1st Battalion in the Battle of Cambrai (1917)

As briefly explained in the last chapter, the 1st Battalion of the Border Regiment, after the Third Battle of Ypres, spent a few weeks at a rest area where they could recover from the rigors of battle and continued their training, which took place in the area around Bailleumont, for forthcoming operations. Here they stayed until the middle of November where they, and the 7th Battalion of the Regiment, were to gain the Battle honour of Cambrai in difficult and continuous operations that commenced on the 20 November until 7 December 1917. General Byng, Commanding Officer of the operations, had at his disposal the following corps: IIIrd, IVth, VIth and VIIIth.

At the training area of Bailleumont Captain Sutcliffe, M.C. was in temporary command. On the 16 November, just a few short days before the start of battle, the Battalion was on the move, their new location being Haut Allaines, reached via Boisleux-au-Mont and Peronne, on a journey that took them the better part of day. It wasn’t until the morning of the 17th that they eventually managed to put their heads down and recharge with a few hours sleep. Later in the day the men moved from their Nissen huts to tents at Dessart Wood, not reaching them until 1am in the early hours of the 18th. The remainder of the day was spent in rest and preparation for the action that was fast approaching. When the orders to move out to Borderer Ridge (at Gouzeaucourt) came through, the Battalion left Dessart Wood and followed instruction, which stipulated they form up in close columns and wait for zero hour, then set for 6.20am. The men had an uncomfortable and sleepless night due to the extreme cold that was upon them. There was little they could do except wait for the inevitable to happen, which was only just a couple of moments away.

The timing critical, as with any combination of barrage and infantry attack, the barrage fell at the exact time appointed and at 7am the 1st Battalion Border Regiment moved out, taking up a rear position behind the K.O.S.B. at the jumping-off place. They remained there awaiting further orders but these did not arrive until shortly after 10am with the news that the Hindenburg Support Line had fallen. There were several casualties as a result of waiting for these orders, mainly of men on the south portion of the line, sustaining mostly shrapnel injuries. The medical officer, Captain J.C. Clarke, having sustained an injury himself, would not leave the present situation believing that he was still perfectly capable of performing his duties and so remained resolute in his word stating that he would only go to hospital on account that there was someone to take over his in his absence.

The companies continued the advance, this time in a diamond formation with A Company taking the lead, followed by C on the left flank and B on the right, whilst Battalion Headquarters and D Company took the rear in support. The Companies were thus commanded by the following:

  • A Company: Captain Chambers, M.C.;
  • B Company: Second-Lieutenant Johnston, DCM
  • C Company: Captain Johnson;
  • D Company: Captain Butler;
  • Battalion HQ: Lieutenant-Colonel Ellis, DSO

The companies of the Battalion, without any opposition from the enemy, reached and passed the first and second objectives; then after a brief halt "A and D Companies crossed a railway bridge to the further side of a canal, while C got over a little later at another spot. A hostile machine gun was now found to be in action in the open on the railway station platform, but the gun detachment was shot down, the gun captured and the advance continued. A and D Companies moving by the E. and C Company by the W. of the railway line."[1] At the same time B Company was otherwise engaged in alongside the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers in the action at Marcoing Copse in an attempt to capture it. Sergeant Spackman was awarded the V.C. for his efforts that day[2] as a result of capturing the above-mentioned machine gun. This he did with the greatest dash and bravery as he single-handedly and from a distance of no less than 200 yards, took them all out with rifle and then bayonet at close-quarter. The first gunner was shot from a distance but this did not deter the gunners to carry on and so while Sergeant Spackman continued to charge the emplacement, rifle in hand, the second gunner took position and attempted to put him in his sights. This he failed to do in time and was soon shot before he realised what had happened. Only a moment later Sergeant Spackman had charged further still, enough to bayonet the third gunner and eventually capture the gun.

As the companies continued their advance, A Company finally came into some heavy opposition while a platoon of C Company, under the command of Second-Lieutenant Denereaz, managed to successfully capture a further 2 guns en route. A Company were heading towards ammunition pits when the attacking fire came their way, which stopped them dead in their tracks before reaching them. What faced them was something of a challenge, but the 1st Battalion Border Regiment had been in many positions similar to this and had gained a vast amount of experience in battle to deal with such situations. The obstacle before them was a strongly-held section of 2 machine guns and a half battalion of infantry. For the time being A Company remained at their present location owing to the fact that their right flank, B Company, had not yet reach them to form a continuous line of advance. Meanwhile, D Company, who had been in the rear moved around to form a defensive flank to reinforce the line. Later, B Company caught up but stayed in Battalion Reserve on the embankments of the railway station. In a combined effort, A Company of the Battalion and some in number of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers attempted an attack on the ammunition pits and were in their endeavours, successful. The pits were cleared and the line brought forward; the men waiting for further instruction on the next plan of action.

