The Cambrai Battlefields
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The name of Cambrai is perhaps most associated with the battle of that name in November 1917, a British offensive which brought the successful use of large numbers of tanks into modern warfare for the first time - nearly 400 were employed. The attack gained considerable ground initially although the Germans then counter-attacked and recovered a great deal of the land, even pushing the British further back than their original starting point in places. The battle lasted officially until December the 6th, and the furthest advance by the British encompassed Bourlon Wood, with the villages of Flesquieres, Havrincourt and Ribecourt all within the area taken and held.
However, the area near Cambrai was fought over for nearly the duration of the war, and the battlefield sites and cemeteries to be seen today reflect that. The Germans took Cambrai in August 1914, in their sweeping advance through France that threatened to win the War before it had really begun. In early 1917 the Hindenburg line ran nearby; this was the strongly fortified position to which the Germans withdrew to consolidate their defences after the Battle of the Somme. After the Battle of Cambrai in late 1917, the Germans commenced their major advance in March 1918, and the area was again the scence of fighting as the Germans pushed forwards. Later in the year, the British and Allied troops advanced in the final stages of the war, as the war of attrition and trenches became a war of movement again.
So there is a lot to see in terms of British involvement in the area, spanning a considerable period of time with positions which changed hands, sometimes on several occasions. It is also a large area; this page is really just an introduction to this relatively little visted part of the battlefields. Over time I hope to add more to this section and split it into separate pages perhaps covering several smaller areas in more detail. There is far more to see on the Cambrai battlefields than just the sites covered here, and there are several excellent battlefield guide books in the 'Battleground Europe' series available.
Louverval Memorial to the Missing
Following the D930 which runs as straight as an arrow from Bapaume towards Cambrai, Louverval Military Cemetery and the Cambrai Memorial to the Missing are found on the left side of the road, just a little after the 'Department du Nord' sign. There is an impressive entrance structure with triple arches. The Memorial to the Missing is on this level to the right, whilst the cemetery is set down below in a hollow to the left. On the left hand of the entrance is inscribed the following: 'To the Glory of God and to the enduring memory of 7,048 Officers and Men of the forces of the British Empire who fell at the Battle of Cambrai 20 Nov - 3 Dec 1917 but who have no known grave. Their names are here recorded'. The inscription is also given in French on the right hand side.
The memorial was unveiled at 10.15 a.m. on the 4th of August 1930 by Liententant-General Sir Louis Vaughan, representing Lord Byng of Vimy. Just one of the many names inscribed here is that of Second Lieutenant John L.R. Bull, serving in the 2nd King's Royal Rifle Corps. He was killed near Lateau Wood on November the 30th 1917, aged just 21. His parents were Edgar and Priscilla Trent, of Dorchester but he was adopted by the Reverend Allen and Mrs. Bull of Shrewton near Salisbury. As long as twenty years later his name still appeared on the anniversary of his death in the 1937 In Memoriam column of The Times.
There are register boxes to the left and right of the entrance way: that on the left covers the cemetery, whilst on the right there are several volumes to cover the Memorial to the Missing. "These all Died in Faith" is inscribed above the columns of the memorial, with the panels listing the missing set in a semi-circular structure behind the entrance. Today, the CWGC records indicate that 7,041 servicemen of the United Kingdom and South Africa are commemorated here, slightly less than the figure inscribed on the entrance to the Memorial. On each edge of the semi-circular structure are relief carvings of war scenes; examples are shown below.
As at any of the Memorials to the Missing, the lists of names show the sacrifice made during the Great War, and there are always interesting features to be seen. There are often photographs of those who fell, left by relatives or other groups who visit, and when I took these pictures someone had left a Tommy's tin helmet at the base of one of the panels.
Louverval Chateau was captured by the 56th Australian Infantry Battalion at dawn on April the 2nd, 1917. Nearly a year later, the Germans retook it in their March 1918 offensive, and after that started a cemetery by the Chateau grounds. After the British retook the area in September 1918, they also used that cemetery. After the Armistice more graves were brought into the cemetery, so it contained 80 Commonwealth burials and also 23 Germans. However, in 1927 the graves from this cemetery were moved to Louverval Military Cemetery, now next to the Memorial. Steps to the left of the Memorial lead down to the cemetery.
Parts of rows B and C here are original wartime burials, but the majority of graves are those which were moved here in 1927. At the same time, seven German graves which had been here were removed. The register also mentions Louverval German Cemetery and that this contained the graves of seven unknown Highlanders, but does not clearly state whether these graves were also moved here after the War.
