London 1918, the Armistice and Regimental histories

Royal fusiliers in the Great War - BATTLE OF CAMBRAI 1917

4TH Battalion, The London Regiment (Royal Fusiliers) in the Great War 1914 - 1919

At 6.20 a.m. on November 20th the Battle of Cambrai began, the troops moving forward without any previous artillery bombardment, on a front of six miles from the east of Gonnelieu to the Canal du Nord, opposite Hermies. Three battalions of the Royal Fusiliers were included in the attacking divisions ; and it may be said, with due reserve, that they and other Fusilier units who were involved before the operations died down in December won for themselves undying honour.

Noyelles. — The second battalion began to move up to the area in the second week of November. On the 18th they lay at Peronne. The following day they reached Equancourt, some 8,000 yards from the nearest point of the British front line. They advanced to Dead Man's Corner, marching through Fins and Queen's Cross, and were in assembly positions on the right rear of the 16th Middlesex at 5.20 a.m. on the 20th. An hour later they began to move up, in diamond formation, W Company being in front, X and Y on the right and left rear respectively, and Z in support. They marched on a bearing of 40 degrees until the original front line was reached, when they halted in front of Plough Support. At 10.20 a.m. they resumed the advance on the same line of bearing until they passed through the 6th Division, who had captured and were holding the Hindenburg line. Shortly afterwards they came under heavy machine-gun fire and extended, continuing the advance in two waves, with the support of numerous tanks. This was the period of the general movement towards the final objective, and the resistance which had been inappreciable in the earliest stages was now, in places, very obstinate. At the outskirts of Marcoing several Germans ran forward and gave themselves up ; but at the cross-roads the advance was temporarily held up by machine-gun fire and a small amount of rifle fire. However tanks reduced all obstacles, and the battalion went forward again. Second Lieutenant Burton was killed in the approach to Marcoing, and Captain Learning and Second Lieutenant Piper were wounded. Two platoons, under Captain Griffiths, went through the village, and, after some brisk street fighting, captured about 100 prisoners and some machine guns.

In the approach to Noyelles the enemy's fire was once more experienced, the resistance on the Marcoing road being very stubborn. But this was overcome and the battalion reached their final objective at 3.15 p.m. and dug in. A patrol of W Company at once pushed forward to secure the bridge over the canal, north-east of Noyelles ; but the intermediate bridge over the Scheldt, on the Noyelles-Cambrai road, had been blown up, and the canal bridge could not be reached. The wooden bridge over the river farther south had been blown up within sight of a scouting party. Z Company went forward to hold the village and link up with the post beyond the cemetery, on the north-western outskirts of the village. X dug in between the River Scheldt and the canal, making two strong points, one facing eastward and the other towards the north, as a protection to the right flank, which was in the air. Z Company promptly put the village in a state of defence. A patrol of the 4th Dragoons, who had come up a little after 4 p.m., were posted on the northern out-skirts of the village. The blown-up Scheldt bridge was seized and held ; and also the wooden one still intact in the grounds of the Chateau, on the east of the village. So the battalion lay that night. A German patrol was beaten off by Lewis-gun and rifle fire. Not three miles away was Cambrai. In front of them across the Scheldt Canal was the enemy's Marcoing line. Behind them lay a greater depth of country than had ever before been covered in one day's advance ; and the success had been achieved with much less loss than had almost invariably accompanied the fierce battles in which the battalion had taken part.

The following day, November 21st, appeared like a reversion to type. By some oversight the outskirts of the village had been abandoned early in the morning by the Dragoons before the relief troops arrived. As a consequence, when the enemy counter-attacked about 7.30 a.m. they secured an immediate success, and the eastern end of the village was overrun up to the church. There a machine gun was established, and throughout the day a bitter struggle took place. Second Lieutenant Peel very gallantly destroyed two German machine guns in this phase of the fighting and Second Lieutenant R. L. Sparks was killed. The 18th Hussars, who were now in the village, were involved in this fighting, and little headway was made until about 4 p.m., when the two tanks Ben Mychree and Buluwayo II. came up. These, advancing with moppers-up of the 2nd Battalion and the 18th Hussars, cleared the village, which was handed over to C Company of the 1st Buffs, who relieved the Royal Fusiliers. This phase of the battle had not been bloodless, but the 2nd Battalion had the satisfaction of handing over intact the position which they had won at first. They had captured 400 prisoners, two light and ten heavy machine guns and three granatenwerfer. The battalion billeted in Marcoing, where General de Lisle called to congratulate them. The Mayor visited brigade headquarters and thanked Captain Hood and the men who had fought in Noyelles.

