On this day in 1918, near the French village of Epehy, the British 4th Army, commanded by Sir Henry Rawlinson, attacks German forward outposts in front of the Hindenburg Line, Germany’s last line of defense on the Western Front during World War I.
Named by the British for the German commander in chief, Paul von Hindenburg—the Germans referred to it as the Siegfried Line—the Hindenburg Line was a semi-permanent line of defenses that Hindenburg ordered created several miles behind the German front lines in late 1916. The following spring, the German army made a well-planned withdrawal to this heavily fortified defensive zone, burning and looting villages and countryside as they passed, in order to buy themselves time and confuse the Allied plans of attack. By early September 1918, Allied forces had effectively countered the major German spring offensive of that year and had reached the furthest forward positions of the Hindenburg Line, considered by many on both sides to be impregnable.
Reluctant to launch an offensive attack on the line itself, the British commander in chief, Sir Douglas Haig, at first overruled a planned assault by General Rawlinson of the 4th Army against the established and heavily fortified German positions. On the heels of Allied successes at Havrincourt and Saint-Mihiel—executed by British and American forces respectively—Haig changed his mind and authorized the attack by all three corps of Rawlinson’s army, aided by a corps of the 3rd Army fresh from its success at Havrincourt.
The British-led assault went ahead on the morning of September 18, 1918, with a creeping artillery barrage from approximately 1,500 guns, as well as 300 machine guns. Although the Germans held steady on both flanks, they were soundly defeated in the center by the Allied advance, led by two Australian divisions under General John Monash. By the end of the day, the Allies had advanced some three miles, a modest result that nonetheless encouraged Haig and his fellow commanders to proceed with further attacks to capitalize on the emerging German weaknesses. By the end of the month, pressing their advantage and pushing ahead with their so-called “Hundred Days Offensive,” the Allies had done the seemingly impossible: broken the formidable Hindenburg Line.