Cambrai 1917

23 November 1917

40th Division at Bourlon

The task of clearing Bourlon Wood fell to the 119th Brigade who attacked with two Battalions up front: the 19th Royal Welch Fusiliers and the 12th South Wales Borderers. They were accompanied by four tanks from D Battalion as those from G Battalion had been amongst those unable to refuel due to the congestion on the Bapaume Road.

The tank commanders had never seen Bourlon Wood before and the infantry had never worked with tanks.

At 1010 hours the artillery had begun bombarding the edge of the wood before lifting at regular intervals at 1030 hours as the tanks and infantry advanced.

In just over an hour the 19th RWF had managed to advance half way through the wood and were joined by the refuelled tanks from G Battalion. By early afternoon they were patrolling the north-eastern edge of the wood.

The 12th SWB had a harder time attacking along the western half of the wood and had sustained heavy casualties. They managed to gain the eastern edge of the village but a German counter-attack forced them back out again.

A further counter-attack at 1500 hours threatened to sweep away all before it but just as things were desperate the 18th Welch Regiment arrived and the Germans were beaten off - though at the cost of Lt Colonel William Kennedy who was killed leading the 18th Welch in their charge (He is commemorated on the Louverval Memorial).

By nightfall only the northern edge of the wood was still in German hands.

The 20th Middlesex of 121st Brigade were attacking the southern edge of Bourlon village to the left of the Welshmen and were partnered by the 13th Green Howards who were advancing in time with the 36th (Ulster) Division covering the extreme left of the battlefield.

From the very first moment of the attack they were shelled and exposed to flanking fire from the western sections of the Hindenburg line still in German hands.

Seven of the thirteen tanks from D Battalion got into the village but found themselves attacked with the same ferocity as at Fontaine and it soon became apparent that the Germans were not going to be easily pushed out of Bourlon.

The Germans had recovered from the initial shock of the 20th, their reserves were filtering through and in the air Richthofen's Group had been rushed to the front and were about to severely hamper RFC operations. On the ground, the crews of the few dozens of those remaining tanks out of the hundreds that had so gloriously advanced just days before were weary.

And then it began to snow.

The Guards Division now replaced the 51st (Highland) Division and units from the 1st and 2nd Cavalry Divisions were dismounted in readiness for a further attack planned against Bourlon village on the 24th.

The attack was timed for 1200 hours and would involve just twelve tanks supporting the men of 121st Brigade (40th Division). The attack was then put back until 1500 hours and then called off as twelve tanks was not considered adequate.

Unfortunately the orders cancelling the attack never reached those carrying it out and at 1500 hours the 121st and their twelve tanks advanced on Bourlon.

The tanks got into the village and began taking on the machine gun positions but the 14th Highland Light Infantry were so far behind them that the tanks pulled out again. The HLI did eventually get into the village but they had a grim task trying to hang on to the few houses that they had taken.

On the right in Bourlon Wood the Germans had attacked throughout the day trying to dislodge the Welshmen but without great success.

The following day IV Corps tried to join up with the Highlanders in Bourlon village but nothing was successful and in the end the Highlanders, cut off and surrounded, capitulated - all 80 of them, out of a battalion of over 500 men!

That evening 40th Division were relieved by the 62nd (West Riding) Division. In two days they had lost over 4 000 men.

27th November 1917

The last Effort

Insisting that Bourlon be taken and forever worrying that the enemy were on the point of collapse Haig told Byng to take over personal control of the battle. On the 26th the artillery began pounding the German lines in preparation for an assault by the Guards Division against Fontaine and the 62nd Division against Bourlon.

At 0620 hours the following morning 2nd Guards Brigade advanced. 3rd Grenadiers up the main road, 1st Coldstreams in the centre and 2nd Irish between the village and Bourlon Wood.

Initially going forward without the tanks they were soon overtaken by the machines. The Guards suffered enormous losses as they advanced against enfilading fire from La Folie wood and became embroiled in house to house fighting.

The situation was intolerable and by 1300 hours it was over. Despite great courage and tenacity the Guardsmen had been overwhelmed by an entrenched enemy in superior numbers.

It was much the same story for the 62nd Division. Major General Bradford VC was ordered to take his 186th Brigade into the wood and clear the remaining Germans out of the northern sector. His men from the Duke of Wellington's Regiment pushed on through the wood and reached the village on the far side but it was impossible to advance further in the face of German artillery fire.

Against Bourlon village 2/5th York and Lancaster and 2/5th Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry were supported by eleven tanks from F Battalion.

They managed to get into the village only to find that it had escaped great damage from the bombardment and the German defenders had taken the time to barricade every street and alleyway. To deal with the tanks the Germans had hidden field artillery pieces within the village.

Only five of the tanks returned when after two hours of fighting the attack was called off.

The British had worn themselves out. The line was not going to be broken and swept away and Haig had not had the victory that would have redeemed himself in the eyes of the politicians back home. Italy was still clamouring for aid, Divisions would have to be sacrificed on the Western Front to rescue them.

Haig gave the instructions that the line should be consolidated: they would dig in.

All was not yet finished at Cambrai. The Germans were preparing their first major assault on the Allies since gassing the French at Ieper in April 1915.

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