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   Chapter 10 THE BATTLE OF CAMBRAI — FLESQUIERES.

A Company of Tanks By W. H. L. Watson Characters: 28219

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


(November 4th to 20th, 1917.)

From La Lovie in the Salient I went on leave. I was recalled by wire on the 4th November to discover that, during my absence, the battalion had moved south to our old training-ground at Wailly. The apathy and bitter disappointment, caused by our misfortunes on the Poelcapelle Road, had disappeared completely, and the company, scenting a big mysterious battle, was as eager and energetic as if it had just disembarked in France.

For once the secret was well kept. The air was full of rumours, but my officers knew nothing. It was not until I saw the Colonel that I learnt of the proposed raid on Cambrai, and discovered to my great joy that we were to attack in company with the Fifty-first Division.

This Division of Highland Territorials had won for itself in the course of a year the most astounding reputation. Before Beaumont Hamel in November '16 it had been known as "Harper's Duds." Since that action it had carried out attack after attack with miraculous success, until at this time it was renowned throughout the British Armies in France as a grim and terrible Division, which never failed. The Germans feared it as they feared no other.

We trained with this splendid Division for ten days, working out the plans of our attack so closely that each platoon of Highlanders knew personally the crew of the tank which would lead it across No Man's Land. Tank officers and infantry officers attended each other's lectures and dined with each other. Our camp rang at night with strange Highland cries. As far as was humanly possible within the limits of time, we discussed and solved each other's difficulties, until it appeared that at least on one occasion a tank and infantry attack would in reality be "a combined operation."

The maps and plans which we used in these pleasant rehearsals were without names, but although this mystery added a fillip of romance to our strenuous preparations, we were met by a curious difficulty?-?we did not dare to describe too vividly the scene of the coming battle for fear the area should be recognised. There was a necessary vagueness in our exhortations....

One fine day Cooper, Jumbo, and I motored over to this nameless country. We passed through the ruins of Bapaume and came to the pleasant village of Metz-en-Couture on the edge of the great Havrincourt Wood. Leaving our car, we walked over the clean grassy hills to the brand-new trench system, then lightly held by the Ulster Division.

It was a country of bare downs, occasional woods, sunken roads, plentiful villages, surprising chalk ravines, and odd disconnected mounds, and the key to it was Bourlon Wood.

You will remember that on the east of the Bullecourt front was the Quéant Salient. Beyond it the German defences then ran suddenly to the south in order to obtain the protection of the enormous, unfinished Canal du Nord. By Havrincourt village, which was set conspicuously on the side of a hill, the Canal met Havrincourt Wood, and the enemy line turned again to the east, skirting the fringes of the wood and continuing cleverly at the foot of a range of low chalk hills. A rough diagram may make this clear, and will enable you to connect this battle with the lesser battles of Bullecourt.

The front which concerned my brigade extended from Havrincourt to east of Flesquieres. Havrincourt itself was defended on the west by the Canal, and on the south by a ravine and the outlying portions of the great wood. In front of the German trenches the trees had been cut down, so that the approach was difficult and open. East of Havrincourt the German trenches were completely hidden from view by the lie of the ground. This method of siting trenches was much favoured by the Germans at the time. Clearly it prevented direct observation of fire. Further, it compelled tanks to start on their journey across No Man's Land, unable to see the trenches which they were about to attack.

The trenches on the slope immediately behind the enemy first line were in full view, and the roads, buildings, patches of chalk, distinctively-shaped copses, would provide useful landmarks, if they were not hidden by the smoke of battle.

Apart from its natural defences the Hindenburg System was enormously strong. In front of it there were acres of low wire. The trenches were wide enough to be serious obstacles to tanks. Machine-gun posts, huge dug-outs, long galleries, deep communication trenches, gun-pits?-?the whole formed one gigantic fortification more than five miles in depth.

Yet we came back from our reconnaissance in the firm belief that tanks could break through this fortification without any difficulty at all. The ground was hard chalk, and no amount of rain could make it unfit for our use. Natural and artificial obstacles could be surmounted easily enough or avoided. Given sufficient tanks and the advantage of surprise, there was no earthly reason why we should not go straight through to Cambrai. What could stop us? The wire? It did not affect us in the slightest. The trenches? They were a little wide, but we knew how to cross them. Guns? There were not many, and few would survive the duel with our own artillery. Machine-guns or armour-piercing bullets? The Mk. IV. tank was practically invulnerable. If the infantry were able to follow the tanks, the tanks would see them through the trench systems. In open country it would be for common-sense and the cavalry, until the enemy filled the gap with his reserves.