* The 9th Battalion had been commanded since July 3rd by a very remarkable officer. Lieut.-Colonel W. V. L. van Someren, D.S.O., M.C., was reading for the Bar when war broke out, and, joining the Inns of Court O.T.C. in August, 19T4, he went out to France with the 9th Royal Fusiliers as the junior subaltern. He was only twenty one years of age when he took over the command of the battalion, and must have been one of the youngest, if not actually the youngest, of commanding officers. He retained command of the unit until it was disbanded in June, 1919, and was in charge of the 36th Brigade for the two weeks preceding the Armistice.

Meanwhile, on the southern flank of the advance the 8th and 9th Battalions had also advanced successfully. The 8th formed up north and the 9th * south of the Cambrai road in the Gonnelieu Trenches, in the rear of sections of the Tank Corps. A certain amount of machine-gun fire was encountered ; but both battalions captured all objectives. Barrier Trench, south of la Vacquerie, was taken ; Sonnet Farm was cleared, and also parts of the Hindenburg front and support line. The 8th captured 35 prisoners and two machine guns for a total casualty list of 22, including Second Lieutenant Symonds and 15 other ranks killed. The 9th Battalion lost 94 all told, including Captain A. Greathead and Lieutenant G. Hall, M.C., Second Lieutenant E. C. Butterworth died of wounds later. At 10 p.m. that night the 9th moved up and relieved the 7th East Surreys in the front line of the defensive flank between Bleak House and Bonavis Farm, and held this position during the night. The 8th Battalion relieved the 9th on November 22nd, and two days later carried out a local attack on Pelican Trench towards Banteux, in conjunction with the 35th Brigade. They attacked at 8 a.m. In seventeen minutes they had secured their objectives, and within fifteen minutes were heavily counter-attacked. There had been no time to consolidate and 400 yards of Pelican Trench between B and D Companies were lost. Bombing blocks were established in the rear of the section of trench lost and the positions were handed over on the following day to the 7th Royal Sussex. In this brisk little engagement the battalion lost 58, including Second Lieutenant Reed killed, and they took 28 prisoners.

Tadpole Copse.— The Londons had by this time entered the battle. On November 20th they had co-operated with the main assault by a Chinese attack, but now they were to take their share in the actual fighting. The early successes of the advance had been at once too little and too great. If they had carried the troops further than Flesquieres ridge, a position would have been gained which was possible to hold without undue risk. But the line had been flung out to the north well beyond the ridge, and this ground could not be held unless the Bourlon ridge which commanded it was also in our possession, except at excessive cost. On the west of the ridge the 56th Division was involved. Tadpole Copse, lying about 1,000 yards west of Mceuvres, formed " a commanding tactical point in the Hindenburg line . . . the possession of which would be of value in connection with the left flank of the Bourlon position." * It was stormed on the evening of the 22nd by the Queen's Westminsters. The trenches in advance of the copse were retaken by the enemy on the 24th ; and at 1 p.m. on the 25th bombers of the 4th Londons, with the Rangers, attacked and re-captured the trenches. A patrol of D Company under Captain A. M. Duthie pushed forward and captured three machine guns. Late at night the Germans attempted to rush one of the battalion's bombing blocks, but they were beaten off. The 2nd Londons on the left of the position spent several days beating off the intermittent German attacks. Constant vigilance was necessary and, it may be added, was forthcoming. On the Lagnicourt sector a patrol of the 1st Londons distinguished themselves on the night of the 22nd. Second Lieutenant Long and three men of A Company crossed to the enemy wire, passed through and lay in a German outpost trench until a hostile patrol, sent out to examine their own wire, passed them. The Londons allowed them to pass and then surrounded and captured the two Germans.

* Despatch.

