Pastures New - The Advance from Vimy

After their heroic exploits in the advance across the old Somme battlefields, the 12th Division was on September 20th withdrawn for a short rest before a move to an area unfamiliar to the Cambridgeshire Regiment.

In early October the Cambridgeshires, part of the 35th Brigade, embarked by to travel 30 miles to Aubigny, a railhead for the Vimy sector, and marched to a camp at Villers Au Bois. The stay in huts was shortlived for, on the evening of October 5th, they moved to the Brown Line, near Vimy under the command of Major Reginald George Royle, the battalion’s second in command, while the commanding officer Lt Col Muirhead Clayton rested at the transport lines.

Major Royle DSO had served in the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry and was posted to the Cambridgeshires in September 1918.

The 35th Brigade was relieving 60th Brigade of 20th Division in Arleux sector (the right of 12th Division’s new front), just as it was thought the enemy was withdrawing, and orders were given for patrols and maintain touch with enemy.

The following day the battalion moved into the front (black) line between Fresnoy and Oppy, with its HQ in the Arleux Loop. During the night of October 6/7th, the division’s patrols had no difficulty entering enemy front and support lines, but any further advance met with heavy machine gun fire.

At 11am the next morning, October 7th, the battalion sent out battle patrols, consisting of two platoons of B company and one each from A and C Coys, to test the enemy strength and push forward to establish four posts in enemy front line (known as Village Trench). It would be described by Major Royle as a “trying day”. Advancing under a barrage, the battle patrols were supporting the main operation by 24th Brigade (8th Division) on their right.

The A Coy platoon had its officer, Capt Lawrence Hilton Hopkins, killed and was unable to reach its objective and was forced to return to its original position. Capt Hopkins was a vicar’s son from Surrey, who before the war had worked in Peterborough where in August 1914 he was commissioned into the local Huntingdonshire Cyclists Battalion. Hopkins is listed on a special memorial at Sucrerie Cemetery, Ablain St Nazaire.

C Coy’s platoon, which had moved up Foot Alley, was driven back, and on resuming its advance had three gas shells burst in the middle of them killing two men and drenching the rest with mustard gas, forcing their withdrawal. The two killed were recovered by the popular Padre George Frederick Walters MC the following day. One officer who was gassed would die of his wounds on October 10th. That was 2nd Lt W R Harris, from London, who was attached from 15th Suffolks.

Only B Coy’s platoons were successful in reaching their objective, but were heavily engaged on all sides during the afternoon and forced to withdraw at night. It left Lt John Archibald McNish, who was wounded, and up to 11 men cut off and taken prisoner. British troops captured the position the next day, and found all the party’s rifles, packs and no dead soldiers.

McNish, was from St Neots, and the son of a director of a brewing and milling business. He too was commissioned in the Hunts Cyclists and in 1918 posted to the Cambridgeshires. After his repatriation in December 1918, he gave a report about his capture.

He said: I have the honour to report that at 11am on Oct 7 1918 I went out to establish a platoon strong point as ordered. I got there with half my platoon and sent down three prisoners from the enemy’s signaling dugout. I got a message from my corporal in charge of my second line that he could not get up to me, as he had six men wounded and the Germans still had a machine gun in his rear and if he moved I would be completely cut off. About 2pm I saw the enemy round both my flanks and they efficiently dispersed the party in my rear and took us from the rear and front.

The battalion lost eight men killed, with six buried at Orchard Dump Cemetery, Arleux. Only two were local to Cambridgeshire. One was Pte Bertie Carlton, from Gazeley, near Newmarket, on the Cambridgeshire/Suffolk border, a lewis gunner, another was Pte Bertie Wells, of March, both of whom had been posted from the disbanded 7th Suffolk in May 1918. There were also 18 men wounded, including only two from the county, Pte Harold Bolton and Pte Binnie Bowen.

On October 9th patrols went forward on the whole brigade front and, with little opposition, established themselves by nightfall on the Fresnes-Rouvray Line. This move involved A and B companies of the Cambridgeshires, who reached the German front line.

On October 10th, fighting patrols of 7th Norfolk and 1/1st Cambs moved forwad after dawn to occupy the Queant-Drocourt Line. The Norfolks were able to establish themselves on the Rouvroy to Izel Les Equerchin road, but on the right the C and D Coys were held up by machine gun fire, but reached a sunken road in front of the Q-D Line, and only linked up with the Norfolks after dark. These companies were in the Q-D Line the following day, and by October 12th the Cambridgeshires were moving forward in artillery formation in pursuit of retreating Germans.

Major Royle was wounded by machine gun fire and Lt Col Clayton, who was about to go on leave, was summoned to resume his command. The battalion was now close to Auby, which was holding up the advance. The next attack would be involved house to house fighting.

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Major Reginald George Royle DSO.

William Howlett, from Beche Rd, Cambridge  killed in action on 8th October.

This site went live on the 14th February 2015 to mark  100 years since the 1/1st Cambs went off to war.


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