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|The Battle of Cambrai|
It was clear to all who were familiar
with the conditions on the British front that the success of the undertaking
depended entirely upon the swiftness with which it was carried out. It
was well known that in 48 hours the Germans could bring up a sufficiently
strong force to prevent any further advance unless a most advantageous
position was gained during that time. Shortly after 6 o'clock on the morning
of November 20, the advance began. The British operations were favored
by a thick haze which lowered the visibility considerably, and an effective
smoke-barrage was used to screen the initial steps of the advance. When
the signal for the advance was given the British guns opened a terrific
bombardment of the enemy position, and the long line of tanks moved majestically
forward, breaking down the heavy wire entanglements without the least difficulty
and crawling invincibly upon the German concrete emplacements, the infantry
following their lead. Approximately 400 tanks were lined up to clear the
way for the infantry.
The Newfoundland Regiment had been billeted at Sorel-le-Grand, which place it left at 2:30 on the morning of the 20th and marched up to assembly by way of Gauzeaucourt. At 6:20, when the whole line moved forward, the Newfoundland Battalion formed the centre of the 88th Brigade; the Worcesters were on the left and the Essex on the right.
The whole Twenty-Ninth Division dashed swiftly forward, and whole platoons of Germans were enveloped and taken prisoners before they fully realized what was happening. Advance by the Newfoundland Battalion.
The 87th Brigade seized the village of Marcoing, and the 86th, Neuf Wood, while the 88th pushed resolutely on and captured Les Rues Vertes and part of Mesnieres. The bridge crossing the Canal de 1'Escaut at Marcoing was reached and successfully crossed before the fleeing Germans could make any progress in their attempt to destroy it. At Mesnieres, however, they had succeeded in considerably weakening the bridge and when a tank attempted to cross, both the tank and the bridge crashed into the Canal. The Newfoundlanders were the first to secure a foothold on the opposite bank. They crossed by means of a footbridge which they had secured whilst a more permanent structure was being built. They were quickly followed by other units. The advance was continued at this point without the aid of the tanks, and the Germans were rapidly driven out of the whole of Mesnieres. The whole advance was so methodical, determined, and forceful, declining, to be halted at any point, that numerous gallant deeds and heroic sacrifices must have gone unnoticed, but the splendid success represented the courage and ability of all. The Twenty-Ninth in Pivotal Position.
The position held by the Twenty-Ninth Division was a very serious one for the enemy. It was a commanding position, and if the advance from this point on the 21st could be conducted with the success that attended the previous day's operations, the town of Cambrai with all its important network of railways would be in British possession. For this reason the Germans threw all their force against this point, and on the 21st, and, in fact, from the 21st until the 27th, the enemy made ceaseless desperate attempts to drive the Twenty-Ninth Division across the Canal so as to regain possession of Mesnieres and Marcoing. Germans Brought up Reserves.
Meanwhile the Germans had brought up a strong force of reserves and were preparing to strike back at the British with the full weight of their advantageous position and the full strength of their reserves. The'28th and 29th were quiet on both sides. It was a case of a calm before a great storm. Our Regiment was out of the line, enjoying a short rest in the village of Mesnieres, when on the morning of the 30th, the German great counter-attack burst forth in all its fury. Two companies of the Newfoundland Battalion went to the assistance of the Twentieth Division, which was being severely pressed by the Germans, and the other two companies took a position in their old trenches on the left of the Twentieth. Newfoundlanders Fell Back.
The fighting during the following four days was terrific. Both the Twentieth Division on the right and the Sixth on the left were driven back, and our men were obliged to take a position at the southwestern outskirts of Mesnieres. The whole Twenty-Ninth Division was in for a trying experience. Both flanks were being rapidly exposed by the supporting divisions, being forced back, and there was great danger that the enemy would force their way around the south and cut off the withdrawal of the Twenty-Ninth. The Germans pushed their way into the village of Gouzaecourt, Headquarters of the Twenty-Ninth Division, and came alarmingly near to capturing General de Lisle. He grabbed his papers and a revolver, and made his escape on horseback after the German infantry had entered the village. For two whole days the Newfoundland Battalion with other units of the Twenty-Ninth fought desperately against repeated German attacks, without -living an inch. Every machine gun, except one, which had been supporting the advance post held by the Division, had been captured. On the night of December 1, when it became clear that the position could not be held except at very great sacrifice, orders were given for a general readjustment of the line by the evacuation of Mesnieres sector. Two units, however, the Newfoundlanders and the South Wales Borderers, were left on the north side of the Canal. No greater compliment could be paid these two battalions. The position was one of extreme danger and difficulty, and required the greatest courage and ability on the part of the defending troops. They were practically unsupported by artillery or machine gun fire, while they were incessantly subject to a most destructive enemy machine gun fire. This part of the engagement proved beyond doubt that "the mechanical side of modern warfare can never quite eliminate the brave pushing heart and the strong arm."
It was a cruel experience for the most seasoned soldiers, but the Newfoundland Battalion fought through it with a courage and determination that would not give in. All through the 2nd and until the evening of the 3rd of December they held the northern bank of the Canal. When it was decided that a withdrawal was advisable, because the position was not worth the sacrifice necessary to hold it, the two battalions got back to their new position on the southern bank with splendid discipline and with remarkably few losses.
Our Regiment occupied a trench which ran from the Canal to a road that runs about south-west from Les Rues Vertes, about midway between Marcoing and Mesnieres. This position it held, except a stretch of about 100 yards, until the morning, of December 4, when it was relieved by another battalion.
The magnificent work of the Newfoundland Regiment in this battle won for it the title "ROYAL." When relief came the survivors of the Battalion could look back over their work as a unit with entire satisfaction.
Previous engagements in which the Regiment had taken part lasted generally one day. But in many respects the Marcoing-Mesnieres engagement, lasting as it did over a period of two weeks, and, except for two daysí intermission, at maximum strength and exertion, was an endurance test of the highest order. It was a test, however, to which the Newfoundland Regiment stood up with unabated courage and perseverance, and many of the men were decorated for deeds of conspicuous valor and untiring devotion to duty. BUTLER.
Captain Bertram Butler again distinguished himself. After two attacks were held up, on his own initiative he organized and led another attack and captured the position. It was a magnificent display of resourcefulness and determination. WHITTY.
Lieutenant G. J. Whitty was a Signaling Officer. When several of the officers had been knocked out, he went forward on his own initiative and assisted in organizing an attack. He personally led a charge in an able manner and with entirely successful results. RENDELL.
Captain H. Rendell was in command of a strong point that was very heavily bombarded. When his trench was blown in, he withdrew his survivors in an orderly manner to a neighboring trench.
He got a supply of bombs together, and as soon as the shelling ceased, he led a bombing party, drove out the Germans and re-established the position. By his initiative and determination he saved a vital point. Many other men were decorated for their courageous and valuable services in various capacities. As would be expected from such a long and severe engagement, in which the Regiment had put forth its bravest and most determined effort, heavier casualties were sustained. Seventy-nine men were reported killed, 340 wounded and 43 missing.
Military Records Contact: Daniel B. Breen
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