The Gordons at Cambrai
This account is from the excellent book, "THE GORDON HIGHLANDERS in the FIRST WORLD WAR 1914-1919" by Cyril Falls published by Naval & Military Press and available from The Gordon Highlanders Museum.
Sketch map of the Gordon Highlanders' advance in Battle of Cambrai, 20th/21st November 1917.
High Resolution Image:
THE GORDONS AT CAMBRAI
The 51st Division was attacking from the spur named after the village of Trescault in a northerly direction. In its path the ground sloped gently down to a valley known as the Grand Ravine, at right angles to the line of advance. Thence there was a rather sharper rise to more high ground on which stood the village of Flesquières, round which ran the double-trenched Hindenburg support system. Thereafter the ground fell away to the north in slight undulations, but rose once more in a very prominent and striking knoll, its summit three and a half miles north of Flesquières. It was densely covered with trees and named Bourlon Wood after the village on the northern slope. Bourlon Wood, the better part of a square mile in extent, commanded the northern half of the battlefield, indeed three-fourths of it except in the hollows.
The number of tanks allotted to the divisional front was enormous by comparison with anything hitherto experienced: a battalion of thirty-six to each of the leading brigades, the 152nd on the right and 153rd on the left. Twelve "rovers" were to move 150 yards ahead of the foremost infantry, with the job of flattening the wire. The second wave of thirty-six tanks was to deal with the German trenches up to and including the first objective, which was in the main the Hindenburg front system. The third wave of twenty-four tanks was to form up in the Grand Ravine an hour and a half after zero, with the objective of the Hindenburg support system and the Flesquières Ridge. In the 152nd Brigade the leading battalions were the 8th A. and S. Highlanders and 5th Seaforth, followed by the 6th Gordon Highlanders and 6th. Seaforth; in the 153rd Brigade the 6th Black Watch and 5th Gordon Highlanders led, followed by the 7th Gordon Highlanders and 7th Black Watch. The leading battalions were to capture the first objective. The other four had as successive objectives, first, the Flesquières Ridge, and then a section of the sunken Marcoing-Graincourt road.
The attack was launched at 6.30 a.m. on November 20th . What followed was a wonderful experience for the infantry. Hitherto it had been glad enough to see a single tank turn up at a critical moment and reduce a strong point. Now the tanks swept forward in tremendous strength and cracked open the shell of the German defence. The programme was not without a flaw because a number of tanks got ditched. They could easily get over a narrow trench, but to cross those of the Hindenburg Line they carried on their backs huge fascines, with a device which tipped these forward into the trench. But, big as these fascines or faggots were, they only just sufficed, and they did not do so if the tank approached the trench aslant. In the main, however, the tanks did all, and more than all, that had been hoped of them, which included the demoralization of the defence. Where the worst tank hold-up occurred, at the Hindenburg front system, the infantry showed that it did not rely on them entirely and pushed on boldly and cleverly.
The 5th Gordon Highlanders had a great day. It took the front Hindenburg trench without difficulty, but found itself for the time being bereft of aid from armour. On its right a platoon made its way up a sunken road in which it penetrated the wire, entered the second trench, and began to work its way along this. On the left a platoon waited for the tanks of the second phase which cleared a way through the wire. About 400 prisoners were sent back by the battalion. Its own losses were 6 men killed, 4 officers and 52 men wounded. When the brigade staff asked if it were fit for more Lieut.-Colonel McTaggart had no hesitation in answering yes.
At 7.50 a.m. the four battalions of the 152nd and I53rd Brigades went forward in artillery formation to pass through and take the Hindenburg support system and push on to Marcoing-Graincourt road. The 6th and 7th Gordons were in line, but each on the right of its brigade, so that they were separated by the 6th Seaforths. The leading wave of the 6th Gordons deployed on the Bapaume-Cambrai railway line. Then the battalion had a perfect view of one of the most dramatic episodes of the war, which has been discussed, adorned, misrepresented, and taken as a text again and again, so that people who were not born when it occurred have often heard of it.
As the six tanks moving in front of the battalion reached the wire in a straggling line, one after the other was knocked out by a 77 mm. battery firing at a range of about 500 yards. It was pretty cool shooting, and other tanks coming up later were treated in the same way.
The officers could see the tank tragedy clearly, but they were unsure about how far they had got before the killing. At first it looked as though they were through the wire, and if so there must be lanes. The battalion, therefore, went on. Alas! the tanks had not got through, with the consequence that the enemy, secure behind it, got several machine guns into action. In less time than it takes to tell the story some sixty men were hit. The main body of the battalion was then withdrawn to cover. One platoon doubled forward and managed to enter the trench, but found it so shallow that fire from Flesquières rendered movement along it impossible.
The famous 51st Division machinery was not working at its best that day. The 7th Gordons got into the second trench of the support system but was driven back to the front trench. Even there it was in a fairly good position to attack and Lieut.-Colonel A. de L. Long prepared to do so. He was told to hold his hand because a "set piece" with artillery and tanks was being arranged. His own evening patrols thought Flesquières was now held only by a handful of men, snipers for the most part, but they could not be sure. The obvious remedy, if the place could not be cleared by the troops on its outskirts, was to thrust in behind it through the front of one of the flanking divisions which had pushed on. Darkness prevented this from being done. It is one of the great disadvantages of an offensive so near the shortest day. This factor also affected the cavalry which had been milling round trying to find a way through.
Thus the 51st Division found itself in a situation as unwelcome as it was unfamiliar. It had often enough had to cover one flank or both because it had outdistanced other troops. Now it was hanging back in an extraordinary way. The division on its left was in Graincourt, a mile and a half to the north. That on the right was almost equally far ahead. The 51st lay in a sack. The confusion continued after dark. Several tanks entered the village. The enemy lay low; the tanks came out as two platoons of infantry moved in; the enemy then fired on those platoons, and they in turn withdrew.
