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The History of the Canterbury Regiment, N.Z.E.F. 1914 - 1919

Chapter XV. — The Battle of Cambrai and the — Hindenburg Line

page 260

Chapter XV.
The Battle of Cambrai and the
Hindenburg Line.

The 2nd Brigade was now brigade in support of the Division, and the Canterbury Battalions remained in their bivouac areas, providing a few parties for burying enemy dead and horses, but for the most part resting. On the 11th the brigade was relieved by the 1st Brigade, and became brigade in reserve. The 1st Canterbury Battalion moved to Haplincourt Wood, and the 2nd Battalion to the north of Villers-au-Flos. There they remained till the 14th, when the New Zealand Division went into Corps reserve.

The 1st Canterbury Battalion was then accommodated in huts to the west of Biefvillers, between the Bihucourt road and the railway, and the 2nd Battalion bivouacked in a trench system a quarter of a mile away, on the southern side of the railway. This area was a peaceful one, out of range of the naval guns which had disturbed everyone's rest at Haplincourt and Villers-au-Flos, and was even left unmolested by the enemy's bombing 'planes. Here the "B" teams rejoined the battalions, reinforcements arrived, and reorganization and training were actively carried out, Lieutenant-Colonel Stewart now resumed command of the 2nd Battalion.

During the period of rest the usual attention was given to games, particularly football. On the 22nd the 1st Battalion defeated the 2nd in an officers' match, by three to nil: and the same day the 1st Battalion's team defeated the 2nd Battalion's in an association game by three goals to two. The following day the 1st Battalion other ranks' team beat the 2nd Battalion's by eight to three.

The brigade was inspected by the General Officer Commanding the Division, the 1st Otago and 1st Canterbury Battalions on the 24th, and the 2nd Otago and 2nd Canterbury on the 25th. page 261The diarist of the latter battalion expresses the opinion that this was the best inspection parade that the battalion had ever had.

Since the 2nd Brigade had come out of the line on September 8th, the 3rd (Rifle) Brigade had, on the 12th, captured the spur running north-west from the east of Gouzeaucourt Wood to east of Trescault. The northern part of this spur was held by the 3rd Brigade, and later by the 1st Brigade, in spite of many determined counter-attacks; but the former brigade had been unable to hold the southern part of the line established by it on the 12th, and had been pushed down the western slope again. Here the crest of the spur remained No-Man's-Land. On the night of September 14th/15th, the 1st Brigade was relieved by the 13th Brigade (5th Division), and the New Zealand Division came out into Corps reserve as mentioned above. There was no further advance by the IV Corps till the 27th of the month.

On referring again to Sir Douglas Haig's Despatch of December 21st, 1918, we find the following account of the general situation on September 26th:—

"The Battle of Cambrai, which on the 5th October culminated in the capture of the last remaining sectors of the Hinden-burg Line, was commenced by the First and Third Armies between the neighbourhood of St. Quentin and the Scheldt. The Fourth, Third and First Armies, in the order named, occupied on the evening of the 26th September a line running from the village of Selency (west of St. Quentin) to Gricourt and Pontruet and thence east of Villeret and Lempire to Villers Guislain and Gouzeaucourt, both exclusive. Thereafter the line continued northwards to Havrincourt and Moeuvres and thence along the west side of the Canal du Nord to the floods of the Sensee at Ecourt-St. Quentin.

"On the First and Third Army fronts strong positions covering the approaches to Cambrai between the Nord and the Scheldt canals, including the section of the Hindenburg Line itself north of Gouzeaucourt, were still in the enemy's possession. His trenches in this sector faced south-west, and it was desirable that they should be taken in the early stages of the operation, so as to render it easier for the artillery of the Fourth Army to get into position. On the Fourth Army front, where the heaviest blow was to fall, the exceptional strength of the enemy's position page 262made a prolonged bombardment necessary. I therefore decided that a very heavy bombardment, opened during the night of the 26th/27th September along the whole front of all three armies, should be followed on the morning of the 27th September by an attack delivered only by the First and Third Armies. In this way the enemy might be deceived as to the main point of attack, the First and Third Armies would be enabled to get nearer to their final objective, and the task of the Fourth Army artillery would be simplified."