There are just four rows of graves. Row A is mainly men who died in late 1918, whilst row B is mainly men who died in 1917. The grave of Private RJ Asbury of the Royal Welch Fusiliers has the inscription 'Sweet memories of our beloved only son love from Mother Dad and sisters'. The picture below shows four graves together; men of the 1st London Battalion who all died on the 20th of November, 1917.
About five miles south-west is the village of Ytres. Located up a small road (D19e) to the south-west of the village is Five Points Cemetery. It is not easy to park on the narrow road here without causing an obstruction, so you may need to walk a little way. There is a grass track which leads from the road to the cemetery itself.
The headstones here are mainly of a darker, brown stone than the more usual light grey Portland stone (although a number of different stone types are used in the cemeteries on the Western Front). However, a more recent burial has been made at the end of Row D, as five graves are shown in the plan in the register, whilst there are six now. The newer grave stands out as it is the more usual grey colour, and thus contrasts with the original brown headstones (see photo below). The extra grave is of an unknown soldier of the Queens, and was probably concentrated into this cemetery from Lieramont Communal Cemetery in 1934.
The cemetery was begun by the 53rd Field Ambulance and 18th Casualty Clearing Station in September 1918, when both were stationed near here. It was only used for a short while, and the reason behind the name is no longer known. There are just over 100 burials here, in four rows; with row D at 90 degrees to the others and with one Indian grave in the far corner. This grave is of Driver Dina of the Royal Horse and Field Artillery, Indian Army, and is described as being in the 'Indian Section'; a section that consists just of his grave!
Also buried here is one of the many senior officers to die in the Great War - Brigadier-General Arthur Sanders. He was commanding 50th Brigade, part of the 17th (Northern) Division, when he was killed by machine-gun fire on the 20th of September 1918. He had only been in command of the Brigade for a few days, and was awarded a post-humous bar to the Distinguished Service Order he had already won.
Another interesting burial here is William Hesford, who served as Private W. Chadwick in the 2nd Royal Welch Fusiliers. He was only 15 when he died of wounds on the 15th of September 1918, and interestingly is recorded as having been born at Roxbury in Massachusetts, son of William and Emma Hesford of Jamacia Plain, Boston Massachusetts. He was one of many Americans who joined up and served in the British or Canadian forces; more than 150 are believed to have come from Massachusetts alone. In any event, to die at the age of fifteen far away from home is another reminder of the grim realties of the First World War. He may well have been the youngest American soldier to die on active service in World War One, although serving with the British Army.
Just after the road leading up to Five Points Cemetery is a sign notifying that you are entering the Department of the Somme.
A little further south, to the right from the D18 on the D172 leading towards the A2 motorway and Rocquigny is Rocquigny-Equancourt Road British Cemetery. The name comes from the fact that this cemetery is about equidistant between the two villages. The cemetery was started in 1917 when the area was occupied by British troops after the Germans withdrew to the Hindenburg Line, and used until March 1918 when the Germans took the area again during their offensive. It was used mainly by two Casualty Clearing Stations based nearby at Ytres, the 21st and 48th. The Germans, who called it 'Etricourt Old English Cemetery', also used it when they held the area and there are still nearly 200 German graves here today.
There are special memorials to seven men known to be, and two who are believed to be buried here, which are located to the right side of the the cemetery entrance. These memorials are to men buried here by the Germans when they held the area. There are 1,838 Commonwelath soldiers buried here, with only 21 being unidentified. Ten French civilians are also buried here.
In Plot 8, Row C Captain William Walter Morrice of the 3rd Battalion the Wiltshire Regiment is buried. Morrice, who was attached to the Labour Corps, was killed on the 30th of December 1917 aged 36, and is recorded by CWGC as being the son of John and Jessie Morrice of Monkton Farleigh Rectory near Bradford on Avon. The original cross placed over his grave was not the utilitarian IWGC cross often seen in pictures, but was carved from a substantial piece of timber around three inches thick. It was quite ornate as well, with the arms of the cross enclosed by a circular piece. We know this because the cross can still be seen today, in the church of St. Peter and St. Paul at Longbridge Deverill in Wiltshire, one of a number of original battlefield crosses which can be seen in churches around the UK.
