20 November 1917 – Awards At Cambrai
Centenary Actions

© IWM Q 6300

On this day in 1917, members of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment and Canadian Cavalry Brigade distinguish themselves in the attack on Cambrai. Amongst the Newfoundlanders, two earn Distinguished Conduct Medals, another a Military Medal, a fourth the Bar to his Military Cross, and the fifth, a Distinguished Service Order. From the Canadian Cavalry Brigade, Lieutenant Harcus Strachan of the Fort Garry Horse earns Canada another Victoria Cross.

The Newfoundlanders joined the British Third Army’s attack on Cambrai two and a half hours after the initial start, forming the left flank of the 88th Brigade’s diamond formation, which was led by four tanks. At first the advance took place “in an almost leisurely manner over unspoiled fields” with knee high grass, thistles and nettles replacing the usual mud and shell-holes (Nicholson, The Fighting Newfoundlander, p. 411). The few enemy positions that had survived the first wave of attack were quickly overcome.

However, the horrors of war would soon re-appear. When B Company was halted by machine gun fire, it was eventually found to be coming from a disabled British tank. Inside, the tank sergeant had suffered half his face being shot away and was in a state of madness from the horrific death of his comrades and the terrible heat within the tank. In his miserable state, he “was firing indiscriminately at any living target he could see” (Nicholson, The Fighting Newfoundlander, p. 412). As the Newfoundlanders attempted to speak to him through the open tank door, the sergeant was struck by an enemy bullet and killed.

With little choice but to carry on through such horrors, the Newfoundlanders pressed steadily forward, helping their flanking units capture a battery of field guns, but at the loss of all four supporting tanks. Reaching Marcoing Copse they launched their assault on the St. Quentin Canal lock, at the western outskirts of Masnières.

Captain Grant Paterson, MC & Bar
Company Sergeant-Major Albert Janes, DCM
Sergeant Albert Davis, DCM
Company Quartermaster-Sergeant Ernest Cheeseman, MM

Defending the lock were numerous machine gun posts and snipers in the houses along the canal bank. When a British tank ventured over from the direction of Masnières, the six-pounder guns in its sponsons were quickly put to work against the German defenders. As the enemy broke into retreat, Captain Grant Paterson led a small party charging across a footbridge beside the lock, gaining the far bank and securing both the footbridge and lock. For his actions, Captain Grant Paterson earned a Bar to his Military Cross.

Three other men received honours for their actions during the fighting at the footbridge and lock. Company Sergeant-Major Albert Janes was one of the first to cross to the far side of the canal, receiving the Distinguished Conduct Medal. Sergeant Albert Davis received the Distinguished Conduct Medal after he “had kept his company moving by running forward alone and killing two snipers” (Nicholson, The Fighting Newfoundlander, p. 414). Lastly, Company Quartermaster-Sergeant Ernest Cheeseman, received the Military Medal for courageous leadership amidst the fighting for the footbridge.

Captain Bertram Butler, DSO, MC

Now on the far side of the canal, the Newfoundlanders prepared to dash from the shelter of a building to the railway tracks, sixty yards away. Several attempts to cover this ground were halted by heavy machine gun fire and severe casualties before Captain Butler, M.C., rallied his men and charged forward, “followed by cheering Newfoundlanders” (Nicholson, The Fighting Newfoundlander, p. 413). The enemy position was eliminated and the now-wounded Butler received the Distinguished Service Order for his actions.

End of the Day – 20 November

Now entirely across the canal and with their left flank secured, the Newfoundlanders turned to their right to help capture Masnières. However, enemy fire from positions in old gun pits north of the railway tracks soon drew the Newfoundlanders’ attention for the remainder of the afternoon, with fighting by rifle, bomb and bayonet carrying on until daylight ran out (Nicholson, The Fighting Newfoundlander, p. 414). Overnight, mopping-up parties moved through Masnières, clearing out all resistance except for in the north of the town and a small party still in the catacombs at its centre (Nicholson, The Fighting Newfoundlander, p. 415).

“Some of the 43 of the Fort Garry Horse who charged the Boche guns at Cambrai.”
Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-002283.

Lieutenant Harcus Strachan, VC, MC

“Lt. Harcus Strachan, V.C”
Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-006699.

East of Masnières, the 88th Brigade’s Hampshire Regiment and Worcestershire Regiment had gained the far bank of the St. Quentin Canal, and the Worcesters were now advancing on the town from the east, while the Newfoundlanders closed in from the west. The outcome of the attack on Masnières was still uncertain when the Canadian Cavalry Brigade received erroneous reports that the 88th Brigade had captured all its objectives on the far side of the canal. Sensing the opportunity for a cavalry breakout, Brigadier General J. E. B. Seely ordered the Fort Garry Horse (FGH) across the canal.

With the road bridge in Masnières having collapsed under a British tank, a temporary foot bridge was expanded with the resources and labour assistance of German prisoners and local civilians (Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919, p. 336). “B” Squadron of the FGH quickly crossed the canal and galloped to the north-east. However, when it became clear that no more cavalry could cross before dark, orders were issued to recall those already on the far bank.

Having sped off towards a ridge overlooking Masnières, “B” Squadron was beyond reach of the orders to turn back and would now face the enemy alone. Their initial orders had been to capture an enemy headquarters and scout ahead for crossings of a further canal. Captain Campbell was soon killed whilst leading a charge through a gap in the enemy wire and command fell to Lieutenant Harcus Strachan. Quickly encountering an enemy artillery battery, “B” Squadron charged the guns, eliminating the entire battery by saber and hoof. Spotting enemy infantry in the open beyond, Strachan turned his men and charged these as well, eliminating many but also losing many of his own men from heavy machine gun fire.

By now “B” Squadron was over three kilometres behind enemy lines and taking shelter in a sunken road awaiting the rest of the Canadian Cavalry Brigade, which unbeknownst to them was no longer coming. While taking shelter, the Squadron located and cut three enemy telephone lines. As darkness set in, with only 43 men left and the enemy pressing in from three sides, Strachan stampeded the remaining horses to draw the enemy’s attention, while the men slipped off on foot towards friendly lines. Still not satisfied with the day’s work, they charged and engaged numerous enemy parties with the bayonet, eventually crossing back into the lines of the Newfoundland Regiment in the early hours of 21 November with no less than 15 prisoners.

For his actions and leadership that day at Cambrai, Lieutenant Harcus Strachan received the Victoria Cross. He already held a Military Cross for his actions at St. Quentin in May 1917.

Harcus Strachan was born in Scotland and immigrated to Canada in 1908. He enlisted in 1915. Strachan returned to Canada after the war, and passed away in Vancouver, British Columbia in 1982.
“38 N.C.O.s and Men of Fort Garry Horse who took part in famous charge. December, 1917.”
Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-002517.