The battle at Cambrai, which was launched on November 20th 1917 with over 400 tanks, was reported in our newspapers as a great success.
The role of the cavalry has been a small one in this war, but it was hoped that they might have played a significant part if a breakthrough could be achieved. Capt. Reggie Carr-White (Indian Army), who was in reserve with Hodson’s Horse, found himself in the thick of the action when on November 30th there was a German counter-attack, his breakfast being rudely interrupted:
“An orderly came in with a message telling us to ‘stand to.’ Our horses were out at exercise, and we didn’t know where they had gone to… Meanwhile another message came in, telling us to move at once. . So we all hustled about and packed our things; in the meantime the horses came in and we moved off within the hour…
Nobody knew why we were being moved – the optimists, like myself, thought that we had broken the German line; and the pessimists thought the opposite had happened.”
The closer they got to the action, the clearer it became that the pessimists were right.
“We trotted about another six miles and then halted again, and watched a fine but very sad spectacle. We were in a valley, and about 500 yards in front of us was a low ridge. Along the top of this a British Cavalry regiment was galloping, with German crumps bursting in amongst them. Many of the troops got direct hits on them, and one could see a troop galloping along and suddenly it would practically disappear as a shell burst in it, then a second or two later one would see a few of them straggling forward and a small mound left behind. It made me feel a bit sick. But not a man checked, and all galloped steadily on…
My squadron was the rear squadron of the regiment, and I was about 100 yards behind B squadron, whom I saw trotting along quietly through a gap in the wire in front, and disappearing over the ridge. As I came to the gap and topped the ridge, an extraordinary sight met my eyes: galloping horses everywhere, many of them riderless, and there were many dead horses and men on the ground. Into this medley the Germans were putting crump after crump. B squadron was retiring at a slow gallop and in perfect formation…”
Reggie was told to retire with his squadron and find another way round, to avoid the artillery fire. It was a very confused situation, under shell fire, with people from numerous regiments and “tanks barging about.”
They came back to a British-held trench. Reggie was possibly understating it when he said,
“It must have surprised them to have two squadrons of cavalry jumping over their heads.”
An alternative route was taken and they eventually found their way to the top of a low ridge where the rest of the regiment were digging in, alongside the Guards who successfully attacked and took Gouzancourt.
Digging in meant it was time to send the horses back and for the cavalry to become infantry, ready for another German attack. There were still some British tanks involved in the action, although being a cavalry man, Reggie clearly has mixed feelings about this new form of combat.
“Just then several of our tanks rolled up and seemed uncertain where they were. It was pathetic how perplexed those tanks looked, nosing about liked puzzled rhinoceroses and they made us feel quite sorry for them… They then seemed to become inspired and waddled off, one after the other, towards the Germans.”
But there is no doubt in his mind that those who operate these tanks are brave men.
“One may make jokes about them, but in my opinion the fellows inside are the bravest fellows on earth. Shell after shell burst all round them, and finally of course, several got direct hits on them, and before long four of them were burning like great bonfires. Later in the day I met one of the officers, who had been in one. He told me all the crew in his had been killed and he was very cut about himself.
The Guards and a regiment of Indian cavalry attacked Gauche Wood, dismounted; they followed behind the tanks and took the wood fairly easily. In places they got in with the bayonet.”
From the map it is clear that the German counter-attack had made deep inroads, before being repulsed by our troops to the line shown, just west of Villers-Guislain.