San Quentin Canal/Bellenglise
The Battle that Won the First World War
The Western Front battles of 1918 started with the German Spring Offensive where the German army pushed the allies back a considerable distance, but they failed to capture the allied supply railheads before the offensive petered out in July.
August saw the start of what has become know as the “100 Days” that saw the allies push the Germans back through many defensive lines until they withdrew to the Hindenburg Line, regarded as the ultimate defines position built during the winter of 1916–1917.
September 29th 1918 saw the start of the battle of San Quentin Canal and involved British, Australian and American forces operating as part of the British Fourth Army under the overall command of General Sir Henry Rawlinson. The Third army to the north and the French First Army to the south supported the attack.
The Americans on the northern flank of the Fourth Army did not make their intended progress or take their intended targets.
In the middle, the attack across the San Quentin Canal cutting, also known as the Battle of Bellenglise, saw IX Corps launch its assault between Riqueval and Bellenglise. The assault was spearheaded by the 46th (North Midland) Division under the command of Major-General Gerald Boyd. In this sector the St Quentin Canal formed an immense, ready-made anti-tank “ditch” and the main Hindenburg Line trench system lay on the east (German) side of the canal. IX Corps had to cross the formidable canal cutting (which increased in depth as it approached Riqueval until its very steep banks, strongly defended by fortified machine gun positions, were over 15 m (50 ft) deep in places, and then fight its way through the Hindenburg Line trenches.
The 46th Division’s final objective for 29 September was a line of high ground beyond the villages of Lehaucourt and Magny-la-Fosse. Following a devastating artillery bombardment (which was heaviest in this sector) and in thick fog and smoke the British 46th (North Midland) Division fought its way through the German trenches west of the canal and then across the waterway. The 137th (Staffordshire) Brigade spearheaded the attack.
The ferocity of the creeping artillery barrage contributed greatly to the success of the assault, keeping the Germans pinned in their dugouts. The soldiers used a variety of flotation aids devised by the Royal Engineers (including improvised floating piers and 3,000 lifebelts from cross-Channel steamers) to cross the water. Scaling ladders were used to climb the brick wall lining the canal. Some men of the 1/6th Battalion (“The Burton Boys”), the North Staffordshire Regiment, led by Captain A. H. Charlton (Kings Bromley and Tatenhill), managed to seize the still-intact Riqueval Bridge over the canal before the Germans had a chance to fire their explosive charges. The 46th Division captured the village of Bellenglise, including its great tunnel/troop shelter (which had been constructed as part of the Hindenburg Line defences). By the end of the day the 46th Division had taken 4,200 German prisoners (out of a total for the army of 5,100) and 70 guns.
The assault across the canal met all of its objectives, on schedule, at a cost of somewhat fewer than 800 casualties to the division. The great success of the day had come where many had least expected it. The 46th Division assault was considered to be one of the outstanding feats of arms of the war. Charles Bean described the attack as an “extraordinarily difficult task” and “a wonderful achievement” in his official Australian war history. Lieutenant General Monash, commander of the Australian Corps, wrote that it was “an astonishing success…[which] materially assisted me in the situation in which I was placed later on the same day”.
Later in the day the leading brigades of the 32nd Division (including Lt Wilfred Owen of the Manchester Regiment) crossed the canal and moved forward through 46th Division. The whole of the 32nd Division was east of the canal by nightfall.
CAPTAIN ARTHUR HUMPHREY CHARLTON 1892 – 1982
Arthur Humphrey Charlton was the youngest of 3 sons of the Vicar of Tatenhill, near Burton upon Trent, of whom 2 attended Brewood Grammar School (the eldest, Wilfred Edward was educated at Oakham School).
Arthur was born on 30th January 1892 in Kings Bromley, Staffs, where his father Edward was Vicar, originally from Broseley, Shropshire. His mother, Mary Elizabeth (nee Price) was from St John’s Wood, London.
In the family were also sisters Mary (1992-1897), Anna, Edith and Helen and brothers Wilfrid Edward (1886 – 1952, who followed his father into the Church) and Geoffrey David (born 1890).
