Review: The Battle of Bellicourt Tunnel – Tommies, Diggers, and Doughboys on the Hindenburg Line 1918

Review by Major Peter L. Belmonte, USAF (Retired)

 

Students of World War I are very familiar with the strategic situation of the Western Front in September 1918. With the goal of driving the Germans across the Hindenburg Line, cutting German army rail supply lines, and positioning the Allied armies for victory in 1919, Marshal Ferdinand Foch planned a series of grand offensives sequentially beginning on September 26 and roughly covering the area from the Meuse River to the Belgian coast. Dale Blair’s new book covers a crucial part of Foch’s attack plan involving British, Australian, and American troops in an assault on the Hindenburg Line in the area of the St. Quentin Canal.

Blair, a freelance Australian writer and historian, sets the stage by giving a brief overview of the strategic situation followed by a close look at the St. Quentin area and at the Anglo-American forces involved in the assault. The focus of the book is upon the Australian Corps commanded by Lieutenant General Sir John Monash and including the American 27th and 30th Divisions. Blair covers the attack chronologically and by divisional sector. Most of the book recounts action that took place on 29 and 30 September; this will give the reader an idea of the detail into which Blair delves to describe the advance.

In discussing the attack, including the disastrous attempt by the 27th Division to reach their jump-off line two days before “D-Day,” Blair gives us plenty of detail down to battalions, companies, and individuals. The main assault began on 29 September with the two American divisions’ objective being the “Green Line” past the Hindenburg Line. While some groups of men did indeed achieve that line, the Americans met with strong resistance and failed to achieve their objective. In subsequent chapters, Blair covers each day’s fighting as the Australians, with British support on their flanks, pushed through the Americans to finally reach the Green Line on 30 September.

It was thought at the time that the American lack of success was due to their failure to mop up behind their assault lines. Blair disagrees with this assessment and instead asserts that the Americans were held up by stiff resistance:

The reality was that the 27th Division had been repulsed all along its front but for a few groups that had pierced the line and plunged headlong into the Germans [in the Hindenburg Line]. [p. 89]

Thus the Germans encountered by the Australians following behind the Americans were not isolated pockets that the U.S. troops had failed to “mop up,” but were actually surviving troops of the front line along with reinforcements. The American troops certainly were aware of the necessity to mop up behind the assault line. The author attributes their failure to adequately do so to the difficult weather and ground conditions, the German principle of aggressive counterattacks, and the efficient use of German reserves. Blair also rebuts the notion that the Bellicourt Tunnel, through which the St. Quentin Canal flowed in the American sector, housed reserves that “popped up” behind advancing Americans and threatened their rear.

The author is evenhanded in his treatment of Allied leaders and men. While acknowledging the skills and abilities of Lieutenant General Sir John Monash, commander of the Australian Corps, he also recognizes his limitations. Blair reports on Monash’s disheartenment and depression following his troops’ failure on 27 and 28 September to secure the jumping off line for the main assault on 29 September. Refused permission to delay the main attack, Monash exhibited “signs of irritability and impatience” (p. 34) and had to be reassured by Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig.

Blair’s final chapter is an excellent conclusion. While acknowledging the Americans’ failure to reach their objective, Blair gives them credit for doing as well as they did given their relative inexperience and the tougher than expected resistance by the Germans. His assessments of officers, including Monash, and men is fair and helpful. Blair correctly sums up what perhaps was the first link in the chain that caused the Americans to fail: By far the most devastating decision to the Americans was that which denied them adequate artillery cover in the main attack for 29 September. A 1,000-yard advance against a position known to be laced with machine guns, over ground already strewn with the dead of previous attempts, in the hopes of catching a barrage line set a further 200 yards beyond defied commonsense. [p. 141]

The geography of this battlefield calls for detailed, large-scale maps; the eleven maps in this book are adequate for following the battle, but aficionados might crave more detail. Fourteen photographs illustrate the men, equipment, and terrain described in the book. Blair includes an appendix with orders of battle for the Australian and American troops. The author is to be commended for his use of official records such as war diaries and the soldier questionnaires in the U.S. Army archives at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania. This is a fine addition to the historiography of American and Australian troops in World War I. Those readers interested in Americans fighting under British command will greatly appreciate Blair’s detailed focus in this book.

About the publisher and book : The Battle of Bellicourt Tunnel: Tommies, Diggers & Doughboys on the Hindenburg Line, 1918. London: Frontline Books, 2021. Pp. 184. Illus.

About the author: Dale Blair, (His books on Amazon) is a writer from Melbourne, Australia. He is a freelance historian currently working with the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and has written extensively on the First World War. His books straddle a number of genres, history, children’s literature, biography, and humor.

About the reviewer: Major Peter L. Belmonte, USAF (Retired)

Peter L. Belmonte is a retired U.S. Air Force officer, author, and historian. A veteran of Operation Desert Storm, he holds a master’s degree in history from California State University, Stanislaus. He has published articles, book chapters, reviews, and papers about immigration and military history. Pete’s books include: Italian Americans in World War II (Arcadia, 2001), Days of Perfect Hell: The U.S. 26th Infantry Regiment in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, October-November, 1918 (Schiffer, 2015), Forgotten Soldiers of World War I: America’s Immigrant Doughboys (with Alexander F. Barnes, Schiffer, 2018), Play Ball! Doughboys and Baseball during the Great War (with co-authors Alexander F. Barnes and Samuel O. Barnes, Schiffer Books, 2019), and Chicago-Area Italians in World War I: A Case Study of Calabrians (Fonthill Media/Arcadia Publishing, 2019). He is also working on a multi-volume history of Italian Americans in World War I. You may see his books at his webpage: https://www.amazon.com/author/peter.belmonte.

Ratings
Readability- five stars
Historical Accuracy- five stars
Historical Value- four stars
Details- five stars
Overall Rating – four and a half stars

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