We were only troubled by the thought of Bourlon Wood, which, from its hill, dominated the whole countryside between Havrincourt and Cambrai. But Bourlon Wood was only a matter of 7000 yards behind the German lines. If we were to break through at all, we should take the wood in our stride on the first day.

Jumbo expressed our feelings admirably?-?

"Unless the Boche catches on before the show, it's a gift!"

We returned to Wailly bubbling over with enthusiasm. The last rehearsals were completed, and our future comrades, the 6th Black Watch and the 8th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, appeared implicitly to trust us. We tuned our engines and practised with the wily "fascine."

Fascine is the military term for "faggot." Each of our fascines was a huge bundle of brushwood, weighing over one ton. By an ingenious mechanism it could be hoisted on to the roof of the tank. When a dangerously wide trench was reached, the driver pulled a rope, the fascine gently rolled off the tank into the trench, and the tank crossed at its ease. It was a simple device that produced an astonishing amount of bad language. Entraining was hideously complicated. Dropping the fascine on to the truck in front of the tank requires care and precision, while obviously if a fascine refuses to be picked up again, tanks are prevented from coming off the train....

At dawn on the 13th we arose and trekked a matter of five miles to Beaumetz Station, where, after an excellent and hilarious lunch at the local estaminet, we entrained successfully for an unknown destination, although it took a little time to arrange the fascines on the trucks so that they would not fall off in the tunnels.

I watched the trains pull out from the ramps. The lorries had already started for our next halting-place. We were clear of Wailly. I motored down to the neighbourhood of Albert, and at dusk my car was feeling its way through a bank of fog along the road from Bray to the great railhead at Le Plateau, at the edge of the old Somme battlefield.

It was a vast confusing place, and even a major in the Tank Corps felt insignificant among the multitudinous rails, the slow dark trains, the sudden lights. Tanks, which had just detrained, came rumbling round the corners of odd huts. Lorries bumped through the mist with food and kit. Quiet railwaymen, mostly American, went steadily about their business.

I found a hut with a fire in it and an American, who gave me hot coffee and some wonderful sandwiches, made of sausage and lettuce, and there I sat, until, just after midnight, word came that our train was expected. We walked to the ramp, and at last after an interminable wait our train glided in out of the darkness. There was a slight miscalculation, and the train hit the ramp with a bump, carrying away the lower timbers, so that it could not bear the weight of tanks.

Wearily we tramped a mile or so to another ramp. This time the train behaved with more discretion. The tanks were driven off into a wood, where they were carefully camouflaged; the cooks set to work and produced steaming tea; officers and men made themselves comfortable. Then we set off in our car again. The mist still hung heavily over the Somme battlefield and we continually lost our way. It was dawn before a desperately tired company headquarters fell asleep in some large and chilly huts near Meaulte.

That day (the 14th) and the next the men worked at their tanks, adjusting the fascines and loading up with ammunition, water, and rations. On the 14th we made another careful survey of our trenches and, through our glasses, of the country behind the German line. On the night of the 15th I walked along the tank route from our next detraining station at Ytres to our final lying-up position in Havrincourt Wood, a matter of seven miles, until I personally knew every inch of the way beyond any shadow of doubt.

At dusk on the 16th I was waiting on the ramp at Ytres for my tanks to arrive, when I heard that there had been an accident to a tank train at a level-crossing a mile down the line. I hurried there. The train had collided with a lorry and pushed it a few hundred yards, when the last truck had been derailed and the tank on it had crushed the lorry against the slight embankment. Under the tank were two men. I was convinced that I had lost two of my men, until I discovered that the tanks belonged to Marris and the two unfortunate men had been on the lorry. The line was soon cleared. The derailed truck was uncoupled, and the tank, none the worse for its adventure, climbed up the embankment and joined its fellows at the ramp.

My tanks detrained at midnight without incident, and we were clear of the railhead in an hour. It was a strange fatiguing tramp in the utter blackness of the night to Havrincourt Wood?-?past a brickyard, which later we were to know too well, through the reverberating streets of Neuville Bourjonval, where three tanks temporarily lost touch with the column, and over the chill lonely downs to the outskirts of Metz, where no lights were allowed. We felt our way along a track past gun-pits and lorries and waggons until we came to the outskirts of the great wood. There we fell in with Marris's tanks, which had come by another route. At last we arrived at our allotted quarter of the wood, three thousand yards from the nearest German. The tanks pushed boldly among the trees, and for the next two hours there was an ordered pandemonium. Each tank had to move an inch at a time for fear it should bring down a valuable tree or run over its commander, who probably had fallen backwards into the undergrowth. One tank would meet another in the darkness, and in swinging to avoid the other, would probably collide with a third. But by dawn?-?I do not know how it was done?-?every tank was safely in the wood; the men had fallen asleep anywhere, and the cooks with sly weary jests were trying to make a fire which would not smoke. Three thousand yards is a trifle near....

