Tuesday 20th November 1917
A massive attack has been delivered today, driving towards the town of Cambrai. Readers may remember the 8th Battalion, Bedfordshire Regiment, mentioning that they had seen scores of tanks yesterday and, it is understood, it is these which have spearheaded the attack.
From all we have heard tremendous progress has been made and a breakthrough achieved. Often we at the front hear rumours of impending assaults, but nothing about this, which seems to have taken the enemy similarly by surprise.
As dawn was breaking the fury of a thousand guns pounded the German lines. Six divisions then went forward, along with over four hundred tanks. This huge blow drove like a steam-roller through the defences of the much-vaunted Hindenburg Line and we believe that, in some places, our men have advanced five miles. The villages of le Pave, la Vacquerie, Ribecourt, Marcoing, Havrincourt, and Graincourt have all fallen, though, annoyingly, Bourlon Ridge remains in enemy hands. 20th (Light) Division was about to cross the Escaut MasnieresCanal and attack Masnières but the weight of one of the tanks brought down the bridge it was crossing.
Only our friends the 51st (Highland) Division have encountered serious and stiff opposition. They have been held up attacking the village of Flesquières where, it has been reported, the enemy has been particularly effective at destroying and disabling the tanks. It is unknown whether they have some new weapon which has enabled them to hold up the land dreadnoughts(1). However this may be, old military hands have remarked that Flesquières now seems all but surrounded by the success achieved on both flanks and that the Germans will have to evacuate it or risk surrender.
Such a decisive stroke, it is hoped may finally land the knock-out punch which ruptures the enemy lines and results in widespread cavalry operations in the enemy rear.
We have heard from the adjutant of 8th Bedfords, part of 6th Division, which seized Marcoing and Ribecourt. The story of their day is as follows: they were ready for the attack before five o’clock this morning and just after six the tanks began their advance. Ten minutes later the artillery opened up “with a deafening roar and in blaze of fire”. The Germans were able to put only a feeble barrage into no-man’s land and at 6.35 the first wave of infantry passed over the line of enemy outposts “the Battalion going over well, men lighting pipes and cigarettes on their way” as the adjutant remarked.
By 6.45 the Hindenburg Line was in sight and just after seven, word came back that the Battalion had taken its first objective which was the main Hindenburg Line - front line and support trenches on a frontage of 650 yards running east from the road from Villers-Plouich to Ribecourt. At 7.20 a German officer and six of his men arrived as prisoners at Battalion Headquarters. Just before 8 o’clock B Company under Captain N C F Nixon had captured all its objectives. At ten minutes past eight another 23 prisoners arrived at headquarters which, a few minutes later re-located to the captured German trenches in the Hindenburg Line. Prisoners were now coming in thick and fast and the enemy was undoubtlessly on the run. Eventually five German officers and two hundred other ranks were captured by the Bedfords, including a battalion commander, a medical officer and a staff lieutenant. The Battalion now began to consolidate its position.
About 1.30 pm a pack animal convoy arrived with water and ammunition. As stock was taken it transpired that the 8th Battalion had lost one officer killed and two wounded, ten other ranks killed and 38 wounded or missing. The fine weather of the morning then began to turn to rain. The adjutant finished his report by saying: “A very successful day and all ranks in high spirits quite ready for further action. The tanks did very good work”.
An air of excitement prevails here, behind the lines. There will be many a sleepless night and when fitful sleep comes, it will be with fitful dreams of final victory.
(1) The Germans here, who knocked out 28 tanks, had trained especially in anti-tank tactics and had experience in fighting against French tanks en-masse in the Nivelle Offensive of Spring 1917. In addition 51st Division’s commanding officer, Major-General George Montague Harper, over-ruled the tactics which the Tank Corps employed elsewhere on the battlefield. It has long been thought that in supplanting these tactics with some of his own invention that Harper materially assisted in the poor performance at Flesquières, though some have now questioned this. He was promoted to command IV Corps in March 1918.