«LONDON PRINTED BY AUTHORITY OF THE MINISTRY, OVERSEAS MILITARY FORCES OF CANADA. REPORT of the MINISTRY Overseas Military Forces of Canada LONDON ...»
General Situation.—In sympathy with the severe reverses :suffered on the Marne, and consequent upon the actions now fully developed in the Somme salient, signs were not wanting that the enemy was preparing to evacuate the salient of the Lys. This evacuation began under pressure of the First Army on August 25.
Corps Operations. 143 All these attacks and their results, direct or indirect, enabled the Allies to recover the ground they had lost in the course of the German offensive operations.
The recapture of that ground was, however, of secondary importance as compared to the moral results of these successive victories.
The German Armies had been impressed in the course of -these operations by the superiority of our generalship and of our organisation, and by the great determination of our troops and subordinate commanders.
The Hindenburg System, however, was intact, and the enemy Higher Command hoped and believed that behind this powerfully organised area the German Armies might be collected and reorganised. (See Sketch No.
10.) Fighting the most determined rearguard action in the Somme salient, they expected that our armies would be tired and depleted by the time they reached the forward area of the Hindenburg System.
The Battle of Cambrai, now about to be begun, shattered their hopes.
By breaking through the Drocourt-Queant Line, itself but a part of the Hindenburg System, the Canadian Corps carried the operations forward to ground that had been in the hands of the Germans since 1914.
This advance constituted a direct threat on the rear of the German Armies north and south of Cambrai.
Dominated 'at all times, paralysed by the swift and bold strokes on vital points of their line and by the relentless pressure applied everywhere, the German Higher Command was unable to take adequate steps to localise and stop our advance. After the Drocourt-Queant Line was broken, the retreat of the enemy became more accelerated, and our attacks met everywhere with less and less organised and determined resistance.
The moral effect of the most bitter and relentless fighting which led to the capture of Cambrai was tremendous. The Germans had at last learned and understood that they were beaten.
The Task.—On August 22 I received the details of the operations contemplated on the First Army Front. The plan was substantially the following:— The Canadian Corps, on the right of the First Army, was to attack eastwards astride the Arras-Cambrai Road, and by 144 Overseas Military Forces of Canada.
forcing its way through the Drocourt-Queant line south of the Scarpe to break the hinge of the Hindenburg System and prevent the possibility of the enemy rallying behind this powerfully organised defended area.
These operations were to be carried out in conjunction with the operation of the Third Army then in progress. This attack had been fixed for the next Sunday, August 25. It was represented that this gave barely 48 hours to concentrate the necessary Artillery, part of which was still in the Fourth Army area, and that, furthermore, the Canadian Corps had sentimental objections to attacking on the Sabbath Day. It was then agreed that the attack should take place on Monday the 26th.
On the evening of the 22nd I held a conference of Divisional Commanders at Corps Headquarters (Hautecloque), and outlined the projected operation and my plans for carrying it out.
In addition to a detailed knowledge of the ground, which we had held before, we were particularly benefited by all the reconnaissances and plans made for the capture of Orange Hill during the period of simulated activity at the end of July. The excellence of trench railways, rear communications, and administrative' arrangements in the area were also of great value, and enabled the Canadian Corps to undertake to begin, with only three days' notice, the hardest battle in its history.
Reinforcements had come up, and although all Units were not up to strength, they were all in fighting condition.
The efficiency of the organisation peculiar to the Canadian Corps, and the soundness of the tactical doctrine practised, had been proved and confirmed.
Flushed with the great victory they had just won, and fortified by the experience acquired, all ranks were ready for the coming task.
The Ground.—The ground to be attacked lent itself peculiarly to defence, being composed of a succession of ridges, rivers, and canals, which formed natural lines of defence of very great strength. These natural positions, often mutually supporting, had been abundantly fortified. Their organisation was the last word in military engineering, and represented years of intensive and systematic labour. Barbed wire entanglements were formidable (see Photos A and B), machine gun positions innumerable, and large tunnels had been provided for the protection of the garrison.
