Hindenburg Line, planned for September 29. Its mission was to lead the attack on the front of the Australian Corps, break through the German positions. and cross the canal.

US Troops Digging In
On the Western Front, at this time, five concentric Allied offensives were either under way or about to be launched. from left to right as follows:

  • Ypres-Lys
  • Somme
  • Oise-Aisne
  • Aisne-Marne
  • Meuse-Argonne

Fighting was in progress all the way from the North Sea to Switzerland: it was naturally more intense wherever the Allies applied the greatest pressure. There was no doubt that pressure was being strongly applied in the zone of action assigned to the American II Corps.

Rawlinson's British Fourth Army, of which the American II Corps formed a part, was to deliver the main blow in its assigned zone. On the night of September 23/24, the American 30th Division of the II Corps entered that part of the line situated just west of Bellicourt. and took over a front of some 3.800 yards, about 1,000 yards west of the Hindenburg Line, where the canal was mostly underground. On the following night, the American 27th Division entered the line north of our 30th Division, and took over a front of about 4.500 yards. Their assigned objectives were: for the 30th Division, Bellicourt; for the 27th. Bony. Both Bellicourt and Bony were strongly fortified.

US Manned British Tank
Damaged in the Attack

Look at a Map of the Assault

The 30th Division had taken over a sector with a favorable line of departure for the main attack on September 29. Its operations on September 27 and 28 were merely to rectify and strengthen its lines. The front taken over by the 27th Division, however, was distinctly unfavorable for launching an attack. It was dominated by a German position which ran along the crest of an elevation confronting it. Before the 27th Division could carry out its orders, it had first to drive the enemy from this commanding position. It attacked on September 27 and again on September 28: but desperate German resistance prevented it from securing the high ground, although some of its elements did succeed in occupying positions on the heights. Thus. on the eve of the main battle, the 27th Division still had an unfavorable line of departure, to withdraw its advanced elements would have been a complicated task: it was therefore decided not to change the barrage line for the main assault on September 29, but to start the attack of the 27th Division an hour before Zero, in the hope that the division could force its way forward to the barrage line. The situation of this division was indeed a most difficult one.

At 5:50 a. m., on September 29, Rawlinson's Army took up the advance on a front of twelve miles. Its right corps quickly crossed the St-Quentin Canal, and by evening had gained commanding ground well to the east. In the center, the American 30th Division rapidly penetrated the German defenses and captured Bellicourt and Nauroy. On its left, the 27th Division had not gained the designated line of departure at Zero hour. Some of its units had advanced, but others had not. The artillery barrage was in place more than a thousand yards ahead of the infantry: and in the intervening space, German machine guns and artillery wrought havoc among the advancing waves of American infantry. On the front of the 27th Division, only one of the thirty-nine Allied tanks engaged survived to cross the Bellicourt Tunnel. Nevertheless, our troops fought their way forward, and by noon on September 29 had reached the German positions on the crest. Small groups broke through the defenses of the Hindenburg Line and continued to advance east of Bony to the outskirts of Le Catelet and of Gouy. In conjunction with the Australians. the American II Corps had taken all of the dominating crest by the evening of September 29. During the night of September 30 - October 1. the American II Corps was withdrawn from the line for a short rest. By October 5, the British offensive on the Somme front had broken through the Hindenburg Line into open country to the east.

Sources and thanks: Compiled by the Editor from American Armies and Battlefields in Europe. Regular contributors Ray Mentzer and Herb Stickel provided the Photos. MH

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