There is also a Victoria Cross winner buried here. This is Sergeant John Rhodes of the 3rd Grenadier Guards. As well as the VC, this brave man had also won the DCM and bar when he was killed on the 27th of November 1917, aged 26. The feat for which he was awarded the VC occurred near the Houthulst Forest in Flanders on the 9th of October 1917. He was in charge of a Lewis gun section and after shooting several enemy soldiers he then advanced by himself through a barrage to take a pillbox, where he captured nine prisoners including an artillery forward observation officer. He brought his prisoners back to the British lines.
Ribecourt Road Cemetery is just outside the village of Trescault (which is north-east of Ytres). When I took these pictures, the turf was being replaced, and so the cemetery appeared a little bare, but there were beautiful red roses growing.
Ribecourt Road Cemetery contains graves from two periods; firstly from November 1917 to February 1918, mainly graves of the 51st (Highland) and 59th (North Midland) Divisions. The cemetery was then used again in October 1918, with almost all these later graves being of men from the 42nd Division (who called it the Divisional Cemetery, Trescault). There are just over 250 soldiers buried here, and the register makes reference to the 42nd Division memorial which is located just a few hundred metres away.
The 42nd Division Memorial is right on the edge of Trescault village, on the left hand side of the road as you leave heading towards Havricourt. It is easy to miss if driving, as it is now set right next to a house. It is a compact rather than a tall memorial, with 1914-1918 inscribed on the front and a cross with diamonds carved in relief surmounting it.
The inscription on the front reads 'In memory of all ranks of the 42nd East Lancashire Territorial Division who gave their lives for King and Country during the Great War and in commemoration of the attack and capture of the Hindenburg line at Trescault by the Division on September 28th 1918'. The inscription is also given in French on the rear of the memorial. The original plans for the memorial had a much briefer main inscription: 'To the Glorious Dead of the 42nd Division B.E.F.'.
The original location proposed for the memorial was in 'Bilhem Farm Cemetery', which was another name used for Ribecourt Road Cemetery. However, permission to erect the memorial in the cemetery was refused by the Imperial War Graves Commission, who in December 1919 stated that they felt memorials in cemeteries should be restricted to the commemoration of individuals. The location then chosen was opposite the entrance to Bilhem Farm. The land the memorial stands on (about six square metres) was donated by Madame Bridour, on the condition that if the memorial were to cease to exist in the future the land should revert to her heirs.
The memorial was completed by 1921 and officially unveiled by Major-General Solly-Flood on Easter Sunday in 1922. Another memorial for the 42nd Division was planned at Bucquoy, but it seems that this was never actualy completed.
Some distance to the north in the village of Havrincourt is another Divisional Memorial, this time a much taller and imposing structure, commemorating the 62nd (West Riding) Division. This is a very tall obelisk, with tall iron railings around it, and the pelican motif of the Division can be seen at two corners. The Divisional battle honours are recorded on the sides of the memorial, including Havrincourt from 1917.
The 62nd Division attacked in a northeasterly direction through and either side of the village on the 20th of November 1917, with the Canal du Nord on the left as the Divisional boundary. The Hindenburg Line was very strong here but they had fifty tanks to support them (although there should have been more than sixty according to the plans). It took them 30 minutes to reach the Hindenburg Line, and take this (it curved south-east of the village), and by 8.15 a.m. they had reached the Blue Line - 2,000 yards on from their start point, although resistance continued in Havrincourt village for some time. By 11 a.m. the Division were advancing on the next objective, the Brown Line, and by the end of the day 186 Brigade had reached Graincourt, an advance of around 7,000 yards from the starting position.
The village of Havrincourt was lost in March 1918 during the major German offensive. It was again the 62nd Division who retook the village on the 12th of September 1918 and held it despite German counter-offensives. So the 62nd Division have strong associations with the area, thus the decision to place their memorial here. Some of their men from both occasions lie in the cemetery nearby.
There is a small track near the memorial leading downhill, and a left turn at bottom through woodland (it can be very muddy here) leads to Grand Ravine Cemetery.
The cemetery was originally just the graves in what is now Row B, made by the 62nd Division Burial Officer in December 1917. When the Division retook the village in 1918, the same officer added two more rows in October 1918.
The cemetery still contains just these three rows, all original wartime burials, and 128 out of 139 are identified men. This is a very quiet and peaceful spot, tucked in a valley and behind the woodland nearby. It is apparently little visited, but places like this for me are where best to remember those who fell in the Great War, in the peace they now lie in. As always, reading the inscriptions on the headstones reveals something behind the names: that on Private John Dickinson's headstone reads 'For years a scout and true to his word of honour for King and Country. John Dickinson was killed on the 27th of September 1918, when the village was retaken. He was from Wallasey, served in the of the 13th King's (Liverpool Regiment), and his years of being a scout cannot have been far behind him - he was just 18 when he died.
