21 January 2009

The Last Stand Of D Company

Here is a map of the Cambrai area uf operations in November 1917

(click to enlarge, click back to return)

The West Ham Battalion were again alongside their brigade friends The Footballers and facing the German front line ('The Hindenburg Line'), towards the town of Mouevres - in this image below, the Germans are positioned on the left with the British on the right.

You can clearly see the canal, Canal Du Nord, running through the google map image. In November 1917, that was still being built. It was something like 30 feet deep and lined with brick tiles on the walls and floor...


Here is an aerial recce photo taken a few days before the battle. You can see the empty canal and at the bottom of the picture, the lines of zigzagging British trenches. In the centre is Lock No5.



On the 30th November, at 6am (represented by the Yellow Line on the image below), D Company was dug in around the earthworks of Lock 5. They were facing the town on their left flank. On the other side of the canal gap in equally muddy building works was B Company.

Suddenly, out of seemingly nowhere, grey waves of Germans came flooding towards the British Lines, in a very well planned counter attack.



In the book "Up the Hammers!" I have plotted all the subsequent action and the epic two day defense, including research from audio interviews and the personal memoirs of men who were there that day. It is an incredible story.


I thought it might also be interesting to hear how "what happened" was told to young boys, just a few months after the battle, in 'The Children's Story Of The War'.



I cant imagine similar being published in these 'politically correct' days! The particular chapter is entitled "A Glorious Stand" and is on page 355.


"A correspondent, describing the fighting astride of the Nord Canal, says:

'There were desperate duels with bombs on the dry floor of the canal, while groups of Germans and British sniped from their shelters on the banks above. The enemy tried to overwhelm the tired garrison in the night, hoping to find our men exhausted and sleeping, or overcome with gas; but their reception was always the same. A staff officer said to me, a few days later, that these men, like their comrades on the right, appeared to have solved the problem of doing without sleep. Fresh ammunition came up steadily, and the fire never slackened. Prisoners expressed amazement when they found that positions which they had vainly sought to take were held by so few men ; and a German regimental commander reported that the British had received heavy reinforcements which was not the case.

'This fighting in the bed of the Nord Canal and on its banks was the strangest feature of the Battle of Cambrai. It was a battle within a battle, and when our troops came back to their present line a few days later the floor of this disused waterway was covered with German dead and wounded."

At this time a desperate struggle was taking place for the possession of that part of the Hindenburg Line which runs from Moeuvres westward to Tadpole Copse. You will remember that it was held by the right brigade of the 56th Division. The enemy made attack after attack, and actually managed to reach the headquarters of the 8th Battalion Middlesex Regiment.

Assisted by the headquarters staff, the battalion made a desperate rally. By means of bombs it held off the enemy until reinforcements arrived, and the position was recovered. Every battalion in this part of the line vied with its neighbour in the valour of its resistance.

Later in the evening the enemy made another attack in force to the south-east of Mceuvres, and again managed to enter our trenches. During this attack a company of the 13th (West Ham) Battalion Essex Regiment, 2nd Division, was holding a position along the west side of the Canal du Nord. The enemy waves flowed on each side of the Essex men and cut them off.

For some hours these gallant fellows held out, and about 4 p.m., seeing that relief was improbable, the two surviving officers, Lieutenant J. D. Robinson and Second- Lieutenant E. L. Corps summoned Company Sergeant- Major A. H. Edwards and Platoon Sergeants C. Phillips, F. C. Parsons, W. Fairbrass, R. Lodge, and L. S. Legg to a council of war.

I need not tell you what their decision was: they determined to fight to the last, and not to think of surrender. Two runners were sent back to the battalion headquarters to inform the commanding officer of the fact, and then the men betook themselves to their rifles and bombs, and continued the struggle with unfaltering courage.

All through the night strenuous efforts were made to send assistance to these devoted men, but in vain. They fought to the death, and maintained to the last a bulwark of valour and undying resolution against the tide of attacking Germans. With their lives they barred the way, and sacrificed themselves to relieve the pressure on the main line of our defence. They fought Britain's Thermopylae, and their glorious heroism must never be forgotten.

A correspondent thus sums up the result of the fighting on the north side of the salient:

" The net result of this carefully-planned German 'surprise', which sacrificed a number of perfectly good divisions in the battle area west of Cambrai, was to give our 2nd Division a better position at the end of the battle than they held when they took over the line from the Ulsters a few days before the attack, except on the left, where the canal lock was lost.

After this slight retirement the division never lost a yard of ground. Although worn out by constant fighting and digging, the men not only threw back the picked German storm troops, but pushed a fresh chain of posts into the enemy's country."



This is a just snippet from the after action report in the war diary. Battalion HQ was at that time codenamed 'Chingford':




The events were dramatically portrayed by the artist Richard Caton-Woodville in a double page spread for the Illustrated London News in February 1918. That young officer with his pistol raised would be Capt Reg Box from Manor Park.


In the book "Up The Hammers!" I have found the family of the officer in charge of B Company (an original volunteer to the West Ham Battalion) who have not only given me his memories of that day but also an audio interview with one of the Essex lads who was captured at the Lock 5 fighting...

It is eerie to hear his voice as he describes how "we were throwing grenades at each other as close as I am to you..."

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