20 November 1917 - 100 years ago today - The Irish go OTT at the Battle of Cambrai

Catalpast

Well-known member
Joined
Nov 17, 2012
Messages
25,564





20 November 1917 - 100 years ago today - The Irish go OTT (Over the Top) at the Battle of Cambrai

20 November 1917: The Battle of Cambrai began on this day. The British High Command under General Haig wished to take a major position on the German ‘Hindenburg Line’ - a very powerful and well defended set of lines and structures to which they had withdrawn to earlier in the year. The British adapted some novel tactics to take a chunk out of the German defenses before Cambrai that had not been tried previously on such a scale. The attack was to be carried out by General Byng’s Third Army in the nature of a coup de main, “to take advantage of the existing favourable local situation” where “surprise and rapidity of action are … of the utmost importance”.

Initially a British victory it overwhelmed the German defenses and made - by WW1 standards - a rapid advance. The key to such success was a very brief but extremely heavy initial bombardment and the mass use of almost 500 Tanks that took the Germans completely by surprise. The use of numerous aircraft in a tactical role was also employed. The British High Command were somewhat surprised too as they failed to have enough Reserve divisions on hand to exploit their early gains. Some days later in England church bells were rung out to celebrate a ‘Victory’ for the first time since the War began in 1914.


On this day regiments from two Irish Divisions took part - the 36th (Ulster) Division & the 16th (Irish) Division. The 36th was deployed on the main line of advance at Cambrai on the far left flank and the 16th was further north at Bullcourt in a major diversionary attack. The attack opened with an intensive predicted-fire barrage on the Hindenburg Line and key points to the rear, which caught the Germans by surprise. Initially, this was followed by the curtain of a creeping barrage behind which the tanks and infantry followed. At Cambrai the planes of the RFC were used overhead to mask the noise of the tanks moving up to their start lines. The 36th (Ulster) Division attacked well and moved up the dry excavations of the Canal du Nord, and lay alongside the Bapaume-Cambrai road by nightfall.


The following day the advance was to be renewed & to the north, the 36th (Ulster) Division, planning to continue their advance beyond Moeuvres, waited for the success signal, signifying that the 62nd had captured Bourlon [Wood]. It never came, for the 62nd could not penetrate beyond the sunken lane facing the wood. By the evening of the 21st, Haig was satisfied that ‘no possibility any longer existed of enveloping Cambrai from the south’
The Cambrai operations, 1917 (Battle of Cambrai) – The Long, Long Trail


At Bullcourt further north the 16th Division went ‘over the top’ that morning of 20 November to capture a position known as ‘Tunnel Trench’ - in actual fact a very well defended line of trenches and fortifications. The morning was overcast with low visibility but that would have helped to mask the advance. The operation was very successful catching the Germans off guard. A barrage of smoke shells had convinced many of the defenders that a gas attack was underway and they donned gas masks and took cover in their dug outs. They were quickly overrun and flushed out and taken prisoners. Only on the right flank was there any serious opposition as the Connacht Rangers came under severe counter attack as to their right the 3rd Division made little progress thus leaving the Connacht’s flank hanging in the air.


The Germans soon gathered their wits about them and counter attacked with devastating effect on 30th November. They soon cut swathes out of the British Front line and took back not just ground they had lost 10 days before but fresh gains where they had not initially sought to take. Chunks of the British Front line collapsed with men streaming back to the rear. Of course eventually the German advance ran of steam and the British consolidated their positions.


In the further battles around Cambrai the British Guards Division was thrown into action. It contained two Irish battalions - the 1st and 2nd battalions Irish Guards. They suffered heavy casualties in attacking Gouzeaucourt and in defending what part of Bourlon Wood that the British had managed to take. The Germans fought a determined action to take back this position as the wood was on the high ground that dominated the surrounding countryside. The British tried desperately to cling on but its advanced position made it untenable and eventually it was conceded to the Germans.


What had started as a ‘Victory’ turned into yet another bloody mess with no overall victor. But the lessons both sides learned there were to be applied on a massive scale in the battles of 1918 which decided the War.


In a battle that created many anecdotes one stands out of Irish interest involving the Irish Guards in the aftermath of the capture of Gouzeaucourt:


One grim incident stays in the minds of those who survived—the sight of an enormous Irishman urging two captives, whom he had himself unearthed from a cellar, to dance before him. He demanded the jigs of his native land, and seemed to think that by giving them drink his pupils would become proficient. Men stood about and laughed till they could hardly stand; and when the fun was at its height a chance shell out of the darkness to the eastward wiped out all that tango-class before their eyes. (“’Twas like a dhream, ye’ll understand. One minute both Jerries was dancin’ hard to oblige him, an’ then—nothin’, nothin’—nothin’—of the three of them!”)