It had been decided that another attack would take place in the afternoon of the same day, however, due to information received at Battalion Headquarters by two of the officers commanding Companies A and D, it was then decided that in light of this new information, the attack that had original been set for 4pm was to be postponed. News of this decision, for whatever reason, did not reach C Company in time and so Captain Johnson, C.O. of the Company, continued with his attack. There had been 4 tanks issued to the 87th Brigade, Captain Johnson and his men advancing in rear of one of them. They were successful in reaching and ultimately taking their objective, resulting in the capture of 19 prisoners and 2 machine guns, however, this meant that their positions were effectively ‘open’ to flanking attacks, particularly from the right. The enemy was seen working their way around to flank his position but as Battalion Headquarters were aware of the situation, he was subsequently and swiftly order back to his original line before an enemy flank could be fully organised. C Company was still able to bring back the prisoners they captured as well as the two machine guns, a worthy and successful attempt considering the dangers. As the proposed attack was still on hold, the line was consolidated during the evening of the 20/21 November.

There was little in the way of action during the night, with the exception of some occasional bursts of machine gun and sniper fire. This meant that many men would have been able to get a few hours sleep, making the most of the reasonable quiet. Midday, by now, was fast approaching and an attack of two battalions that was supposed to have started at 11am, had not because the opposition was far too strongly held at Masnières and Flot Farm. As soon as they came into view, a deadly fire from German positions cut across mercilessly which meant that the proposed plan could not be executed that day for fear of too much loss of life, a waste that could be prevented with further planning. Of the tanks used so far in the battle, one was stranded near Flot Farm. The others managed to return but were badly damaged, mostly by armour-piercing rounds, which caused many casualties amongst the crews. Another night had befallen the 1st Battalion and during this time several patrols were sent out into the quiet of the night.

The following morning tides were about to turn. Acting on information received by Lieutenant J.W. Johnston, DCM, who, during an audacious reconnaissance managed to acquire useful information that would see a practical development in the battle plan, it was decided that a new forward line, originally a German cable trench that had already been dug to a depth of 18 inches, would give an increased field of view, far better than at their currently location. Upon reaching this line, the night was used to dig in deeper and improve the trench as best they could in the time allowed. This swiftly was completed by the 23 November. Very little happened this day, except for some occasional sniping. However, it was heavier in comparison to the previous two nights. The evening saw the men prepare further a communications trench and ensuring their entire front was fully wired; at the same time, from information received by patrols, the enemy were also hard at work in strengthening their positions as Flot Farm and the Roumilly Line, German efficiency at its best to consolidate an already strong point into something that would certainly be difficult to capture.

The 1st Battalion were relieved on the evening of the 25 November after having spent the last 24 hours in continuous work in preparation of the trenches they were holding. The total number of men in the trenches at this time amounted to just 400 yet they managed to dig the total length of the their portion of the line, some 1,500 yards, to a depth of 4 feet 6 inches; of this distance, some 900 yards were double-belted with knife-rest entanglements. The next day saw the Battalion in Marcoing where they were suitably comfortable, taking temporary shelter in concrete cellars. This particular village, which was somehow almost completely undamaged and showed very little signs that any hostilities had occurred in or nearby, had a cache of German weapons, clothing and rations; it comes as no surprise that the men enjoyed their stay. They remained here for two days when on the 28th the Battalion was again ordered to move out to their former section of the line with the usual formation of three companies up front and one in reserve.

The following day saw an increase in enemy activity, mainly in artillery. This day passed the men by with reasonable peace and quiet, something that they would have surely looked forward to at times of concentrated battle, chaos and continual noise. On the 30 November, however, the activity increased again and during this brief spell the enemy broke through on the right of the 29th Division and successfully managed to reach around Marcoing Copse and beyond to the outskirts of the village. This activity was repelled and in the end the enemy was driven back to their previous location as a result of a ready-to-hand, and if not slightly unusual collection of cooks, orderlies and other men from Brigade Headquarters under the command of Captain Ewbank, M.C. The men were quickly gathered and the surprise attack kept them on their toes; something they weren’t expecting suddenly turned in their favour because they worked together with the strength of an officer who knew what to do in impulsive situations. Over the previous ten days the casualty figures included a total of 30 NCOs, officers and other ranks killed, 130 other ranks wounded, including four officers named thus: Captain Clarke, M.C., R.A.M.C.; Lieutenants W.D.C Thompson and L. Machell and Second-Lieutenant M. Elrington. Those classed as missing numbered two.

