You’re standing on the bank of the Canal du Nord. In front of you are the two bridges over the canal at Havrincourt and the village of Havrincourt itself is further beyond the tree line.
The Canal du Nord in September 1918 was dry, and the canal hadn’t yet been completed, but the walls and what was then, an enormous dry moat, was the real obstacle. The New Zealanders were fighting in this area, and as the Germans evacuated Bapaume, the New Zealanders took Bancourt and Fremicourt. The Canadians were breaking through at Drocourt-Quéant to the north and the Australians were taking Saint Quentin to the South. It’s here that the New Zealanders advance across the canal into the forest of Bois du Havrincourt, that you see on the skyline to your left, and these enormous woods were the next obstacle.
From 2 to 9 September, the New Zealanders gradually fought their way around the edges of that wood, pushing the Germans back. To delay the Allied advance, the Germans destroyed the bridge here. It was then the task of the New Zealand Tunnelling Company, working with engineers, to erect the largest temporary bridge ever constructed by the British Army on the Western Front.
It is a credit to the Tunnellers’ ingenuity that they were selected to carry out what was the most difficult bridging task of the whole war. Its length of 55 metres was regarded as the longest single-span bridge in the history of warfare at that time. This was completed in an amazingly short time frame -– eight days. There was no opportunity for site preparation as it was on the British front line and could not be started before the attack on 27 September. Many of the men that worked on this bridge had worked on the main trunk line in New Zealand - so this was meat and drink to them. It was not until 1926 that this bridge was replaced with a permanent structure.
The New Zealand Tunnellers’ bridge at Havrincourt was a tribute to the work of that Tunnelling Company, but also it reminds us that an army marches on its stomach. As Haig’s armies advanced, following up the German retreat - thousands of tonnes of ammunition, fodder, petrol, supplies and so forth, had to follow them up too. Had the bridge not been built so quickly, then the 3rd Army advance would have ground to a halt, and the Germans would have had plenty of time to consolidate their positions, and fight a more organised, and effective withdrawal.
Russell had trained his division for mobile warfare, and he used his three infantry brigades with artillery, cavalry, and tanks moving up behind his Mounted Rifles who looked for the weak spots in the German line. The key was to keep the ball rolling. Around the edges of Havrincourt Wood, the New Zealanders kept mounting attacks, pushing the Germans back over 13 kilometers, and this pressure, stopped them from mounting a better defence.
Let’s move on to Metz-en-Couture Cemetery.