In the centre of the village of Havrincourt is the chateau, seen here through the gates at the end of a long drive that leads to the house. The Chateau was used by the Germans to site machine-guns with which they fired on the 2/6th West Yorkshires on the 20th of November 1917. Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Best was killed by shots fired from the Chateau or the grounds on the 20th of November 1917, one of several senior officers killed that day. He is buried in Ruyaulcourt Military Cemetery, a few miles to the south-west of here. The chateau was destroyed in the War, rebuilt and then destroyed again in the Second World War and once more rebuilt, in a similar style.
On the right-hand side of the D15 road which leads from Trescault to Havrincourt, just before it enters the latter, there is a bunker. This is hard to spot in the undergrowth of a wooded area (Chateau Wood) a little off the road.
There are massive iron doors on the bunker, which I believe was a machine gun post.
The Canal du Nord runs roughly north-south through the region, and for part of the way through a tunnel. West of Havrincourt it runs in a deep ravine.
On the D5 leading from Havrincourt towards Hermies the road crosses the Canal du Nord. The carriageway splits into two, with one lane for each direction of travel crossing the canal on a seperate bridge. North of here the German front line actually ran by the side of the canal. The southern of the two bridges here (carrying the traffic towards Havrincourt) was constructed by the New Zealand Tunnelling Company in September 1918, when this area was under German shellfire. It was constructed on the bank (the Canal was at that time dry but the ravine was the obstacle) and slid into place on rollers.
The village of Flesquieres is a little further to the east, nearer to Cambrai. In the centre of the village is an information board showing a map of the area and giving some background on the Battle of Cambrai in relation to the village. This is also very near to where a recovered tank, 'Deborah', is located in a barn. This tank was originally designated D.51, and it went through the village of Flesquieres around 10.15 a.m. on the 20th of November 1917, when it was commanded by Lt. Frank Gustave Heap.
The tank was hit by mortar shells and knocked out near where Flesquieres Hill British Cemetery is located (see below). The tank was found buried there in 1998, and there are plans to make the barn it now stands in a museum. Some more information on the tank and the story behind it can be seen in an article written by Paul Reed on the Hellfire Corner website.
On the left side of the D89 leaving Flesquieres to the south towards Ribecourt is the site of a new Tank Memorial. This is a project of the Flesquieres Tank Association, who were also involved in the recovery of 'Deborah'. I took these pictures in October 2006, and the memorial did not yet look finished. There were a run of flagpoles at the edge, and in the centre a concrete area with tank tracks, bootprints and bricks set in it.
The use of tanks at Cambrai in November 1917 was aided by the fact that secrecy was maintained about the forthcoming assualt almost until it began and so the element of surprise was great. There was no massive preliminary bombardment as at the Somme; the artillery opened up as the attack commenced.
Opposite the Tank Memorial is a sunken road leading downhill. This may well have been used by tanks during the Battle of Cambrai, and is now marked by a sign 'Sur la Route des Tanks'.
The Tank Memorial is located right by the walls of Chateau Farm. A little before it the blue iron gates of the farm can be seen. Another track leads roughly north past the tank memorial, and in the wooded ground to the right craters can be seen. This area was roughly where one German artillery officer fought on and managed to destroy several tanks. On the edge of this wooded area are what appear to be an entrance to underground bunkers.
A little further along from this wooded area, the wall of the farm turns to run left from the track. There is a very well-preserved German signalling post at the far end which may be seen by walking carefully along the side of the field.
A little to the east of the village is Flesquieres Hill British Cemetery. There was originally a German cemetery here. The German cemetery (Flesquieres Soldiers' Cemetery No. 2) was the first made, whilst the British cemetery was started in 1918 by the 2nd Division. The German cemetery is no longer there; in fact, the German graves have been moved twice. After the Armistice they were moved, then moved again in 1924 to another German concentration cemetery. The space made when the German graves were removed from Flesquieres Hill British Cemetery was used to extend it, and today Plots 3-8 stand there instead. The original graves here, Plots 1 and 2, stand at an angle to the other graves.
