You’re standing on the little bridge over the river Escaut at the edge of the village of Crèvecœur which is in front of you. The New Zealand Division was withdrawn for a rest after taking Trescault spur. It was reinforced, reorganised and retrained. It was then sent back in to take part in the advance on Cambrai and the taking of the Hindenburg line. Russell’s division advanced towards the Bonavis Ridge which is on the high ground in the distance in front of you. This was the formidable Hindenburg line.
This branch of the river Escaut, or Scheldt as the Germans called it, is not very wide, but in 1918, it was deeper and equally swift flowing. If you look down the road, back in the direction of La Rue des Vignes, there is the Canal you crossed which creates an island in this area between the canal and this stream. The New Zealanders attempted to cross this stream before first light on 30 September, push through Crèvecœur and secure the far end of the village before taking the next section of the Hindenburg line.
This was the 2nd Auckland Battalion area, and everything went wrong. The 15th North Auckland Company, led by Captain Evans, was the only company to get here on time. All the other companies got lost, and the runners couldn’t find the commanding officer. Evans’ company got here before first light, and crossed the river, over the Canal bridge on to this island, and he sent a platoon forward to where you’re standing. There were no houses here at the time, and this was open marshy ground. The Germans in the village waited until the leading section of this platoon approached the old stone bridge that stood here and then their machine guns opened up.
The leading section on the bridge were all killed, as well as the platoon commander and sergeant. The rest of the men took cover. The surviving NCO Corporal Stewart organised what was left of the platoon in a ditch nearby. He desperately needed to get word back to Evans, and so Private James Crichton volunteered.
Crichton had spent most of the war running the divisional bakery but wanted to see some action so he volunteered for the infantry and now got more than he had bargained for. Despite being wounded in the foot he swam the canal, ran the machine gun gauntlet across the open ground and reported to Captain Evans. Crichton mentioned that he saw wires under the stone bridge and that it could be mined. Evans asked if it was possible to clear the mines. Crichton again volunteered, ran through enemy fire, swam the canal and reported back to Stewart. He then crawled forward to this stone bridge, and found explosives with wires attached. He cut the wires and dropped the mines into the water.
He then reported back to Captain Evans. It was only later while helping to carry wounded back to the aid post, that a padre noticed Crichton’s foot wound, and he finally got medical attention. Crichton was later awarded the VC.
Evans’ party by the canal set up a strong a defensive position, but Stewart’s group, crouching in the ditch by this bridge were overwhelmed that evening, and were taken prisoner. The next day the New Zealand Division attacked and the 1st and 2nd Aucklands were badly mauled. The following day, 1 October, they attacked again and, despite serious casualties, finally took Crèvecœur and establish a bridge-head. Ahead of the New Zealanders was the Hindenburg line, this was covered by barbed wire, that in some cases was 100 to 200 metres deep and defended by a determined and skillful enemy.