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Webmatters : 19th Bn CEF memorial at Rieux en Cambresis

19th Battalion Canadian Infantry

Location

Rieux-en-Cambresis is a village 9 kilometres north-east of Cambrai.

From Arras take the D 939 directly to Cambrai. This was the axis of the Canadian advance during the autumn of 1918. On reaching Sainte Olle continue straight on until you reach the crossroads turning you left towards Valenciennes and Solesmes. Follow this ring-road around the western side of Cambrai until it becomes the Avenue de Dunkerque.

You then have two choices.

  • Take the road to Valenciennes and then at the roundabout turn on to the D114 through Naves and on to Rieux en Cambresis.
  • Continue to the next junction for Solesmes. This will bring you up alongside the large (and interestingly laid out) German Military Cemetery. A little further along the road turn left into Cagnoncles and rejoin the D114 at Naves.

On arriving at Rieux you will cross the bridge over the Erclin River and the monument is situated on your left at the traffic lights. Turn left at the traffic lights and there is space for a few vehicles immediately opposite the Wellington Cemetery fifty metres away.

GPS N E Wikimapia
Decimal 50.209236 3.345197 Map

19th Bn CEF plaque at Rieux en Cambresis

 

Background

On the 18th July Général Mangin launched his offensive at Soissons and a few weeks later it was the turn of Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig commanding the British to return to the offensive on the 8th August.

The Canadian Corps took part in the victory at Amiens and then returned to the Arras Sector with orders to capture Cambrai.

The axis of their advance was the main road between Arras and Cambrai and in the early hours of the morning of 28th August 1918 the Canadian artillery opened its bombardment. The Germans retreated but the Canadians dogged their heels breaking the Hindenburg Line and later the Drocourt-Quéant Line on the 2nd September.

The Canadians were now confronted by the Canal du Nord.

On the 27th September the Canadians crossed the canal by means of an audacious battle plan and the final stretch of road to Cambrai was opened. The town was liberated on the 8th October by the Corps from the west and the British moving up from the south.

The Germans were demoralised but nobody could yet know that the war was approaching its end.

The Canadian advance now pushed on towards the north-east of Cambrai.

On the 9th October the 19th Battalion received the order to attack the village of Naves. Despite a somewhat light bombardment it was taken and Major Harry Hatch sent out two patrols to try to find suitable crossings over the River Erclin.

Major Hatch had been in command during one of the Battalion’s more difficult days, at Fresnoy in 1917.

On the right Lieutenant Herbert Lowe established a strong point near the bridge, which had been blown by the Germans. The other patrol managed to find a crossing a few hundred metres further up towards Iwuy. This was quite possibly the same area that the Canadian Light Horse would use later in the day ; they describe the river as being about five metres wide, three metres deep with a shallow amount of water in it, making it difficult to cross.

On receiving the messages from his two patrols Hatch decided to take the sunken road between Rieux en Cambresis and Iwuy (the road running immediately between the plaque and Wellington Cemetery).

 

Rieux en Cambresis : 10th October 1918

The final charge of the Canadian Light Horse

In the face of heavy machine-gun fire the battalion succeeded in reaching the Rieux-Iwuy road but the German machine-gunners had managed to halt the attack on the left to the south of Iwuy. In an effort to solve the problem the soldiers of the 19th Battalion assisted the Canadian Light Horse.

They tried to take the Germans in the flank with the cavalry conducting their final charge of the war. It was magnificent but carried a high cost in men and horses. The attack was thrown back by the defenders. The left of the Battalion was now situated approximately in the area of the Niagara CWGC Cemetery. ‘D’ (on the left) and ‘C’ Companies were holding a front of about 1,500 metres.

If the left flank was not overly secure, that on the right was now reinforced by the arrival of the British who had taken the town of Rieux and Hatch decided to continue towards Villers en Cauchies.

The 19th Battalion had, by evening, carried out three assaults during the day. Starting on the railway line at Escadoeuvres they were now entrenched on the heights to the north-west of Rieux.

Tired but proud of their day’s work the battalion was relieved by the English during the night and moved back from the front towards the Rieux-Iwuy crossroads.