Corps Operations, 145 The four main systems of defence consisted of the following lines:— i. The old German front system east of Monchy-le-Preux.
ii. The Fresnes-Rouvroy line.
iii. The Drocourt-Queant line.
iv. The Canal du Nord line.
These, with their subsidiary switches and strong points, as well as the less organised but by no means weak intermediate lines of trenches, made the series of positions to be attacked without doubt one of the strongest defensively on the Western Front.
Broad glacis, studded with machine gun nests, defended the immediate approaches to these lines, and this necessitated in each case heavy fighting to gain a suitable jumping-off line before assaulting the main position.
In addition to these systems, and as a preliminary to the attack on the old German system east of Monchy-le-Preux, it was necessary to capture the very well organised British defences which had been lost in the fighting of March, 1918.
These defences were intact to a depth of about 5,500 yards, and were dominated by the heights of Monchy-le-Preux, from which the Germans were enjoying superior observation.
Throughout these operations there could not be any element of surprise, other than that afforded by the selection of the actual hour of the assaults. The positions to be attacked formed the pivot of the movements of the German Army to the south, and the security of the Armies to the north depended also on these positions being retained. There was consequently little doubt that the enemy was alert, and had made every disposition to repulse the expected attacks. Therefore the plan necessitated provision for very hard and continuous fighting, the main stress being laid on the continuity of the operations.
To carry this out, I decided to do the fighting with two Divisions in the line, each on a one-Brigade front, thus enabling both Divisions to carry on the battle for three successive days ; the two other Divisions were to be kept in Corps Reserve, resting and refitting after each relief.
(The severity of the fighting did not, however, allow this plan to be adhered to, and on many occasions the Divisions had to fight with two Brigades in the front line.) It was understood that British Divisions from (642) L 146 Overseas Military Forces of Canada Army Reserve would be made available as soon as additional troops were required.
To maintain the utmost vigour throughout the operation, the Divisions were directed to keep their support and reserve Brigades close up, ready to push on as soon as the leading troops were expended.
As the protection of the left flank of the attack could not at the outset be dissociated from the operations of the Canadian Corps, the 51st (Highland) Division in the Gavrelle sector remained under my orders.
The initial attack on the 26th was to be launched by the 2nd Canadian Division on the right and the 3rd Canadian Division on the left.
The XVII. Corps was on our immediate right, they being the left Corps of the Third Army.
On the night of the 24th/25th the 2nd Canadian Division, in conformity with operations carried out by the Third Army on its right flank, advanced the outpost line on the outskirts of Neuville Vitasse, later capturing the sugar refinery and some elements of trenches south of that village.
That same night the 51st (Highland) Division, north of the Scarpe, advanced the outpost line opposite Greenland Hill without meeting much opposition.
The objectives for the attack of the 26th were indicated as follows:— The 2nd Canadian Division was to capture Chapel Hill, then work south through the old British support system and join up with the British troops on the right on the northern end of the Wancourt spur, thus encircling the enemy troops in the forward area towards Neuville Vitasse. They were at the same time to push forward and capture the southern end of Monchy-le-Preux Heights.
The 3rd Canadian Division was to capture Orange Hill, then Monchy-le-Preux. The success of the advance was to be exploited as far east as possible.
The 51st (Highland) Division, north of the Scarpe, was to cover the left flank of the 3rd Canadian Division by advancing towards Mount Pleasant and Roeux.
After mature consideration, zero hour, which had been originally set at 4.50 a.m., was changed to 3.00 a.m. in order to Corps Operations. 147 take advantage of the restricted visibility produced by moonlight and so to effect a surprise ; the attacking troops would thus pass through the enemy's forward machine gun defences by infiltration, and be in position to assault at dawn his line of resistance on the eastern slopes of Orange Hill.
The initial assault was to be supported by 17 Brigades of Field and nine Brigades of Heavy Artillery, in addition to the long range guns of the Army Heavy Artillery. (Throughout the Arras-Cambrai operations the Artillery allotted to the Canadian Corps was at all times adequate, varying at times in accordance with the tasks assigned. In the operation against the Drocourt-Queant line the attack was supported by 20 Brigades of Field and 12 Brigades of Heavy Artillery.) Troops attached to the Corps.—The following were attached to the Canadian Corps for the operations:— 5th Squadron, R.A.F.
