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   Chapter 11 THE BATTLE OF CAMBRAI — BOURLON WOOD.

A Company of Tanks By W. H. L. Watson Characters: 16178

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


(November 21st to 23rd, 1917.)

In the morning we were able to look soberly at the situation. We had entered Flesquieres at dawn: the gallant, stubborn major who had defended the village so skilfully with his guns was killed in the final assault. On the left we had swept forward to the outskirts of Bourlon Wood, and tanks of "G" Battalion, including one detached tank of "D" Battalion, had actually reached Bourlon village, but we had not been able to enter the wood, for the few infantry who had reached it were utterly exhausted and the cavalry never appeared to carry on the attack. "G" Battalion had covered themselves with glory.

On the right we were everywhere through the Hindenburg System, although in places there had been bitter fighting. At Marcoing, Hamond had made a gallant but unsuccessful attempt to force a crossing by driving a tank into the Canal when the enemy had blown up the bridge,17 intending to drive a second tank over the first, but the Canal was too deep. Of the cavalry which arrived later in the day a few of the Fort Garry Horse alone had been able to cross by the foot-bridges. We had not reached Cambrai?-?we had not even occupied Bourlon Wood?-?but it was reported that there were few troops in front of us and that these were retiring northwards. It was decided, in consequence, to exploit the initial success.

We did not know it at the time, but it was too late. If only the cavalry had pushed forward into Bourlon Wood on the first day, when, according to all reports, it was held only by a bunch of machine-gunners! But it is not for a company commander to criticise, and I do not presume to do so. I am expressing merely a pious aspiration.

We ourselves had lost Ward, Marris, and a third of our men and tanks. It was almost impossible to believe that we should never see again "Roc" Ward, the great athlete, the very embodiment of energy, the skilled leader of men, the best of good fellows?-?and never hear again his enormous voice rolling out full-blooded instructions. As for Marris, we hoped that he might have been captured, but we feared that he was dead.18 In my company we had lost S., a stout tank commander,19 and several of my best drivers.

We were able, however, to form two strong companies, of which I commanded one and Cooper the other, and we set to work in the afternoon of the 21st to put our tanks again in order.

On the morning of the 22nd we received orders to collect every available tank and move to Graincourt-lez-Havrincourt, a large village two miles north of Flesquieres, with a view to attacking Bourlon Wood early on the 23rd.

We first concentrated our tanks in the Grand Ravine, and endeavoured to load up with sufficient stores for the coming battle; but supplies were hard to get, and finally we were told that a large dump would be established at the chapel on the Flesquieres road, half a mile out of Havrincourt. Foolishly credulous, I moved my tanks to the appointed place and waited for the dump to appear.

We had, however, entered the state of open warfare, and we soon began to realise its disadvantages. My messengers scoured the countryside without success, and at last, when it grew dusk, I despaired and sent on my tanks to Graincourt, intending to arrange that my share of the dump, wherever it might be, should follow them.

I was unable to accompany my tanks, for I had been bidden to attend a Brigade Conference at this most desolate shrine. I had an hour to spare, and I spent it pleasantly enough in a neighbouring comfortable dug-out, where a machine-gunner entertained me to a magnificent meal of coffee, hot salmon cakes, and plentiful bread and butter.

When I returned to the shrine, I found the battalion and company commanders of the brigade waiting for the brigade staff. It was chilly with a fluster of rain, my throat was sore, and I longed to return to the warm dug-out, but I did not dare. We waited for an hour and a half until our tempers were frayed and we had finished our stock of good stories. At last an officer from the brigade happened to pass by, and, taking pity on us, he informed us casually that the conference was now in full session at Havrincourt Chateau. He was sorry we had not been told of the change of place. We were all so tired and cold and hungry that for a moment nobody spoke. Finally, the Colonel expressed our feelings, and we tramped into Havrincourt.

It was rather a one-sided conference. Generals and people of real importance dashed in and out of rooms. I learned by cross-examination that the dump was somewhere on the road between Havrincourt and Graincourt?-?he was sorry we had not been told, but of course it was for company commanders to find those things out for themselves?-?and the Colonel discovered that we should attack in the morning with the Fortieth Division.

After this interesting discussion we went out into the night and trudged painfully through Flesquieres, where the battered houses looked a little self-conscious in the dim moonlight, to Graincourt itself. The battalion advance party had discovered excellent cellars, safe though damp. I left the Colonel and went in search of my tanks, hoping against hope that by some miracle they had run across the dump which was believed by the brigade staff to be somewhere east of Havrincourt.