The month of November had passed by. By the 1 December things had not improving drastically as the 1st Battalion war diary for this day states:

the situation was most precarious and indefinite this morning, heavy gun-fire could be heard on our immediate flanks but not very heavy on our own front. Received word from Brigade that the enemy broke through yesterday and captured Gouzeaucourt, also La Vacquerie and Les Rues Vertes, but larger reinforcements had come up to counter-attack and the Guards retook Gouzeaucourt. Received message that the 86th Brigade will probably evacuate Masnières this evening and the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers consequently refuse their right flank to conform to this. O.C. ‘B’ Company (Lieutenant Johnston) therefore was ordered to carry out a reconnaissance of a possible support defensive line behind the Fusiliers, and this he did with great success. At 4pm a message was received from the Brigadier that the enemy was in possession of the E. side of Les Rues Vertes and that he (the Brigadier) was holding the bridges, but was in a very bad way and would probably be driven back. Lieutenant Johnston was therefore directed to be ready to at once occupy his defensive flank through the Ammunition Pits. At 6.30 a message came through from the Brigade giving details of the arrangements for the withdrawal of the 86th Brigade from Masnières, and this withdrawal was successfully accomplished during the night, without interference by the enemy, to the trenches at Marcoing. [3]

There was further enemy activity by way of aeroplanes, which amounted to as many as 37 during the 30 November and 1st December alone. This was cause for concern as the figure was counted in one go, flying together as low as 150 feet; Allied guns having little luck in bringing them down. German excellence kept their flying machines in the air and managed to avoid what could have been a serious threat to their attacking force. The 1st Battalion were, on the 3 December, relieved from the front line where they marched to Ribécourt via Marcoing. It was here that the Hindenburg Support lines were located. By the time the men arrived they were physically exhausted. The previous two weeks brought on a gradual strain and tiredness that needed to be addressed. The continual efforts of fighting the enemy and fighting to stay alive simply because they did not have the proper winter clothing to keep them warmer on those bitter days and nights open to the elements were showing their signs and the men were fatigued to the point that they were no longer a fighting force. It would have been a slaughter to send them out again without the right provisions to sustain them so for the duration of the 4th they ‘stood to’ but were still on alert, ready to move out if needed. The men were in dire need of greatcoats and blankets, something that was not forthcoming.

It was possible that at any time the men could have been called for to move out at a moments notice and defend whatever part of the stretched-thin British front line they would have been sent to. Fortunately, the same night the entire 29th Division was relieved by the 36th, which meant, as it was usually hoped, that better surroundings would be upon them shortly. The men of the 1st Border Regiment moved out and retired to Grand Rullecourt, taking them via Sorrel, Etricourt and Mondicourt to accommodation that was comfortable and thoroughly appreciated. This is hardly surprising considering the conditions they had just endured and so the most was made of the billets they had now found themselves in; warmer than outside and a great deal more comfortable than the cold and hard ground they had to defend.

The Battle of Cambrai was coming to an end yet the casualties still came in. During the last phase of the battle, Captain J.W. Ewbank, M.C. and one other rank had been killed. Second-Lieutenant W.D.C. Thompson and 18 other ranks were wounded and a further three men were missing. As always, these men were casualties of war. Maybe their lives could have been spared if things were played out differently; maybe not. Loss of life was a cold hard fact and with so many men dying on a daily basis it was, and still is, sometimes difficult to believe that these battles, when won, were considered victories, sometimes for such small tangible gains. Yet congratulatory messages started to come through, firstly from the General Officer Commanding the 29th Division, then from Sir Douglas Haig downwards for the ‘services rendered’. Cambrai was just another notch in a long line of operations and battles both won and lost by the Allies to date. The 1st Battalion Border Regiment’s next major battle took them via the French-Belgian border before taking part in the forthcoming Battle of the Lys.

The devastation of Cambria two years after the battle of 1917.

References / notes

  1. Colonel H.C. Wylly, C.B. (1925). The Border Regiment in the Great War. Gale & Polden Ltd. ISBN 1847342728. p.158.
  2. This was the second V.C. the 1st Battalion had been awarded that year.
  3. Colonel H.C. Wylly, C.B. (1925). The Border Regiment in the Great War. Gale & Polden Ltd. ISBN 1847342728. p.160-161.
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