The 1901 Census shows that Arthur and Geoffrey were at a West House Preparatory School in Edgbaston, Birmingham.
Later, the brothers attended Brewood Grammar School, where Arthur developed a love of agriculture, which became his career.
The 1911 Census shows the Charlton family were living at the Tatenhill Vicarage – Arthur was an agricultural student and at home on the Census day. There is no indication where he was a student. Geoffrey was a theological student.
He sailed from Liverpool to Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, arriving on 22nd April 1911. He worked on several farms in the Pine Lake area of Alberta, before acquiring his own farm in the Howell’s Lake area in 1912.
As with many, Arthur answered the call to arms and returned to England and enlisted in 1914 as a Private in the Army Veterinary Corps (later RAVC) and was in France from January 1915. He transferred to the North Staffordshire Regiment, and was a Captain in the 1st/6th Battalion by September 1918. During the war, he was wounded and hospitalised twice.
On Sunday 29th September 1918, together with 9 soldiers, Capt. Charlton stormed the Riqueval Bridge over the St Quentin Canal and held the Bridge. Please see attached article (from the Stoke Sentinel, sent by a family member) for greater details.
Captain Charlton was awarded DSO (for this action), MC in addition to his other medals – the 15 Star and the British and Military Medals and the Oak Leaf. He was also awarded the Croix de Guerre.
Arthur returned to Canada and again took up his career as a farmer in Alberta. He married Muriel Irene MacTurk (1899-1975) in Canada in 1921, settling as a farmer in the Howell’s Lake area and raising a family of 3 daughters and 2 sons.
Arthur served in the active 15th Alberta Light Horse Militia as a Lieutenant from 1940 – 1945. In 1947 he moved to his farm in the Clearview district where he continued to farm until 1965.
Arthur never forgot his family roots and was, for many years, Parson’s Warden in the Pine Lake Anglican Church. His funeral was held at the Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Pine Lake on 21st May 1982.
We are most grateful to Arthur’s grandsons David Charlton and Paul Benson (in Canada) and especially to Ann Roden, another relative from Shropshire, without whom none of this would have been written.
How the North Staffords won the war
One hundred years ago, the North Staffords won the First World War. RICHARD AULT looks at how they did it
It was at 6.20am that the most dramatic and decisive action of the day took place. Captain Charlton had guided his men through the mist to the canal. He was about to make his way along the canal to find some way of crossing, when he was approached by a lone soldier who appeared out of the fog.
Private Alexander Shennan had got lost in the confusion, and had stumbled across the Riqueval Bridge, still intact. Fearful the Germans might blow it up at any moment, he rushed off to find some of his own men and ran into Captain Charlton.
Charlton immediately turned and led nine men towards the bridge. They were fired at by a machine gun crew as they approached. With no time to waste, Lance Corporal J Smith from Burton led the charge on the machine gun nest, bayoneting the entire crew and taking the position.
The result of the war then rested on a foot race. From one end of the bridge, Captain Charlton ran to defuse the explosive charges. From the other side, two German sappers raced him to set off the explosion.
It wasn’t a fair competition – Lance Corporal Smith and his men laid down covering fire and shot both the enemy soldiers.
Charlton then set to work cutting the leads to the demolition charges. Nearby, Lance Corporal Openshaw, of the Royal Engineers, had led four men across the canal, captured a machine gun nest at the opposite side, and appeared at the other end of the bridge. He threatened a German soldier to show him where the charges were on his side of the bridge.
With the explosives disarmed, the bridge was taken – and the rest of the British Army could easily cross to attack the Hindenburg Line.
For his bravery and decisive leadership Charlton, from Burton, son of the vicar of Abbots Bromley, was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. Openshaw received the Distinguished Conduct Medal. Smith received a Bar to add to the DCM he had already won.
Stoke Sentinel (11 Feb 2019)
46th North Midland Division [particularly battle order]
The Vickers Machine Gun [machine gun company structure]
Drill Halls [locations of 1/6 North Staffs pre-1914 Coy bases]