For the next five days we had only one thought?-?would the Boche "catch on"? The Ulster Division was still in the line, and, even if the enemy raided and took prisoners, the Ulstermen knew almost nothing. By day the occasional German aeroplane could see little, for there was little to see. Tanks, infantry, and guns were hidden in the woods. New gun-pits were camouflaged. There was no movement on the roads or in the villages. Our guns fired a few customary rounds every day and night, and the enemy replied. There was nothing unusual.

But at night the roads were blocked with transport. Guns and more guns arrived, from field-guns to enormous howitzers, that had rumbled down all the way from the Salient. Streams of lorries were bringing up ammunition, petrol, rations; and whole brigades of infantry, marching across the open country, had disappeared by dawn into the woods. Would the Boche "catch on"?...

There was but little reconnaissance for my men to carry out, since the route to No Man's Land from the wood was short and simple. And to see the country behind the enemy trenches it was necessary only to walk a mile to the reserve trench beyond the crest of the hill, where an excellent view could be obtained from an observation post.

By this time we knew the plan of the battle. At "zero" on the given day we would attack on a front of approximately ten thousand yards, with the object of breaking through the Hindenburg System into the open country. It was essential to seize on the first day the bridges over the Canal de l'Escaut and Bourlon Wood. We gathered that, if we were successful, we should endeavour to capture Cambrai and to widen the gap by rolling up the German line to the west.

On the front of our battalion, immediately to the east of Havrincourt itself and opposite Flesquieres, Marris's company and mine were detailed to assist the infantry in capturing the first system of trenches. Ward's company was reserved for the second system and for Flesquieres itself. The surviving tanks of all three companies would collect in Flesquieres for a possible farther advance to the neighbourhood of Cantaing.

On the left was "G" Battalion, with Havrincourt village as its first main objective, and on our right was "E" Battalion, beyond which were the 2nd and 3rd Brigades of the Tank Corps. There was one tank to every thirty yards of front!

Until the 17th the enemy apparently suspected nothing at all; but on the night of the 17th–18th he raided and captured some prisoners, who fortunately knew little. He gathered from them that we were ourselves pr

eparing a substantial raid, and he brought into the line additional companies of machine-gunners and a few extra field-guns.

The 19th came with its almost unbearable suspense. We did not know what the Germans had discovered from their prisoners. We could not believe that the attack could be really a surprise. Perhaps the enemy, unknown to us, had concentrated sufficient guns to blow us to pieces. We looked up for the German aeroplanes, which surely would fly low over the wood and discover its contents. Incredibly, nothing happened. The morning passed and the afternoon?-?a day was never so long?-?and at last it was dusk.

At 8.45 P.M. my tanks began to move cautiously out of the wood and formed into column. At 9.30 P.M., with engines barely turning over, they glided imperceptibly and almost without noise towards the trenches. Standing in front of my own tanks, I could not hear them at two hundred yards.

By midnight we had reached our rendezvous behind the reserve trenches and below the crest of the slope. There we waited for an hour. The Colonel arrived, and took me with him to pay a final visit to the headquarters of the battalions with which we were operating. The trenches were packed with Highlanders, and it was with difficulty that we made our way through them.

Cooper led the tanks for the last half of the journey. They stopped at the support trenches, for they were early, and the men were given hot breakfast. The enemy began some shelling on the left, but no damage was done.

At 6.10 A.M. the tanks were in their allotted positions, clearly marked out by tapes which Jumbo had laid earlier in the night....

I was standing on the parados of a trench. The movement at my feet had ceased. The Highlanders were ready with fixed bayonets. Not a gun was firing, but there was a curious murmur in the air. To right of me and to left of me in the dim light were tanks?-?tanks lined up in front of the wire, tanks swinging into position, and one or two belated tanks climbing over the trenches.

I hurried back to the Colonel of the 6th Black Watch, and I was with him in his dug-out at 6.20 A.M. when the guns began. I climbed on to the parapet and looked.

In front of the wire tanks in a ragged line were surging forward inexorably over the short down grass. Above and around them hung the blue-grey smoke of their exhausts. Each tank was followed by a bunch of Highlanders, some running forward from cover to cover, but most of them tramping steadily behind their tanks. They disappeared into the valley. To the right the tanks were moving over the crest of the shoulder of the hill. To the left there were no tanks in sight. They were already in among the enemy.

