Riqueval Bridge St Quentin Canal 2 October 1918The 46th (North Midland) Division was one of the best divisions by 1918 but it was also one which experienced one of the sharpest learning curves of the Great War. Learning curves were related to survival of trench warfare and learning from post-battle assessments, as instigated by the Canadian Corps in 1915.

When the 46th Division moved to France in 1915 under its commander Major-General Hon E Montagu-Stuart-Wortley, they were an extremely inexperienced Territorial Division. Unfortunately Montagu-Stuart-Wortley was not one of the better generals on the Western Front. Two of his brigades were put into the attack on the Hohenzollern Redoubt  (13 October) during the Battle of Loos, 1915. This attack was part of the renewed British action. 46th Division went into the line as part of the relief of the Guards Division. Their attack took place after a gas and smoke bombardment of the German lines at about 14.00. As the preliminary bombardment that morning was too light to do sufficient damage, the men were advancing into heavy machine gun fire. They lost 180 officers and 3,583 men within 10 minutes and achieved nothing.

In the winter of 1915, 46th Division was to be posted to Egypt, but by January 1916 the order was countermanded when the Division had reached Marseilles and they were returned to the Western Front to take part, eventually, in the Battle of the Somme. On 1 July 1916, 46th Division, now part of VII Corps (Third Army) participated in the diversionary battle around Gommecourt. 46th Division's role was to attack the Gommecourt salient from the north. The objectives of the attack were to break into the German lines, block any German counter-attacks launched from the north, and to rendezvous with 56th Division which was attacking from the south. Unfortunately, the smoke-screen put up to help the attack appeared to confuse the attackers from 46th Division. The combination of smoke, old trenches and patched up barbed-wire posed serious obstacles to rapid progress.  Inadequate counter battery fire meant that the attack was an almost complete failure. The few men who reached the German lines were soon picked off. The 46th Division suffered 2,455 casualties without achieving anything. The result of such a tragedy was the sacking of Montagu-Stuart-Wortley and with him being replaced by Major-General W Thwaites.

The Division held out through 1917 and the German March offensive of 1918. But, on 29 September, the 46th division under its new commander Major-General G Boyd took part in the crossing of the St Quentin canal at Riqueval. This was one of the finest feats of arms in British Military History. How could a division which such a poor record from 1915-16 manage a set-piece battle during the breaching of the Hindenburg Line? Further north to the 46th Division, Australians and Americans ran into trouble with fog, barbed wire and the simple fact that their pre-attack bombardment had not achieved its purpose. 46th Division, attacking on the right of the Australians, crossed the canal. Their pre-attack bombardment had wreaked havoc on the German front line. The men of the 46th Division used ladders, life-belts, floating piers and collapsible boats. This was after over-running the German trenches on their own side of the canal!  By 3 pm, the division had achieved its objective – they had achieved a 3.5 mile penetration into the German lines and suffered only 800 casualties.

The first big change to the tactics employed concerned the preliminary advancement. In 1916, the troops advanced in waves which took heavy casualties despite the artillery support. By 1918, companies advanced with two up front and two behind looking out for flanking attack. The command was immediately behind in the rear. Rifle platoons always advanced first, and the rifle-grenade troops fanned out to neutralise machine-gun fire. Light machine-gun sections, using Vickers, advanced with the same purpose. Command was in the rear so as to amend tactics as problems arose. This combination of fire power and the resultant movement in ‘blobs’ was far more effective than any previous alternative.

Advancing troops were aided by artillery and directed machine gun fire. With this tactic, heavy machine guns would fire over the heads of advancing troops for extra help. The artillery shells were better and more reliable in 1918 than they were in 1916. The guns could be recalibrated up to three times a day according to weather conditions. Predictive fire was therefore more accurate and ‘fall shorts’ were far fewer. Even a triangular wood could be shelled by individual sitings and settings.

The new commander, Major-General Boyd, ensured his brigade commanders were more in control of the attacks. Battalion commanders had the discretion to move into support when needed. Napoleon’s advice to his marshals: ‘Always march to the guns’ appeared to be the directive. Fire-power per man had improved considerably since 1916. In 1916 the 46th Division started as an inexperienced Territorial division but it too had changed: the officers, who had been promoted, had showed ability under fire as they gained their experience. Better leaders, better trained men and a optimistic feeling that the men had the skills and the kit ensured their success in 1918.

Reference: this article is based on a talk given by Simon Peaple to the Yorkshire Branch of the WFA.

Contributor: Peter J Palmer

Image: Brigadier General J V Campbell addressing troops of the 137th Brigade (46th Division) from the Riqueval Bridge over the St Quentin Canal. (Source: Wikimedia)

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