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The Battle for Cambrai in November of 1917, the third British offensive for 1917, was small in comparison to many of the other offensives which had occurred in the previous three years of war and waste. Fifteen days previously on November the 5th, the allies learnt of Russia being immobilised by revolution which would allow Germany to move men and equipment from the eastern front to the west. In Italy, Austria had forced the Second Italian Army into a series of defeats and sixty miles of ground had been lost. The Third Battle for Ypres came to an end on November 10th when Canadians took 500 yards of territory outside of Passchaendale to give a final total for the Offensive of gained ground as 4 and 1/2 miles for the loss of 64,000 allied dead, 83,000 German dead, 164,000 allied wounded and 250,000 German wounded.
With Russia deep in revolution, Italy being pressed and the British after another Ypres Offensive which achieved nothing, decided to maintain the pressure on Germany by another Offensive in late 1917. The British Third Army in the Cambrai Sector had been previously led by General Allenby, but with his posting to the Middle East, the commander became Sir Julian Byng. Byngs orders for Cambrai were to start an offensive which was to draw German strength from the Ypres sector. Brigiadier General Sir Hugh Elles was looking for terrain suitable to deploy the new tanks en-masse. The areas chalky plains southwest of Cambrai were chosen.
Together the British pair had at their disposal, 19 Divisions, 1200 Artillery guns, 324 Tanks and 300 aircraft which they pitted against the Hindenburg Line. At the point of attack the Hindenburg line was 4,000 yards deep, 13,000 yards wide and fortified by two German divisions with 150 guns. Unfortunately Byng had made little in the way of preparation for exploitation of any gaps his tanks and infantry made in the German fortifications and Elles who wished to widen the front with his armour was over-ruled tactically.
The attack unlike every other offensive to this point in the war wasn't preceded by an artillery barrage but with a smoke screen to cover the movement of the tanks, catching the Germans by surprise. The Germans had widened their trenches to stop tanks, but the tanks carried a device on their noses which enabled them to cross the wider trenches. The attack was initially a stunning success, the two German divisions collapsed and the attacking armies took 8000 prisoners. More ground was taken in Cambrai in six hours than had been taken in four months at Ypres.
The Canadian Fort Garry Horse, known as the Garrys, came the closest to Cambrai of any allied troops, charging an artillery battery with their Sabre's before getting pinned by German machine gun fire. They stampeded their horses and fought their way back to allied lines. Lieutenant Harcus Strachan was awarded the Victoria Cross for the charge and his actions afterwards. His deed reading;
"On 20 November 1917 at Masnieres, France, Lieutenant Strachan took command of a squadron of his regiment when the squadron leader, approaching the German front line at a gallop, was killed.Lieutenant Strachan led the squadron through the enemy line of machine-gun posts and then, with the surviving men, led the charge on the German battery, killing seven of the gunners with his sword. When all the gunners were killed and the battery silenced, he rallied his men and fought his way back at night through the enemy's lines, bringing all unwounded men safely in, together with 15 prisoners." (1)
The tanks which had proved so important in breaking the trenches defenses fell prey to mechanical failure and well deployed artillery. Half of the tanks were out of action with only 64 of them being the cause of enemy action. In one area at Flesquires, the German artillery knocked out thirty-nine tanks with seven of them being halted by a single German artilleryman, Unteroffizier Kruger. Kruger was to become the only German soldier in WWI to be mentioned in British military dispatches. The Germans also were coming up with new techniques to foil the Tank. One German officer wrote, "We get to know their weak spots. A ferocious passion for hunting them down is growing ..... We tie several explosives together and throw them under the tanks."
German reinforcements were rushed to cover the thinning of the German lines, by the second day a fresh German Division, newly arrived form the Russian Front was sent to the St Quentin Canal stiffening an area which was on the point of falling. This stopped the Allied Cavalry from being deployed and hence the planned British cavalry breakthrough was never to eventuate. On November 23rd a torrid battle developed in Bourlon Wood and the Allied offensive was checked to a standstill.
Three Irish Battalions were involved in the battle for the township of Moevres, with one of their companies pinned by machine gun fire from a strongpoint south west of Bourlon Wood. They watched a pilot in the odd back staggered DH5 dive on the strong point and after much exchanging of gunfire between the German machine guns and the DH5's machine gun, the DH5 plunged into the ground, crashing. The act by the pilot was not forgotten by the Irish, two weeks later a note appeared in The Times,
"To an unknown airmen, shot down on November 23rd, 1917, whilst attacking a German strongpoint south west of Bourlon Wood, in an effort to help out a company of Royal Irish Fusiliers when other help had failed." The pilot was Alexander Griggs of 2 Squadron Australian Flying Corps, born in Meridian, Mississippi, U.S.A. One of the several Americans serving in the Australian Imperial Forces and Australian Flying Corps.
By the end of November snow had fallen, and tank movements was replaced with the familiar machine gunning of exposed positions and hand to hand trench style of fighting. Despite the desperate attempts by the allies to take Fontaine, many of the tanks were knocked out, and many more men dead in the streets. Of the 1500 Guardsmen fighting in Fontaine, only 500 made it back out. With the British holding the higher ground north of Cambrai and insufficient reserves or tanks to maintain the offensive, Haig called off any further attacks from November 27th. The tactical advantage of the higher ground was not to last, Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria issued the order to the German Second Army, "Attack on November 30th".