The 9th Battalion Norfolk Regiment
20th November 1917
General Hon. Sir Julian Byng, commanding Third Army, went to see Haig around three months before the attack, asking to be allowed to make a surprise assault on the formidable defences at Cambrai.
It required a methodical “bite and hold” advance in four stages using six Divisions. ‘Bite and hold’ called for an advance that would not extend beyond supporting artillery that could assist in defeating the expected enemy counterattacks.
Brigadier General Hugh Elles, commanding the Tank Corps in France, and his chief staff officer, Lieutenant Colonel John Fuller, made a convincing case that with growing strength in France, the Corps could be used collectively to punch a hole into the enemy defences. Cambrai, being on relatively undamaged rolling chalk land, would be ideal which effectively made it tank fighting country.
Byng’s Army had also developed a scheme for a surprise attack using unregistered artillery. The Tank Corps much approved of the idea, for it would avoid the devastation of ground that had caused so much difficulty for the machines at Ypres.
Cambrai had been in German hands since 1914 and had become an important railhead and hgarrison town. With its railways connecting Douai, Valenciennes and Saint-Quentin and the Saint-Quentin canal, from which the front could be supplied along the River Scheldt men and material could be moved along the western front.
If captured it would deny the enemy a key part of his communication system. But it lay behind a formidable defensive position.
Haig approved the plan on 13 October 1917.
In Third Army orders – codenamed Operation GY – issued on 13 November 1917, the attack was defined as a coup de main, “to take advantage of the existing favourable local situation” where “surprise and rapidity of action are … of the utmost importance”. It was also to be a deep attack on a 10,000 yard (5.6 mile) front that would be “widened as soon as possible”.
Once the key German Masnieres-Beaurevoir line had been breached by III Corps, the cavalry would pass through, reach around to isolate Cambrai from the rear and cut the railways leading from it. Haig would later say that the purpose of the attack was to compel the enemy to withdraw from the salient between the Canal du Nord and the Scarpe, although the objectives must be achieved within 48 hours before strong enemy reserves could come into play. So the high speed and short tactical operation had somehow become one of seizing and holding ground, and while not quite a plan for strategic breakthrough – there were never enough reserves to exploit a breakthrough – the orders had faint resemblance to the original concepts.
More than 1000 guns and howitzers were concealed on the fronts of III and IV Corps and the opening bombardment and a total of 476 tanks, including the new Mark IV version tanks, were moved up to the front on 18 and 19 November with aircraft flying up and down the area mask their sound as they moved up. Their objective would be to crush wire defences and suppress fire from trenches and strong points.
Fascines would be dropped as makeshift bridges enabling the crossing of a wide trench removed one of the known shortcomings of the current tank design. Much attention had been paid to training, particularly for co-operation between infantry and tank, with the units designated to make the initial assault being withdrawn to Wailly for this purpose. An innovation was that the infantry would follow the tanks through the gaps they made, moving in “worms” rather than the familiar lines: their training seems to have done much to improve infantry confidence in the tanks, hitherto seen as a mixed blessing. The tanks were a notable operational success. Shrouded by mist and smoke, they broke into the Hindenburg Line defences with comparative ease in many places.
Most importantly the Germans failed to identify the imminence and nature of the British attack
Six Divisions were used in the attack and from right to left they were the 12th (Eastern), 20th (Light), 6th, 51st (Highland), 62nd (West Riding) and 36th (Ulster). In immediate support was the 29th, and ready to exploit the anticipated breakthrough and sweep round Cambrai were the 1st, 2nd and 5th Cavalry Divisions. The Tank Corps deployed its entire strength of 476 machines and were led by the Tank Corps GOC, Hugh Elles, in a Mk IV tank called ‘Hilda’.
The attack opened at 6.20am on the 20th November 1917 with an intensive predicted-fire barrage on the Hindenburg Line and key points to the rear, which caught the Germans by surprise. Initially, this was followed by the curtain of a creeping barrage behind which the tanks and infantry followed.
There was an issue with the cavalry and progress was slow when the bridge at Masnieres collapsed under weight of a tank.
