Battle Honour: Cambrai 1917

Masnieres and Marcoing, Nov 20-29, 1917

The battle of Cambrai began with high expectations because of the deployment unprecedented numbers of tanks en masse over terrain that was largely in its original state. Like so many earlier battles, it ended in disappointment and missed oportunities.

The Newfoundland involvement can be broken into two stages – first, the attack against the Hindenburg Line on 20 Nov., 1917, and second, a fighting withdrawal in the face of the massive German counterattack on Nov. 30.

The hard lesson learned from the battle was that the British plan did not adequately prepare for consolidation after its initial breathtaking success, and the over-extended troops were forced to give up most of their early gains.


(From Pilgrimage, with the kind permission of David Parsons)

The Battle of Cambrai was to be the great experiment with tanks. Previously, tanks had been used but in small numbers. This attack was to utilize nearly one hundred tanks.

The Germans were situated in a very strong position to which they had withdrawn the previous March. This was known as the HINDENBURG LINE, following the valley of the Escaut River, St. Quentin Canal, and the unfinished Canal du Nord. A line of trenches and wire over 3000 yards wide formed the first line of defence, and some 5000 yards behind this, was a second series of trenches. The use of large numbers of tanks was to be the key to success.

The 29th Division was held in Corps Reserve to move forward when the three Divisions ahead captured their objectives. The 29th Division would advance to the St. Quentin Canal and capture Marcoing, Masnieres, and Nine Wood. The plan was for the Division to cross the St. Quentin Canal, seize the second line and consolidate on this line while the Cavalry passed through to capture Cambrai.

Prelude

THE ROYAL NEWFOUNDLAND REGIMENT reached Berles en Bois on Oct. 17,1917, to recuperate from the horrible conditions they had experienced at Ypres. As usual, fatigue parties had to help salvage material from the old German trenches that ran through this section. On Nov. 17, after an accelerated period of training, the Newfoundlanders left Berles, marching to Boisleux au Mont and then taking the train to Peronne. The next night, they marched to Moislain, near the Canal du Nord. At dusk, they moved forward to Sorelle Grand. To achieve surprise and avoid being observed by enemy aircraft, the troops marched by night and stayed in huts by day.

Cambrai Area

At 2:30 a.m., Nov. 20, 1917, the Newfoundlanders -17 officers and 536 other ranks, marched off to Gouzeaucourt. From there, they were directed by special piquets to their assembly point. At 6:30 A.M., the guns roared and the tanks clattered forward, followed by the infantry. At 8:30, the Regiment was in position in the trenches north of Villers Plouich, previously occupied by the 20th Division, who had advanced two and one-half miles to this point. At 10:00 a.m., they advanced behind the tanks.

Canal Attack

The 88th Brigade advanced in a diamond formation – the Essex Regt. in the lead, the Newfoundlanders on the left, and the Worcesters on the right, with the Hampshires in the rear. Each Battalion advanced in {the}same formation with A Company in the lead, D and C Companies on the flanks and B Company in the rear.

The route lay north east over Welsh Ridge, 4000 yards south of the Canal. There was little resistance as they crossed the first trenches of the Hindenburg Line. Some enfilade fire from machine gun nests was quickly dealt with though it slowed the advance and caused some casualties.

A battery of German guns held up the troops, knocking out three of the four tanks assigned to the Division. The fourth tank developed engine trouble, but the advance continued without support of the tanks after the guns had been captured.

Pockets of Germans in dugouts were captured. Finally, the open slope to the St. Quentin Canal, 1000 yards ahead, was reached. Marcoing to the left, and Masnieres to the right could be seen. The Regiment moved to Marcoing Copse closer to the canal, from whence they could launch the assault across it.

The lock which was to be crossed was 500 yards away. As Masnieres had not been captured, the Germans strengthened their defences and the approaches to the canal were well covered by machine gun fire and snipers. A tank came to the assistance of the Newfoundlanders, pounding the enemy on the north bank of the canal. This gave the Regiment the opportunity to race across the lock and secure a bridge head. Capt. Grant Patterson was awarded the Military Cross for leading the men across the canal.

They took shelter in buildings along the canal, preparatory to a sixty yard dash to the railway line running parallel to the canal. The area was covered by German machine gun fire. Several attempts resulted in casualties. Capt. Bert Butler charged forward with his men and reached the railway and were able to silence the machine gun. He was awarded the D.S.O. for this action.

The 87th Brigade had found Marcoing free of Germans and the 86th Brigade had taken Nine Wood and Noyelle beyond. However, Masnieres was not captured. A tank crossing the bridge crashed into the canal, preventing armoured support from assisting the attackers.

To Masnieres

The Newfoundlanders turned right to advance toward Masnieres, but were held up by persistent machine gun fire which was eliminated with difficulty. A second machine gun had to be silenced also. Gun fire from other sites took time to clear up during the rest of the day.

The situation at Masnieres was uncertain with the Worcesters advancing east of the collapsed bridge. As darkness fell, the Regiment went into a defensive flank on the outskirts of Masnieres, near the bridge. During the night, parties went out mopping up resistance, clearing most of the village of the enemy.

In preparation for an attack on Nov. 21, the Newfoundlanders moved along the canal to take up a position in a beet factory on the other side of Masnieres. A single shell landed amongst a group of soldiers moving along the canal. Ten men were killed and fifteen wounded. L/Cpl. John Shiwak, an Eskimo from Labrador, the leading sniper in the Regiment, was one of those killed.

