Orchard Dump
Webmatters : The Battle of Cambrai 1917, the British withdraw
Rough Map of Area

Cambrai

1st December 1917

The Canal du Nord

After the storm of the preceding day the 1st December was for the most part fairly quiet at Bourlon but the attack against the men holding the area around the Canal du Nord had continued throughout the night and showed no sign of abating.

On the western side of the canal the 1st King’s were still in position and fending off another bombing attack down the trenches which had commenced at 0800 hours.

Once again Captain A McReady-Diarmid and his men from the 17th Middlesex were there to lead counter-attacks but unfortunately he was killed during the fighting. He was yet another posthumous Victoria Cross winner during the last days of the Cambrai Battle.

The fighting continued throughout the day but at 1700 hours the line was still held and 13th Essex on the east of the canal were at last relieved by 22nd Royal Fusiliers. The 2nd Highland Light Infantry came up to relieve the melting pot of units focused on the 1st King’s.

 

The withdrawl to the Flesquières Line

General Moser’s Arras Group had in fact run out of steam, his men were exhausted and despite their undoubted bravery could not force their old lines and push the British out.

The new tactic of using Storm Troopers had been successful in part but where commanders had been killed or wounded the ordinary soldiers were, as yet, not well enough trained to be able to think for themselves. The attacks had become uncoordinated and petered out.

On 2nd December Field Marshall Haig reviewed the situation. A week ago Bourlon had to be taken at all costs — now it was a millstone around 3rd Army’s neck.

The British Army on the Western Front was worn out. Any troops available to relieve the men of 3rd Army were coming from areas that had already seen hard fighting. Italy was still crying out for Divisions and in the east the Communist Government under Lenin was looking for a way out of the war (they would sign an Armistice on 16th December).

Everything pointed to a powerful German offensive in the Spring and the current British line was not suitable for defence. General Byng was told to think about where he would place his line for the winter.

On III Corps’s front he felt the situation was reasonably secure despite the fact that La Vacquerie had just fallen.

The front around Bourlon was in the process of being handed to V Corps and for them a withdrawl back to the old Hindenburg Support Line was proposed. The village of Flesquières would be included so the new line would now go round the other side of the village to the original.

This meant giving up : Marcoing, Noyelles, Cantaing, Bourlon Wood, Anneux and Graincourt.

Although the orders had already been drawn up, secrecy was absolutely vital with the enemy still threatening further attacks and so it wasn’t until the afternoon of the 4th December that the units on the ground were finally informed as to the arrangements.

By the 7th December 3rd Army had successfully carried out its retirement and the new front line was established.

 

And the blame ?

After two weeks of bitter fighting and casualties of about 45,000 each for the two sides the Battle of Cambrai reached stalemate. Both sides were exhausted ; for every village the British had taken they had lost one.

The jubilation of the opening day had been betrayed and the politicians back home wanted to know why. The British Prime Minister, Lloyd George wondered (yet again) if he could get rid of Haig but found that there was nobody else suitable for the job.

Other heads did roll though. All three of the Corps commanders involved in the main battle and German counter offensive were sacked. Major General Harper, whose complete refusal to work with the tanks had led to the only rebuff on the first day and thus the failure to capture Bourlon quickly — was promoted. He now commanded IV Corps.

In theory Lieutenant General Kavanagh of the Cavalry Corps was to have been replaced but the German Spring Offensive of 1918 intervened and he somehow managed to remain at his post for the rest of the war.

An enquiry was held in January 1918 at Hesdin in the Pas de Calais, and it was finally agreed that the blame lay with the lack of command shown by some junior officers and the poor training of the soldiers now coming out to the front.

General Byng refused to accept that his army had been surprised by the Germans on the 30th November. Lieutenant General Snow (about to be sacked of course) had warned him that he thought the Germans were up to something so therefore there was little reason in repeating his own suspicions back to him.

Little was said about the failure of the cavalry on the first day, commanded from so far back (At Fins) that rapid deployment to seize possible chances was never going to be possible.

In effect the decision to turn Brigadier General Elles’s hit and run into a full scale attack on Cambrai had not been backed with the means to carry it through.

Byng had needed more infantry but that was never going to happen ; because there weren’t any. The further the British penetrated into German occupied ground the closer they came to the counter-attack Divisions ; fresh troops who were ready to swoop.

The other face of the coin was that when the Germans launched their own counter-offensive they simply switched positions. The British may well have been weary but they were retiring towards their own lines of support. That the battle came out as a draw pretty much summed up the problem.

One can only wonder what would have happened if the Crown Prince had been in possession of 400 tanks on the 30th November.