Strong-Point on the Arras-Cambrai Road

In the previous blog post “Tip of the Sword on the Arras-Cambrai Road” one of the positions on the disposition map was conjectured to be a strong-point that was created from an existing structure. Evidence has come to light that indicates that the units of the 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade, comprising the 18th and, possibly the 21st, Battalions, used this structure or structures as a strong-point. The evidence found shows that the units may have used a pre-existing strong point developed from a German works.

Working Back in Time

2018 Google Maps

Google Maps shows that on Route nationale D939 between road D19 and the Rue de Croisettes is a building on the south side of D939. It appears to be buildings with some commercial or industrial purpose. This area corresponds very closely to the area where the 18th and 21st Battalions mounted an outpost or strong-point in support of the front-line companies that maintained the line against the west side of the Canal Du Nord.

Google Maps 2018

Top view of the locale. There is the D939 (Arras-Cambrai Road) to the north of the position. The strong-point is approximately equidistant between the buildings and the cemetery on the lower right (gray rectangle) of the image.

The buildings are hard against the road. In comparison, the trench map (1917) and the 18th Battalion disposition sketch indicate the position in question is to the south and located in the field to the south of the existing buildings. It is unknown if the buildings in the image existed during the First World War but given the location the buildings in comparison to the map locations on the trench map and the disposition sketch the defense works shown in those maps are independent of the buildings that currently exist in the Google Maps image. There appears to be no surface evidence currently existing of the works from the aerial image.

The main landmarks locating the strong-point in the current image is the relative distance between the junction of road D939 and the Rue de Croisettes and the line of green shaped like a large boomerang emanating north and then north-west from Rue de Tillemont.

3D Map with Notations

This 3D view of of the positions occupied by the 18th looks EAST towards the Canal Du Nord. It shows the relative positions of the Battalion as outlined in the disposition map dated September 21, 1918 from the 18th Bn. War Diary Appendices.

The top-view map shows the basic outline of the geography of the site but the “3D” view adapted from Google Maps shows a more interesting configuration of the position. Obviously, such buildings such as the “Hypermarket” (the large building immediately east of the strong-point) did not exist in 1918. Using imagination to remove such structures one can see that the strong-point had been adapted and, as it was located between the 70 and 65 metre topographic elevation with the land sloping down to 50 metres at the village of Barelle the units of the 4th C.I.B. appear to had adopted the local topography to offer a position that gave cover to the right flank (“C” Company) and possibly the left.

1918 Disposition Maps

Two disposition maps tell two different stories.

21st Battalion Disposition Map dated September 19 1918 showing positions against the west bank of the Canal

21st Battalion Disposition Map dated September 19, 1918 showing positions against the west bank of the Canal.

Canal du Nord

18th Battalion Disposition Map dated September 21, 1918 showing positions against the west bank of the Canal. Note the inclusion of the strong-point by grid no. 8.

The 21st Battalion disposition map of September 19, 1918 shows the positions that Battalion held during its front-line tour. This map, in contrast to the 18th Battalion disposition map, shows the front-line positions in the same positional orientation as the 18th Battalion map but the support line companies appear to be positioned differently with one company to the north of the Rue do Croisettes road and another company astride the northern divisional boundary posted along Rue de Tillemont near the village of Villers-les-Cagnicourt. There is no notation of the strong-point on the map and there is no mention of this position in the 21st Battalion War Diary during the dates surrounding this unit’s occupation of the front-line.

The 18th Battalion disposition map shows similar positions with more detail. The front-line positions occupied by “C” and “D” Companies are outposts and not contiguous lines of trenches in the front-line with the strong-point located rear of the company headquarters of the “C” and “D” Companies. The basic configuration mimics the 21st Battalion’s map.

There is a definitive location showing a position, the aforementioned strong-point, mid-way between the front and support lines in the guise of one post with two Lewis Guns.

During this tour the 18th Battalion has moved both support companies, “A” and “B”, athwart the Arras-Cambrai Road (D939), in positions that may be short trench-lines for each platoon serving them.

Thus, the existence and use of the strong-point by the 21st Battalion is unknown. It is entirely possible that this unit took advantage of an existing defence work and did not make note of it on the map. Or it did not and, consequently, made no notation of it on the map. This is a curious detail as the defence works, which existing in 1917, were used by the 18th Battalion when they took over the sector upon its relief of the 21st Battalion on September 20, 1918.

1917 Trench Map

The Hendecourt: Special Sheet (Parts of) 51b.SW, SE, 57c.NW, NE trench map of November 12, 1917 shows that this position existed.

Hendecourt Special Sheet Parts of 51b.SW SE 57c.NW NE France Medium

Screen capture of Hendecourt Special Sheet Parts of 51b.SW SE 57c.NW NE France. Note the Arras-Cambrai Road running diagonally from upper-left corner. The strong point is the red square to the LEFT of the number 8. Note the cemetery to the south of the strong-point.

 

 

From the map its purpose cannot be derived but its configuration shows a square with crenulated trenches with four small trench projections, two on the west side of the works and two on the east side. To the north is a line of trenches and to the east a shorter line of trenches. Several earthworks (round red dots) and dugouts (square red dots) populate the area adjacent to this works. There is an observation post in the Baralle Woods just south-west of the cemetery.

Detail of 1917 Map

Detail of the strong-point from the 1917 trench map.

The trench map, derived from aerial photographs, definitively establishes a German works of some configuration in the exact area where the 18th Battalion adopted as part of its defence scheme when it occupied the front-line positions astride the Arras-Cambrai Road. The location of the main landmarks on the maps of 2018 and 1918 make a strong argument that the 18th Battalion assessed the local topography and tactical objectives of its duty in the front-line and decided that this small complex of trenches would serve to bolster it local defence efforts.

Conclusion

There are small details that are missed by time. The distance of time does not mean that these details cannot be rediscovered and assessed. Sadly, the immediacy and relevance of such assessment is hampered by many factors. But, by happenstance, some details from a disposition map created ten-months after the trench map was published, can be connected.

The 18th Battalion disposition map clearly identifies a point in its defence plans that consisted of one “post” and two Lewis Gun positions in the rear of the front-line. Its position can be clearly oriented and identified by the roads and other geographic features that existed in 1917, 1918, and 2018. It is not known if the 21st Battalion utilized this works to its advantage. Other disposition maps from its War Diary have no notation of this position.

Why did he 18th Battalion use this position and not the 21st Battalion? If the 21st Battalion used the position, which appears to have some tactical value because of its use by the 18th, did it not note this on their disposition maps. Did the occupation of this position have any influence on the local tactics of the German forces? Probably not, as the Canal Du Nord and the front-line defences of the battalions occupying the sector and their active night patrols would be disincentive enough for operations at this time. As there was no significant German activity during the 18th Battalions occupation of the front-line no assessment of the tactical value of this position can be made.

We do know, however, it existed and why. The Germans created a local trench-works that benefitted local use and adoption by Canadian troops during the Last 100 Days.

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