Cambrai 1917

21 November 1917

III Corps

Throughout the night a clearance operation had been carried out in Masnières in readiness for a morning attack on the northern side of the St Quentin Canal towards Rumilly. Between that village and the canal was the Masnières - Beaurevoir Line.

The morning brought rain and the discovery that Mon Plaisir Farm on the northern side of the canal and near where the Fort Garry Horse had crossed over was empty. On the southern side though the village of Les Rue des Vignes was still in German hands and an attack by the 20th (Light) Division from the direction of Bonavis only pushed the Germans back as far as the canal lock.

At 1030 hours German troops were seen advancing on Mon Plaisir from Crèvecoeur and although they were vigorously dealt with the advance had prevented the 88th Brigade of 29th Division from carrying out its own attack at 1100 hours.

To the right the Light Division hadn't realised that the 29th were unable to participate and began their own attack working eastwards along the canal towards Crèvecoeur and Revelon Château which is just to the north of Les Rue des Vignes.

In the early afternoon four tanks came up forcing a passage around the back of the Château towards the two bridges which were abandoned by their defenders.

On the left of 29th Division the 87th Brigade were on the far side of the canal in the bend running between Masnières and Marcoing. For once their problem was not the lack of tanks for an error in the orders had left the commander thinking that he didn't have any; so he obtained the assistance of a Section from A Battalion. He was later rather pleased to find that tanks from F Battalion also turned up as ordered.

By the time that all of the tanks had crossed the river and canal by the only available bridge at Marcoing it was noon. For the next three hours tanks and infantry tried to breach the German lines but the use of armour piercing rounds was causing high casualties amongst the tank crews. Reasonably protected from the front the armour on the sides was of a weaker quality. Some of the tanks managed to get into Rumilly but by evening the front line had changed little.

Noyelles - Counter Attack

The village of Noyelles was occupied by men of the 2nd Royal Fusiliers (86th Brigade) and a party of dismounted 18th Hussars who had ridden in during the night. At 1030 hours the Germans commenced their first assault of the day against the village. The fighting was hot and heavy and for a time the Germans had gained the centre, but at 1600 hours two tanks from B Battalion arrived and drove the Germans back out again.

This may have been one of the first instances in warfare where the cavalry saving the day had been mechanised and coming to the aid of dismounted horsemen.

To the west of the village the 16th Middlesex had also been hard pressed throughout the morning and had been forced to give some ground but they hung on tenaciously to the rest.

During the hours of darkness the 6th Division came up to relieve the beleaguered 86th Brigade.

In command of 29th Division, Major General de Lisle ordered his men to consolidate the ground they held. They were too tired to attack again and there were no reinforcements available - not on the British side at any rate.

 

Should the battle continue ?

The fault with Byng and Haig's grand plan was not that the Cavalry were not immediately to hand to drive through the German lines, but rather that after the battles in Flanders there were not enough infantry backing up the thrust.

The Fort Garry Horse had already shown that a cavalry charge was all very fine and romantic but the machine guns played havoc with the attack and there was no simple method of dealing with prisoners.

Byng needed infantry reinforcements and there weren't any. On the other side of the wire Crown Prince Ruprecht of Bavaria needed reinforcements and they were arriving by the Division.

The original conception for Cambrai had been a tank raid over 24 hours. This had been expanded into a full scale assault which had succeeded beyond many an expectation. The thorn in the side was Bourlon; glowering down on the British positions.

Field Marshal Haig had the choice: call off the attack and dig in whilst casualties and gains were favourable, or go for Bourlon.

With the wood dominating the high ground, his men were exposed and Haig decided that continuing was the only option. He surely took this decision realising that the enemy must be getting stronger by the hour and that his own men without the luxury of reserves were becoming exhausted.

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