Monday, 2 December 2013

Two "strays" at the Battle of Cambrai 1917

The 30th November 1917 marked a significant point in the Battle of Cambrai. This battle, although arguably not strategically important, began on November 20th when Tanks "en masse" were used for the first time. For the first few days, it was a great success, but the commanders were fired up by success and ordered troops to push on without waiting for reserves and support. Subsequently  the Germans felt that they could counter attack on the 30th November, which they did, with success, and the Allies lost almost all the ground they had gained, and some they held before the attack. 

The Tanks were very effective at first but soon began to break down and many were damaged as they ploughed  through the German lines.The General Staff still believed - after 3 years of trench warfare - that cavalry could still be used to exploit any breakthrough in the line! There was little in the way of infantry reserves to support the advance, and therefore when the Germans unleashed their counter attack, the Allies could not hold on to their gains. Three Divisions in particular were hardest hit in the German advance - 12th (Eastern) Div, 20th (Light) Div and the 55th (West Lancs) to  which 2/1st Wessex Field Ambulance were attached.

Two men of the Wessex Field Ambulances lost their lives on the day of the counter-attack, but were serving with other units at the time.

Thaddeus James Fleming
Thaddeus was born in Crewe, Cheshire in 1892. His father, Thomas Jones Fleming, was a Steam Engine Fitter from Staffordshire but had met Irish lass Mary Cullen in Cheshire, married her and settled in Coppenhall Monks. They had 4 sons and 1 daughter. Then Mary died in 1900 and the three surviving children went to live with an uncle & aunt. Thomas then moved to Plymouth where he married another widower, Catherine Quick and by 1911, the couple had 3 more children and Thomas now worked as a fitter in the Naval Dockyard. Thadeus came down to live with his father and step-mother and started a job as an apprentice brush maker, and he put this down on his attestation form when he joined the 2nd Wessex Field Ambulance in 1909 for a 4 year engagement.

Whilst with the unit, he became a Physical Instructor and re-engaged in 1913 for another 3 years. He was embodied with the rest of his company on 5th August 1914 but did not go overseas with the first line unit which by then had become the 25th. Perhaps as he was a PTI, he was retained at RHQ? Nothing in his records indicates why. 

The Casualty Form from Pte Fleming's Service Records
Whilst at home, he married Bessie Dilling in October, 1914 and their son, Ernest James Kitchener Fleming was born in February 1915. Just over a year later he went to France and was attached to the 62nd Field Ambulance who were part of the 20th Light Division. They were preparing to take part in the Battle of Cambrai when Thadeus was granted leave at the end of October 1917. He returned on the 31st October and rejoined the 62nd. When the Germans counter attacked on the 30th November, 20th Light Division was one of three Divisions that were said to have "evaporated" before the advancing Germans. Thadeus was posted as Missing, and then as Killed in Action OR Died of Wounds Received in Action. His body was recovered though but not until 20th January 1918 by men of the West Yorkshire Regt . He is buried in Metz en Couture Communal Cemetery extension.

His wife Bessie remarried in 1921 and died in 1956. His son did not marry until he was 55  and died a few years ago.

Archibald Percy Taylor
Although born and bred in Madron, Cornwall, Archie enlisted into the 1st Wessex Field Ambulance in Exeter in September 1914. He was born in 1891, son of William Ambrose Taylor, an accountant for Madron District Council, and Marion Beatrice Adams, native of Madron. He had 3 brothers and a sister, 2 of whom died in the early years of the Great War from natural causes. In 1911, Archie was an assistant to a local Dentist, Mr Herbert Gartrell and this would have attracted him to the Medical Corps.

He disembarked in France on 5th December 1914 with the renamed 24th Field Ambulance and served with them until he transferred to the Royal Engineers and became a motorcycle dispatch rider in the 12th Divisional Signals Regt. As mentioned before, one of the Divisions hardest hit by the German attack on 30th November was the 12th (Eastern) Division, and Archie would have been given urgent messages to deliver up the line.

Dispatch Riders at the ned of their journey
There is an account that he would have had to go through the village of Gonnelieu, which unbeknown to him was in German hands. He never arrived at his destination and was posted as missing, along with 3 other dispatch riders. He was not officially posted as Killed in Action until a year later. His name is now found on the Cambrai Memorial to the Missing at Louverval as well as the 1st Wessex plaque and the Madron War Memorial.


  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

  2. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.