On September 26th the 2nd Brigade came into immediate Corps reserve, being liable to move at short notice to support the 5th and 42nd Divisions, which were then holding the line. Accordingly the brigade moved to the Bertincourt area. The 1st Canterbury Battalion was billeted at Bus, and the 2nd Battalion at Haplincourt. There they remained all the next day, while the 5th and 42nd Divisions made an attack on the Hindenburg Line, including very strong enemy positions on Welsh Ridge, east of the Cambrai-Peronne railway. It was reported on the afternoon of the 28th that the 42nd Division had taken Welsh Ridge, and was moving east to attack Bonavis Ridge; but this information was subsequently found to be incorrect.

The New Zealand Division was ordered to relieve the 42nd Division, and to continue the advance on September 29th. The object of this attack was to secure the bridge-heads across the Escaut* Canal, between Vaucelles and Crevecoeur, both inclusive; and to establish posts on the high ground east of the canal. The 5th Division, on the right of the New Zealand Division, was to participate in the attack, which was to be carried out on the New Zealand Division's frontage by the 2nd Brigade on the right and the 1st Brigade on the left. In the 2nd Brigade, the front line battalions, right to left, were the 1st Canterbury and 2nd Otago Battalions, with the 1st Otago and 2nd Canterbury Battalions in support.

The brigade moved from the Bertincourt area on the morning of September 28th to a rendezvous west of Havrincourt Wood, where it remained till dusk. The move forward from the rendezvous was slow and difficult, owing to the amount of traffic on the

* The French form of the Flemish word "Scheldt." This Canal is also sometime called " Canal de St. Quentin."

page 263roads; and the assembly positions were not reached till early on the morning of the 29th. The 1st Canterbury Battalion took over the front line at Surrey road, a quarter of a mile east of the Cambrai-Peronne railway, with its right flank a thousand yards north-east of Villers-Plouich. On its left was the 2nd Otago Battalion, and in support to the latter was the 2nd Canterbury Battalion, west of the Villers Plouich-Ribecourt road and north-east of Beaucamp.

The attack was launched at 3.30 a.m., under a creeping barrage, and the 1st Canterbury Battalion's objective on Welsh Ridge (the sunken road to the north and south of La Vacquerie) was taken with little difficulty by the 12th Company on the right and the 13th Company on the left. Enemy posts in and round La Vacquerie were still holding out, and caused considerable trouble before they were rushed and captured. The 2nd and 1st Companies were now due to go through, to capture the second objective, to the south-east of La Vacquerie and beyond the Gouzeaucourt-Cambrai road. But as the only troops of these companies to reach the first objective were two platoons of the 1st Company, the 12th Company, after waiting half an hour for the 2nd Company, pushed on, and made good the ridge to the south-east of La Vacquerie but north of the road. The 5th Division had not come up on the right, and the 12th Company's flank was "in the air."

The missing company and a half had lost direction, mainly owing to the darkness, and had swung round to the right. The two 1st Company platoons went astray very badly, and crossed to the right flank of the 2nd Company. Having completely lost touch with the rest of the battalion, they found themselves at daylight in a trench in the neighbourhood of the Gouzeaucourt-Cambrai road, between Gonnelieu and La Vacquerie.

One officer having been badly wounded, the other officer took command of both platoons; and as he knew the attack would be continued during the day, he decided to hold on where he was. His command was then practically surrounded, and was unable to leave its trench on account of heavy machine-gun fire. Between 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. the enemy rushed the trench; and the garrison, the strength of which was reduced to one officer and thirty other ranks unwounded, was captured. The wounded page 264were left by the enemy, and were picked up when the advance was continued.

Meanwhile the 2nd Company, with troops of the Durham Light Infantry, had met strong resistance in the trenches south of La Vacquerie and on the right of the 12th Company, and had taken many prisoners. This company eventually reached the Gouzeaucourt-Cambrai road; but coming under heavy machine-gun fire from both flanks, and the left rear, it was compelled to withdraw again, till it had gained touch on the right with a battalion of the Gloucester Regiment. Later on, it had to withdraw further, to trenches south of La Vacquerie.

When darkness fell, it became possible to advance again, and the remnants of the 1st Company occupied the trenches east of La Vacquerie. The 13th Company, passing through the advanced posts of the battalion, met with fierce opposition, but by dawn had reached the Gouzeaucourt-Cambrai road; while on its right the 12th Company refused the right flank, north-west of the road as far as a point to the south of La Vacquerie. The 5th Division was still behind; but came up under cover of a barrage at 4 a.m. on the 30th, the 1st Canterbury Battalion pausing till then.

