The Battle of Cambrai in November 1917 was the fourth major action fought by the 36th (Ulster) Division since their arrival in France and Flanders in the late autumn of 1915.
Troops of the Division had taken part in major attacks at The Somme, Messines and 3rd Ypres, suffering many thousands of casualties.
By the tail end of 1917, the British high command decided they would end a particularly bloody and dispiriting year with a novel combined arms offensive using large numbers of tanks, towards the town of Cambrai, in the département of Nord, which was an important supply point for the German Siegfriedstellung (known to the British as the Hindenburg Line).
General Byng launched an attack by nine British infantry divisions, five cavalry divisions and three tanks brigades near Cambrai, France, on 20th November 1917 that took the enemy by surprise. Tanks and infantry on the first day penetrated German lines for two to three miles, but the cavalry could not exploit the breach created. Moreover, on the 30th November, a huge counter-attack enabled the Germans to recover most of the lost ground.
The Ulster Division had joined the fray on the on the third day with their 108th Brigade including the 2nd, the 11th/13th and 12th Battalions of the Royal Irish Rifles. The 9th Battalion of the Royal Irish Fusiliers also participated, taking over from the 109th Brigade to continue the attack across the Bapaume – Cambrai Road against the Hindenburg Line.
The local 12th Battalion, their objective the village of Moeuvres, had a hard time because the enemy defensive positions on all sides were impregnable without additional artillery and tank support, neither of which were available.
The 12th Battalion War Diary reports events thus:
10.30am: Under cover of artillery barrage the Battalion attacked ... All Companies reached the northern edge successfully. ‘A’ Company suffered the heaviest casualties, as the 107th Brigade were unable to reach their objective on the eastern side of the Canal du Nord and therefore the enemy brought heavy MG and rifle fire to bear ...
4.30pm: ... counter-attack commenced but was met with such stubborn resistance from ‘A’, ‘D’ & ‘C’ Coys ... fought ... for every inch of ground they were forced to yield’.
The Battalion had to withdraw entirely at 5.45pm.
The 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers counter-attacked at 8.30pm but they too were unable to consolidate a position within Moeuvres and they fell back to spend the night in trenches to the south of the village.
Initial success of the battle overall led only to eventual failure, and there was bitter disappointment. Third Army objectives had never been met: the cavalry had not rushed through a gap at Marcoing-Masnieres and onward to encircle Cambrai. Indeed, nowhere had the Masnieres-Beaurevoir line been breached, and Bourlon Ridge, the dominant strategic feature of the northern battlefield, remained firmly in German hands.
The battle, however, was significant in the context of how warfare developed – Cambrai’s 'learned' military lessons provided the blueprint for the successful 'Hundred Days' offensives of 1918 - but the immediate impact was that Allied units lost some 45,000 men for no real gain before the battle ended in December.
Looking back over old newspaper reports we can now reflect the impact of the battle on the Ballymena area in the month that we are pledged to ‘remember them.’
CURRIE, Samuel, 319, Sergeant, 12th Royal Irish Rifles, died of wounds on the 24th November 1917. He was born Ballymena and enlisted in Ballymena. His sister lived at 8 Patrick Place, Ballymena. He is buried Grevillers British Cemetery, France and commemorated in West Church Presbyterian Church.
Ballymena Observer, November 30, 1917 - Mrs. Currie, 8 Patrick Place, Ballymena, has been officially notified that her son, Sergeant Samuel Currie, Royal Irish Rifles, died from wounds received in action.
Deceased joined the army in 1915 and prior to that was in the employment of Mr. David Christie at the Braidwater Foundry.
He was a member of the UVF, Church Lads' Brigade, Rechabite order, the IOGT (Temperance group) and the Boy Scouts. A brother, Private John Currie, Royal Irish Fusiliers, was killed in action shortly after the outbreak of war and a few weeks ago another brother, Sergeant James Currie of the Argylls, was killed in action.
HASLETT, MC, Thomas Sinclair, Lieutenant, 10th Royal Irish Rifles, was killed in action on the 22nd November 1917.
Aged 20, he was the son of the Rev. Thomas Haslett, Galgorm Road, Ballymena. He is commemorated on the Cambrai Memorial and in 1st Ballymena Presbyterian Church.
Ballymena Observer, November 30, 1917 - Lieutenant Thomas Sinclair Haslett, MC, Royal Irish Rifles (Ulster Division), killed in action on November 22, 1917 was the eldest son of the Rev. Thomas Haslett of First Presbyterian Church, Ballymena.
He was 20 years of age and was educated at the Ballymena Academy, Campbell College and Foyle College. Joining the army in 1915, Lieutenant Haslett was posted to the 17th Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles at Ballykinlar and on a arrival at the front in the summer of 1916 was detailed to one of the Belfast Battalions of that regiment.
Lieutenant Haslett played for Ulster in the Schools Inter-Provincial in two succeeding years and was one of the most promising halfs in Ireland.
He was a playing member of Ballymena Cricket Club.
DUNBAR, Daniel, 256, Lance Corporal, 10th Royal Irish Rifles, was killed in action on the 22nd November, 1917. He was born and lived in Broughshane and enlisted in Belfast. He is commemorated on Cambrai Memorial.
Ballymena Observer, December 7th 1917 - Mrs. Dunbar, Broughshane, has been officially notified that her son, Rifleman Daniel Dunbar, was killed in action on the November 20th. Captain D. R. Mitchell, Chaplain to the Forces, writing to Mrs. Dunbar, says:
“It all happened on Tuesday, during a very fierce attack. Perhaps it may be some consolation to you to know that I was beside him at the time. He was out on top with his company when a machine gun bullet got him on the side of his head, just under the rim of his steel helmet.