 

The confrontation with German tanks

The following morning, the 11th October, the offensive was to continue at 0900 hours. The remainder of 4th Canadian Brigade would attack Iwuy whilst the English (of the 49th Division, brought up from reserve) would advance on Villers en Cauchies. Meanwhile, the 19th Battalion would be able to rest up, alongside the crossroads.

Wellington Cemetery

Wellington Cemetery, the counter-attack by German tanks came over that hill

That wee rest didn’t last very long because at about 1030 hours the Germans launched a counter attack from the direction of Avesnes le Sec. The crossroads was bombarded and there was little in the way of cover.

Then, one of the Canadians shouted :

“Look at that. Those houses are moving.”

It wasn’t houses he could see but the enormous A7V German tanks alongside a number of captured British tanks now carrying the black cross emblem. The tanks were from the Schwere Kampwagenabteilung 1 (A7V) and Bayerische Schwere Beutekampwagen-Abteillung 11 and 13 (Heavy Fighting Vehicles).

There was a moment of panic amongst the ranks of the English as they were confronted by the machines. It needs to be remembered that during this war it was us that used tanks, they were our invention (both British and French). The Germans had shown a complete lack of interest and only constructed twenty of their mobile homes.

The only A7V still in existence is Mephisto which was captured at Villers-Bretonneux and taken back to Australia after the war.

The tanks descended the hill to the south of Iwuy and a few got across the Erclin river, continuing on behind the English and towards the crossroads where the Canadians of the 19th Battalion were located.

Erclin River, Rieux en Cambresis

The Erclin river runs alongside the bushes on the left, the Iwuy road is on the right
crossed by the Canadian infantry and Cavalry the day before some of the German tanks
managed to get in here and behind the Allied lines before being driven off

Behind the tanks the German infantry came on in swarms but the initial shock had passed. Canadians and English turned their machine guns on them whilst Lieutenant Vincent Crombie, having found a German anti-tank rifle (Tankgewehr M1918 — the world’s first weapon of its type) put it to good use. Crombie managed to stop one of the tanks with the rifle’s 13.2 mm armour-piercing rounds, and the others turned about towards Avesnes. The accompanying infantry were cut down and, in turn, forced to retire. The counter-attack had failed.

During the night the 19th Battalion was relieved by the Scots of the 51st (Highland) Division and moved back into reserve.

After the war Leutnant Ernst Volkheim wrote his memoires and mentions that his vehicle Alte Fritz was disabled and had to be abandoned. He went on to become the premier historian of the German tank force and an influential writer on the subject of tank warfare. General Heinz Guderian may be better known but Volkheim’s publications preceded him. During the 1940 campaign, Volkheim commanded Panzerabteilung z.b.V.40 (40th Armoured Battalion) assigned to the Norwegian campaign.

 

The plaque

The plaque was inaugurated on the 23rd September 2017 in the presence of members of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada, the Sous-Préfet for Cambrai, M Thierry Hegay, local Deputés and members of the Commune.

The Canadian Militia helped sponsor a number of the CEF’s infantry battalions. In the case of the 19th Battalion one of the parent units was the 91st Regiment Canadian Highlanders (of Hamilton, Ontario). For this reason soldiers of the 19th Battalion wore a kilt.

In May 1920 the 91st regiment were renamed the : Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada, who continue to maintain the heritage of the 19th Battalion.

Only three of the casualties have no known grave and are commemorated on the Vimy memorial.
The others are buried at :

  • Wellington Cemetery, Rieux en Cambresis (11)
  • Niagara Cemetery, Iwuy (2)
  • Naves Communal Cemetery Extension (3)
  • Ramillies British Cemetery (1)
  • St. Aubert British Cemetery (1)
  • Queant Communal Cemetery British Extension (1)
  • Bucquoy Road Cemetery, Ficheux (3)

Lieutenant Vincent Crombie

Lieutenant Vincent Crombie was wounded during the battle and died in hospital on the coast on the 26th October. He is buried at Etaples Military Cemetery (Grave : XLVIII A 7).

One of four brothers who enlisted, and the second to be killed. Charles (5th Bn Canadian Infantry) is buried in England. Robert and Joseph who went into the Canadian Engineers both survived the war.