‘The 6th Division attacked on the front Villers Plouich-Beaucamps, with the 71st Infantry Brigade (Brig.-Gen. P. W. Brown) on the left next to the 51st Division, the 16th Infantry Brigade (Brig.-Gen. H. A. Walker) on the right next to the 20th Division. These two brigades were to advance about 3,000 yards to the first objective (Ribecourt and spur to south-east of it), and another 1,000 yards to the second objective (support system). The 18th Infantry Brigade (Brig.-Gen. G. S. G. Craufurd) was ordered to advance through the 71st Infantry Brigade and secure the third objective about a mile farther on (Prerny Chapel Ridge), throwing back a defensive flank towards Flesquieres for the further operations of the 51st Division on its left and securing the flank of the 29th Division on its right. The latter division passing through the right of the 6th Division and the left of the 20th Division, was charged with securing the crossings of the St. Quentin Canal at Marcoing and Masnieres and seizing the high ground at Rumilly, thus facilitating exploitation to the south-east, preventing a concentration against the widely stretched defensive flanks of the III Corps and threatening Cambrai.’
From the Short History of the 6th Division
The 5th Cavalry Division advanced through them but were repulsed in front of Noyelles.
The 51st (Highland) Division had a very hard fight for Flesquieres, but its failure to capture it and keep up with the pace of the advance on either side left a dangerous salient which exposed the flanks of the neighbouring Divisions.
The 9th Battalion left Longuereuil on 15th November and reached Peronne 12 hours later. They then moved to Manancourt and then to Dessart Wood. On the 17th they took over the line to the south of Ribecourt although 30 men of the Rifle Brigade remained in the forward trenches to mask the fact that they had been relieved by a fresh battalion.
‘Two battalions of tanks, each of thirty-six tanks, were allotted to the Division. ” B ” Battalion (Lt.-Col. E. D. Bryce, D.S.O.) operated with the 16th Infantry Brigade, and “H” Battalion (Lt.-Col. Hon. C. Willoughby) with the 71st Infantry Brigade. The 18th Infantry Brigade advanced without tanks. The only points which caused anxiety, provided that the tanks functioned satisfactorily, were Couillet Wood on the right of the 16th Infantry Brigade front, in which tanks could not operate, and Ribecourt Village on the left of the 71st Infantry Brigade front. The former was successfully cleared by the Buffs, and the latter gallantly captured by the 9th Norfolk Regiment; the 11th Essex clearing and securing it for the advance of the 18th Infantry Brigade, while the 71st Infantry Brigade attacked the second objective.’
From the Short History of the 6th Division
The 71st Brigade was ordered to capture Ribécourt village and the 9th Norfolks would move off after the first wave of tanks and would leap-frog over the 1st Battalion Leicestershire Regiment. The battalion advanced with ‘D’ Company on the right, ‘B’ Company in the centre and ‘D’ Company on the left, ‘C’ Company would follow in support. The advance was quick with infantry moving quicker than the slow lumbering tanks and the C.O. at that time, Lieutenant-Colonel Bernard Henry Leather Prior, recorded the action of the battalion in an account.
‘…the leading tanks, followed by the Leicesters, crossing our trenches and starting across No Man’s Land – a wonderful spectacle in the half light of the early morning. Ponderous, grunting, groaning, wobbling, these engines of war crawled and lurched their way toward the enemy lines, followed by groups of men in file. Overhead our shells were pouring over. The barrage lifted from the enemy’s outpost trench, where we knew that Unseen Trench was getting it hot; but the slowness of those tanks! It is at these moments that one itches for quickness and rapidity, and the slow, deliberate action of these monsters was exasperating. Neither tanks nor Leicesters were clear of our lines when we reached ‘A’ Company.’
The C.O. followed his Battalion and very quickly found himself with ‘C’ Company who had outstripped both the tanks and the other three companies of the 9th Norfolks.
‘Ribécourt was immediately in front of us. I could see parties of the enemy running through the streets. Our artillery was putting down a smoke barrage on the farther side of the village, and several houses were on fire and blazing merrily. I had to decide whether to hang on in our present position and wait for the arrival of the tanks and the three other companies, or push ‘C’ Company in. The enemy already showed signs of recovering from the initial surprise. We were now being shelled pretty persistently and accurately, as well as machine-gunned. I determined to take immediate action, and directed Failes to push forward at once, take the part of the village lying on this side of the ravine, and hold the bridge crossing it. ‘C’ Company swept on and effected this in brilliant fashion, securing a large bag of prisoners.’
