20 November 2017
Lesser-known stories of Cambrai
Did you know the Chinese Labour Corps, Newfoundland Regiment, and Indian Cavalry all played a part in the Battle of Cambrai?
The Chinese Labour Corps (CLC) played an important role in the preparation for the Battle of Cambrai in 1917.
In October 1916, the neutral Chinese government agreed to allow the creation of a non-combatant labour corps, attached to the British Army and subject to British military control and discipline. Thousands of men signed a contract for three years’ of service. By the end of 1917, some 54,000 men of the Chinese Labour Corps were serving with the British Army in France and Belgium.
They worked in a host of non-combat roles supporting the troops on the frontline, at the docks and railway deports, mending roads and railways, construction and forestry. Three companies, around 1,500 men, worked alongside British Army personnel at the Tank Corps Central Workshops at Erin. Here they assisted in the maintenance and repairing of the tanks.
In preparation for the Battle of Cambrai, CLC forestry companies cut brushwood from Crecy Forest, which was sent by train to the Tank Corps Central Workshops. Here the CLC constructed 400 ‘fascines’, huge bundles of brushwood, about 3 metres long and 1.5 metres in diameter, which were mounted on the tanks and could be used to fill trenches allowing the tanks to cross. Over 100 sledges were also constructed, and were towed behind by some tanks into battle, each loaded with equipment and ammunition for the attacking troops.
Some 17 men of the CLC died during the battle, most from accident or disease far behind the lines. Eleven are commemorated at Noyelles-Sur-Mer Chinese Cemetery.
Infantry of the Newfoundland Regiment fought at Cambrai. During the first day of the Battle of Cambrai, 550 men of the Newfoundland Regiment were in support near the village of Gouzecourt. Once the lead troops had captured the frontlines the Newfoundland Regiment and other units of the 29th Division advanced, capturing the German support lines before fighting their way across the St. Quentin Canal. From there they advanced into the outskirts of Masnières, clearing the village of German resistance by daybreak the following morning.
On 30 November the Newfoundlanders were in the line near Masnières when the German hammer blow stuck. The Newfoundland Regiment and other units of the 29th Division managed to counter-attack, causing a local delay to the German advance. But more German troops moved in over the following days and the 29th Division were compelled into a fighting retreat back across the St. Quentin Canal.
Near to where the Newfoundland unit went into action in the village of Masières is a bronze caribou. It is one of four identical monuments on the western front which mark the service and sacrifices of the Newfoundland Regiment during the First World War.
Nearly 110 men of the Newfoundland Regiment died during the battle. Fifty-two are commemorated on Beaumont-Hamel (Newfoundland) Memorial, 24 are commemorated in Marcoing British Cemetery and 20 in Rocquigny-Equancourt Road British Cemetery.
Five Indian Cavalry divisions served during the Battle of Cambrai. Two of these were the 4th and 5th Indian Cavalry Divisions. During the first day of the battle the 5th Division went into action at the village of Noyelles in support of the British 6th Infantry Division.
More than 160 officers and men of the Indian Army died during the Battle of Cambrai. Seventy-eight are commemorated on the CWGC Neuve-Chapelle Memorial, 38 are commemorated in La Chapelette British and Indian Cemetery and 12 in Mazargues War Cemetery.