The Irish Guards in the Great War Volume 1
Rudyard Kipling

Map: The Cambrai operations, 1917 (Battle of Cambrai) – The Long, Long Trail


Picture: Men of the 11th Battalion, Royal Irish Fusiliers, with German prisoners near Havrincourt, 20 November 1917. - courtesy of the Imperial War Museum London - THE BATTLE OF CAMBRAI, NOVEMBER - DECEMBER 1917 (Q 3186)
 
Last edited:


Lúidín

Well-known member
Joined
Mar 14, 2013
Messages
7,253
How many thousands of men were needlessly killed by their leaders in this unnecessary and barbaric slaughter?

The Russian soldiers did the only sensible thing - shoot the officers and go home.
 

Vega1447

Well-known member
Joined
Oct 18, 2007
Messages
5,685
How many thousands of men were needlessly killed by their leaders in this unnecessary and barbaric slaughter?

The Russian soldiers did the only sensible thing - shoot the officers and go home.
And when you get home, shoot (or whatever) the Emperor.
 

Catalpast

Well-known member
Joined
Nov 17, 2012
Messages
25,564
Easy. Just get all your colleagues to go along with your idea and ... eh ... just do it.
Is there any commemoration in Germany today on this Battle

IIRC there is a low key 'War Memorial' on the Unter den Linden

If I was in Berlin I would take a stroll down there today

- and say a few prayers for the Fallen...
 

ThatsReasonable

Well-known member
Joined
Nov 9, 2017
Messages
373
We need to remember our fellow countrymen who died as victims.

The best description of WW1 was from Eamonn McCann.

"A gangland turf-war between rival criminal cartels".
 

Dame_Enda

Well-known member
Joined
Dec 14, 2011
Messages
53,656
Edit confused with the 1918 battle there.
 
Last edited:

Catalpast

Well-known member
Joined
Nov 17, 2012
Messages
25,564
We need to remember our fellow countrymen who died as victims.

The best description of WW1 was from Eamonn McCann.

"A gangland turf-war between rival criminal cartels".
Oh I doubt the bold Eamonn would know anything about that sort of thing....:cool:
 

Catalpast

Well-known member
Joined
Nov 17, 2012
Messages
25,564
I think I remember this story from the German point of view in a documentary. Cambrai was a crucial rail junction for the Allies to bring men and supplies to the front. Losing it would have lengthened Allied supply lines. Ludendorff wasted time deciding where the target would be, and many German soldiers wasted time looting the town and getting drunk.
Well it wasn't Cambrai in 1917 as the town was in German hands throughout the battle
 

The Field Marshal

Well-known member
Joined
Aug 27, 2009
Messages
43,645
How many thousands of men were needlessly killed by their leaders in this unnecessary and barbaric slaughter?

The Russian soldiers did the only sensible thing - shoot the officers and go home.
Why are you justifying murder, cowardice and treachery?

Is that your philosophy of life?
 

Toland

Well-known member
Joined
Apr 26, 2008
Messages
63,162
Website
www.aggressive-secularist.com
Is there any commemoration in Germany today on this Battle

IIRC there is a low key 'War Memorial' on the Unter den Linden

If I was in Berlin I would take a stroll down there today

- and say a few prayers for the Fallen...
Would you? How marvellous for you!

Have you ever heard the term "virtue signalling"? It might be appropriate here.
 

Lúidín

Well-known member
Joined
Mar 14, 2013
Messages
7,253
Originally Posted by Lúidín:
How many thousands of men were needlessly killed by their leaders in this unnecessary and barbaric slaughter?
The Russian soldiers did the only sensible thing - shoot the officers and go home.
The Field Marshal:
Why are you justifying murder, cowardice and treachery?
Is that your philosophy of life?
The whole enterprise was one of murder, by the 100,000s. It took courage to disobey orders and turn on the perpetrators of this crime against humanity.

If ever I find myself in a slaughter house or killing field and ordered to shoot, stab and kill my fellow man, I hope I too will have the courage to turn on the criminals responsible.
 

Catalpast

Well-known member
Joined
Nov 17, 2012
Messages
25,564
The whole enterprise was one of murder, by the 100,000s. It took courage to disobey orders and turn on the perpetrators of this crime against humanity.

If ever I find myself in a slaughter house or killing field and ordered to shoot, stab and kill my fellow man, I hope I too will have the courage to turn on the criminals responsible.
You seem to forget (at least in the British Army anyway) the casualty rates amongst Officers was far higher than amongst the Rank & File

Soldiers began to question the War

- when their side started losing...

In November 1917 the British and German Armies were highly professional entities

Did men crack under Combat?

- of course they did!

But the vast majority did their Duty as they saw it
 

parentheses

Well-known member
Joined
Aug 26, 2011
Messages
13,969
You seem to forget (at least in the British Army anyway) the casualty rates amongst Officers was far higher than amongst the Rank & File

Soldiers began to question the War

- when their side started losing...