3rd Brigade, Tank Corps.
As a result of lessons learned during the Amiens operations, it was laid down, as a general principle, that Tanks should follow rather than precede the Infantry. The 3rd Tank Brigade was asked to supply, if possible, nine Tanks to each attacking Division each day, and the necessity of exercising the greatest economy in their employment was impressed on Divisional Commanders.
The Attack—1st Phase.—On August 26, at 3.00 a.m., the attack was launched under the usual Artillery and Machine Gun barrages. It made good progress, the village of Monchy-lePreux being entered early in the day, after a very brilliant encircling attack carried out by the 8th Canadian Infantry Brigade (Brigadier-General D. C. Draper). The trenches immediately to the east of Monchy-le-Preux were found to be heavily held, and were not cleared until about 11 a.m. by the 7th Canadian Infantry Brigade (Brigadier-General H. Dyer). (See Sketch No. 11.) Guemappe was captured by 4 p.m. and Wancourt Tower and the top of Heninel Ridge were in our hands at 10.40 p.m. The defenders of the latter feature fought hard, but eventually succumbed to a determined attack delivered by the 6th Canadian Infantry Brigade (Brigadier-General A. H. Bell), under cover of an extemporised barrage fired by the 2nd Canadian Divisional Artillery (Brigadier-General H. A. Panet). During the night this Brigade captured, in addition, Egret Trench, thus securing a good jumping-off line for the operation of the following day.
(642) L2 148 Overseas Military Forces of Canada.
The situation along the Arras-Cambrai Road was at one time obscure, following a change in the Inter-Divisional Boundary ordered when the attack was in progress. A gap occurred for a few hours, but it was filled as soon as discovered, by the Canadian Independent Force.
The enemy fought strenuously and several counter-attacks were repulsed at various stages of the fighting, three German Divisions being identified during the day and more than 2,000 prisoners captured, together with a few guns and many machine guns.
North of the Scarpe, the 51st (Highland) Division had pushed forward east of the Chemical Works and Gavrelle without meeting serious opposition.
The Canadian Engineers had been actively employed, and all the roads in the forward area were cleared and repaired, thus establishing good communications.
The light railways, which up to this date had been delivering an average of 1,800 tons daily, were pushed forward, closely following up the advance.
The attack was renewed at 4.55 a.m. on August 27 by the 2nd and 3rd Canadian Divisions, in the face of increased opposition, under a uniformly good initial barrage.
The 2nd Canadian Division pushed doggedly forward through the old German trench system, where very stiff hand-to-hand fighting took place, and crossed the Sensee River, after capturing the villages of Cherisy and Vis-en-Artois.
The 3rd Canadian Division encountered very heavy opposition, but succeeded in capturing Bois-du-Vert, Bois-du-Sart, and reaching the western outskirts of Haucourt, Remy, BoiryNotre-Dame and Pelves.
The enemy throughout the day pushed a large number of reinforcements forward, bringing up Machine Gun Units in motor lorries in the face of our accurate Field and Heavy Artillery fire. Hostile Field Batteries in the open, firing over open sights, showed remarkable tenacity, several remaining in action until the personnel had been destroyed by our machine gun fire.
Our casualties were heavy, especially on the 2nd Canadian Division front, and after discussing the situation with the G.O.C., 2nd Canadian Division, and taking into consideration the uncertainty of the situation on the right flank of this Corps Operations. 149 Division, the operations were, after 5.45 p.m., restricted to the consolidation of the line then reached east of the Sensee River.
North of the Scarpe, the 51st (Highland) Division had pushed forward and gained a footing on Greenland Hill, but were forced to withdraw slightly by a heavy German counterattack.
During the night August 27/28 the 8th Division (VIII. Corps) took over the northern half of the 51st Division front.
As the enemy was still holding Plouvain and the high ground north of the Scarpe, the 3rd Canadian Division had been compelled to refuse its left flank, and the front now held by this Division was increased from about 3,700 yards to about 6,000 yards.