“He stumbled back into my arms and I called him by his name but he was too busy answering Another who was calling the roll up above and he never spoke to me.
“In fact, I am perfectly sure he never knew he was hit. It was a beautiful death, just doing his duty with his face to the enemy and then a sudden transformation from this world to the glory which awaits him who is faithful unto death.”
Deceased was formerly employed in the Raceview Woollen Mills and joined the army after the outbreak of war as a bugler. He volunteered for active service on three occasions before being accepted. He was a popular member of the Broughshane Boys' Brigade.
Praise for Ballymena Chaplain
We have read a very interesting letter from the Rev. J. A. Wilson, son of the late Mr. W. O. Wilson, Knowehead, Broughshane. he writes:
‘ I have been working out here for the YMCA at the 'back of the front' for about three and a half months and have been having a great time which I would not have missed for a great deal.
‘I go back to my church in London early next month. A friend told me that he occasionally sees the Rev. D. Mitchell of First Broughshane who has been a Chaplain at the front for two years or so. Rev. Mitchell was in the thick of some of the recent fighting and does not know what fear is and is very popular with the men.’
Ballymena Observer, September 21, 1917
MAYBIN, John, 12/6545, Rifleman, 12th Royal Irish Rifles, was killed in action on the 22 November 1917. He was born at Broughshane and enlisted in Ballymena. He is buried Moeuvres Cemetery, Nord, France and commemorated2nd Broughshane Presbyterian Church.
LOGAN, Samuel, 19605, Corporal, 12th Royal Irish Rifles, was killed in action on the 22nd November 1917. He was born in Ballymena, enlisted in Belfast, and lived in Ballymena. He is commemorated on the Cambrai Memorial and in 1st Ballymena Presbyterian Church.
SMYTH, John, 2nd Lieutenant, 9th Royal Irish Rifles, was killed in action on the 22/23rd November 1917. Aged 26, he was the son of William and Margretta Smyth, The Curragh, Monaghan, Ballymena.
He is commemorated on the Cambrai Memorial, France and in Cloughwater and 1st Ahoghill Presbyterian Churches.
Ballymena Observer, November 30, 1917 - Second Lieutenant John Smyth, killed in action on November 22, 1917, was the eldest son of Mr. William Smyth, principal of Monaghan National School, Ballymena.
Prior to joining the 12th Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles as a private, 2nd Lieutenant Smyth was principal of Craigywarren National School. He was wounded while serving as an NCO and was promoted to commissioned rank on April 26, 1917 being wounded for the second time in August. His brother 2nd Lieutenant W. T. Smyth is serving with the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers.
STUART, MC, William Bruce George, Captain, 12th Royal Irish Rifles, aged 24 years, died on the 22nd November 1917. He lived at Mountearl (or Mount Earl, house at the St Patrick's Church end of Castle Street), Ballymena.
He is commemorated on Cambrai Memorial and on the family grave at Derrykeighan, Ballymoney.
Ballymena Observer, November 30, 1917 - Captain W.B.G. Stuart, MC, Royal Irish Rifles, killed in action on November 22, 1917, was the youngest son of Mr. William Stuart, Mount Earl, Ballymena, sub-agent of the Ballymena Estate.
He was an enthusiastic member of the Ulster Volunteer Force and was connected with North-End Unionist Club.
He was educated at Monkton Combe, near Bath, where he had a distinguished career.
He afterwards became apprenticed in Denny's Shipbuilding Yard and completed his term of indentures at the end of July 1914. In September 1914 he received a commission in the 12th Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles (Ulster Division).
He received the Military Cross for conspicuous gallantry at Messines in commanding his company during the attack. He led them with great personal gallantry, capturing many prisoners and later on did excellent work in consolidating captured positions.
Throughout the action his fine example of determination and enthusiasm kept his men going at a time when they were dead beat.
Captain Stuart is a son of Mr. William Stuart C.E. Mount Earl, Ballymena and a nephew of the late Rear Admiral Leslie C. Stuart. He was wounded in April 1916.
WRIGHT, David, 1403, Private, 12th Royal Irish Rifles, died of wounds on the 22nd November 1917. Aged 19, he was the son of John and Agnes Wright, Laymore, Ballymena. He is named Cambrai Memorial and at the family grave in Kirkinriola Cemetery.
Ballymena Observer, March 8, 1918 - Mr. John Wright, Laymore, Ballymena, has been notified through the Record Office, Dublin, that his son, Rifleman David Wright, Royal Irish Rifles, is in the list of British dead reported from Germany.
The notification states that the identification disc of Rifleman Wright was found and enquiries are being made to obtain further particulars.
He was reported missing since November 22, 1917 and prior to joining in early 1916 was a farm labourer to Mr. Herbison. Deceased was 15 months at the front.
SMYTH, John, 41205, Private, 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers (formerly 1435 North Irish Horse), died of wounds on the 1st December 1917. He was the son of John Smyth, Sprucebank, Portglenone. He is buried St. Sever Cemetery Extension, Rouen, France.
Ballymena Observer, December 14, 1917 - Mr. and Mrs. John Smyth, Sprucebank, Portglenone, have received information that their third son, John Smyth, of the North Irish Horse and lately of the Royal Irish Fusiliers, has died from gunshot wounds received in action on November 26th. He was 22 years of age and has served three years. Mr. and Mrs. Smyth's eldest son is serving with the New Zealanders.