Memoirs & Diaries - A Cavalry Brigade at Cambrai, November 1917
Our cavalry brigade arrived in Peronne in November 1917, after a long trek up from billets.
We had had a fairly easy time during the summer of that year. For a few months we had been dismounted and had been up at Vimy Ridge doing all sorts of work: digging reserve trenches, reinforcing communication trenches and digging new ones - in fact, doing real navvy work, which, on the whole, was enjoyable, as far as anything could be enjoyable in France during the War. The weather was good, rations were plentiful, though the water had a wicked taste.
The front line was far enough away then to allow us to have concert parties in the evening, when we could stretch out on the grass and have our beer brought to us from the canteen. We sang songs, told yarns, and played cards. In the words of Flynn Mitchell, we were having a "hell of a time".
Although there was plenty of work, life was bearable. There are doubtless plenty of men still living who will remember Roclincourt and Ecurie Camp during the summer of 1917. Those of you who know that sector will remember Essex Walk - the duckboard track - and Ouse Alley, Tired Alley, and the Oppy Switch.
It was along these that we trekked to our nightly tasks, at which we sweated and grumbled; and it was along these that we trekked back after we had finished, at two, three, and four o'clock in the morning.
We had to get away before daybreak, under the I ever-friendly cover of Ouse Alley. Where this communication emerged there was a water tank, our welcome half-way rest.
This sojourn at Vimy ended only too soon. One evening dozens of lorries lined up at Labyrinth Avenue, and we returned to our horses. At last the cavalry was to be used in its proper capacity. Great preparations were going on for the Passchendaele stunt.
We trekked up to Dickebusch, stayed there for a couple of days, and came back to the very billets we had deserted. Then we heard that we were to take Cambrai. We arrived in Peronne, as I have said, in November 1917.
The great offensive was to begin on the 20th. Meanwhile, officers and N.C.O.'s were being given instructions. New maps were issued to section leaders; the types of aeroplanes that were going to work with us were explained, and the streamers and the colour of the Verey lights.
On the night of the 19th we moved off at a walk. It was pitch dark and approaching midnight.
"March at ease, but no smoking" was the order, and later on, "No talking".
All that could be heard was the clip-clop of horses' feet, creaking of saddlery and champing of bits. Now and again the sound of a muffled cough. Fins was the rendezvous. We got there about 3 a.m., and off-saddled. Zero hour was 6 a.m.
I was detailed for fodder fatigue. To get to the limbers we had to go through the lines of several regiments, and here I saw men with whom I had been training in 1914 in barracks in England. All our cavalry in France was concentrated at this rendezvous.
I had never seen so many horses and men together at one parade. It was an awe-inspiring sight. Dragoons, Lancers, Hussars - they were all there, as well as Indian mounted troops. The "saddle-up" went for an Indian brigade first.
By this time the bombardment was heavy. Tanks and infantry were well on their way to the Hindenburg Line, the supposed impregnable trench. Rumours had already reached us that this trench was taken. The Indian brigade disappeared over the Ridge in column of troop. Prisoners were coming towards us. A good sign. Everybody seemed in high spirits.
Saddle-up came for our brigade next. We moved off in column of troop. We crossed the Hindenburg Line fairly early in the morning. Many tanks had got across, but several had been put out of action and were lying derelict.
Seemingly we marched for hours, without a sign of the enemy, except for prisoners. We went through captured villages two abreast. In the afternoon we received a check, but no Germans were in sight. Only their artillery was in evidence. We took cover behind a battered hedge. Our troop lost a couple of horses there. They had to be destroyed after being wounded.
All the afternoon we moved about, trotting here, galloping there, scarcely knowing in what direction the enemy was by this time. Towards dusk we halted and dismounted on the borders of a village. There were many prisoners here, looking at us with fixed gaze. Some had a cynical smile upon their faces, some looked dejected, while others simply grinned.
Later, we moved off at a walk, and, coming to an open field by the roadside, we again dismounted. It was raining. A dismal rain. Real November stuff that gradually wetted us through until eventually we could feel it trickling through our puttees.
For hours we stood by our horses. Then, at midnight, we were told to off-saddle and peg down for the night. The prospect was by no means a cheerful one, but we lay down behind the horses to get what little sleep we could.
Two or three hours later I was aroused by a savage dig in the ribs. My section corporal had been told to get in some ammunition that had been dumped by the roadside, so, with several others, I was kicked into a state of somnambulism, and we trudged down the road for about half a mile in one of the blackest nights that I can remember.
We sweated, we grumbled, and we cursed. But the job had to be done. Our Hotchkiss gun team would need this ammunition tomorrow. Tomorrow came. It was still raining.
At daybreak we went on fodder fatigue, replenished nosebags, had a bully-beef and biscuit breakfast, and went forward once more. Early in the afternoon our regiment lined up in a sunken road in front of a small village. The enemy was there. We were to drive him out.
