Cambrai 1917

22 November 1917

The loss of Fontaine Notre Dame

By 0300 hours on the 22nd three Companies of the 1/4th Seaforth Highlanders were holding the village of Fontaine Notre Dame.

Opposite them the 119th Reserve Division had arrived the day before along with the 214th and 30th Divisions plus the 5th Guards Division which had been rushed from Flanders.

At dawn the Scots found themselves coming under increasing aerial observation and then at 1000 hours the Germans attacked.

The assault was a major one and the Seaforths were soon in difficulties. Distress flares for artillery support were ignored and their ammunition began to run out in the face of a determined and numerically superior enemy.

They managed to hold on until 1430 hours when to save themselves from being completely cut off the Commanding Officer ordered the last of his men to retreat.

The loss of Fontaine meant that in any future advance on Bourlon the 51st (Highland) Divsion would have to take the village all over again.


23rd November 1917

During the night the 40th Division from Byng's Reserve V Corps had replaced a battle weary 62nd on the left flank and 88 tanks had been prepared for an attack against Bourlon Wood and Fontaine.

The relief of the 62nd had not been easy. The only decent road in the British rear area was the main Bapaume Road and this had become so congested that part of 40th Division's HQ Staff had taken 15 hours to travel the 15 kilometres. Fuel for some of the tanks had not arrived and the smoke shells for the artillery barrage never arrived at all.

On the right of the attack the Highlanders continued to insist that the tanks went first with the infantry well behind. Despite everything that he had seen up until now General Harper was not for changing.

At 1010 hours the British barrage opened and the 1/6th Gordon Highlanders advanced - well behind their tanks. Two female tanks from C Battalion drove towards La Folie Wood to the right of Fontaine but their machine guns were unable to deal with the machine gun nests hidden in the château buildings.

Six further tanks and thirteen from B Battalion roared up the main road into Fontaine to find it remarkably peaceful. Suddenly it all went wrong. Armour piercing rounds struck the tanks from all directions whilst bundles of grenades were launched from windows. The Germans had mounted anti-aircraft guns onto vehicles

By the time their supporting infantry had arrived Harper's tactics were in ruins. The tanks had been knocked out and the infantry were now alone - just like 1916.

One battalion of Highlanders found itself trying to take on the best part of three plus supporting machine gun companies.

On the left the 1/6th Seaforths and fifteen more tanks (Mostly H Battalion) advanced along the front of Bourlon Wood as far as its north-eastern corner. Some of the tanks began patrolling the wood and a few even managed to reach the village of Bourlon itself.

Despite all their efforts Fontaine remained in German hands. Of the 48 tanks that had been sent into action 21 had been destroyed.

It wasn't really a surprising outcome. The tank tactics employed were not sound and the decision to only engage two of the battalions out of the seven available meant that neither the Gordons nor Seaforths had ever had much chance of success.

On their left the 40th Division were fighting for Bourlon.

Bourlon Bourlon