The attack on Nov. 21 did not materialize as the troops were in no condition to participate, having been on the move since 2:00 A.M. the day before and there were no reserves close by. That night, the men descended into caves and tunnels under the village, undisturbed by shelling above. On the night of Nov. 22, the Regiment was relieved by the Middlesex Regiment, and marched back to Marcoing.

The cost of this attack was heavy. There were three officers and fifty other ranks killed, another officer died of wounds five days later, and six officers and one hundred and eighty-eight men were wounded.          

Counter Attack

The German counter attack started on Nov. 30. Four British Divisions held a line from Marcoing to Epehy (three miles south of Gouzeaucourt). The main thrust of nine German Divisions would be a drive from the east, then a drive north to eliminate the salient the British attack had created.

The Newfoundland Regiment stayed at Marcoing for three days. On Nov. 23, the German guns started a continuous barrage on Marcoing and Masnieres. From Nov. 25 to 28, the battalion occupied trenches on the north side of the canal facing north toward the Beaurevoir line, then returning to the cellars of Marco- ing after an uneventful tour of front line duty.

On Nov.29, the Regiment was ordered forward to carry out relief at Masnieres. Early the next morning, heavy shelling of Marcoing foretold of an eminent attack. The two battalions of the 86th Brigade holding the line near Les Rues Vertes reported they were being engaged from Rumilly and Crevecour, and a battalion of the 20th Division to the south was falling back. At 10:00 A.M., an urgent message from Brigade instructed the C.O. to move the Newfoundlanders forward with the other battalions of the 88th Brigade. The heavy shelling prevented them from moving to their designated positions. Because of the shelling, the companies had to move to the assembly point near Marcoing Copse independently.

Bayonet Charge

As they approached Marcoing Copse, they were met by advancing Germans coming from the direction of Les Rues Vertes, trying to outflank the 29th Division. The Newfoundlanders deployed and attacked with bayonets, stemming the German advance. On their right, the Essex, and beyond them, the Worcesters and Hampshires extended the line south. By night, the four battalions assisted by the Kings Own Scottish Borderers of the 87th Brigade pushed the enemy back one mile. As night fell, they dug in on a line beginning from Les Rues Vertes running south.

For the next 24 hours, the 29th Division hung on to their rather precarious position. The Germans kept up machine gun and sniper fire exacting heavy casuaties. Further south, the Germans had pushed to the outskirts of Gouzeaucourt.

As darkness fell on Dec. 1, the 29th Division were at the tip of a dangerous salient, subjected to heavy bombardment and repeated infantry attacks. The exhausted battalions of the 86th Brigade dropped back and the other two Brigades pulled their flanks back to just east of the lock the Newfoundlanders had taken on Nov. 20. The following night, Dec. ‘2, the 87th Brigade was replaced by a Brigade of the 6th Division. The 88th Brigade was left with a diminished front of 2000 yards, south of the canal in front of Marcoing Copse. At the left flank, the N ewfoundlanders were dug in beside the lock. .   .

On Dec. 3, the enemy started a crushing bombardment along the canal bank, followed by intensive and accurate mortar fire forcing the Regiment to withdraw to the west of the lock. Waves of Germans made repeated attacks on the front, but somehow the assaults were halted. That evening, the Hampshires came forward from reserve to relieve what was left of the Newfoundland battalion. They withdrew a one-half mile and rested as best they could in old German dugouts.

On Dec. 4, the Third Army was ordered to withdraw to a line through Flesquieres. This withdrawal was successfully executed, relinquishing the ground captured in the attack.

Aftermath

The 29th Division was the only division that did not collapse on Nov. 30. The initiative of the counter attack by the Newfoundlanders on Nov. 30 contributed to their success. The Battalion marched the seven miles to Etricourt on Dec. 5 where they boarded a train for Mondicourt, near Doullens. The trip was interrupted when shelling hit the engine, necessitating a move to another train. From Mondicourt they marched three miles to Humbercourt for two weeks rest and refit. On Dec. 18, the Regiment marched fourteen miles north over snowy roads to Boubers-sur-Canche. The next day, a twelve mile trek brought them to Le Parcq. Finally, on Dec. 20, they reached Fressin and good billets where they spent their fourth Christmas overseas.

The loses of officers and men had been heavy. From Nov. 30 to Dec. 4, there were over two hundred casualties.

 

‘Royal’ Honour

It was the early part of December, 1917, that the Governor of  Newfoundland, Sir Charles Harris, was notified that His Majesty, the King had approved the title ”ROYAL”  for the Newfoundland Regiment. The Royal Newfoundland Regiment was the only regiment on which this honour was bestowed during the War, and only the third time that this honour had been given to a regiment in time of war. (The other times were in 1695 and in 1885).

Gallantry Awards:

            M.C.                             Capt H Rendell

            D.C.M.                         Sgt. L. Fitzpatrick, M.M.

            Bar to M.M.                Sgt. E. Goudie

            M.M.                           Sgt. E. Joy                   Sgt. M. Winter

                                                CpI.J. Hagen               2nd Lt. R. LeDrew

  Cpl. T. Pittman             LCpl. T. Cook

  LCpl. A Stacey              Pte. H. Knee

  Pte. M. Bennett           Cpl. J. Collins

  Pte. J. Loveless            Pte. L. Moore

  Pte. P. Power                CQMS E.B. Cheeseman

  2nd Lt A. Davis     

 

Stretcher Bearers:          Pte. W. Fowlow             Pte. H. Dibben

                                           Pte. J. Hennebury