1917 – The Ancre, Arras and Cambrai

The first three months of the new year involved General Gough’s Fifth Army in a series of attacks, known collectively as Operation on the Ancre, designed to secure high ground above the eponymous river. There can have been no thought of a break-through as the cavalry remained in winter quarters until the middle of March, when the Regiment received orders to move to a point just north of Albert. The Germans had skilfully withdrawn, almost undetected, to their prepared defences on the Hindenburg Line.

By 26th March, the Regiment was encamped three miles to the west of Bapaume, waiting for the Battle of Arras to begin. Snow and rain made the ground, which had suffered terribly during the Somme bombardments, horrible for horses and soldiers alike, the horses being over their hocks in mud. The tents failed in their primary duty of keeping out the wintry deluge and so it was at this point that the authorities invented ‘Summer Time’; March 23rd. Despite that optimism, snow continued to fall. In these conditions, difficult for fighting and living, A Squadron, who were deployed some miles further east, had a shell land in its midst killing three troopers and thirteen horses. Five others were wounded.

Troopers Adams, Pearce and Richards died together and are buried together in Mory Abbey Military Cemetery.

On April 9th, the Battle of Arras began with an attack by Third Army between Vimy in the north and Arras; south of Arras Fifth Army was to attack the Hindenburg Line, around Bullecourt, the following day. The tanks, which were due to lead the attack in front of Fifth Army were defeated by the state of the ground and driving snow, and did not appear, so the attack was delayed for 24 hours. The Regiment had already deployed to a position just behind the attacking infantry, immediately south of Croiselles.

At 4.00 am the next morning, the attack began. B Squadron, under Captain Parbury was ordered at 5.00 am to follow the advance of 4th and 12th Australian Brigades and to push through as soon as the line had been taken. In a wonderful illustration of the fog of war, some hours later, news was received from Army Headquarters that the village of Bullecourt, as well as Reincourt and Hendecourt had been seized. In fact, Bullecourt was still in enemy hands and the wire in front of it was uncut. Orders were then received to cut the wire.

Aerial photo showing Bullecourt on the right, the Hindenburg line defences and, bottom left, the extensive belts of barbed wire.

Lieutenant Daniel with ten men from the Regiment and fifty men of the 19th Bengal Lancers and 6th Cavalry set out to do so. But the only two tanks to have made it to Bullecourt had been captured and occupied by German machine-gunners. They wrought havoc with the wire detail, who retired with a quarter of the men wounded.

German soldiers pictured with a British tank captured at Bullecourt on 12 April. This may well have been one of the beasts.

The following day, the Australians were driven back to their starting positions and the battle ended.

Between May and November, the Regiment deployed as an infantry company to a trench line east of Peronne. The line appeared to consist of a line of saps dug out towards the enemy, supported by a proper trench about 1500 m further back, and a third trench being constructed still further back. Strenuous efforts were made to improve the position until by November, the Regiment felt that a rabbit would not be able to get through the belts of wire. No-one told the Germans, who on 21st March 1918, in about 6 hours destroyed any trace of the wire in their Spring offensive.

The line that the Indian Cavalry Corps, of which the Regiment was still a part, occupied stretched from Epehy in the north to Varmand in the south. During this time six soldiers were killed and twenty-seven wounded. The six were: Troopers Tyler, Watkins, Hensby, Lofthouse, Gunn, Ringshall.

The battle of Cambrai started with an attack by 376 massed Mk IV fighting tanks on 20th November. The attack very nearly succeeded in breaking through the German lines. On the left it was so successful that 1st Cavalry Division was launched. On the right the attack was held up because a tank had caused a bridge to collapse thus blocking that route.

British Mk IV Tadpole tank. The tail was extended to assist crossing trench systems, such as Hindenburg Line. Design was incorporated into the Mk V.

Five days later, another attack was launched at Bourlon Wood, but by this time the Germans were more prepared for tanks, and little progress was made. The Germans counter-attacked strongly on the 29th November, regaining much of the ground lost. But perhaps both sides had seen the potential in an attack by massed armour. The coming decades would see British and Germans actively developing armoured forces.

The Regiment was now ordered back into trenches at Villeret for two days before being relieved by a Canadian dismounted brigade, while the dismounted company occupied trenches near Hargicourt, which was a relatively quiet sector with little aggression shown by either side. However, during this time troopers Crowsley and Jenkinson were killed.

This concluded operations in 1917, a year that had shown some promise, but had also shown, that though we were able to break into the German line, we had no ability to break-through it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *