The Move to Cambrai, December 1917
“On the last day of November the Division was withdrawn from the Arras sector; its move to relieve some of the troops who had been severely handled by the enemy at Bourlon Wood seemed probable. Events occurred to change the destination. The Battalion, after two nights at Arras, entrained amid all symptoms of haste on the morning of November 30 and travelled without the transport to Bapaume. The noise of battle and excited staff-officers greeted its arrival. In the back area it was on everybody’s lips that the enemy had broken through. Bapaume was being shelled, many officers had travelled unprepared for an early engagement with the enemy, and the General was not yet on the scene ; the situation was as unexpected as it was exciting. At 3 p.m. we were placed in ‘buses under Bicknell’s directions and moved rapidly to Bertincourt, a village four kilometres west of Havrincourt Wood. The night of November 30 / December 1 was spent in an open field. It was intensely cold. At 4 a.m. a flank march was made to Fins, where some empty huts were found. Enemy long range shells, aimed at the railway, kept falling in the village. Through Fins at 10 a.m. on
December 1 the Guards marched forward to do their famous counter-attack on Gouzeaucourt ; on the afternoon of the same day the Battalion moved up to Metz, whijher Brigade Headquarters had already gone. During the night, which was frosty and moonlight, the Colonel led the Battalion across country to occupy a part of the Hindenburgh Line west of La Vacquerie. On the following morning the enemy delivered a heavy attack upon the village, from which, after severe losses in killed and prisoners, troops of the 182nd Brigade were driven back. To assist them C Company was detached from the Battalion. The trenches our front was now the Hindenburg Line were frozen, there was snow on the ground, and the temporary supremacy of the enemy in guns and sniping produced a toll of casualties. It was an anxious time, but the Battalion was involved in no actual fighting; the German counter-attack, for the time-being, was at an end.
The 6ist Division was left holding a line of snow-bound trenches between Gonnelieu and La Vacquerie, consisting of fragments both of the Hindenburg Line, the old German front line, and our own as it stood before the Cambrai battle opened. Except in the 184th Brigade the casualties suffered by the Division during the heavy German counter-attacks had been heavier than those at Ypres. The 2/4 Oxfords by luck had escaped a share in this fighting, and the Battalion’s casualties during these critical events were few.
The German counter-attack from Cambrai was an important step in the war’s progress. At the time it was considered even more important than it was. Judged by the rapidity with which they were replaced, the loss of guns and stores by us was not of high moment; it mattered more that for the first time since the Second Battle of Ypres the enemy had driven back our lines several miles. A counter-surprise had been effected. On a small scale the panic of defeat was proved by its physical results upon the ground. The valley north-east of Gouzeaucourt was littered with all kinds of relics, which in trench warfare or in our attacks had been unknown. Whole camps had been sacked and their contents, in the shape of clothing, equipment and blankets, were strewn broadcast. Packets of socks and shirts showed where an English quartermaster’s stores had been, and flapping canvas and dismantled shelters were evidence of a local debacle to our side. The sight of derelict tractors, motor cars, and steam rollers, left in the sunken road at Gouzeaucourt, produced a sense of shock.
A broad-gauge railway train, captured complete with trucks and locomotive and recovered in our counter-attack, bore witness to a victory seized but not secured. The battles of Ypres and Cambrai, 1917, though well-fought and not without results, robbed the British army for the time being of the initiative upon the Western Front. America became spoken of 1918, it was said, would be a defensive year. Yet the German success had in reality no effect upon our Infantry’s morale. By the troops engaged in it Cambrai had been almost forgotten before Christmas. Less than a year afterwards the Germans had lost, not only Cambrai, but the war.
The end of 1917 was as cold as its beginning. Snow and frost, destined to play utter havoc with the roads, laid their white mantle on the battlefield. Fighting had slackened when the Battalion went into the line in front of Gonnelieu. The trenches there ran oddly between derelict tanks, light railways, and dismantled huts ; in No-Man’s-Land lay several batteries of our guns.
On December 7 the 183rd Brigade relieved the Battalion, which moved back to tents in Havrincourt Wood. It was bitter ! Shells and aeroplane bombs made the wood dangerous as well as cold. On the 10th a further tour in the front line commenced. This time trenches north-east of Villers Plouich were held. Wiring was strenuously carried out, but save for activity by trench-mortars the enemy lay quiet. The Battalion returned to Havrincourt Wood on December 15 and remained in its frozen tents until the Division was relieved by the 63rd. After one night at Lechelle the Battalion entrained at Ytres and moved back to Christmas rest-billets at Suzanne, near Bray.
Huts, built by the French but vacated more than a year ago and now very dilapidated, formed the accommodation. In them Christmas dinners, to procure which Bennett had proceeded early from the line, were eaten. And O’Meara conducted the Brigade band.”