Enemy 'planes had spotted us though. Enemy shells were plentiful. Lieutenant T. galloped along the rear, at the same time shouting, "See that your swords are loose".
We sat tense in our saddles, waiting for the order to go forward. Everybody was "keyed up". Would the order ever come?
Now, after the lapse of a dozen years, I try to recall some of my thoughts and emotions during those moments. I was young then, very young indeed to be a cavalryman. Barely twenty, and there were men in my troop who had campaigned in South Africa.
There I sat astride a powerful bay, wondering whether he would keep his feet in the plunge that was to come, or whether he would fall in the morass: whether we should both come back triumphant or whether I should come back carrying my saddle. It never occurred to me that I should not come back.
At last the orders came: "Half-sections right, walk march! Form sections! Head, left wheel! Draw swords! Trot! Form troop! Form column of half squadron! Gallop!"
The village lay about three-quarters of a mile away. We galloped fiercely to the outskirts, rapidly formed sections and got on to the road, numbers 1 and 2 troops cantering into the village first.
Donelly, the Irishman, went raving mad, cutting and thrusting wildly at retreating Germans. Indescribable scenes followed.
The order came to dismount. Germans emerged from dugouts in all directions, some giving themselves up, others making a fight of it with a few bombs. No. 1 troop received the bombs in its midst. The bomb-throwers were accounted for with rifle and revolver.
We took many prisoners, but the major portion of the garrison holding the village had cleared out before we arrived. Very soon their machine guns were in action again, and shells were dropping in and behind the village. I, being No.3 of a section, was a horse-holder and had to take four horses to the rear.
All except No. 3's manned the trenches. Then followed a night of anguish. A week in the front-line trenches is better than one night as a horse-holder under shell-fire. What can one man do with four terrified horses? Nothing, except keep them together as much as possible. If shells burst behind they lunge forward. If shells burst ahead they go back on their haunches, nearly pulling your arms out of their sockets.
It is a constant worry of body and mind to keep them in some sort of order. Towards midnight the shelling died down. Said our shoeing-smith corporal, "We'd better give 'em a feed". And we did - after a struggle. These horses were hungry and thirsty. Neither horses nor men had had anything to eat since early morning.
The "shoey" said "Don't let 'em eat it all". But to stop them was the thing. Once the nosebags were on they took good care we didn't take them off again until they were empty! No.2 of my section, a noted glutton, finished his corn first. Not being content with his feed, he had licked all the paint from a bully-beef tin that his owner had placed in the nosebag for safety. Two candles also fell victims to his voracity.
Just before daybreak orders came to take the horses further back. We retreated out of gun-fire range and hung about all that day. Late that night our comrades in the trenches were relieved.
They joined us about midnight. There were many empty saddles. I led Corporal Smith's horse. Smith, the lucky devil, had received "Blighty" wound. His horse would have a new owner with the next draft.
We got back to Metz at 3 a.m., watered and fed, and then got down behind the horse-lines in a drizzling rain. Reveille at 6 a.m. Rations came up for a full regiment. It worked out at two to a loaf, instead of three or four.
Full stomachs improved our spirits. But what mud! Up to our knees at the water troughs. No attempt was made at grooming. "Leave the mud on," the squadron leader said, "help to keep them warm."
Rumours were now flying about that we were to move up, dismounted. At dusk, orders came to be in readiness at a moment's notice - one man to a troop of horses to stay behind. Eight, nine, ten o'clock came, but no order to "fall in".
"Let's get down to it," said Nobby Clarke, and we were just dozing off when "Fall in" sounded. We grumbled and cursed at the fates that had beguiled us. If we had kept awake the situation would not have been so bad. As it was, we could barely rouse ourselves.
It was about 11 p.m. and inky black. Our blankets, rolled in ground-sheets, were worn bandolier-fashion over our ammunition bandoliers. (A cavalryman working as an infantryman is an awkward-looking creature. He has to wear kit which would otherwise be worn by the horse.)
We fell in, numbered off, and started on a night trek up to the line. We travelled along a very rough road, stumbling and slithering for hours. Then after a time we left the road and started across country in single file. Many times the rear files would lose contact with the front files, only to get into touch again in the most unexpected places.
It was a night of blasphemous utterances. Our thoughts dwelt too much on comfortable beds-beds at home, beds in barracks, and even beds of straw in barns behind the line. In quiet retrospect, one does not regret the experience, but at the time!...
At 6 a.m., or perhaps a little later (for I remember the dawn coming shortly afterwards), we arrived in a sunken road near some old trenches, where we rested awhile. The rain increased, and after the sweating on the march, we were becoming clammy and cold.
