Fourth Army No G.S. 221
Précis of Lessons learnt from the experiences of a Division in the Cambrai Operations.
30th November to 6th December 1917.
To be returned to Major W.C. Green.
The following extracts from the report of the 2nd Division on the Cambrai operations of the 30th November and subsequent days, during which the enemy made a determined attempt in great strength to break the British line between the villages of Moeuvres and Bourlon, are reproduced as an excellent example of how a successful defensive battle should be conducted:-
The Army Commander directs special attention to the following points which stand out as the chief factors in inflicting extremely heavy losses on the enemy and enabling the 2nd Division to hold their line secure against repeated assaults made by the enemy in very great strength –
- The effective use of the rifle, the Lewis and Machine Guns, and Stokes Mortars. – Great care had been taken during training periods to encourage musketry and train infantrymen and Lewis gunners in the art of using rapid fire. Picked shots used as snipers had the time of their lives, and killed a very large number of the enemy.
- Initiative and resource shown by Platoon Commanders and Section Leaders. – This was a very marked feature in the conduct of the defence and was the direct result of most careful instruction in the use of ground and knowledge of minor tactics inculcated during times of rest and training. Such forms of instruction, either on maps or on the ground, fully repay the time devoted to them.
- The marked superiority of the British soldier in fighting at close quarters.- This is largely due to the excellent spirit which existed throughout the 2nd Division, and to the careful instruction in the use of the bayonet, the bomb and the rifle combined. In fact, making full use of all weapons in conjunction.
No small credit is due to the Divisional Artillery for the promptness with which the barrage was imposed in answer to the “S.O.S.” signal and the continuous volume of accurate fire which was maintained without intermission during critical periods. Circumstances were difficult, but the artillery observation was good, and in several instances gunners were firing over the sights; but it was the whole-hearted co-operation of all arms in the one purpose of annihilating the attack which contributed more than anything else to the complete success of the defence.
The following extracts are taken from the official report of the 2nd Division:-
- THE RIFLE. The men had marked confidence in their rifles and hundreds of men actually killed Germans and, in future, it will not be difficult to encourage musketry. There are instances of one man cleaning and loading a rifle for a comrade who was picking off Germans. It was noticeable that when an attack had been beaten off men on their own initiative cleaned their rifles and collected S.A.A. and got ready for the next attack.
Great stress had been laid during the training on the constant practice of rapid fire. This was well repaid.
It would be beneficial to have opportunities of practice at longer ranges than are usually available. A 400 yards’ range is not often met with.
- Lewis Guns. Lewis guns were in action the whole time, and proved their destructive powers equally with those already credited to the rifle. The true role of Lewis gun – i.e. mobility with fire power – was utilised. Instances were many where Lewis guns on their own initiative moved from point to point of the line being attacked and picked up targets of immediate urgency. They claim hundreds of the enemy, and by pushing forward in places which were not being attacked were able to bring cross-fire to bear on massed enemy advancing on the flanks.
- Stokes’ Mortars. – Stokes’ mortars were invaluable in driving back bombing attacks and in ejecting forward parties of the enemy. Here again Battalion Commanders called upon Stokes’ mortars on their own initiative for assistance, and the trust placed in these weapons by the infantry was noticeable.
The difficulty of rapid movement and traversing of Stokes’ mortars was overcome by the firer steadying the gun between his legs without any platform.
This method had been previously practiced, and was attended with success, the extra mobility obtained and greater traversing power being marked.
- Maintaining Ground. – In most cases it is less costly for attacking troops to hold on to good positions gained than to evacuate them. A party of Germans who had established themselves in a sunken road in our line made no attempt to hold on, but retired and in doing so were caught by our fire and practically wiped out. Had they remained they would have been evicted only with cost to ourselves.
- Counter–Attack. – The value of immediate counter-attack by the unit on the spot was exemplified again and again. The enemy was prevented from bringing up machine-guns, and consolidating positions he had penetrated. These counter-attacks were undertaken invariably on the initiative of Platoon and Subordinate Commanders and were the result of recent training and the good discipline of all ranks.
- Brief Narrative of Events. On the night of the 26th November, the 2nd Division took over the front between Bourlon Wood (exclusive) and Moeuvres. During the next three days the Division was fully occupied in restoring order to a line which had been taken over hurriedly during operations and in replacing chaos by organisation.
The subsequent story is one so brimful of heroism that it deserves to take its place in English History for all time, and to be a proud day in the lives of all those splendid British soldiers who by their single-hearted devotion to duty saved what would have been undoubtedly a catastrophe had they given way.