Bullecourt. — In the subsidiary attack about Bulle-court the 4th Royal Fusiliers were cast for the role of maid-of-all-work. They had to be prepared to support the Connaught Rangers (16th Division) on their left ; a company was lent to the 1st Northumberland Fusiliers, and another to the 12th West Yorks. They held the remainder of the 9th Brigade front on the flanks of the battle front, holding 300 yards of the 16th Division sector. During the night work was begun on a communication trench towards the left of the objective, and a post was dug in advance of the line and made defensible before zero. Four platoons advanced at a minute after zero (6.20 a.m.) and began their work of establishing posts between the old front line and the objective. A listening post was encountered by the right company, two of the enemy being made prisoners and the rest killed. With their aid, in a confused battle, the assaulting troops completed the work of the Spring Campaign by capturing the remainder of the Hindenburg support trench on this sector. Another spirited advance was made on November 25th, in which the 4th Battalion passed through the enemy wire without opposition, and took and consolidated the German first and second lines north-west of Bullecourt. Finding a German post unoccupied due north of the town, they seized it and worked along Bulldog Trench until held up by a block. Consolidation was at once carried out, and the positions were firmly held.

The Counter-attack. — The 2nd Division had now come up to consolidate the new positions, and the four battalions of Royal Fusiliers were disposed about Bourlon Wood. But already it was evident that the Germans did not intend to admit the finality of the British success. The increased registration of hostile artillery, the movements of troops and transport behind the German lines, pointed to the imminence of a counter-attack. The ground gained in the Battle of Cambrai made a distinct salient in the German lines, and the German activity embraced not only the front affected by the advance, but extended as far as Vendhuile. When the German advance began it was directed upon converging lines against the northern and southern faces of the salient.

On the latter sector the 8th and 9th Battalions felt the full shock of the German assault. The 8th, on the left, lay east of La Vacquerie, and the 9th, on the right, lay in trenches south of the Gouzeaucourt-Cambrai road. At 6.45 a.m.

on November 30th an intense artillery bombardment began, and at 7.40 infantry attacks developed. Almost immediately the resistance of the 35th Brigade and part of the 55th Division on the right of the 9th Battalion was overcome, and C Company was forced to withdraw, taking up a position astride the Cambrai road. The Germans advanced down the Hindenburg front line after the troops of the 35th Brigade to the brigade headquarters. B Company at once delivered a counter-attack over the open, forced back the Germans 200 yards, when bombing blocks were made in all the trenches and the position was held firmly. D Company, on the left, were surrounded, and most of them became casualties. Only 1 officer and 13 other ranks succeeded in fighting their way back to the main body of the battalion. Contact was made on this flank with the 8th Battalion, who had taken up the trench near the road running vid Good Old Man Farm to Ribecourt ; but the right flank was still in the air until 10 a.m., when the 7th Royal Sussex manned the reserve line immediately in the rear of the battalion, and this position was connected with that of the 9th Battalion. Throughout the day bombing encounters continued. Neither water nor rations could be obtained. German aeroplanes flying only about 50 feet above them harassed them continually with machine-gun fire, despite the attempts of Lewis guns and rifles to drive them off. Yet, with the help of about half a company of the 7th Norfolks, they held to their positions.

The 8th Battalion, on the left, had gone through a similar ordeal. The Germans, who had broken through on the south, appeared in great strength on the right rear of the front line companies, who, in a few minutes, were completely cut off. Some 12 men only fought their way back to the reserve line. D Company went up to support and were overwhelmed and fell back, fighting, to the reserve line where the Battalion headquarters were established. The Germans were only 50 yards from the reserve line when the Commanding Officer, Lieut-Colonel N. B. Elliott-Cooper, D.S.O., M.C., collected all available men of battalion headquarters and C and D Companies, about 120 in all, and led them in a counter-attack. The position was critical, but Colonel Elliott-Cooper's forlorn hope achieved an immediate success. The small body went forward cheering ; the Germans wavered and were then driven back over the Cambrai road. But there heavy machine-gun fire was encountered. Elliott-Cooper himself fell. All the officers became casualties ; and, seeing the impossibility of maintaining and consolidating the position, he ordered the withdrawal. He was only 29 years of age, and by this order he deliberately accepted the bitter fate of falling into the hands of the Germans. His advance had been daring and resolute. His order for the withdrawal was marked by high courage and selflessness. He deserved, as he received, the Victoria Cross ; but, unfortunately, he died a prisoner in Germany.

