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Charlie Payne at the Battle of Cambrai, November 1917

Charlie and Ida Payne, September 1918
Charlie and Ida Payne, September 1918

My grandfather, Private Charlie Payne was a Lewis gunner in B Company, Number 7 Platoon, of the 2/5th battalion, Duke of Wellington's (West Riding) Regiment.  In November 1917 the battalion was involved as part of 62nd Division in the Third Army operations in the Battle of Cambrai.  The following account is based on my research on the battalion's specific involvement in the Battle, and contains a couple of extracts from letters that Charlie wrote home to his wife Ida at that time.

The Battle of Cambrai has been described as the beginning of the ‘Modern Style of Warfare’.  Its essential elements were a surprise attack that, unlike the Battles of the Somme and Third Ypres  (Passchendaele), included no preliminary artillery barrage, but involved the sophisticated targeting of enemy artillery positions by reconnaissance, sound-ranging and flash-spotting technology. The attack demanded close co-operation between artillery, tanks, and infantry with a lifting artillery barrage followed closely by tanks.  The tanks were deployed to flatten and create gaps in the extensive wire defences of the German defensive position, the Hindenburg line, allowing the infantry to follow through. The attack was also supported by considerable numbers of aircraft to provide intelligence, air-cover, and to attack enemy infantry and artillery positions.  In its ‘All-Arms’ approach, it became the form of warfare that conscripts such as Charlie encountered for much of the rest of the war.

On 8th November, Charlie and his battalion trained alongside tanks at the training ground at Wailly, just west of Arras. Further training took place over the next two days involving tanks, aeroplanes, and practice attacks through gas.  On 13 November the 2/5th Dukes started their march towards the battle zone, arriving three days later after marching only at night to avoid detection by enemy aircraft. On the night of the 19th November they moved into position in Havrincourt Wood, together with tanks and artillery, ready for the attack the following day.

Havrincourt village was just North of the wood in which Charlie’s Division was waiting. It was one of the most-strongly defended sections of the Hindenburg line (which ran through the village and slightly to the west) with the trenches well-protected by very substantial barbed wire defences. About 800-1500 yards behind the German front line was a second series of trenches, the Support Line. In addition to the trench systems, the German defences included a number of well-defended strong-points.

At 6.20 a.m. on 20 November the British attack started with an intensive artillery barrage, lifting at a pre-determined rate, so that the tanks and the following infantry could quickly start moving forward.  Havrincourt village, was the first objective for 62nd Division. The initial attack was led by other Brigades, with Charlie’s Brigade, the 186th, being held in reserve. With the tanks successfully flattening the barbed wire defences, the infantry were able to follow through quickly. The Germans seemed largely unprepared for what was happening and substantial numbers of Germans and weapons were quickly captured. The progress made was so positive that Charlie’s battalion was ordered to advance much earlier than planned. The men advanced west of Havrincourt, supported by surviving tanks from the earlier attack.  Their final objective was North of the Bapaume-Cambrai road. As they approached Havrincourt they immediately encountered heavy machine gun and sniper fire from a German strong-point that had not been adequately dealt with earlier. The Battalion’s Commanding Officer, and several other men were killed. Belatedly, the strong-point was successfully dealt with, and 59 Germans and 2 machine guns were captured. Despite these early problems, the Battalion’s objective for the day was nonetheless achieved when Charlie’s Company moved through to capture a German trench north of the Bapaume-Cambrai road, an advance of four and a half miles from the British Front Line; and at that time a record advance in a single day.

The following day was less successful, without the element of surprise and with many tanks out of action. The original plan was for tanks to lead a further thrust through the German defences towards Bourlon Wood. However, no tanks arrived to assist Charlie’s battalion, and that attack was cancelled. New orders were issued for the battalion to use grenades to clear Germans from the Hindenburg support line trenches.  B Company was charged with mopping up the rear support trenches. Problems were soon encountered, including an enemy strong-point, and strong German reinforcements that were moving down the trenches from the North West. However, one tank eventually arrived and helped to halt a German counter-attack. At midnight the Battalion was relieved. Charlie reported back to Ida two days later:

November 24 1917: Well, my darling, you will see from the papers we have been in some heavy fighting and some good pals of mine have made the great sacrifice.  I thank God I am safe and sound.  Our C.O. was killed.  I must not say more, but I know the Germans have gone back a long way.  At the moment we are out of the line, but for how long I don’t know. Glad to learn the boys are well. Please excuse this short letter, dear, but I am very tired and we have to get to “kip”. God bless you, dear and keep you in good health, is my constant prayer as I know what a fight you are making for me and the boys.