On the morning of the 30th the Divisional front was held by the 99th Infantry Brigade on the right, with the 1st R. Berks (right), 17th R. Fus (centre), and 1st K.R.R.C. (left) and the 6th Infantry Brigade on the left, with 2nd S. Staffs (right), 13th Essex (centre), 17th Middlesex (left). About 9.0 a.m. the enemy attacked in great strength all along the Divisional front, the brunt of the first attack falling on the 1st R. Berks, 17th R. Fus, and 13th Essex Regiment.
- Attack on 99th Infantry Brigade.- On the extreme right, the Division on the right was pressed back, together with the right-hand posts of the R. Berks. The situation on this flank was for the moment critical. However, our rifle and Lewis gun fire, assisted powerfully by three machine-guns, inflicted enormous losses upon the enemy, held up their advance, and eventually drove them back after three hours’ hard fighting. At the same time the 17th R. Fus. were attacked in the act of withdrawing their advanced posts to the main line of resistance. The rearguard, assisted by machine-guns, held off the whole of the enemy’s attack until the main portion of the battalion was fully organised, and they died to a man with their face to the enemy. The O.C., 17th R. Fusiliers, writes:-
“Of the heroism of the rearguard it is difficult to speak. Captain Stone and Lieutenant Benzecry, although ordered to withdraw to the main line, elected to remain with the rearguard. The rearguard was soon fighting with bayonet, bullet and bomb to the last. There was no survivor. Captain Stone, by his invaluable information as to the movements of the enemy prior to the attack and his subsequent sacrifice with the rearguard, saved the situation at the cost of his life. Lieutenant Benzecry was seen to be wounded in the head. He continued to fight until he was killed.”
On the left the 1st K.R.R.C. were attacked at the same time, but owing to the intense volume of rifle, Lewis gun, and machine-gun fire that was produced, the enemy were literally mown down, and never got nearer than 200 – 300 yards from the front line. Those who crept forward were disposed of by snipers and Lewis guns.
About 11.30 a.m, the enemy again attacked all along the line, and although at one point they gained a temporary success, they were hurled back with great slaughter, giving favourable targets at 50 to 200 yards range.
At 2.30 p.m. large masses of the enemy again attacked the 1st R. Berks. Regt.
On the left their attack was driven off with heavy loss by machine-gun, Lewis gun, and rifle fire, but on the right the enemy forced back the Brigade on the right of the Division, and captured the three extreme right posts, the garrisons of which fell fighting to the last, and there was such a heap of German dead in and around these posts that after the line had been restored (2nd December) it was impossible to find the bodies of our men.
The other five posts on the right stood firm and repulsed all enemy attacks, until reinforcements restored the situation and drove the enemy back behind the Ridge.
Too much praise cannot be given to this splendid company of the 1st R. Berks Regt and its commander, Lieutenant Valentine, for their valour and steadfastness in this most critical time, extending over some six hours. They met attack after attack of the enemy, who were always in vastly superior numbers, and who came on right up to them time after time, only to be mown down and retire in disorder. The casualties in this company were 46 all ranks and a Lewis gun, but they never flinched. They claim to have killed over 500 of the enemy, and it is believed that this is no exaggeration.
Two more attacks were made against the 17th R. Fusiliers during the afternoon.
By the end of the day the line stood practically intact, with the exception of one or two points at which the enemy had occupied our position.
During the day the work done by the machine-guns was of inestimable value; in some places where their positions enfiladed the enemy’s attacking lines, the execution done was tremendous. Guns continued in action after they had been completely cut off, holding out until eventually the enemy were driven back.
- Narrative of the 6th Brigade (on the left). Similar events to those described above were happening on the 6th Brigade front, the enemy making constant attacks down both sides of the canal. On the right, repeated efforts were made by the enemy to gain ground, but these failed through the determined efforts of officers and men on the spot, the 13th Essex Regt and 2nd S. Staffs Regt. On the left of the Brigade, however, the enemy succeeded in penetrating the line at one point, thus isolating a Company of the 13th Essex Regt. who were in a small salient on the canal. During the remainder of the day and following night repeated efforts were made to regain touch with this company, but without success. It would appear that at 4 p.m. the isolated company of the 13th Essex Regt., realising the improbability of being extricated, held a Council of War at which the two surviving Company Officers (Lieutenant J.D. Robinson and 2nd-Lieutenant E.L. Corps), the Company Sergeant-Major (A.H. Edwards) and Platoon Sergeants (Phillips, Parsons, Fairbrass, Lodge, and Legg) were present, and it was unanimously determined to fight to the last, and have “no surrender”. Two runners who were sent at this time to notify the Battalion H.Q. of this succeeded in getting through, and this was the last known of this most gallant company.
A.A. MONTGOMERY, Major-General
General Staff, Fourth Army.
31st January 1918
Field Survey Coy., R.E. 8210 31-1-18
Reprinted by Gale & Polden Ltd, Aldershot, for the use of the Senior Officers’ School, Aldershot.