The survivors fell back as they were ordered and withdrew to the reserve line. The German advance was checked in this quarter, and, with the 37th Brigade on the left and the 9th Battalion on the right, the new line was established. All enemy attacks were beaten off. The 8th lost 10 officers and 247 men. The 9th had lost 13 officers, including Lieutenant H. Reeve, Second Lieutenants Levi, Wason and Disney, killed, and 208 other ranks.

There was no further attack that night. But at 7 a.m. on the morning of December 1st the Germans attempted to cross the Cambrai road on the front of the 9th Battalion, towards La Vacquerie. They were repulsed by rifle and machine-gun fire ; and the attack was repeated seven times with the same result. At 12.30 p.m. the enemy opened a heavy bombardment and then began bombing attacks. These were beaten off until about 1 p.m., when the supply of bombs had completely given out. The battalion were forced to withdraw 150 yards to a point just north of the Cambrai road, where they held the enemy. These two battalions had fought an engagement in conditions that were not paralleled until the German offensive of March,

1918, and, never ceasing to be an ordered fighting force, had given ground only when no troops could possibly have held it. At the end they handed over an organised position to the relieving troops. The 9th Battalion were the only troops to retain their positions south of the Cambrai-Gouzeaucourt road for these two days, during which no rations reached them, and the supply of bombs completely failed.

Les Rues Vertes. — The 2nd Battalion had come back into support on November 28th as counter-attack battalion ; and when the German assault began Y and Z Companies were lying about the sugar factory at Masnieres, W was in the quarry and X off the Cambrai road. Masnieres was heavily shelled from 2 to 5 a.m., and at 6.15 the battalion stood to arms. At 7 a.m. the German attack from Crevecoeur made such rapid progress that the battery positions were taken in reverse, and the southern flank of Masnieres was uncovered. X and Z Companies were quickly brought across the canal by the lock bridge near the sugar factory to form a defensive flank as far as the old Brigade rear headquarters in Les Rues Vertes, while two platoons of X Company were sent to help in the street fighting. For the Germans had not only penetrated the suburb, but had even captured the ammunition dump. The troops in point of fact were called upon to defend a position which virtually had already been lost.

Into this picture it is difficult to fit the achievement of Captain Gee, who won the Victoria Cross for multiplied acts of daring that seem, on calm reflection, to outshine the inventions of writers of fiction. At 8.50 a.m. the position in Les Rues Vertes seemed to be lost ; and the amazing thing is that it was not abandoned. No one exactly knew where the Germans were, but they appeared to be everywhere and certainly in the most inconvenient places. Captain Gee, who was then at brigade head-quarters, was ordered by telephone to form a defensive flank with servants and headquarters details. He at once sent Captain Loseby with 6 men to get into touch with the right flank. Taking 4 signallers and 2 orderlies with him, he then set out to get a grip of the situation. But at the first corner firing was heard. A little further on the Germans could be seen. With four of the men he opened fire, while the other two seized whatever came first — tables, chairs, etc. — to form a barricade. The enemy were held off for about five minutes, and then a Lewis gun came up, and there was time to breathe. The second house beyond the barricade was the Brigade ammunition dump, full of small arm ammunition, bombs, etc., and Captain Gee determined to get to it. He knocked a hole through the wall of a house on his own side of the barricade and crawled through to the first dump, only to find both dump men dead and the quartermaster-sergeant missing. He then climbed a wall to the bomb store and was immediately seized by two German sentries.

He had a bayonet stick with him and a revolver, but he could not reach the latter, and in the struggle he killed one of the sentries with the stick while an orderly shot the other. He got back to the road again with a better realisation of the desperate nature of the crisis. Some 30 or 40 men had now arrived. Half of them were sent to Captain Loseby, others were set to the task of building another barricade ; and, with the six remaining, he recaptured the bomb store and cleared three houses. Two companies of Guernsey Light Infantry now arrived from brigade headquarters. These were sent to the uncovered flank, posts were established on the three bridges across the canal, and a strong company were sent to the out-skirts of the village with orders to build a barricade and link up on the left.