Under cover of this barrage the 12th Company pushed out patrols, which met with no opposition on the left, but drove off some enemy parties on the right. These retired towards the south, and the battalion advanced to the banks of the canal without further interference from the enemy's infantry. At 8 a.m. the battalion had reached the approaches to the canal, in the neighbourhood of the Sugar Factory north of Bantouzelle. Enemy transport was seen moving back through the eastern portion of the village, and his infantry was retiring over the slopes east of the canal. Nothing, however, could be seen of the 5th Division; but to the north the 2nd Otago Battalion was also on the line of the canal.

It should be explained that the canal (which is here about thirty yards wide and quite deep) does not follow the exact course of the River Escaut: while the two in many places coincide, yet more commonly tile canal runs alongside the river, at a distance varying from fifty yards to a quarter of a mile. Such was the case on the 1st Canterbury Battalion's front, where the river runs about two hundred yards east of the canal.

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On reaching the canal our patrols found the Sugar Factory bridge had been partially destroyed, but that infantry could cross it in single file. Two platoons of the 12th Company crossed the canal and the river, and took up a position two hundred yards to the east of the latter. But at 10.15 a.m., as there was still no sign of the 5th Division on the right flank, and the enemy had begun to dribble back towards the canal and into Bantouzelle, these platoons were withdrawn to west of the canal. An outpost line was established along the west bank, and a defensive flank was formed facing south. This position was eventually consoli-dated, and was held till the battalion was relieved on the night of October 1st/2nd by the 10th Battalion Royal Fusiliers.

The 2nd Canterbury Battalion had remained in its assembly area till 10.30 p.m. on September 29th when, in accordance with brigade orders, the 13th Company moved up to the La Vacquerie-Masnieres road (north of the 1st Battalion) and became attached to the 2nd Otago Battalion, as a counter-attack company. The leading companies of the latter battalion had then reached a point in the Hindenburg Support Line, west of the Gouzeaucourt-Masnieres road, two hundred yards to the north-west of Bonavis, and on the western edge of Lateau Wood. Early on the morning of the 30th, the same battalion reached the canal, but finding the bridge at Vaucelles had been destroyed was unable to cross.

The 2nd Canterbury Battalion had been ordered to pass through the 2nd Otago Battalion, in the event of tile latter securing bridge-heads over the canal; and early on the morning of the 30th the 1st Company moved foward to trenches of the Hindenburg Support Line, on the south-eastern edge of Lateau Wood, with instructions to seize the high ground mile to the east of Vaucelles, if the canal could be crossed. The 2nd and 12th Companies moved forward to the east of the La Vacquerie-Masnieres road, and battalion headquarters was established east of the same road, on the slope overlooking the canal. By this time it was known that the bridges had been destroyed, and that the village of Vaucelles and the eastern bank of the canal were very strongly held by enemy infantry and machine-guns. It was obvious that a frontal attack on the village, without artillery preparation and support, was out of the question.

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The 1st Brigade, on the left, had meanwhile reached the western bank of the canal as far north as Crevecoeur, and had established a bridge-head in that village; but the eastern bank of the canal was strongly held by the enemy, who prevented a crossing at any other point. At Crevecoeur the canal turns towards the west, and does not run north again till it reaches Marcoing. At this village the canal had been crossed by the VI Corps, which had captured Masnieres, east of the canal, and established another bridge-head there.

The 1st Brigade was now ordered to extend its front, on the night of September 30th/October 1st, to a point on the Rumilly-Crevecoeur road, about a mile east of Masnieres; and the 2nd Brigade "side-slipped" north, as far as the southern outskirts of the village of Les Rues des Vignes. The 2nd Company of the 2nd Canterbury Battalion accordingly relieved troops of the 1st Wellington Battalion, with one platoon in the southern end of the German trench that ran at the rear of the village, and the remainder in a trench that ran north-east from the east of Lateau Wood. Early the same night, the 1st Company relieved all 2nd Otago Battalion troops east of the Bonavis-Masnieres road; but next night was relieved by troops of the 37th Division, and moved into the area north of Lateau Wood. At dusk on October 1st the 12th and 13th Companies moved forward to positions about half a mile west of the Bonavis-Masnieres road, and battalion headquarters was also moved up to near the road.