Whatever the German strength in Flesquières and the trenches round it, the village was abandoned during the night. At 2.45 a.m. on November 21st a patrol of the 7th Gordons passed through and reached the second objective. A company was sent forward on its heels and other battalions also closed up. The situation was thus restored, but the delay had handicapped the British in their race for Bourlon Wood with the reinforcements which the Germans at once set in motion. It is only fair to say that the delay might have been longer but for the active patrolling of the 153rd Brigade, especially the 7th Gordons. During the advance to the second objective the 6th Gordons took four guns and howitzers of various calibres and the 7th Gordons eight.
The advance to the final objective, the Marcoing-Graincourt road, was now carried out with little difficulty and at very slight cost. Patrols towards Cantaing, which was protected by a good trench system, found the place strongly held. The 154th Brigade was ordered to break through these trenches, known as the Cantaing line, and capture Fontaine-Notre-Dame, east of Bourlon Wood.
At 6.20 that morning the 4th Gordon Highlanders and 7th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of this brigade had moved forward in column of route from the old British front line in which they had spent the night. Again there were signs of the sort of mental paralysis which the hold-up seems to have brought about. The battalion halted an hour before it received word that the way through Flesquieres was clear. Then it moved on and made touch with the troops of the 152nd Brigade, from whom it learnt that Cantaing was holding out. At 10.30 the Gordons went through to the attack.
At first they were held up by machine guns and wire and another delay occurred, the front remaining motionless till about noon. At that hour half a dozen tanks appeared and broke into Cantaing. The Gordons went in at top speed behind them. The greater part of the village was quickly taken with many prisoners, but a pocket of Germans put up a splendid resistance, which was not overcome until 3 p.m. The haul of prisoners amounted to nearly 300, while the casualties were exactly 100.
The Argylls were unable to advance on Fontaine simultaneously with the Gordons because of fire from Anneux on their left. When, however, the 62nd Division took this village, the battalion moved on. Fontaine was secured without resistance from within, but under fire from Bourlon Wood. A few civilians were found in the village.
Whether or not Fontaine could be held depended to a large extent upon whether or not Bourlon Wood could be taken. It was not taken on this day, and on November 22nd, after the 4th Gordons had been relieved, the enemy recovered Fontaine after very fierce fighting. Late that night the 152nd Brigade was ordered to retake it on the morrow, in concert with the capture of Bourlon Wood by the 40th Division. The fact that the wood was being attacked simultaneously with the village secured the left flank of the brigade. The right flank, however, lay completely open and its defence was to be built up yard by yard as the advance progressed by two other battalions. This measure was an adequate precaution against a counter-attack, but it did not prevent the right battalion from being subjected to enfilade fire.
The right battalion was the 6th Gordon Highlanders. Realizing this fire was likely, the commanding officer, Lieut.-Colonel the Hon. W. Fraser, asked for a smoke barrage to be laid between La Folie Wood and Fontaine, but the batteries which had advanced to support the attack had not brought up ammunition of this nature. Twelve tanks were allotted to the attack.
The tanks moved off first, at 10.10 a.m. twenty minutes before the infantry, so that they should enter the village from the flanks simultaneously with it. Fontaine itself was the objective of the 6th Gordons, and they were to be joined on the high ground north of it by the 6th Seaforths, which would first of all have captured the ground lying between Fontaine and Bourlon Wood.
What followed was what Lieut.-Colonel Fraser had feared.
The battalion was raked by fire from La Folie Wood. Frontal fire met it from a number of houses in Fontaine and it was finally brought to a halt. The tanks were not by any means as dominant as in the surprise of the first day. Some were put out of action by direct hits. The tank crews were ready to accept their luck in this respect, but they were made very cautious by a new method of defence. The Germans were beginning to make fairly large issues of an effective armour-piercing bullet, which at short range drilled holes in the tanks and kept velocity enough to kill inside them.
Destroyed British tanks overturned and in pieces across from the "Shooting Box" in Bourlon Wood during the Battle of Cambrai, November 1917.
IWM (Q 56828)
The Germans fared no better when they counter-attacked from the east and north-east over open, rolling ground. The blast of fire which met them was so fierce that their venture never really got started. In the afternoon another bid was made to take Fontaine, this time by the 5th Seaforths, from the south-east corner of Bourlon Wood, held by the 40th Division. One hundred men of the 6th Gordons and two companies of the 8th Argylls were to support this operation on the flank as soon as it developed. In fact, it never did develop. Any chance of its success was ruined by the fact that the 40th Division gave way before a counterattack in Bourlon Wood. The terrific German barrage supporting this knocked out several tanks, and without them there seemed no prospect of taking a stoutly built village which had not been subjected to heavy bombardment. The enterprise was, therefore, called off.
Lieut.-Colonel Fraser's comment was that insufficient time for reconnaissance had been given, that at this stage there was insufficient shell, especially smoke. He also considered that the original attack should have been made from Boudon Wood as soon as enough of it had been cleared, with only a small holding attack from the south. The battalion marched back to Flesquieres, which it reached about 3 a.m. on November 24th. The men were very tired. They were also sad at heart. Their losses had been heavy, though far less so than in some other battles. The root cause of their depression lay elsewhere. It was disappointment that things had not gone better on the 22nd and 23rd. The youngest soldier among them had not only been thrilled by the early success of the Battle of Cambrai but had felt that this marked a new era and that open warfare was once again on the horizon. Hence disappointment was in some ways sharper than if one of the trench-to-trench attacks had been held up by the enemy before it had made any progress.
The 6th Gordon Highlanders does not give its losses in its two engagements separately, but lumps together all those suffered in the month of November 1917. They are as follows: