RJP: 62 Div: 100 Days     Latest edit 11 Apr 2010                                                                                                   http://penhey.name/omiwxb62Div16.htm

Rounded Rectangle: The British 62nd Division

Rounded Rectangle: In the Great War

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16.   The Last Hundred Days.

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16.1  Background

The ‘Last Hundred Days’ name is commonly given to the last three months of the war, during which the allies made their final, uninterrupted advance to the Armistice line of 11.11.18. For the BEF it can be considered to have begun with the opening of the Battle of Amiens on 8.8.18. 62 Division became involved in the advance when, after its participation in Second Marne, it returned to the BEF, joined VI Corps of 3rd Army and took its place in the line in the Ervillers - Sapignies sector on 25.8.18.

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16.2       The Advance to Vaulx-Vraucourt

On 24.8.18 orders were received from VI Corps that the advance on Vaulx-Vraucourt was to be continued on 25.8.18. that the relief of 3 Div was postponed, and that 62 Div was to relieve two brigades of 2 Div instead. The next day, 25.8.18, 62 Div attacked on a 4 km front between Ervillers and Sapignies eastwards towards Mory. Mory was taken and the line MoryFavreuil reached. That evening heavy enemy counter-attacks were beaten off and 37 Div (in IV Corps and on the right of 62 Div) took Favreuil. On 26.8.18 the front was advanced about 1 km to a line through Beugnâtre. On 27.8.18 little progress was made but on 28.8.18 the division pushed forward to a line roughly following the BeugnatreÉcoust(-Saint-Mein) road. During the day Maj Gen Sir Robert Whigham KCB DSO took over command of 62 Div from Maj Gen W.P.Braithwaite CB, who left to command IX Corps. The following day, 29.8.18, little progress was made despite hard fighting. On 30.8.18 Vraucourt and Vaulx-Vraucourt were attacked with the assistance of eight Mk V tanks. This attack continued with varying fortune through 31.8.18 and the next day, but by the end of 1.9.18 Vraucourt and Vaulx-Vraucourt had been cleared and the 62 Div line ran north to south just east of Vaulx-Vraucourt. (These operations took place on the southern edge of the Battle of the Scarpe 1918 - 21.8.18 to 31.8.18 - though just outside the area of the battle as defined by the Battles Nomenclature Committee).

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See Map 5

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16.3     The Drocourt - Quéant Switch

This was the central of the three branches of the Hindenburg Line at its northern end – see paragraph 16.5.1 below. The westernmost branch of the Hindenburg Line from Quéant to Arras had been broken through on 28 to 29.8.18 during the Battle of the Scarpe and a similar fate befell the southern end of the DrocourtQuéant Switch on 2 and 3.9.18.

The 62 Div operations lay immediately to the south of the main battle, Quéant being 5 km to the north-north-east of Morchies.

The VI Corps orders reaching 62 Div on 1.9.18 were that the division would attack Morchies on 2.9.18, while 3 Div of VI Corps on the left would attack Lagnicourt and 5 Div of IV Corps on the right would attack Beugny. Eight Mk IV tanks would be available to support 62 Div. If Morchies was taken, 62 Div was to pass on to Beaumetz, supported by six Whippet tanks from VI Corps Reserve. In the event 62 Div met strong resistance on 2.9.18 and had only limited success. They pushed the line forward by 1 km and in the early hours of 3.9.18 were relieved by 2 Div. The division retired to the ErvillersBéhagniesSapigniesCourcelles-le-Comte area, where they went into XI Corps Support.

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16.4     The Battle of Havrincourt 1918 (12.9.18)

On 8.9.18 the GOC VI Corps came to 62 Div HQ to inform its GOC that it was to make the attack on Havrincourt on 11.9.18. The village would not, in the course of events, have fallen within the 62 Div front, but in view of the division’s previous performance there (on 20.11.17) the Corps boundaries had been adjusted to give them the opportunity to repeat their success. In support of their operation 2 Div of VI Corps would attack on the Canal du Nord on their left and 37 Div of IV Corps would take Trescault on their right. No tanks would be available but substantial artillery and machine gun barrages would be laid down in support. Later, the attack was postponed until 12.9.18. On 10.9.18 the division moved forward from the VI Corps support area and bivouacked in Havrincourt and Vélu Woods. On 11.9.18 reconnaissances were made of the assembly positions, routes taped and communications cables laid, and during the night of 11 to 12.9.18 attacking units moved up into their assembly position. Zero hour was 5.45 am on 12.9.18.

