Cambrai, German counter attack, 30 November – 3 December 1917
From The Long, Long Trail
German counter attack, 30 November – 3 December 1917
Third Army (Byng)
III Corps (Pulteney)
1st Cavalry Division
2nd Cavalry Division
4th Cavalry Division
5th Cavalry Division
12th (Eastern) Division
20th (Light) Division
36th (Ulster) Division
61st (2nd South Midland) Division.
IV Corps (Woollcombe) (relieved by V Corps on 1 December)
47th (2nd London) Division
59th (2nd North Midland) Division.
V Corps (Fanshawe)
47th (2nd London) Division
51st (Highland) Division (entered into Corps command 3 December)
VI Corps (Haldane)
56th (1st London) Division (relieved by 51st (Highland) Division on 2/3 December).
VII Corps (Snow)
55th (West Lancashire) Division.
The German reaction to the initial British attack
On 17 December, Lieutenant General Thomas Snow wrote from VII Corps HQ to Third Army: “The abnormal movement and increased registration were duly recorded in the Corps Daily Intelligence Summary; these were believed at first to be connected with an expected divisional relief, though as time went on the suspicion grew that they might mean something more”.
VII Corps stood to the right of the tired III Corps. Facing the area Gouzeaucourt-Epehy, it had not been part of the main attacking force at Cambrai but had carried out subsidiary operations. The “something more” reported to Snow over the days since the British attack had been called off had since turned into disaster for both Corps. Recovering from the initial shock of the attack, Second Army had quickly arranged for reinforcements to move to Cambrai. By good fortune, 107 Division had arrived in the area to relieve a Landwehr Division on 9 November undetected by British intelligence – and was deployed piecemeal to help stem the attack next day. The situation for the Germans was serious for a while: two divisions virtually destroyed, gaps in the line, ammunition short, and infantry details being sent in to shore up the defences. The fighting at Bourlon was bitter and at times worrying, with reports of men retiring in disorder from Fontaine. But if the slowdown in the British attack in the afternoon of 20 November had given precious time to regroup, the concentration on Bourlon after 21 November provided the opportunity to thoroughly reinforce. An entirely new command, the XXIII Reserve Corps or Busigny Group, came into being on 23 November, bringing together the 5 Guard, 30, 34 and 220 Divisions, arriving from other parts of the front to face the British VII Corps. It is little wonder that Snow received reports of unusual activity. Other formations arrived to reinforce the Caudry and Moser Groups, opposing III and IV Corps. By 27 November, the balance had swung to such an extent that an opportunity for a vigorous counter attack presented itself.
Counter strike On the same day that Byng was closing down his offensive, Second Army received orders to hit back. The plan – devised and organised with exceptional pace for an action of this magnitude – was for a main force from the Busigny and Caudry Groups to strike from the south, recapture the Hindenburg positions at Havrincourt and Flesquieres and then roll up the British forces now stuck in Bourlon Wood, when forces of the Arras Group north and west of that area would also join the attack. Such was German confidence that reserves were assembled to exploit success, and a further operation north of Saint Quentin was authorised to add to the pressure. On 28 November, operations opened with a heavy gas bombardment of Bourlon.
Two days later, the counter attack began in earnest. On the right flank, south of the Gouzeaucourt-Bonavis road, the break into British positions was swift. The defending 55 (2/West Lancashire) Division and much of 12 (Eastern) and 20 (Light) Divisions seemed to evaporate, and Snow called for reinforcements as early as 9am. Many artillery batteries soon came within range of advancing German infantry. Both they and units hurriedly ordered to shore up the clearly splintering defence were shocked at what they saw. Not least of them was the Guards Division, still recuperating from a mauling in Fontaine Notre Dame and now heading into what would become a bitter fight to hold the enemy at Gouzeaucourt: “First we had to struggle through the flood of terrified men … nothing seemed to stem the torrent of frightened men with eyes of hunted deer, without rifles or equipment, among them half-dressed officers presumably surprised in their sleep, and gunners who had had the sense and calmness to remove the breech blocks from their guns and were carrying them in their hands. Many were shouting alarming rumours, others yelling “Which is the nearest way to the coast?”