I found my tanks where they should be, but, to my utter dismay, the only officers with them had not come with the column, and did not know whether the tanks had been "filled" or not. X., an officer from another company, who was acting temporarily as my second-in-command, was in a dug-out near by, they told me, but nobody knew where the dug-out was. I began an endless and intolerable search. Every bank, road, field, or trench in the neighbourhood of Graincourt had its dug-outs. There were hundreds of dug-outs within quarter of a mile of my tanks. I might have been a dog looking for its master in London; and it was of the most urgent necessity that I should know for certain what my tanks had on board. I could not even find out for myself?-?the tanks, quite properly, were locked. I rushed from dug-out to dug-out, rousing an infinite multitude of sleepy officers and men. I quartered the ground scientifically. I followed every possible clue. How could I possibly go back to the Colonel and tell him that I did not know whether my tanks could fight on the morrow or not? The situation would have been ridiculous, if it had not been so serious. I nearly wept with rage.

I had searched for three hours or more and the dawn was near, when, returning in utter despair to battalion headquarters, I was greeted by a familiar voice. It was X.! Thinking that I would surely arrive by the Havrincourt Road, he had taken possession of a dug-out on the side of that road, half a mile or more out of the village. My tanks had been lucky. On their way from the shrine they had by chance run right into the middle of the errant dump. Little damage had been done, and though the dump was not as large as it might have been, they had been able to take on board stores sufficient for one day's fighting.

It was no time for speeches. I reported our success to the Colonel, who informed me that "zero" would be at 10.30 A.M. My composite company was detailed to co-operate with the infantry, who were attacking up the hill immediately to the west of the wood itself. Cooper's company was to be on my left. "E" Battalion was to advance along the ridge from the west with the Ulster Division, and "G" Battalion was to clear the wood. On the right, that is to the east of the wood, companies of the 2nd Tank Brigade were to assist the infantry to capture Fontaine-Notre-Dame, and to complete an encircling movement round the north-eastern outskirts of the wood. We should all meet, it was hoped, in Bourlon village. A rough diagram may make the plan clear.

Neither my tank commanders nor I had even seen Bourlon Wood, and we knew our front line only by the map. Further, we had not met the infantry with whom we were to co-operate. These, however, were trifling d

ifficulties. Experts who had seen the wood told me it was plain enough to the eye. I hoped for the best, wrote a few orders, and snatched an hour's sleep....

Our tanks were parked in the western outskirts of Graincourt. An hour after dawn they drew clear of the village, and it may be presumed that the enemy observed them, but he displayed no interest. At dawn he had shelled a little. When dawn had passed and we had made no attack, the shelling ceased. It did not occur to him that we might attack in the middle of the morning, and he settled down to a quiet day.

At 9 A.M. my tanks were just about to move off, when I received a disturbing message from the Colonel. "G" would not be able to arrive in time?-?their supplies had gone astray?-?one of my two sections was to tackle the wood itself. The situation was a trifle humorous, but I solemnly gave the necessary orders, instructing four of my tanks to assist the 40th Division in the capture of Bourlon Wood.

My tanks started for the battle, and after a little breakfast I walked to the high ground south-west of the village, and watched through my glasses the opening moves of the attack.

Across the foreground of the picture ran the great highroad from Bapaume to Cambrai. It was wide, perfectly straight, and fringed with orderly trees. Beyond it and to my left was a low hill, which the enemy still held. Our line ran diagonally up the slope of it, and away to the west we were on the ridge. Immediately in front of me on the hillside was the great dark mass of Bourlon Wood, square and impenetrable, covering the highest point of the hill and stretching over the skyline to the farther slope, which we could not see. The wood dominated the whole countryside, and beyond it there was nothing but low open country, extending to the marshes of the Scarpe. We could not live north of Havrincourt while the enemy held the wood, and if we captured the wood there was nothing to prevent us from sweeping northwards to the Scarpe or westwards into Cambrai. At the moment our line ran along the southern outskirts of the wood and to the south of Fontaine, which the enemy held in force.

