IN the early hours of March 21, 1918, more than 6,000 German guns unleashed their tumultuous fury on thinly held British positions near the French town of St Quentin.
The bombardment marked the opening of the Germans’ last-ditch gamble to defeat the Allies before the Americans, who joined the war the year before, could swing the balance on the Western Front in favour of the Allies.
Within eight months the war was over, but it was not the Germans who were victorious.
Instead, Burton men in Sixth North Staffordshire battalion and South Derbyshire men in the Sixth Sherwood Foresters serving with the 46th North Midland division delivered a mortal blow on September 29 when they seized the bridge at Riqueval and broke through the German position known as the Hindenburg Line.
During fighting in the following weeks, Lance Corporal William Coltman, a Rangemore-born stretcher bearer, would write himself into the history books when he earned the highest military decoration for valour – the Victoria Cross – making him the most decorated non-commissioned officer in the war.
The German Spring Offensive had smashed through the Allied lines and wiped out territorial gains the Allies had won at such high cost over the previous three years.
The British and French forces, with their backs to the wall, were stretched to the limit but they were not broken. The Germans, on the other hand, had suffered one million casualties which could not be replaced.
A major Allied counterattack, against the depleted and demoralised Germans began in August and by September the frontline lapped against Hindenburg Line.
Stretching 90 miles and bristling with concrete pillboxes, trenches and belts of barbed wire up to 40 feet deep, the Hindenburg Line could house thousands of troops in dugouts impervious to artillery.
But by 1918, with the bloody experiences on the Somme and Passchendaele in the past, the British Army had learned its trade in the art of attack; the North Staffords attack at Riqueval is a case in point.
In a scene which resembled 1940 rather than 1918, the North Staffords and Sherwood Foresters attacked on September 29 behind a creeping artillery barrage with support from tanks and low flying ground-attack aircraft.
Many who had acquired lifejackets from cross-channel ferries swam across the canal while Burtonian Captain A.H Charlton, charged across the bridge with a company of men.
Before the German defenders had time to respond, Capt Charlton and his men cut the cable leading to demolition charges on the bridge and threw them into the water below.
It was a swift and decisive attack, the impact of which cannot be understated.
After the failure of the March offensive, the German High Command had hoped to hold the Allies on the Hindenburg Line.
The loss of this position meant Germany no longer had prepared positions to fall back on until the Rhine river; the end of the war was in sight.
Although the actions of Capt Charlton and the North Staffords that day had dealt the Germans a blow from which they would never recover, its army was far from a beaten force.
When the North Staffords and Sherwood Foresters pushed on from Riqueval they became engaged in fierce fighting around the nearby village of Sequehart and Mannequin Hill.
It was here on October 3 and 4 that Lance Cpl Coltman, on his own initiative, repeatedly braved small arms fire in no man’s land to rescue three wounded comrades.
Lance Cpl Coltman, who already held both the Distinguished Conduct Medal and Military Medal twice, was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions at Mannequin Hill.
What is perhaps more remarkable, is that as a stretcher bearer, Lance Cpl Coltman earned his decorations without firing a shot in anger.
The actions of Capt Charlton and Lance Cpl Coltman mark a glorious chapter not only in Britain’s but also Burton’s history of the conflict.
But it did not come without cost. The division suffered 420 casualties from September 28 until October 3 which include 19 from Burton and South Derbyshire.
The success of the attack at Riqueval also marked redemption for the division which two years earlier had been accused of a ‘lack of offensive spirit’ following its catastrophic attack at Gommecourt on the opening day of the Battle of the Somme.
Within six weeks of the attack at Riqueval the German High Command had sought an armistice which the Allies granted at 11am on November 11.
The war, which had wrought destruction across the Flanders plains, to the chalky hills of Picardy and mountains of the Vosges, was over.