Later in the morning we moved into an old trench, quite habitable, but within nice range for the enemy artillery. Still, he did not worry us overmuch. Our worst trouble was no water. There was a well down in the village on our right front, but not until dusk would we venture out.
Rudge and I took several water bottles with us, as well as a couple of petrol tins. At the well we had to get on the end of a long queue of infantrymen. One of these wished to God he could get another "Blighty one", and he already wore three wound stripes!
The well was deep, and the windlass was not all that could be desired. A petrol tin served at the end of a wire rope - one of our canvas buckets would have served much better. Still, a couple of hours' wait in France was neither here nor there.
Orders now came that we were to take over a part of the front line. Our headquarters were made in a sugar refinery by the side of the main Bapaume-Cambrai road, which was being pounded by heavy artillery fire. There was a putrid smell of dead horses and mules.
Leaving the road in sections at intervals, we entered a field where gas shells were dropping. (To the uninitiated they had a sound like "duds". I had learned my lesson earlier.) By keeping well to the right, we were quite safe, for a north-easterly breeze carried the gas away from us.
After reaching the line in safety, our men were deposited in pot-holes, there being no continuous trench. We appeared to be in a deep salient, for the enemy flares seemed to form a semicircle.
When our men had been posted, I returned to headquarters with Captain K. "Keep your eyes skinned," he said. "The Boche will be sure to have patrols out to-night."
There was machine-gun fire and desultory rifle-fire. Dead men lay all round. Yet we managed to get back to the sugar refinery. "Get under your blanket for the night," said Captain K. I eagerly obeyed. In less than half an hour I was shaken by the shoulder.
"Come on. Message for front line." I went along the road to a dug-out for orders. Letter for Lieutenant H. "Tell men to eat emergency ration. Use ammunition sparingly."
I once more began a weary tramp to the line, with Bourlon Wood on my right front. I found Lieutenant H. and delivered my message. He gave me a drink from his flask and said, "I don't suppose it will take you long to get back." "No, sir," I replied. "It ought not to take long."
I retraced my steps, glad at the thought that I should now at long last be able to get some sleep. I had not had any worth speaking of for four days. Trudging along with rifle slung over shoulder, I suddenly saw looming ahead of me five or six dim figures. Captain K.'s words flashed through my mind: "Keep your eyes skinned."
A cold shudder chilled me to the bone. They were Germans!
Now, as I think of those moments, my heart beats harder. When faced with death, man's mind instinctively escapes from the scene and dwells in other realms. For one brief moment I was home on leave from Cambrai. I saw my mother's face.
Then I was being stripped of rifle, bayonet, and ammunition. Soon I was in the German front-line trench. An officer was informed that a prisoner had been brought in. He came out from a covered-in shelf that was cut in the trench. In his hand he held what appeared to be a revolver, and was loading it. He was going to finish me? He fired. It was a Verey light pistol!
I was sent back with an escort, but not before being relieved of a precious packet of cigarettes.
The reserve trenches were well made, but the smell in the dug-out was horrid.
The stink of flesh-sweating flesh of men who had not washed for weeks. Some snored on wire mattresses. Some sat up smoking. Others were killing lice.
I was taken, in fear and dread, to the officers' quarters. At a rough table a typical German officer sat writing. For a few moments I awaited my fate. Suddenly the officer looked up and, to my amazement, flashed at me the greeting: "Good evening, Lloyd George". He smiled at my astonishment. I knew then I was safe.
A close cross-examination followed. Finding this of little avail, he next examined my pay-book. But even this did not reveal a lot, except that I was acting as an infantryman. Being sent farther back, I arrived with an escort - two youngsters about my own age - at divisional headquarters.
I flopped down, dead beat, on a dug-out floor. The telephone operator would not let me sleep. He began eagerly to enlighten me as to his past. He had been a waiter in London for years, and he now greatly missed the English breakfasts - porridge, bacon and eggs, marmalade and rolls.
"Yes, Tommy, English breakfasts good. Ach! this bloody war."
Another escort arrived. I went on to Germany.
Private Chris Knight, joined 6th Dragoon Guards (Carabineers) September 3rd, 1914. Sent to 3rd Reserve Cavalry Regt. at Canterbury. After training, employed in remount depot. In 1915 sent to 2nd Reserve Cavalry Regt. at Aldershot.
1916, transferred to King's Shropshire Light Infantry. Went to France. Passed through infantry training on Bull-Ring, but was transferred back to cavalry (2nd Dragoon Guards) as a specialist.
Served on several parts of Western Front until taken prisoner at the Cambrai battle, November 1917. In Germany for thirteen months: Munster, Westphalia, Parchim, Mecklenberg, Springhirsch, Schleswig-Holstein.
Returned home two months after Armistice.
First published in Everyman at War (1930), edited by C. B. Purdom.
Photographs courtesy of Photos of the Great War website.
A Runner was a soldier who carried messages by hand.
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