Centenary of the Battle of the Hindenburg Line
The Hindenburg Line was established in 1917 and was the last and strongest of the German army’s defence consisting of three well-defended trench systems.
Following the Allied capture of the strategically important elevated position of Mont St Quentin and the German retreat from the township of Péronne on 2 September 1918, the German Army was pursued east as it retired hastily towards the Hindenburg Line, so named by the Allied forces after German Commander in Chief, Paul von Hindenburg. The Germans referred to it as the Siegfried Line. It was a formidable defensive system comprising five operational zones, or Stellungen, named after figures of German mythology: Wotan, Siegfried, Alberich, Brunhild and Kriemhild.
Throughout September 1918, Australian forces had helped the British army to secure positions from which an attack on the Hindenburg Line could be launched. Planning began for a major attack at the end of the month. It was hoped that this attack would finally break the power of the German army.
When the withdrawing German forces reached the outer defences of the Hindenburg outpost line, their resistance stiffened and the Allies commenced planning for a more deliberate assault. This involved the Australian Flying Corps, which was photographing enemy defences, gun-positions, tracks and weapons dumps in preparation for the attack.
On 18 September 1918, a preliminary attack was launched when Lieutenant General Sir John Monash’s troops reached the first part of the Hindenburg Line. With only eight tanks available to his Australian Corps, Monash had ordered his Pioneers to construct ‘dummy’ tanks fashioned from improvised materials that were put on the horizon before dawn on the morning of the attack.
At 5.20 am after a massive artillery barrage the Allied forces attacked. By dawn the next day they had broken through the German positions. The major part of the Australian line was now looking down upon St Quentin Canal, within striking distance of the Hindenburg Line. Of the 12,000 prisoners and 100 guns capture by the Allies that day, the Australians took 76 guns and 4,300 prisoners.
On 29 September 1918 Australian and US troops supported by artillery with a 56 hour-long bombardment, aircraft and tanks, attacked a strongly defended sector at Bellicourt. After heavy losses in fighting that lasted until 5 October 1918 a break in the Hindenburg Line was achieved.
Gunner J.R. Armitage wrote:
As we went over the ridge we found ourselves in the midst of the most wonderful and impressive battle field scene imaginable. It was a scene never to be forgotten with infantry, tanks, guns, everything in action in a sort of inferno of smoke and shell bursts.
Sergeant Arthur Errington of Brompton, South Australia was in command of a platoon at Bellicourt on the first day of the attack. When his company was held up by an enemy machine gun, Sergeant Errington rushed the machine gun and killed or captured the German gun crew. He captured another machine gun later in the day and for his courageous actions earned a Distinguished Service Cross.
Eventually, the Allies broke through the third and final stage of the Hindenburg Line, and the Germans were forced to fall back. Private Albert Golding wrote after the battle that he and some fellow diggers slept that night in an abandoned German trench and ate a hearty breakfast from hastily abandoned German supplies!
An attack on 5 October was to be the last in which Australian troops would take part taking the village of Montbrehain, and with that, the Hindenburg Line was completely broken. The defence of this sector was then handed over to US troops, while the Australians were withdrawn for a rest.
By this time, most Australian troops had been fighting for six months without a break and had sustained 27,000 killed or wounded since the Battle of Amiens some three months prior.
The breakthrough at the Hindenburg Line was a key part of what became known as the Hundred Days Offensive during July to November 1918 that led to the end of the war.
Valour & Violets South Australia in the Great War, Wakefield Press
First World War Official Histories, Volume VIII – The Australian Flying Corps in the Western and Eastern Theatres of War, 1914-1918 (11th edition, 1941) – Chapter 20 The Battles in the Hindenburg Line