Crossing the Canal du Nord: the ‘linchpin’ of the Hindenburg Line

After crashing the Drocourt-Quéant Line on 2 September, the Canadian Corps could take a well-deserved rest and begin preparations for their next obstacle: The Canal du Nord. While allied forces continued their operations throughout September, Lieutenant General Sir Arthur Currie needed to develop a strategy to cross the heavily fortified canal where enemy positions were strong and bristling with machine guns.

Image: “Canal du Nord, 1918.” Alfred Soden English CCGW Collections, 2016.3.1.1-20.
A natural defensive network, the Canal du Nord presented several problems for Currie and his Corps. All of the area had been flooded by the retreating German army, except for a narrow stretch of 2,600 metres. [1] This area, however, was strongly reinforced by German defences. In order to cross the canal, the Crops would need to funnel through this very narrow corridor and break out on the other side. Since the Canadian Corps would be congested in such a small area, there was also a looming fear throughout preparations that a concentrated artillery bombardment of the area could be carried out by a desperate enemy. [2] This disadvantage, however, also worked in their favour; the Germans did not expect the Allies to launch such a massive assault in an area that was so heavily fortified. [3]
The brief pause in September also permitted a steady flow of reinforcements, most of them conscripts, to fill the depleted ranks of the Canadian Corps. [4] With heavy casualties inflicted in the opening weeks of the Last Hundred Days, the Canadian Corps needed to train new recruits and send them to the front in order to restore combat strength. In a hurry to move men to the front, however, many new recruits were rushed through basic training, sometimes missing important instructions. [5]
The Canadian’s objective was two-fold. First, they needed to cross the Canal du Nord and capture Bourlon Wood. Secondly, they needed to capture the bridges over the Canal de l’Escaut and the higher ground near Cambrai. [6]. The objective was ambitious, but Currie was confident in his men. The assault was set for 27 September and at 5:20 am, the creeping barrage burst forth and the first wave, consisting of only four battalions, made their advance across the canal. Once the first wave crossed, more battalions continued to leapfrog over their positions, slowly moving forward and breaking out on the other side of the canal.
Among those in the first wave was Private Robert Harold Johnston of the 46thBattalion, a farmer from Graytown, Saskatchewan, who was severely injured in both legs by a German machine gun. Johnston was drafted under the Military Service Act of 1917 and only officially entered the Canadian Corps on 12 January 1918 at the age of 24. After being injured, Johnston’s wounds were bandaged, and he was brought to No. 30 Casualty Clearing Station where he later died of his injuries. Johnston would be one of the 46th Battalions 370 casualties of the day.

Pte. Robert Harold Johnston, 46th Battalion CEF. Drafted in 1917, wounded 27 September 1918 at Canal-du-nord and died later that day.

By nightfall, the Corps had secured the first of their objectives, the canal and Bourlon Wood. Much of their success can be attributed to the work of the Canadian engineers. Following closely behind the first wave of advancing infantry, the engineers began installing bridges so that artillery can be moved across the canal. By the end of the day, the engineers successfully built seven infantry bridges and ten larger bridges for artillery. [7] Often under heavy artillery and machine-gun fire, the engineers worked tirelessly to ensure that the artillery support could keep up with their advancing infantry.
While the Battle of the Canal du Nord is recognized as a great tactical achievement where infantry, artillery, and engineering units came together in a successful combined-arms battle, it was not without its losses. In the first three days of fighting, the Canadian Corps sustained 2,500 casualties. [8] Casualties only continued to rise as the Corps turned to their second objective: Cambrai.
[1] Cook, Tim. Shock Troops: Canadians Fighting the Great War 1917-1918. (Toronto: Viking Canada, 2008), 505.
[2] Borys, David. “Crossing the Canal: Combined Arms Operations at the Canal du Nord, September-October 1918.” Canadian Military History (20)4, 26.
[3] Cook, Shock Troops, 506.
[4] Dennis, Patrick M. Reluctant Warriors: Canadian Conscripts and the Great War. (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2017), 120.
[5] Cook, Shock Troops, 504.
[6] Borys, “Crossing the Canal,” 37.
[7] Ibid, 32.
[8] Ibid, 36.

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