Shortly before this the enemy commenced a counter-preparation bombardment, but at zero hour British artillery laid down a creeping barrage and the advance began. By noon the Hindenburg Main Line had been breached, and the village taken and cleared of the enemy. By early evening the line lay just beyond the village to its north and east and extended to the divisional boundaries. At 7 pm the enemy opened a violent bombardment of the village, supported by aerial bombing, and then launched a counter-attack, which was broken up by artillery fire. The official end of the battle was at midnight of 12.9.18. The night of 12 to 13.9.18 saw some patrolling and between 4 am and 7 am on 13.9.18 the enemy again bombarded the village and a counter-attack followed, during which the enemy entered the village. A subsequent British counter-attack drove them out again and re-established the line. On 14.9.18 attacks were made to clear the enemy from the Hindenburg Main Line between the village and the south divisional boundary and subsequent counter-attacks were beaten off. 15.9.18 was a quiet day, during which a letter of congratulation was received from GOC 3rd Army, Gen Byng, under whom 62 Div had also made its 1917 capture of Havrincourt. During the night of 15 to 16.9.18 62 Div was relieved by 3 Div and withdrew to the BehagniesSapignies area.

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16.5 The Battle of the Canal du Nord and Breaking of the Hindenburg Line (27.9.18 to 5.10.18)

16.5.1       Background

The most formidable part of the Hindenburg Line (Siegfried Stellung) ran from St Quentin, up the east side of the St Quentin Canal to Banteux, where it crossed the canal. From there it swung westward and passed through Havrincourt.

A lesser arm then ran up the east side of the Canal du Nord (which was dry, since it was incomplete at the outbreak of the war), while the greater arm crossed the canal and ran up its west side to Moeuvres, where it turned towards Quéant.

From Quéant a short branch ran through Bullecourt and ended at the River Scarpe facing Arras, while a longer and stronger branch ran northwards past Drocourt to Lille, where it joined the defences around the city. In the British nomenclature the Quéant to Arras branch was regarded as simply a continuation of the Hindenburg Line, while the Quéant to Lille branch (Wotan Stellung) was called the DrocourtQuéant Switch. By 26.9.18 the British 1st and 3rd Armies had broken through the Drocourt - Quéant Switch (2 to 2.9.18) and reached the west side of the Canal du Nord between Écourt-Saint-Quentin and Havrincourt, where 62 Div had recently captured the village and a short length of the Hindenburg Front Line trenches. Thence the British line ran southwards to Gouzeaucourt and from there to Vendhuile on the St Quentin Canal. It then continued southward close to the west bank of the canal to Holnon near St Quentin. The Third Army lay between Écourt-St-Quentin and Vendhuille and the 4th Army between Vendhuille and Holnon, where the French I Army sector began.

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16.5.2 62 Division Operations

