After their near-collapse during the German offensive of spring 1918, the Allied armies quickly regrouped and strengthened their presence on the Western Front both in terms of equipment and men, in particular with the arrival of the Americans.
Once the final throes of the German offensive had been contained, General Foch, commander-in-chief of the Allied armies, decided to launch a general offensive. Instead of choosing to focus a massive assault on a single point he decided on a series of attacks which would wear the enemy down to breaking point. On the eastern end of the front the multiple offensives were to be carried out by the French and the Americans while the British attacked in Picardy, Artois and Flanders.
The British Army, bolstered by large contingents of Australians and Canadians, launched its first attack in Picardy on 21 August at Albert. From 26 August to 3 September Commonwealth troops fought the Second Battle of Arras (the first being in April 1917) along the river Scarpe and took Monchy-le-Preux, in ruins, before coming up against the defences of the Hindenburg Line between Drocourt and Quéant. Between 31 August and 3 September, most of the effort bore on the Bapaume sector which had experienced three movements of the front in a period of eighteen months (German retreat in March 1917, German advance in March 1918, and finally British victory).
On 12 September 1918 began the assault on the Hindenburg Line where so much British blood had previously been shed. The assailants, who now enjoyed a crushing superiority in terms of artillery, made ever more frequent but small-scale attacks which allowed them to economize troops and test the enemy's resolve, the latter being clearly on the wane as indicated by the growing number of sudden capitulations. An attempt by British and New Zealand troops to break through at Havrincourt was met with success on 12 September. On 27 September a larger attack by fifteen divisions was launched against Nord Canal and the Canadians took Bourlon Wood, the scene of ferocious fighting in November 1917.
While other attacks were taking place further to the south in Somme and Aisne, the British and Canadians attacked and liberated Cambrai in two days (8-9 October 1918). The Hindenburg Line was by now breached in a number of places and the battle had turned into a pursuit with the German Army clearly falling apart from the inside. The British advance was now covering a large front across Flanders, Artois and Picardy. The towns of Lille and Douai were liberated on 17 October. Despite a large number of German units being in disarray, others such as the Stosstruppen (shock troops), were continuing to engage in ferocious rearguard actions, in particular during the entry of British and Canadian troops into Valenciennes (1-2 October), and their actions seemed to be what Ludendorff had waiting in store for the Allied troops if ever they ventured on to German soil.
It was during one of these violent confrontations, while crossing the Sambre Canal, that Wilfred Owen, probably the greatest poet of the Great War, was killed. He died near Ors on 4 November 1918 just one week before the signing of the Armistice and the final Allied victory.
Also on 4 November the town of Le Quesnoy was the scene of a very surprising, almost medieval action: refusing to surrender, the German occupiers were finally taken prisoner by New Zealand soldiers who entered the town by scaling the ramparts with ladders...
Yves Le Maner
Director of La Coupole
History and Remembrance Centre of Northern France