Cambrai 1917

20 November 1917

29th Division

At 1015 hours bugle calls sounded out across the Division and all three Brigades of III Corps's Support Division advanced.

With them came three Brigades of Field Artillery plus detachments of Royal Engineers to get them through the Hindenburg wire and build pontoons across the canal.

They were preceded by just the 3rd Company A Battalion Tank Corps as opposition to their advance was expected to be minimal following the successful advance by the leading Divisions.

The men had been under arms since 0100 hours and waited out the battle before being marched the 10 kilometres up to the old British front line. From there they were now expected to march another six kilometres before starting their tasks.

On the slopes of Welsh Ridge at La Vacquerie the tanks came up against a German field battery which appears to have escaped attention and suffered the loss of three tanks before the enemy battery was silenced by men from the 1st Essex.

 
La Vacquerie

La Vacquerie from the east

 

This momentary pause meant that the Essex were overtaken on their way to Masnières by the 4th Worcestershire who reached the Canal to the east of the town.

There they joined up with the 11th Rifle Brigade of the 20th Division and attempted to cross the canal. The water was 3.5 metres deep and with snipers all around the single bridge a bottleneck began to form.

The tanks of F Battalion had been doing good work but were running out of ammunition against the intense fire pouring out of the houses. Part of the bridge had been blown and its structure weakened making it risky to attempt a crossing by tank but eventually at 1240 hours tank F22: Flying Fox II was ordered forward to break the deadlock. As she reached the half way point the structure failed to take her weight and the bridge and tank collapsed into the canal.

For his previous actions in the battle and his concern for his stricken crew (all of whom got out of the tank before their commander) 2nd Lieutenant Walter Farrar received the Military Cross.

Tanks had better success at Marcoing where they did get across the Canal and attacked Flot Farm on the far side.

On the southern side of Marcoing the 1st Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers got across the canal via one of the locks and following their galant CO: Lieutenant John Colonel Sherwood-Kelly, they managed to reach the Masnières Beaurevoir Line. It proved however to be too strong to be taken in a rush and the Inniskillings pulled back and dug in.

For his leadership in the attack Lt Col Sherwood-Kelly received the Victoria Cross.

The Cavalry

It was now mid-afternoon and it could well be argued that the tanks and infantry had done their part. Where was the Cavalry Corps ? Was it ready to sweep through the German lines and on to Berlin (See Operational Orders 1 to umpteen).

The answer was: No.

In his Cavalry Headquarters at Fins: General Kavanagh was a good 15 kilometres away from the St Quentin Canal and had direct control over the Cavalry Divisions. In effect, any request for a thrust by the cavalry had to cross 15 kilometres of battlefield from the Infantry Commanders to reach Fins where it would be reviewed before being passed back down the line, back across the battlefield and on to the Cavalry Divisions. It was not an ideal system.

1st Cavalry Division had advanced in the mistaken belief that Flesquières had fallen and had come under severe fire. They took shelter in the Grand Ravine and waited on further orders to advance.

5th Cavalry Division set out for Masnières just after noon and it wasn't until after 1400 hours that the 2nd Cavalry Division advanced on Marcoing.

When 1st Cavalry Division finally received its orders to advance on Cantaing, which had been empty at 1400 hours, they found that the Germans had used the intervening two hours to reoccupy the village and 4th Dragoon Guards were met with a hail of machine gun fire and forced back.

7th Dragoon Guards fared better at Noyelles. Having reached Marcoing at 1400 hours the lead squadron had crossed the canal. The next squadron was dispatched northwards to Noyelles to try and find a way through the German positions. They thundered into the village capturing a couple of dozen bewildered Germans and paved the way for the arrival of the 2nd Royal Fusiliers.

It was now raining, the light was fading fast and the horses needed to be fed and watered. General Kavanagh pulled his troops back.


The Fort Garry Horse

In one of those famous errors on the battlefield one Regiment of cavalry had crossed the canal and thundered off into history: the Canadians of the Fort Garry Horse.

The Fort Garry Horse The Fort Garry Horse
The 21st November 1917 The 21st November 1917