After this a bombing party were organised to set about clearing the houses on the Marcoing road. At this point the Germans' nerves appeared to wear thin, and they ran from house to house as the bombers got to work. Captain Gee, seeing that this part of his task appeared to be approaching completion, began to attend to the supply of ammunition and bombs to the troops across the canal and at the bridges. He then worked up to the chateau and through a hole in the wall into the brewery yard. The Germans had already left ; and it was evident that when the houses on the other side of the Marcoing road were cleared, the village would again be in our possession. This task was handed on to a small party, and Captain Gee went up to the roof of the chateau to take stock of the position. The Germans were seen to be digging in about 100 yards clear of the village. He at once got a supply of bombs, and with the help of another orderly he put the machine-gun team out of action and captured the gun. Another machine gun was in the house near the Crucifix. A Stokes gun was ordered up, and Captain Gee now saw that there were posts all round the suburbs.

At the end of the village the men were still being troubled by a machine gun, and there were also numerous snipers at large. For a moment he had to take refuge in a shell-hole ; but it was necessary to order up a Stokes gun before dark to deal with the machine gun, which was situated in a corner house. So he made a dash for the barricade, reaching it across the open in safety, but was caught in the knee by a sniper as he jumped the barricade. He had had four orderlies shot at his side, had been a prisoner for a few minutes and had come through almost unprecedented risks. He wished now to carry on, but was ordered back to have his wound dressed.

Meanwhile part of the open flank had been held steadfastly by the 2nd Battalion. At 2 p.m. Captain Lathom Browne, with two platoons of W Company and the remaining platoon of X, took over the defences of Les Rues Vertes. The remaining platoon of W Company, under Second Lieutenant Brain, was sent to the sugar factory to hold the lock bridge. To these positions the troops held firmly. At 6 p.m. warning orders were issued in case the Brigade had to evacuate the area ; but, later in the evening, congratulations and orders to hold on to the end were received from army headquarters.

At six o'clock the next morning a heavy hostile barrage was put down and a counter-attack followed. The enemy were beaten off by machine-gun and rifle fire. At 4 p.m. the enemy attacked in great force once more. On this occasion the advanced posts were driven in and the Germans entered the village. They were checked ; but it was clear that the thin line of weary men could not hold out indefinitely in so precarious a position. At 7.30 p.m. the order to evacuate Masnieres and Les Rues Vertes arrived ; and at 11.15 the withdrawal began. In exactly an hour from the beginning of the retirement the last post at the sugar factory moved away. In small parties the battalion moved off westward, crossed the canal near Marcoing, and thence marched south of the Villers Plouich road to the Hindenburg support line, about 500 yards east of the Bois Couillet. At this point the battalion found their cookers and blankets. They were very weary ; but they had steadfastly held to their positions in a time when the front line was like a leaky dam ; and their defence must be accounted one of the great episodes in the battle.

Bourlon. — But it was in the Bourlon area that the main attack was delivered some two hours after the assault was made in the south. The density of the attack was extraordinary. Against the three divisions in line, the 56th, 2nd and 47th, four German divisions were directed with three more in support. From high ground within the salient, officers could see through their glasses the enemy advance, and the area seemed to be packed with men. The 2nd Division had taken over the section of the line between Bourlon Wood and Mceuvres. In the front line, lying between the 1st Royal Berks on the right and the 1st King's Royal Rifle Corps on the left, were the 17th Royal Fusiliers. At the opening of the battle they were holding a long trench (the " Rat's Tail "), which ran, almost at right angles from the main British line, 1,000 yards to a point overlooking the enemy's position. B Company, under Captain Walter Napoleon Stone, were occupying the sector nearest the German front line when the attack began ; and he was ordered to withdraw his company to the main line, leaving a rearguard to cover the retirement, as the position was judged to be too exposed. Captain Stone sent back three platoons, but, with Lieutenant Benzecry, remained behind with the rearguard. The action of this rearguard, under their inspiring leader, stands out remarkable in a day of extraordinary exploits. With bayonet, bullet and bomb, they held off the whole of the German attack until the main position of the battalion was fully organised, and they died to a man with their faces to the enemy.