[Norman D. Cliff, To hell and back with the Guards (Braunton, Devon: Merlin Books Limited, 1988) p.85]
The German plan was simply to cut of the neck of the salient by attacking on each side, with the strongest blow to come on the southern side. The blow fell at 7.30am on the 30th November, and was devastatingly fast and effective. By 9am, the Germans had penetrated almost 3 miles towards Havrincourt Wood. Byng’s Third Army faced disaster, with the real prospect of several divisions being cut off in the trap. The first attack fell on the 55th (West Lancashire) and 12th (Eastern) Division on the south-eastern side of the salient. The Germans climbed the slope to re-take Lateau Wood, pushed up the complex of shallow ravines south of Banteux, moved through Villers Guislain and past Gouzeaucourt. Amongst the troops defending the artillery positions at Gouzeaucourt were the 11th United States Engineer Company. The direction of the assault was across British divisional boundaries, and the command structure rapidly broke down as the troops became mixed up.
Three German divisions attacked to the north, supported by an intense Phosgene barrage, intending to cut the Bapaume-Cambrai road near Anneux Chapel. They were repulsed by the machine gun barrage of the 47th (London), 2nd and 56th (London) Divisions, who had relieved the 36th and 40th. No Germans reached the road. Fierce fighting continued in the southern area for Gonnelieu, Les Rues Vertes and Masnieres.
Eventually, on the 3rd December, Haig ordered a retirement ‘with the least possible delay from the Bourlon Hill-Marcoing salient to a more retired and shorter line’. The audacious plan had failed and although some ground had been gained, in places the Germans were now on ground formerly occupied by the British. A small salient remained at Flesquieres, which was an exposed position ruthlessly exploited by the German assault in March 1918.
The improvised defence gradually sealed the position and once again an initially promising attack lost momentum. The German attack met a far stronger defence north of the road, but even there, weight of artillery and numbers told, and hard-won positions were reluctantly given up by the British. Once again, the battle resembled the Somme: piecemeal attack and improvised counter attack. The German army suffered from problems familiar to the BEF: heavy losses, chaotic supply, and battlefield command breakdown that did not seize upon and propagate success. By 5 December, the line had re-stabilised. The net result of the Cambrai operation in terms of ground was that north of Gonnelieu the British had gained from their 20 November start line, standing on the Hindenburg Support positions snaking around Flesquieres and Welsh Ridge – while south from Gonnelieu they had been pushed back an average of 3000 yards with the loss of Villers Guislain. Both sides now occupied their respective bulges in an S-shaped double salient.
Enquiry and recriminations
Viewed as a heavy hit and run raid, Cambrai had been a failure. As a more strategic operation, designed to punch a deep hole, capture Cambrai, disrupt German rail communications and compel withdrawal from there to the Scarpe, it was a dismal defeat. Stories began to filter back of headlong retreat; of Generals caught in their pyjamas, and of new, wonder German tactics that sliced easily through the British defences. Questions were rightly asked in the War Cabinet, which requested an enquiry. Haig pre-empted it, having already organised one of his own.
The collective view of the operational factors contributing to British defeat was outlined very clearly in the papers assembled for the enquiry. That the enemy attack had been a surprise was denied. All those consulted said it was expected and suitable defensive measures had been taken. Far from admitting that the men holding these positions were tired, having not been relieved, on the contrary they were, according to Byng, “elated, full of fight”. Both of these points are open to challenge. Byng, Haig and Smuts all assigned the absence of serious resistance on the southern part of the front to a lack of training among junior officers, NCOs and men – a much more credible factor, but one directly attributable to the rush to undertake the operation despite advice from the staff that the divisions were simply not in a condition to undertake it. The tactically poor position and thinly held front resulting from the 20 November assault is hardly mentioned and where it is, is denied. Reports also mention the panic-inducing effect of rumours of defeat passing quickly between units and back down the lines of communication. No mention is made of the breakdown of all arms fighting, nor the serious communication failures that led to the commander of 29th Division (Major General Sir Henry de Beauvoir de Lisle) claiming that he knew nothing of the German attack before it was upon his headquarters.
The fact remains that, innovative as it was, the British assault was insufficiently successful. The initially winning operational factors proved unequal to the task of stopping the enemy from regrouping. In addition, German tactics had proven an ability to break quickly into a sketchily held front: a portent for 1918. The “dawn of hope” theory of Cambrai has merit, but as far as evidencing a learning curve is concerned, it is overstated. All arms success had come by luck rather than great design. More important is that the battle provided a basis from which operational strengths could be identified and refined, and weaknesses eliminated, by the time of the key victories at Hamel and Amiens in June and August 1918.
Third Army reported losses of dead, wounded and missing of 44,207 between 20 November and 8 December. Of these, some 6,000 were taken prisoner in the enemy counterstroke on 30 November. Enemy casualties are estimated by the British Official History at approximately 45,000.