The 2nd Canterbury Battalion was now the leading battalion of the brigade, and was holding the whole brigade frontage on the canal. The front extended a mile down the western bank, from the southern end of Les Rues des Vignes. The re-arrangement of brigade areas had given to the 2nd Brigade a strip of country a thousand yards wide, running due east; but the south-western trend of the canal in this locality made the actual front to be guarded slightly over a mile in length. The battalion had now instructions not to attempt to force a passage of the canal in the face of strong opposition; but to keep on the alert so as to miss no opportunity of crossing should one offer. The dispositions of the leading company (the 2nd) were improved, but otherwise the battalion remained where it was till the morning of October 5th.

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The 1st Canterbury Battalion, on relief on the night of October 1st/2nd, had moved to trenches north-east of and close to La Vacquerie; and remained there till the evening of the 5th, when it concentrated in an area about two miles to the north-east of that village. On the 1st of the month the 1st Brigade (on the left) had advanced its left flank to the north-east of Crevecoeur, and gained possession of the western portion of the village. It had been relieved by the 3rd (Rifle) Brigade on the night of October 3rd/4th.

On the morning of October 5th the enemy began to shell Vaucelles and Cheneaux Wood (to its north-east), both of which places had previously been held by the enemy in great strength. A patrol from the 2nd Company of the 2nd Canterbury Battalion found the enemy trenches east of Les Rues des Vignes unoccupied; and a patrol from the 1st Company (under its company commander, Captain L. B. Hutton) crossed the canal at Vaucelles, passed through that village, and penetrated as far as Cheneaux Wood and also to Fox Farm, to the south-east of Vaucelles, without meeting opposition. This patrol on its way out informed the troops on the right flank that the enemy had withdrawn.

Meanwhile, the 12th Company had been ordered to come up through the 2nd Company, and to advance by means of fighting patrols. This company crossed the canal by means of a primitive German raft, composed of a duck-walk supported on four bundles of corks. The raft could carry only three men at a time, but when the time came for the 13th and 2nd Companies to cross, a party of New Zealand Engineers had built a larger and more reliable raft capable of carrying six men. The 1st Company crossed by the bridge at Vaucelles, which was available for infantry only.

The 12th Company met with considerable opposition in a sunken road east of Cheneaux Copse, where it captured five machine-guns, killed numerous Germans, and took fifteen prisoners. As the Division on the right had not yet come up, the Commanding Officer ordered the 12th Company to form a defensive flank facing south, from Cheneaux Wood inclusive and thence east along the high ground to south-west of Bel Aise Farm. page 268The machine-gun section working with the battalion was also detailed to protect the right flank.

Under this protection the 13th Company moved forward, and late in the afternoon had approached within a short distance of the Masnières-Beaurevoir Line. The most advanced troops of the 12th Company were still further south, and were about seven hundred yards south of the right Divisional boundary. On the north, the 13th Company's left flank was four hundred yards to the right of the inter-brigade boundary, but the 3rd (Rifle) Brigade had extended to its right to cover the gap.

In the afternoon the 37th Division came up on the right; but no further advance was possible, as the leading troops were held up by the Masnières-Beaurevoir system of trenches, which was protected by a very strong belt of wire, fifty yards in depth and unbroken by artillery fire. The 1st Company, in support, was in shelters between Cheneaux Wood and Copse; and after dusk the 2nd Company crossed the canal, and assembled just east of the river. Later in the evening the 1st Company took over the northern four hundred yards of the battalion front, which had been held by the 3rd (Rifle) Brigade.

The Commander-in-Chief summarizes the results of the fighting between September 27th and October 5th as follows:—

"The great and critical assaults in which during these nine days of battle the First, Third, and Fourth Armies stormed the line of the Canal du Nord and broke through the Hindenburg Line mark the close of the first phase of the British offensive. The enemy's defence in the last and strongest of his prepared positions had been shattered. The whole of the main Hindenburg defences had passed into our possession, and a wide gap had been driven through such rear trench systems as had existed behind them. The effect of the victory upon the subsequent course of the campaign was decisive. The threat to the enemy's communications was now direct and instant, for nothing but the natural obstacles of a wooded and well-watered country-side lay between our Armies and Maubeuge"*

* Despatch of December 21st. 1918.