Written by: Alexandra B.
The following is a summary of the story of the Battle of Cambrai as told by Lieutenant-Colonel Harcus Strachan V.C., M.C.
LCol. Strachan V.C. served with the Fort Garry Horse during WW1 from 1915-1918 and was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions and extraordinary valour during the Battle of Cambrai.
Ten decades ago, in the year 1916, tanks made their first appearance with a design crafted specifically for traveling over rugged terrain while carrying heavy machine guns. Their arrival would have a great impact on the outcome of the Battle of Cambrai.
At that time, the infantry’s numbers were limited, and no deliberate plan had been constructed. The tanks had the job of delivering a surprise attack — a task previously delivered by massed artillery. On November 20, 1917, the German line would be broken. “B” Squadron of the Fort Garry Horse, commanded by Captain Duncan Campbell M.C. was ordered to continue independently to German Corps Headquarters at Escadouvres. Their job was to impound the personnel, destroy records and communication, and rejoin their brigade.
The attack was successful, and by noon, tanks and infantry had infiltrated the town of Masnieres. The greatest resistance they experienced knocked out about sixteen tanks. Once the center of the town had been reached, it was discovered that the only bridge across the canal had given way under the weight of a tank. An alternative route for the Squadron was found across a lock gate to the east, and after crossing there, another challenge presented itself. Camouflage netting was protecting the entirety of the road and halt was made to cut a way through. From that point on, the Squadron proceeded in columns.
At one point in the operation, The Squadron was confronted by a German artillery battery. They had been specifically ordered not to engage, but the opportunity was too good to miss. The battery was successfully overrun, and the Squadron reassembled and continued to the objective.
Severe casualties had been suffered, but success was not far out of reach. Although the enemy was surrendering on all sides during the early part of the engagement, occasionally, additional casualties were suffered due to machine gun fire from both wings and the rear.
B Squadron numbers had been reduced from 150 to about 50. Many remaining horses were wounded and losing strength quickly. There was no sign of the troops advancing; an all-around defence against attacks by German infantry, which were in turn beaten off.
By 4:30 p.m., it was obvious the progression of the brigade had been interrupted and that their strength was inadequate for the fulfillment of the mission. A group of about 40 members with fixed bayonets and orders to attack set out. The enemy was unaware of their presence and purpose.
One officer was wounded, but many casualties were suffered on the enemy’s side. A body of two officers and eight other tanks drove the enemy eastward along the road. They were cut off; the Squadron would be returning in two groups.
The larger group was under command of Lt William Cowen. The groups had been separated in the dark, and Cowen’s group arrived back at Brigade HQ first, assuming that all Strachan’s group had been lost. The smaller force succeeded in reaching the eastern periphery of the village of Masnieres, and on November 21st, successfully crossed the canal. Strachan’s group arrived back at HQ very early on the 21st, having hidden in a basement in Masnieres for a while, to the great relief of the CO.
43 soldiers returned out of a strength of 150. The members of the Squadron that had remained intact were in action again on December 1st at Chapel Crossing and Gauche Wood.
The young Canadians’ performance was a prime example of ability and endurance in challenging situations. Although the main objective was not executable, their perseverance was an exceptional example of how these types of operations should be carried out, and it had direct connection to the winning of the War.