On 17.9.18 62 Div received their orders from VI Corps regarding the next stage of operations. VI Corps were to capture the Hindenburg Support Line, Ribécourt and Flesquières and establish a bridgehead across the St Quentin Canal east of Marcoing. In the first phase the Guards Div on the left and 3 Div on the right would take the Hindenburg Support Line and Flesquières, whereupon 2 Div and 62 Div would pass through them and continue eastwards to Marcoing. On 25.9.18 62 Divisional orders for the attack were issued and brigades began their planning. At dusk 62 Div moved up to the staging area Beugny - Frémicourt - Vaulx-Vraucourt. During the night of 26 to 27.9.18 the division took up their assembly positions, one brigade on the west side of the Canal Du Nord and the other immediately south-west of Havrincourt on the east side of the canal. At 5.20 am on 27.9.18 the 1st and 3rd Armies attacked with IV, VI, XVII and Canadian Corps on a 21 km front from Gouzeaucourt to Sauchy-Lestrée. The vital point of the attack was the Canal du Nord near Moeuvres. On the VI Corps front the Guards Div and 3 Div crossed the canal in the face of strong machine gun fire. 62 Div started their move forward at 8 am, following close behind the reserve brigade of 3 Div. There was heavy fighting all day and by 8.30 pm 3 Div had withdrawn and 62 Div held a line just east of Ribécourt. In the early hours of 28.9.18 attacks were resumed towards Marcoing and Masnières. Fierce fighting continued all the day, and by 6 pm Marcoing had been taken, together with the trenches on the east side of the St Quentin Canal. On 29.9.18 the attack was renewed with Masnières and Rumilly as the objectives. By noon Masnières had been captured and cleared, but because of fierce opposition Rumilly was not taken that day. The orders for the following day, 30.9.18, were to take Rumilly and then drive on to Seranvillers and Wambaix. But despite hard fighting Rumilly did not fall, so the advance beyond was not achieved that day. At 6 am on 1.10.18 3 Div passed through 62 Div and attacked Rumilly, and on being so relieved 62 Div withdrew to areas around Havrincourt. That day the C in C, Sir Douglas Haig wrote to the GOC 62 Div offering his congratulations and thanks to the division, and the same day a message to the same effect was received from their old GOC Lt Gen Braithwaite, whose own IX Corps (46 and 32 Divs) had broken through the Hindenburg Line in a spectacular manner on 29.9.18 at Bellenglise. It is noteworthy that in these operations VI Corps was advancing along the Hindenburg line in its sector rather than across it. The battle continued until 5.10.18 but 62 Div took no further part in it. At the end of the battle the whole of the Hindenburg Line defences along the front attacked had been taken. This marked the end of the first phase of the final advance: from now on there were no further carefully prepared enemy defensive positions to be faced.

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16.6     The Capture of Solesmes

16.6.1 Background

From 1 to 17.10.18 62 Div were out of the line, apparently in VI Corps Reserve, but were following up as the advance progressed so that by 15.10.18 they were camped around Estourmel. That day 62 Div HQ received orders to be ready to capture Solesmes and the high ground to the east of the river Selle on or about 20.10.18. The River Selle at Solesmes was normally about 6 metres wide and 1.5 metres deep, with a muddy bed and steep banks, but was at this time swelled by heavy rains. Moreover, a demolished railway bridge had partially blocked the river and so flooded the area south of the village. The Selle flows south to north and joins the Escaut or Scheldt at Denain. An operation in two phases was envisaged viz

Phase 1. Take Solesmes and the adjoining Saint-Python, including the crossing of the River Selle;

Phase 2. Move forward to take the high ground about 2 km beyond, which overlooks Romeries.

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See Map 6

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16.6.2  62 Div Operations

During the night of 17 to 18.10.18 62 Div began to move forward from Carnières and Boussières to the front line just west of Solesmes, where it relieved a Guards brigade. The night of 19 to 20.10.18 saw the divisional RE companies erecting under fire twelve assault bridges and two pontoon bridges for artillery, across the swollen river, some upstream and others downstream of Solesmes/Saint-Python. At the same time the attacking force moved up to the start line near the villages from billets at Quiévy. Zero hour for Phase 1 was 2 am on 20.10.18. Because there were French civilians in the villages, only shrapnel and machine gun fire (from which they could shelter) were permitted in the creeping barrage. There was fierce street fighting, but the whole of both Solesmes and Saint-Python was taken by 7.15 am. Meanwhile, another brigade of 62 Div assembled at Quiévy and from there moved forward at 4 am. One battalion moved round the left and another round the right of the village. By this time the rising water had submerged the bridges across the Selle but a crossing was made and by 7 am positions were taken up on the start line for Phase 2 just east of Solesmes. A barrage opened at once and the attack on the high ground overlooking Romeries began. The objective was reached by 10 am, contact was made with the flanking divisions and a defensive front established. After bombarding the new front line the enemy counter-attacked at 4.15 pm but was repulsed. Solesmes and Saint- Python were bombarded during the night of 20 to 21.10.18. On 23.10.18 3 Div passed through 62 Div, which then withdrew to the Quiévy - Bévillers - Cattenières area for rest.