Captain Stone's behaviour will never be forgotten while heroic deeds continue to inspire. The attack had developed against him and his small rearguard with unexpected speed, owing to the enemy being concealed in some dead ground. He stood on the parapet with the telephone, under a tremendous bombardment and hail of bullets, closely observing the enemy, and sending back valuable information. When last seen, the enemy had closed in upon the little band. Stone was seen fighting to the last, until he was shot through the head. The extraordinary coolness of this officer, and the accuracy of his information, enabled dispositions to be made just in time to save the line from disaster. In the official account of this incident, published at the beginning of the year 1918, Captain Stone's action is described "as a devoted example of the greatest of all sacrifices." He was granted the Victoria Cross. This was the third to be won by the Royal Fusiliers on the same day.

At 1 p.m. the 17th Battalion reorganised their line. The two advanced companies in the " Rat's Tail " had been withdrawn to the main line ; but C still retained two blocks beyond it, and these were held throughout the day. Their line was intact. Their positions were closely linked up with the units on the right and left ; and the men " were really enjoying the experience of killing Germans in large numbers at point-blank range." *

* Official account.

Early in the afternoon a very heavy attack was delivered on a front a mile west of Bourlon Wood. This was beaten off except on the extreme right of the 2nd Division, where the ist Royal Berks lay on the right of the 17th Royal Fusiliers. Three posts were there lost, and a gap was formed at the same time between two battalions of the 47th Division. A company of the 23rd Royal Fusiliers were sent up, and, by a sharp counter-attack, re-established the Royal Berks' line. Another company assisted the 17th Battalion later in the day ; and at 10 p.m. the battalion were relieved by the 24th Royal Fusiliers. The strength of the 17th Battalion on leaving the line was 20 officers and 351 other ranks.

The 22nd Battalion relieved the 13th Essex with two companies and the Highland Light Infantry with one company on the night of December ist. The 13th Essex, on the left of the 2nd Division, had been heavily engaged on November 30th, but the 22nd Battalion's tour of the trenches was comparatively uneventful, except for a bombing attack on December 3rd, which was beaten off after half an hour's brisk fighting ; and on the 5th the battalion were withdrawn to support in the old British line east of Hermies.

On the night of December 4th the 24th Battalion evacuated their positions according to orders ; and on the following day, when the Germans began to make their way cautiously forward, they did considerable execution on them. On December 6th, at 6.15 a.m., the enemy attacked one of the battalion's bombing posts about 100 yards south of the Bapaume-Cambrai road. For about half an hour the Lewis gunners and bombers fought at close quarters, causing the Germans considerable damage. The defence rallied round the cool action of Sergeants A. F. Wood, E. Tarleton and Lance-Corporal G. Day, and the enemy were driven off. These three men were awarded the Military Medal for their skill and courage. A little later the enemy penetrated through a gap in the lines into the village of Graincourt. Sergeant D. McCabe was sent out, with a patrol of two men, down the sunken road on the east of the village. By skilful and daring handling of his patrol, McCabe located the position of the enemy and inflicted heavy casualties upon them. McCabe also was awarded the Military Medal.

Another evacuation, the final one, was carried out on the night of the 6th, and by the early hours of December 7th the troops had successfully reached the new positions. The 17th Battalion had taken up positions in front of Lock 7, on the canal, on December 4th. At that time the guns were passing through them and dug-outs were being destroyed preparatory to the first stage of the withdrawal. Two days later the rearguards were withdrawn in front of the advancing Germans. At 1 a.m. on December 7th the battalion were ordered to establish three posts roughly 500 yards in front of the line, to be held at all costs. But it was impossible to site them in the darkness, and they were not established until dawn. On the following day the battalion were in touch with advance parties of the enemy. Corporals Whitson and Lowry made a gallant attempt to capture seven Germans, but they were unable to sprint fast enough ! Intermittent bombing engagements took place during the whole of the day, and the Germans began to register on the front line. Shelling continued during the night, and the following day they were repeatedly attacked. They were holding at this time 2,000 yards of the front line ; and when they were relieved on the night of the 9th they were thoroughly exhausted. But by this time the fighting had died down. The positions remained substantially the same for some months until the German offensive began.