By now the Battle of Cambrai had lost its momentum, with German reinforcements arriving and the fighting changing from rapidly-moving open warfare to a more familiar attritional confrontation. But Haig was determined not to lose the strategic opportunity to gain high ground overlooking Cambrai.

62nd Division were thrown once more into battle to complete the capture of Bourlon Wood and Bourlon. By this stage, the situation was very confused. Bourlon Wood had been partly captured by 40th Division. It had been heavily shelled by the Germans, and gas had been used which was lingering in the woodland. It was also snowing, and the conditions were awful. At 6.20 am on 27th November, in pitch dark, Charlie’s battalion was ordered to attack, aided by a small number of tanks, in an attempt to force the Germans out of the Wood, and move the British front line to the railway at the northern edge of the wood, overlooking Cambrai.  Almost immediately, the entire wood came under a heavy enemy artillery barrage. In addition, B and A Companies had only advanced 50 yards when they came under heavy machine gun fire from an enemy strong-point, and further advance proved impossible.  C and D Companies were also unable to reach their objectives. The battalion was relieved at 11pm by the 47th (London) Division, which unbeknown to Charlie contained his brother-in law, Bill Payne (23rd Battalion, London Regiment) who apparently spotted Charlie in the distance during the Relief. Overall, Charlie's battalion had not given ground to the Germans, but neither had it been able to achieve a significant advance.

Ultimately, the Battle of Cambrai failed to deliver its objectives for a number of reasons, including inadequate reserves of infantry Divisions and tanks. However, having learnt the lessons of Cambrai, adequate momentum in attack was delivered in the allied advances that ended the war.  In the meantime, Charlie and his Division moved into reserve, west of Arras, and were transferred to First Army. Over Christmas, Charlie and others were deployed on working parties.  In Charlie’s case he was briefly moved to the 63rd Sanitary Section where he spent a happy few days as a carpenter, producing ablution benches!

He also had a good feed, as evidenced by his letter to Ida written on Christmas Day 1917:

"My dear “little woman”

Now for a long letter to you, dear.  I duly recvd. yrs. of the 17th on the 22nd so that the boys Xmas cards came in good time & tell the little chaps I was very pleased with them.  You will be pleased to hear, dear, that I have been very lucky and for a time at least am in comparative comfort with plenty of good rations.  I had retired to “kip” as usual on the 23rd when about 10 oc, I was warned to be ready in full marching order the next morning at 5oc.  That meant rising at 4-30 on a raw frosty morning & I wondered where we were off to.  Well I got up all right, got a drink of tea at the cooks & then with 3 others set out on a 6 mile march to a village.  There we were fortunate enough to get some porridge & a limber took our packs & rifles – then off again to another village 8 miles away.  This was our destination & for the time being I am attached to the 63rd Sanitary Section.  I am a Carpenter’s mate & have to make myself generally useful making tables, benches etc. It is a big village & 9 of us sleep in a nice warm outhouse & have a brazier going night & day with plenty of coke to burn. Last night we were treated like heroes – given a good cigar to smoke, plenty of bread, ham, & even custard & fruit.  Then we had “a sail round the bay” & tried some French wine & altogether spent a most enjoyable Xmas Eve.  After sleeping in broken down barns with no fires & poor rations you will understand, dearest, what it means to be warm & well fed again & I thank God for it. I went to bed happy thinking of you & the little chaps hanging up their stockings. Now I will tell you, dear, how we have spent today.

Bacon for breakfast 8oc.

9 to 10-30 Sawing some wood etc.

11oc Church Parade.

12 – Dinner Stewed Beef with plenty of “spuds” & bread.  Raisin Duff. Tea

4oc Tea, Toast, Cheese, Jam & Jam Tart

Of course we had the afternoon off & I don’t suppose we shall be overworked while we are here.  I shall be glad if we can stop here for duration – anyway it is fine to be able to spend a nice peaceful Xmas."

I am in the process of writing a book based on Charlie's letters, which has the working title 'Charlie Payne's Hatbox'.  For more information on Charlie Payne's experiences in the First World War (and beforehand) please see my website. 

Of the published books that provide a detailed analysis of aspects of the Battle of Cambrai, I would thoroughly recommend Bryn Hammond's (2008) "Cambrai 1917; The Myth of the First Great Tank Battle" (published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson) and John A Taylor's (2016) "Deborah and the War of the Tanks, 1917" (Pen and Sword).