120th Infantry Breaks Hindenburg Line

Author: 
Matthew M. Peek, Military Collection Archivist

100 years ago this week marks the anniversary of September 29, 1918, which is the deadliest day in the history of North Carolinians who fought in World War I. More North Carolinians died on that day than any other single day in the war. On that day, the 30th Infantry Division, U.S. Army, broke the Hindenburg Line, an important segment of the German defensive network on the Western Front in Europe during WWI. The breaking of the Hindenburg Line was part of a series of Allied assaults known as the Hundred Days Offensive, which led to the Armistice on November 11, 1918.

The 30th Division was assigned to the Second Corps of the American Expeditionary Force, which was detached and operated under the control of the British Army. During the attack on the Hindenburg Line, the 30th Division was part of the British Fourth Army. The 119th and 120th Infantry Regiments [originally units created from North Carolina National Guard units] led the assault on the Hindenburg Line. The Germans opened fire and inflicted heavy casualties. The attack of the 119th Infantry made little progress; but, the 120th Infantry captured the village of Bellicourt, France after heavy fighting, breaking the Hindenburg Line. Later in the afternoon on September 29th, the Australian Corps took over the assault and further exploited the initial breakthrough.

 

In order to give our reading audience a better perspective on the events of September 29, 1918, we present a transcription of a portion of an original typed historical unit sketch of the 120th Infantry, written by Col. Sidney W. Minor, the commander of the 120th. Entitled The 120th Infantry, USA, On His Majesty’s Service, the 10-page history written around 1919 includes several pages on the deadliest day for North Carolina soldiers in WWI—September 29, 1918. This unit sketch is not widely available, and appears to have only a few copies known to exist. The section presented here, with maps from the 30th Division showing the area around the Hindenburg Line in September-October 1918, is entitled “29th of September”:

 

“Foch [French Field Marshall Ferdinand Foch] was to play on this day ‘his master strike,’ hurling the First, Third and Fourth British Armies against the Hindenburg Line between St. Quentin and Cambrai. If it failed the war would probably drag along for months to come; if successful, it meant the withdrawal of enemy forces in Belgium and along the line of the Meuse, before their only two gateways into Germany could be closed.

About half way between these two cities, or what is left of cities, the St. Quentin Canal passes under ground for a distance of six thousand yards. This sector was in the center of the sector allotted to the Fourth British Army. For four years the enemy had been adding to a natural strength every menace known to man, as this sector was the only place on the entire front over which tanks could operate and was a vital spot in the famous line. The entire frontage was allotted to the Second American Corps, the left of the sector was given to the 27th Division, and the right to the 30th [Division]. The ‘Tarheel’ Brigade of the 30th Division was assigned to the Divisional front, and to the regiment [120th Infantry Regiment] was given the right of the divisional front. The job out for this regiment included three rows of wire each forty feet deep, three rows of Hindenburg Line, the southern end of the tunnel which would hold a division of troops in perfect security."

 

"The cities of Bellicourt, Nauroy, and Requeval [France], all fortified to the nth degree, and dotted about over the entire area with numerous machine gun emplacements against which shell fire, important. On the night of the 27th [September] we relieved the 118th Infantry of the 59th Brigade. On the morning of the 29th [September] we were to go ‘over,’ supported by a creeping barrage and tanks. Our plans had been worked out, each battalion, company and man had been assigned a job, each one understood thoroughly what he was to do, each one knew the great importance of the task assigned. Companies pledged themselves to go through to their objective even if only one man were left. We were determined to leave an open road for the Australians who were to follow us. We were determined to win, although our faith was tempted by being told that we could not succeed, as the line was too strong.”

“At 4:30 A.M. [of September 29, 1918] all troops were reported on ‘Tape’ and the slow passing second each seemed an age. At 5:45 [A.M.] we stood with watch in hand. Could the seconds never pass? At 5:49 [A.M.] all was still, a deathly silence. As the final second came, the thunder of all ages seemed to break at once, the earth trembled and the flashes of hundreds of guns in the early dawn gave it all a fearsome aspect. The troops were off with the second, going with the barrage, for the success depended on getting the Boche [Germans] before he could get out. The first lines were won, when there settled over the battlefield a fog so thick and whose density lost all touch with their men, one could not see ten feet ahead of him, units became mixed, but each man, each squad, with the objective printed on his mind and the honor of his regiment enshrined in his heart, plowed on, knowing not whether he was the only one of his squad, the only squad still on the job. Perhaps they were working their way to death or capture, but turn back, never; it was the supreme test of the troops."

"Had they failed they could have been forgiven, but they did not fail, and the rays of the sun piercing the fog at 10:00 A.M. found the 120th [Infantry] on their objective, the only regiment in the whole attack who went through on time. The road was opened to the Australians, the lines had been broken, the defenses were ours. Our losses were grievous, but the accomplishments, as Field Marshall Sir D. Haig said, ‘made final victory possible.’ Over a thousand prisoners and spoils never counted were in their hands. Boche officers captured, when told that the operation had been a success, did not believe it, but when finally convinced, threw up their hands in despair saying, ‘It is over; there is nothing between you and the Rhine.’”

 

References

 

“Old Hickory” Division Breaks Hindenburg Line, North Carolina DNCR blog post, published September 29, 2016. Viewed at https://www.ncdcr.gov/blog/2016/09/29/old-hickory-division-breaks-hindenburg-line

 

Box 3, Folder 15, 120th Infantry Records, WWI 132, WWI Papers, Military Collection, State Archives of North Carolina, Raleigh, N.C.