In November 1917 the British and German Armies were highly professional entities

Did men crack under Combat?

- of course they did!

But the vast majority did their Duty as they saw it
The British were under horrendous pressure by late 1917. And they knew there would be a big German attack in the following spring. Lloyd George decided, against military advice, to send troops to Palestine which further exacerbated the situation.
 

Malcolm Redfellow

Well-known member
Joined
Sep 29, 2009
Messages
4,104
Website
redfellow.blogspot.com
Twitter
mredfellow
Nice headline post, Catalpast!

Predictably we have the Ben Elton/Richard Curtis school of mis-historians telling us what Alan Clark spouted in 1961.

Such have it easy: regurgitate old saws, and no thought-processes get troubled.

Cambrai deserves far more than that. A whole stack of new technologies and approaches were applied, which had considerable effect on subsequent military developments:

1. Churchill had outlined the tank weapon and its use as early as December 1915, but it was Col. Ernest Swinton (pen-name "Ole-Luk-Oie) who developed the outline — as he had when addressing how to counter the machine-gun: his remedy was the tank. Swinton prescribed the use of the tank: manufacture in numbers, but in strict secrecy; designed to use both shell and case-shot (not accepted by High Command); use on selected terrain (i.e not the boggy mud of Ypres); transport to the Front by railway (which meant regard for loading gauges); communication (the original intent to equip some tanks with radio — another High Command veto), adequate tanks in reserve, and use in combined operations with infantry.

All of that went for nothing at Ypres. Haig felt pressured to use tanks prematurely at Flers-Courcelette. He had just sixty available, and deployed them on unsuitable ground. The experience at Flers-Courcelette had the High Command cancel the order of four thousand tanks and then even the reduced order for a thousand (fortunately, Major Albert Stern — not a career soldier — simply ignored the second cancellation).

Let's not get too hung up on the tank as some "revolutionary" innovation. The British had been using "armoured cars" in imperial policing for some years. The tank developed from that, and the need to crush barbed wire and bridge trenches.

Colonel (later Maj-Gen) John Fuller was one of the "fathers" of the Tank Corps (yes — I am aware — he subsequently went very weird). Fuller persevered with the deployment of the new weapon. At Cambrai, the choice of ground prescribed the area between the Canal du Nord and the St Quentin Canal.

2. One of the sharper knives in the box, Sir Julian Byng of the Third Army, forwent the luxury of a heavy initial barrage, thus warning of the assault. He deployed all his available tanks: 476 in total — none held in reserve. That meant the initial penetration went well, but — with 180 of the vehicles out-of-use on that first day — there could not be a second wave.

3. The German counter-attack, including the use of Stoßtruppen (a fore-shadowing of the early successes of 1918), was remarkable. With the initial tank assault blunted, intense infantry fighting, especially around Bourlon and Fontaine, meant the British advance stalled. When the German Second Army counter-attacked, the British withdrew to the Flesquière Ridge defence.

This was Eingreifentaktik, defence, intervention and disruption in depth. A comparatively-thin front line might be easily over-run, but the main defences lay further back, which stretched the attackers' logistics, communications and artillery support.

4. A main lesson, drawn (literally) by both sides, had been the need for intelligence — and in particular accurate maps.

I once acquired a copy (all £4.99's worth) of Peter Chasseaud's Topography of Armageddon: British Trench Map Atlas of the Western Front, 1914-18. It doesn't need an expert (in my case, just as well) to see how maps improved over the war-years.

Some artillery developments were:
  • indirect fire (aiming to hit a target out of eye-sight or aerial reconnaissance);
  • "flash-spotting" and "sound-ranging" had evolved incrementally;
  • "map shooting", which required noting the origins of incoming shelling, without instant response. Thus the bearing and elevation could be pre-defined, without firing ranging shots — so, come the crunch, surprise would be absolute.
 
Last edited:

Catalpast

Well-known member
Joined
Nov 17, 2012
Messages
25,564
Colonel (later Maj-Gen) John Fuller was one of the "fathers" of the Tank Corps (yes — I am aware — he subsequently went very weird

:cool:

Great military historian though!
 

popular1

Well-known member
Joined
Feb 4, 2009
Messages
3,130
My grandfather died in this battle
His wife was told the whole battalion was wiped out
She gave birth to my mother in December 1917
So he never saw his daughter , or she her father
I visited the louveral memorial site a decade ago
Where the dead were buried in a mass grave
It was the first time anyone ever Visuted his grave in 90years
There were many the same in the visitors book
 

galteeman

Well-known member
Joined
Nov 6, 2010
Messages
2,659
How many thousands of men were needlessly killed by their leaders in this unnecessary and barbaric slaughter?

The Russian soldiers did the only sensible thing - shoot the officers and go home.
You will be sent to the 9th circle of hell.
 


New Threads

Most Replies

Top