Beyond the enemy trenches the slopes, from which the German gunners might have observed the advancing tanks, were already enveloped in thick white smoke. The smoke-shells burst with a sheet of vivid red flame, pouring out blinding, suffocating clouds. It was as if flaring bonfires were burning behind a bank of white fog. Over all, innumerable aeroplanes were flying steadily to and fro.

The enemy made little reply. A solitary field-gun was endeavouring pathetically to put down a barrage. A shell would burst every few minutes on the same bay of the same trench. There were no other enemy shells that we could see. A machine-gun or two were still trained on our trenches, and an occasional vicious burst would bring the venturesome spectator scrambling down into the trench.

Odd bunches of men were making their way across what had been No Man's Land. A few, ridiculously few, wounded were coming back. Germans in twos and threes, elderly men for the most part, were wandering confusedly towards us without escort, putting up their hands in tragic and amazed resignation, whenever they saw a Highlander.

The news was magnificent. Our confidence had been justified. Everywhere we had overrun the first system and were pressing on.

A column of tanks, equipped with a strange apparatus, passed across our front to clear a lane through the wire for the cavalry.

On our left another column of tanks had already disappeared into the valley on their way to Flesquieres. It was Ward's company, but Ward was not with them. A chance bullet had killed him instantly at the head of his tanks. When we heard of his death later, the joy of victory died away....

At 8 A.M. Cooper, Jumbo, a couple of runners, and myself started after our tanks. We questioned a group of Germans, who confessed that, while they had expected a raid in a day or two, they had known nothing of the tanks. We jumped down into the famous Hindenburg Line. At first we were unhappy: a machine-gun from the right was enfilading the trench and the enemy gunners were still active. We pushed along to the left, and after a slight delay came to a deep sunken road, which cut through the trench system at right angles.

We walked up the road, which in a few yards widened out. On either side were dug-outs, stores, and cook-houses. Cauldrons of coffee and soup were still on the fire. This regimental headquarters the enemy had defended desperately. The trench-boards were slippery with blood, and fifteen to twenty corpses, all Germans and all bayoneted, lay strewn about the road like drunken men.

A Highland sergeant who, with a handful of men, was now in charge of the place, came out to greet us, puffing at a long cigar. All his men were smoking cigars, and it was indeed difficult that morning to find a Highlander without a cigar. He invited us into a large chamber cut out of the rock, from which a wide staircase descended into an enormous dug-out. The chamber was panelled deliciously with coloured woods and decorated with choice prints. Our host produced a bottle of good claret, and we drank to the health of the Fifty-first Division.

A few German prisoners, with a large, stiff sergeant-major at the head of them, were halted outside while their escort snatched a hurried breakfast. The sergeant-major was trying earnestly to make himself understood. He seemed to have something important to say. His escort became impatient and irritated, but, before proceeding to more summary punishment, the corporal in charge brought him to me.

The sergeant-major explained to me rapidly that the place would undoubtedly be shelled. He knew that his artillery had already registered upon it. He realised that as a prisoner he must do as he was bid, but he besought me to instruct his escort to breakfast a little farther on. His words were confirmed immediately by a large shell which exploded in the bank above our heads.

I handed over the problem to a Highland officer who had come in for shelter, and we, who had already dallied longer than we had intended, left the corpses, the wine, and the panelled chamber....

In fifty yards or so the cutting came to an end, and we found ourselves in the open with a tank a hundred yards away. We walked to it and discovered my section-commander, Wyatt, with Morris, who had been hit in the shoulder. They told me that we were held up outside Flesquieres, which was being cleverly defended by field-guns. Several tanks had already been knocked out and others had nearly finished their petrol. And there was an unpleasant rumour that Marris was killed.

We took to a narrow half-completed communication trench and pushed on up the hill towards the village, meeting the survivors of two crews of another battalion, whose tanks had been knocked out in endeavouring to enter Flesquieres from the east along the crest of the ridge. The trench was being shelled. From the sound of the guns it appeared that they were only a few hundred yards away. We walked steadily up the trench until we came to the railway embankment, five or six hundred yards from the outskirts of the village, and we could go no farther, for on the other side of the embankment were the enemy and some of my tanks.