There are five special memorials to men believed to be buried here, and two to men known to be buried here, and these memorials are located at the front right of the cemetery. At the back right are special memorials to three men of the Royal Naval Division, whose graves in the 63rd Division Cemetery between Marcoing and and Villers-Plouich were destroyed by shell fire. Other graves from this cemetery were among those concentrated here in the 1920s. In total there are now more than 900 men buried here, with one-third being unidentified. Among them are graves of men who served in the Tank Corps, with it's distinctive emblem visible on their headstones.
Flesquieres was the scence of actions involving tanks: a section commander with the 8th Tank Corps recalled moving up to the Beetroot factory (located just a couple of hundred yards away from the cemetery) near the village and seeing on the way a crescent of 16 damaged British tanks 'with enormous gaping holes blown in their sides and front. One or two were a shapeless mass of steel'.
The register is in the structure at the rear of the cemetery, and you can also see another cemetery from here. This is Orival Wood Cemetery, reached down a small lane leading left from the road opposite the cemetery.
Orival Wood Cemetery is a smaller cemetery; there are over 300 buried here, with 20 burials of German soldiers in two rows at the rear of the cemetery. The graves are all set in straight rows, with a profusion of flowers growing tall and high. The grave of one Chinese labourer is also here, at the back right. This man, Chang Te Hsun, died in February 1919 but this meets the qualification date for a war grave (for the Great War this was between the 4th of August 1914 and the 31st of December 1921). It seems likely that this man was originally buried in Flesquieres Chateau Cemetery, as the CWGC details show that this was one of two other cemeteries in Flesquieres which were concentrated here in 1930, the other being the 51st Division Cemetery (the 51st (Highland) Division attacked the village during the battle of Cambrai in 1917).
Orival Wood (next to the cemetery) was cleared by the 2nd Grenadier Guards on the 27th September 1918 in the final Allied advance but the cemetery was started the previous year during the battle of Cambrai. It was used again during the 1918 actions near here, and probably held around 100 graves by the end of the war. Over 200 graves were then concentrated here in 1930 (see above).
There is a war poet buried here: Lieutenant Ewart Allan Mackintosh. When I took these pictures, his grave was almost obscured by the flowers growing around it, but there were commemorations left on his grave.
Mackintosh was a published poet who also won the Military Cross, when in May 1916 he carried in one of his men, Private David Sutherland, who had been wounded in the German trenches. Sadly, Sutherland did not survive, and Mackintosh had to leave his body after carrying him for some 100 yards. Sutherland has no known grave and is commemorated on the Arras Memorial to the Missing.
Mackintosh served in the 5th Seaforth Highlanders, part of the 51st Division which attacked Flesquieres during the battle of Cambrai. He was actually born in Brighton (of Highland parents) and studied at Christ Church College, Oxford. He was gassed and wounded at High Wood in 1916, and invalided home. Although he then had the chance of an instructor's post in England, he returned to France and was killed at the Battle of Cambrai.
Several of the headstones in the cemetery have the words "buried near this spot" inscribed on them, as well as the man's name they commemorate. This wording, according to the CWGC records means in this case that these men were identified "collectively but not individually" - presumably a mass burial with individual locations not recorded. However, on occasion this same inscription may mean the grave is in the general area and not even perhaps within the confines of the cemetery itself.
Bourlon Wood to the north of the Cambrai battlefields dominates the hill as the D16 road leads up towards the village. The road then runs downhill again into the village itself, and there is a Canadian Memorial which is signposted to the right just before the church. Part of Bourlon Wood was taken in the 1917 Battle of Cambrai, although it could not be held..However, the memorial here commemorates the crossing of the Canal du Nordon the 27th of September 1918.
Imposing steps lead up left and right from the entrance gates, with a mature 'avenue' of trees in the centre. A small plaque near the entrance records that the land for this memorial was donated by the Count de Francqueville. The memorial itself is similar to those found at Coucelette on the Somme and Hill 62 in the Ypres salient. Arrows on th path around the memorial point to locations nearby, including Cambrai as well as Bapaume, Peronne, Douai, Vimy and Arras.
The inscription on the memorial records that on the 27th of September 1918 the Canadian Corps 'forced the Canal du Nord and captured this hill'. Just to the left of the entrance to the Canadian Memorial site is a memorial to resitance members who died in June 1944, during the Second Wrold War. 175-176
Sources & Acknowledgements
Centre for First World War Studies website
Commonwealth War Graves Commission website
David Fletcher (Ed.): Tanks and Trenches
Major & Mrs Holt: Battlefield Guide to the Western Front - South
Jack Horsfall & Nigel Cave: Flesquieres
St. Mihiel Tripwire - Online Newsletter of the Great War Society
The Times archives