At 10.30 A.M. the barrage fell and we could see it climb, like a living thing, through the wood and up the hillside, a rough line of smoke and flame. On the hillside to the left of the wood we could mark the course of the battle,?-?the tanks with tiny flashes darting from their flanks?-?clumps of infantry following in little rushes?-?an officer running in front of his men, until suddenly he crumpled up and fell, as though some unseen hammer had struck him on the head?-?the men wavering in the face of machine-gun fire and then spreading out to surround the gun?-?the wounded staggering painfully down the hill, and the stretcher-bearers moving backwards and forwards in the wake of the attack?-?the aeroplanes skimming low along the hillside, and side-slipping to rake the enemy trenches with their guns.

We watched one tank hesitate before it crossed the skyline and our hearts went out to the driver in sympathy. He made his decision, and the tank, brown against the sky, was instantly encircled by little puffs of white smoke, shells from the guns on the reverse slope. The man was brave, for he followed the course of a trench along the crest of the hill. My companion uttered a low exclamation of horror. Flames were coming from the rear of the tank, but its guns continued to fire and the tank continued to move. Suddenly the driver must have realised what was happening. The tank swung towards home. It was too late. Flames burst from the roof and the tank stopped, but the sponson doors never opened and the crew never came out.... When I left my post half an hour later the tank was still burning....

At noon I determined to push forward into the wood and discover what had happened to my tanks. We skirted the village, walked along a sunken road lined by dug-outs, and started to cross the low ground between us and the road. I at once began to wonder whether it was not perhaps a little early yet to go forward. The path to the highroad was the object of direct or indirect machine-gun fire, and an officer, who was sitting in a trench, told me cheerfully that Cooper and Smith, his second-in-command, had already been hit by chance bullets. We pushed on, however, to the inn on the highroad, and as the road was being shelled, we took to the ditch until a shell, bursting in the ditch itself, persuaded us to use the road. We did not get very far, and soon we returned to the top of the bank at the side of the sunken road. By this time "G" Battalion were beginning to arrive and their tanks were moving across to Anneux Chapel.

After lunch I went forward again and reached a clearing on the south side of the wood, where the tanks had been ordered to rally. The enemy must have realised our intention, for the clearing was being shelled most systematically. The only tank in the clearing belonged to another battalion. The crew, realising their danger and a little lost, evacuated their tank and joined me in a small quarry where I had temporarily taken cover.

I left the quarry during a lull and walked up a sunken road into the wood, but I soon realised, first, that I should never find my tanks by tramping after them, and second, that I should be infinitely happier in my quarry. So I returned and spent the next hour in watching the rallying-place and in moving at intervals from one side of the quarry to the other. The news was moderately good. The 40th Division, assisted by my few tanks, had driven the astonished Germans to the further fringes of the wood, and were now mopping up a few pockets of the enemy who were still holding out in the vain hope that they would be rescued by counter-attacks. But on the right?-?so I was told by two immaculate young cavalry subalterns who were reconnoitring forward?-?Fontaine was defying our sternest efforts.

About three I saw a couple of tanks cross the road at the inn, three-quarters of a mile away. So, as one shell had already burst on the lip of the quarry, I hastened to the cross-roads at Anneux Chapel on my way back to Graincourt. At the cross-roads I met an infantry battalion coming up to complete the clearance of the north-west corner of the wood. The Colonel asked me whether my tanks would assist him. I told him that they were already in action. It was indeed a pity that "G" Battalion, which did not arrive until after the main portion of the wood was in our hands, had not been held in reserve for such an emergency.20

I reached battalion headquarters about 4 P.M. Both Bourlon village and Fontaine-Notre-Dame were holding out. It was reported, too, that "E" Battalion had suffered very heavily.

I walked along to my dug-out, where I discovered that the majority of my tanks had already returned in safety. They had realised the danger of rallying at the clearing and had come back direct to their starting-point, followed all the way by the German gunners.

Two of the tanks, commanded by Lloyd and Hemming, had successfully crossed the ridge and entered Bourlon village, but the infantry were prevented by the intense machine-gun fire from occupying the place. Two more of my tanks had experienced such concentrated machine-gun fire themselves that every man in them was wounded by flying splinters, including Wyatt, who had commanded his section from a tank.

All the tanks had done their work well, having assisted the infantry to the limit of their advance. All of them reported that they had been given excellent targets, while our own casualties were astonishingly light. For us it was a most satisfactory day, spoilt only by the fact that Wyatt and Cooper had been wounded.

My last tank had just come in when the enemy, furious at the loss of the wood, began to shell Graincourt with "heavy stuff." The Colonel, realising what must happen, had already departed for the calm of Havrincourt Wood, while we were out of the danger area. To the accompaniment of distant crashes we sat down to our evening meal....

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