Leaving Cooper to keep in touch with the situation, I hurried back two miles to the nearest battalion headquarters with my runner. The infantry Colonel would not believe my report. He was assured that everything was going well, and, according to programme, we must be well beyond Flesquieres. So I sent a couple of messages to my own Colonel, whose headquarters were at those of the infantry brigade with which we were operating. I pointed out to the infantry Colonel that, if we had taken Flesquieres, it was difficult to account for the machine-gun fire which apparently was coming from the neighbourhood of the village, and half-convinced, he sent his Scout Officer with me to find out what was happening generally, and to endeavour in particular to approach Flesquieres from the west.

We set out at once, taking our direction by a little copse which lies on the hillside a mile or so to the west of Flesquieres itself.

We were tramping across the open down, happily exposed, when the Battalion Scout Officer was convinced by a long burst of machine-gun fire that at least the western end of the village was still held by the enemy. A spent bullet struck the heel of my boot. We hurried on with more haste than dignity, and looking towards the village, I thought I could catch the flash of the gun in the window of a large white house. A particularly unpleasant burst and the Scout Officer was crawling on his hands and knees towards a convenient trench. At that moment I knew no one wiser than the Scout Officer, and I followed his example. For the next five minutes the man in the window of the large white house must have enjoyed himself thoroughly. The air sang with bullets. With tremendous care we continued to crawl, until after a lifetime of suspense we came to within fifty yards of the trench. I jumped up and dashed forward, the Scout Officer and our two runners following me, and in a moment we were lighting our pipes and feeling acutely that somebody had made a fool of us both. We parted stiffly. The Scout Officer trotted down the hill to solve the doubts of his battalion commander. I pushed on again towards Flesquieres, keeping to the trench until the curve of the hill interfered with the view of the machine-gunner in the large white house.

Since there was little hope that I should be allowed to approach too closely to the village, I walked to the battalion rallying-place under shelter of the railway embankment, a mile or so to the west of the section where I had been held up a few hours previously. I found a few tanks there and the survivors of some crews.

I gathered that all attacks on the village had been unsuccessful. A few field-guns, cleverly sited in ruins and behind hedges, had knocked out at least a dozen tanks. The infantry, bereft of tanks, had been unable to advance. It had been a stubborn and skilful defence.

Of my eleven tanks four had been knocked out. S., brooding over his misfortune on the Poelcapelle Road, had engaged in a duel with a field-gun; his tank had been hit fair and square by the surviving gunners, and it was thought that he and his crew were either casualties or prisoners. The majority of the remaining three crews had succeeded in getting away. F. and one of his sergeants had shown the utmost gallantry in collecting the wounded under fire and rallying the men.

The other companies of my own battalion, and that company of another battalion which had attacked Flesquieres from the east, had met a similar fate. The village was surrounded with derelict tanks, like a boar at bay with dead hounds. Marris himself, who had gone forward in one of his tanks, was missing, and it was said that he was killed.

Of my remaining seven tanks three had been ditched. Two of these unfortunates in their eagerness to kill had collided and slipped together inextricably into a trench. The remainder had rallied, and were ready, if necessary, to go forward again, but they were alarmingly short of petrol, and the tank with the supply-sledge had broken down. It was impossible, too, at this stage, to secure the necessary co-operation with the infantry, and an attack made by tanks alone would obviously fail.

We were about to start down the hill when I received a message to rally in the Grand Ravine, the title of the insignificant valley behind the front system of the German trenches. I had already sent some of my men to the regimental headquarters in the Sunken Road for food and shelter. I now ordered the remainder of my men to rally there after they had left their tanks under a skeleton guard in the Ravine itself.

An hour later we set out from the Sunken Road on our weary tramp back to the camp in Havrincourt Wood. It was late in the afternoon. We were inexpressibly tired, and of course it began to rain steadily. We plodded along, passing guns, limbers, infantry coming up to make good the victory. The five miles were like fifty, and a year at least went by before we staggered into camp, slipping feebly in the mud....

The adjutant was much distressed, for he had had no news of the Colonel, who apparently had left the infantry brigade headquarters early in the day. A pile of messages were waiting for him, including, to my chagrin, those which I had sent him in such haste when I had discovered that the Highlanders were held up at the railway embankment. It was after nine, and I was wondering whether or not to inform the brigade, when the Colonel came in with Cooper.

The Colonel, who had gone forward early in the battle, had found Cooper in the communication trench by the embankment, where I had left him with Jumbo to keep in touch with the situation. In the afternoon they had collected a few tanks and sent them into Flesquieres. The tanks had paraded through the outskirts of the village, and not a shot was fired at them; but later, when the infantry attacked again, the enemy came up from their hiding-places and let fly with machine-guns. At dusk Flesquieres was still inviolate.

We cared little about anything, except sleep. The Colonel told us that we should not be required on the next day. So after a meal and a pipe we turned in for the night.

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