The account sounds as though the advance was easy. However, in parts, it was not and A and B Companies met with strong opposition and became involved in hand to hand fighting. They came up against two machine guns which had to be knocked out at close quarters by a party led by Lieutenant John Hancock and C.S.M. Bertie Neale. Another machine gun was silenced by Lewis Gunners and it’s estimated that the Germans lost eighty killed or wounded and another six hundred wounded.
By 9.00 a.m. the battalion had captured Ribécourt and were passed by the 11th Battalion Essex Regiment who went on to capture Kaiser Trench. The Norfolks then spent the rest of the day consolidating their gains.
‘The Division had a most successful day, with very light casualties (about 650), capturing 28 officers and 1,227 other ranks prisoners, 23 guns, and between 40 and 50 machine-guns and many trench-mortars, and receiving the congratulations of the Corps Commander.’
From the Short History of the 6th Division
Lt Col Prior noted in his account that,
‘It would be impossible to set out all the extraordinary incidents of that glorious day’ how Hancock and his sergeant major rushed an enemy machine gun position and settled a bet as to who would kill most Boches. This was won by Hancock, but Sergeant-Major Neale always contends that he was unduly handicapped by having to use his bayonet, whilst Hancock had a revolver. How a runner of ‘D’ Company, without assistance, took over seventy prisoners, including a staff officer. How Worn, wounded in the first hundred yards of the advance, carried on with his platoon until he reached his final objective, the railway station, and consolidated his position. How Thompson of ‘B’ Company, who in the darkness of the night prior to the attack had fallen down and very badly sprained his ankle, deliberately refused to go sick, and, with the aid of his servant, limped over in front of his platoon, and carried on until the objective was reached. How one man of ‘A’ Company having very daringly and very foolishly penetrated an enemy dugout, leaving his rifle outside, knocked down the Bosche who thrust his pistol at his head, seized the pistol and harried his opponent by the vigorous application of the butt end.’
The advance pushed four miles deep into a strong system of defence in little over four hours at a cost of just over 4000 casualties but 3rd Army failed to capture all of its objectives, with the cavalry being unable to push through a gap at Marcoing-Masnieres and on to encircle Cambrai itself and Bourlon Ridge did not fall that day. The Tank Corps lost 179 tanks destroyed, disabled or broken down. Cambrai would not remain a stunning victory for long.
Lt Col Prior finished his account by noting,
‘Some of these things are written down in the records of gallantry which have earned awards; many more and equally gallant actions never will be recorded, and some are recorded only in memory of those, and, alas! their number has sadly reduced who took part in that glorious first day of the fist battle of Cambrai.’
The 9th Norfolks lost 7 officers and 87 other ranks killed or wounded at Cambrai.
The two men I have mentioned as having assaulted the machine posts and the ones Lt Col Prior mentions having the bet were Lieutenant John Eliot Hancock and C.S.M. 7178 Bertie Mark Neale. Both won awards for this action Lt Hancock won a D.S.O. and C.S.M. Neale won a D.C.M. Both were listed in the London Gazette in 1918.
London Gazette 4th February 1918
HANCOCK, JOHN ELIOT, Temporary Lieut., Norfolk Regt.
‘For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. Owing to his company commander being seriously wounded, he took command of the left company in an attack. ‘When they came under heavy machine-gun fire he organised a frontal attack while he, with two N.C.O.’s, rushed across the open from a flank, killed or wounded all the gun team and put the guns out of action. He himself killed six men. In the subsequent fighting he showed great initiative in clearing the houses in a village and directing the advance.’
London Gazette 4th March 1918
7178 C.S.M. B. M. Neale, Norf. R. (Swanton Novers).
‘For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in volunteering with an officer and N.C.O. to put out of action some machine-guns that were holding up the advance of his company. Under heavy fire from the two guns he succeeded in doing this, and in the hand-to-hand fighting that ensued killed four of the enemy.’