Kaiserschlacht

VII Corps

Holding the left flank of Sir Hubert Gough's Fifth Army was VII Corps under the command of Lt General Sir Walter Congreve VC. Their Front Line consisted of a single trench running from the Cologne valley, just north of Templeux le Guérard to the old Cambrai battlefield at Gouzeaucourt.

As was mentioned in the introduction one of the difficulties facing the British was that the positioning of its front line was often the result of the last battle as opposed to choice.

This was the case here where the Forward Zone was exposed to the enemy and its depth was limited to slightly more than a kilometre.

Cambrai 1917 Cambrai 1917

Three Divisions covered the 12 kilometre front each having a third. The 9th (Scottish) Division was in the north near Gauche Wood and abutted the First Army on its left. In the centre was the 21st Division with the important village of Epéhy in its battle Zone. The southern sector was held by the 16th (Irish) Division.

The Corps was disposed with the majority of its men in the Forward Zone rather than in depth because General Congreve believed that the narrowness of the zone forced his hand if he was intent on trying to keep the Germans away from the Battle Zone.

There were numerous machine gun posts and strongholds along the front and the orders were given that in the event of an attack these should be defended as long as possible whilst other positions fell back.

 

The 16th (Irish) Division

Like the rest of The British Army the 16th Division had undergone a reorganisation at the beginning of 1918. It changed to almost beyond recognition with only four of its original twelve New Army battalions represented. Two of these had already been amalgamated to form the 7th/8th Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers - the last connection with Ulster following the redeployment of the other Ulster battalions into the 36th (Ulster) Division.

Regular Army units from the Royal Dublin Fusiliers and Royal Munster Fusiliers were brought in to make up the depleted brigades.

In addition to this turmoil the Divisional commander had fallen ill and was only replaced by Major General Sir Amyatt Hull a month before the German offensive.

The 16th were deployed on the northern side of the Cologne valley which formed the boundary between them and the XIX Corps on the right. They were responsible for the Ronssoy Ridge in front of that village and the adjoining village of Lempire which marked the forward sector of the Battle Zone.

 

49th Brigade

On the morning of the 21st March 1918 the mist was so thick it was impossible for the Irishmen to see their own front wire and the network of sixty four mutually supporting machine gun posts were rendered ineffective.

The bombardment as elsewhere almost totally disabled all means of wired communication and worse still wiped out half of the 7th Royal Irish who were holding the right flank.

The attacks in this sector commenced about 0900 hours and within ninety minutes a domino effect began to take effect along the Cologne valley. The obliteration of the Royal Irish allowed the Germans to sweep up the valley and threaten the 66th Division at Templeux. When that fell the remaining men from the Royal Irish to the north were outflanked.

The village of Lempire was defended by the 2nd Royal Irish and their defences formed a salient into the Forward Zone. This meant that once battle had been engaged their lines jutted out into what was now German held ground and they could be attacked on three sides.

The front line was overcome quickly following the stupendous barrage and the numerical advantage of the Germans advancing out of the thick mist. In Lempire the 2nd Royal Irish found themselves almost surrounded but fought on from position to position until their ammunition ran out. Their commander, Major Harrison MC had already escaped from captivity once during the war and had little intention of repeating the exercise. Refusing to surrender his party managed to hold out until they managed to fight their way out during a counter-attack by the 6th Bn Connaught Rangers in the evening.

The important village of Ronssoy was held by the Ulstermen of the 7th/8th Inniskillings and they found themselves in the thick of things almost immediately. The German infiltration along the Cologne valley allowed them to attack the village from behind as well as the south and east.

Almost everyone of their officers was killed or injured and by early afternoon the village was in German hands with the exception of a radio station which managed to hold out until the evening, sending and receiving messages to encourage other positions.

By the evening 49th Brigade existed only on paper.


48th Brigade

The Brigade deployed each of its three battalions with two companies in the Forward Zone and the other two in the Battle Zone.

On the right flank the 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers were overwhelmed by the first onslaught and their two companies in the Battle Zone to the north of Lempire only knew of their loss when the Germans arrived at their positions without any forewarning.

By midday, with the mist lifting, the Dubliners could see that Ronssoy (well to their rear) was swarming with Germans. On their left the 1st Bn Royal Rublin Fusiliers had managed to halt the Germans but with the constant tide of German reinforcements arriving on the battlefield it was only a matter of time before they too in turn would be forced back.

On the left of the Brigade the 2nd Royal Munster Fusiliers were forced back to Malassise Farm where they were soon cut off. Stretcher bearers trying to gain the rear found themselves behind Germans already well into the Battle Zone.

As the evening drew in the survivors from the Battalion Headquarters managed to fight their way through to Ste Emilie whilst a small party under Captain Chandler MC retreated to a position on the railway embankment near Epéhy where they held out until 0400 hours, all efforts to dislodge them having failed.

 

6th Bn Connaught Rangers

The third brigade of 16th Division (47th Brigade) was part of the Corps reserve and at midday the 6th Connaught Rangers received orders that they were to advance into the Battle Zone. At Ste Emilie Lt Colonel Fielding was briefed by 49th Brigade and given his orders to retake Ronssoy. They were to operate in conjunction with the 1st Bn Royal Munster Fusiliers (also 47th Bde) and two tanks.

Fielding made his plans and readied his men, oblivious to the fact that the attack had been cancelled by the Divisional Headquarters.

At 1545 hours the Rangers attacked with A and D Companies leading, C in support and B bringing up the rear.

The lead companies trying to gain Ronssoy and the wood to its north were swept with fire from all sides and it was at this moment that the Rangers realised that the infantry they could see to their right were not the Munsters but Germans pressing home their morning's assault.

Despite the peril of their situation the Rangers fought their way into Ronssoy Wood and it was this counter-attack that allowed Major Harrison's party of Royal Irish to escape from encirclement.

The same could not be said for their gallant rescuers who were surrounded and forced to surrender. Lt Colonel Fielding and a few dozen survivors reported back to 49th Brigade where they learnt of the cancellation of the attack.