from 'the War Illustrated, 25lh October, 1918
The Cambrai Battlefield
By Hamilton Fyfe

Men and Cities of the War

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Like nearly all the towns in the North of France, Cambrai lies in a hollow. From a ridge to the west of it we used last winter to .look at the tower of the cathedral we could only see the top of it — and wonder what the Germans were doing there. On this ridge there were derelict Tanks, some of those which were put out of action in the battle of November, 1917. To the right was Bourlon Wood, to the left the village of Flesquieres, shot all to pieces, not a house left whole.

On the glacis of the ridge we could see plainly the broad tracks which the Tanks had made, and we had to pick our feet up carefully among the tangles of barbed-wire. This was the .German wire through which the Tanks tore a path for our infantry. The ground was pock-marked with shell-holes. German snipers in a village near the wood sent bullets "kissing" over whenever a man exposed himself in daylight ; a sinister stretch of country, silent and deserted. Yet there was a fascination in getting as near to the enemy's line as we could, and gazing through field-glasses at the top of the tower, so near and yet so far.

Bourlon Wood, if it grows up again, will be a wood of dreadful memories. It was fought for with obstinacy disastrous to both sides. I suppose no single spot on any front has been more hideously dosed with gas-shells. North of the wood runs the Arras-Cambrai road.

The Canal du Nord

Here occurred some of the hardest fighting in March. I heard from some of those who took part in it of an ingenious expedient employed by the enemy when his advance was being held up by the stubborn gallantry of our men. The German difficulty was that of finding any cover for their storming troops. To make it they sent over 5'9's short of our line, and made big shell-holes, which were at once occupied by their men.

Farther back from Bourlon Wood is the monstrous spoil-bank of a disused mine, End in front of this the great concrete ditch called the Canal du Nord. An impressive feat of engineering, this deep, wide waterway, complete except for the water. There was a wooden bridge across it, and looking northward, we could sec where the barrier was between our troops and the enemy. On the bed of the canal soldiers walked, and transport waggons rattled, carrying food to the men who. lived there. For this served as the second line of our trench system until the Germans in their March offensive forced their way across and drove us back.

Little did either they or we think that in six months British troops would recross it and sweep on into Cambrai and beyond, pushing them, a disordered and disheartened force, into the open country between Cambrai and Le Cateau, and then farther still.

The first time I saw this four-times-famous battlefield was in August, 1914. I had motored out from Amiens, passing at frequent intervals along the road lorries filled with the British soldiers of the Regular Army who had just been landed in France. It was a hot afternoon. The sun scorched the stubble of the harvested fields. From the farms by the roadside and in the village streets the country-girls ran, throwing flowers and cigarettes and chocolate to the "chocolats," as they called the men in unfamiliar khaki, who threw down their shoulder-badges in exchange. Four times the red horror of war has passed since then over that countryside, now ruined and devastated, grown over with rank grass and weeds, the cornfields furrowed by shells instead of the ploughshare, the orchards marked only by a few mutilated stumps of trees. All that the farm-folk will find of their homesteads are heaps of brick and rubbish. That is what war means. Yet there are still people who say the world will never get rid of war. To which I reply : "A world which, after this, permits war deserves to have war,"

Four Years Ago

I wonder how many of those British soldiers who were singing on the Amiens-Cambrai road that August day are still alive ! They went right on through the old town, on to the Belgian frontier, and some of them across it to Maubeuge and Mons. I went that evening to Le Cateau. Cambrai was full of soldiers, both French and English. The townspeople collected round the Englishmen in knots, and they tried to talk to each other, and all were in capital humour. Just about a week later our troops were retreating through the place as fast as they could. Most of the inhabitants had left by that time. I remember their waggons cumbering the roads for many a day.

At Le Cateau the British Headquarters Staff had just settled itself in, that warm, scented summer night. There was a rare run on the accommodation of the one small hotel. To get a room was impossible. Dinner could be had by those who were patient enough to wait for it. Adam, the Paris correspondent of the "Times," and Ward Price, of the "Daily Mail," were with me. We dined in the crowded little room, then strolled out into the place to take the air ; and in the place we were promptly arrested by the Provost-Marshal.

Those were the days when the British Army was terribly afraid of war correspondents. It has since learnt that they are like dogs: if they are fed well, and given a warm place to sleep in, and taken out regularly (in motor-cars) for exercise, and sometimes patted on the head, they behave quite nicely, and give no trouble at all. But. at that early date, they were regarded and treated as desperadoes.

Under Arrest

The Provost-Marshal said \ve had no right to be in Le Cateau. We told him this was news to us. He was stern, and said, "I could keep you under arrest if I liked." We said we wished he would. We had no place to sleep, and it would suit us very well to be provided with a lodging for the night. He replied grimly that he should put us in the town lock-up.

"Give me your word you will report yourselves to-morrow morning to Colonel Macdonagh, and you can go." That was his final decision.

Colonel Macdonagh is now General Sir Charles Macdonagh, Adjutant-General at the War Office. The Provost-Marshal I came across much later on, commanding a very famous division — the division which the Germans set at the head of a list of divisions to be specially feared, the Highland Division, the 5ist. Now he commands a corps. He has proved himself one of our ablest Army leaders, and he has quite got over his distrust of the newspaper man. The last time I saw him he spent the best part of an hour, during a battle which he was helping to direct, giving me a full account of what his divisions had done, illustrating it by diagrams which he drew in the dust of the roadway with his stick.

Next morning we drove through Cambrai again before steering south for St. Quentin, Compiegne, and Paris. That was the last any war correspondent saw of the streets of Cambrai until the other day, when we took it back after its four years of German occupation.

It was a pleasant old town to pass through. No features of particular interest, but an air of prosperous old age about it. I dare say it will recover, as it has often recovered before, and before many years are past will be as fat and well-liking as it was in 1914. For hundreds of years this has been a country fought over whenever the Courts of Europe quarrelled and made their easily-duped subjects believe they . had a grudge against some other nation. It was a country just suited to the old kind of battles — flat mostly, with no abrupt eminences, only gentle slopes; no rivers to speak of, only small sluggish streams, and slow-flowing, straight canals; a good country for cavalry, for battles of manoeuvre, a good country for Tanks.

Surprise and Counter-Surprise

Tanks and cavalry between them came near to taking Cambrai in November 1917. I was in London at that time, and I remember talking to a man on the top of an omnibus, an old .retired officer of the Regular Army, while the celebration peals were being rung. "Foolish," he said ; "premature and foolish ! Why can't these bishops keep quiet ? It's like asking for trouble !" And, sure enough, trouble ensued.

We had surprised the enemy and gained a palpable advantage. But we had left one of our flanks very weak, and in his turn he worked off a surprise on us. The enemy was quick to take advantage of the thinness of our line, hurled a solid wedge against it, and dented it in. The report of the inquiry held about this unfortunate episode has not been published; therefore the facts cannot be related, but they are sufficiently known.

So rude was the enemy's blow, and so rapid. his progress, that some Labour Battalion officers, who were taking an early morning joy-ride in a motor-car, found to their dismay a village, which had been in our hands when they drove through it on their way out, filled with Germans when they returned. Their driver saw there was only one thing to be done. Like Browning's "low man with a little thing to do," he "saw it and did it." Straight through the village at top speed the car went, over the Germans who summoned it to stop, and away into safety. A "stout fellow" that, to use an expression very common in the Army to-day. I hope he had his reward.


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