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16.7     The 3rd Army Plan

On 30.10.18 62 Div HQ received notice that the advance was to be continued on 4.11.18 and that the objective lines selected for the 3rd Army’s final thrust were as follows.

1st Objective      Locquignol - Herbignies - Frasnoy

2nd Objective    Saint-Rémy-Chaussée - Pont-sur-Sambre - Bavay - Montignies-sur-Roc road

3rd Objective     Avesnes - Maubeuge - Mons.

VI Corps was to be directed on Maubeuge with 62 Div on the right, Guards Div on the left and 2 and 3 Divs in Corps Reserve.

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16.8     The Capture of Orsinval, Frasnoy and Gogniaux

During the nights of 2 to 3.11.18 and 3 to 4.11.18 and the day between, 62 Div moved up from its rest area towards the start line for the advance on 4.11.18. This was a line running north westwards from the west side of Le Quesnoy. Zero hour was at 5.30 am on 4.11.18, when 62 Div advanced against light opposition, leapfrogging its brigades. Orsinval was taken and by the end of that day the division had progressed 7 km and reached a north – south line lying between Frasnoy and Gommegnies. Thus the first objective had been reached. On 5.11.18 the advance resumed at 6 am and by 9 am the Bavay to Le Cateau road bordering the west side of Mormal Forest had been reached, a forward movement of about 4 km. Here resistance stiffened and the advance halted at the River de la Maladrerie at dusk. The advance was resumed at 6 am on 6.11.18. Progress was slow due to incessant heavy rain and the enclosed nature of the country. Gogniaux was taken and at 7 am a heavy counter-attack was driven off. At the end of the day the divisional front lay along the Bavay to Pont-sur-Sambre road which ran along the east side of Mormal Forest. Heavy rain continued through the night of 6 to 7.11.18. Zero hour on 7.11.18 was 6 am. There was no enemy opposition to the advance and by 10 am the Hargnies to La Longueville road had been reached. This had been the objective for the day, but GOC 62 Div had ordered that contact with the enemy must not be lost, so the advance continued. Contact was regained along a line running northward through Vieux-Mesnil where resistance hardened and 62 Div halted for the night. At this stage the second objective had been reached.

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16.9     The Crossing of the River Sambre and Capture of Maubeuge

On 7.11.18 orders were received by GOC 62 Div that, as the enemy were retiring along the whole front, the division was to push forward to Maubeuge on 8.11.18 and establish outposts beyond. Zero hour was 6.30 am on 8.11.18 and the start line the Hargnies to La Longueville road. By 8 am a north-south line through Vieux-Mesnil was reached and consolidated in depth. At this point enemy machine gun fire became intense and artillery was called in to lay down a barrage to assist the next advance. This started at 2 pm and the Hautmont to Feignies road was reached by 2.30 pm. The advance continued that afternoon and through the following night so that next morning, 9.11.18, 62 Div was at the outskirts of Maubeuge. At 6.30 am they reached the villages of Sous-le-Bois, Louvroil and Saint-Lazare, which together form the southern suburbs of Maubeuge, and crossed the River Sambre with little opposition. They entered Maubeuge from the south as the Guards Div were entering it from the west, then set up outposts. The 10.11.18 was an uneventful day except for some desultory shelling of Recquignies, Rousies and Saint-Lazare. Early in the morning of 11.11.18 the divisional outpost line of resistance was advanced to the River Solre (here 2½ km east of Maubeuge and flowing northwards to the River Sambre) and a picket line was established to the east of the River Solre with observation posts east of Rousies. A cyclist patrol was sent out to the line Cerfontaine - Recquignies without encountering the enemy. Thus the third and final objective was reached. The Armistice became effective at 11 am on 11.11.18.

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