10th Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers at Tunnel Trench - 20 Nov 1917

Tunel Trench area map

By autumn 1917, three years into the war, continuous shelling and lack of drainage had transformed the Ypres salient into a waterlogged quagmire, and he looked for an alternative venue to use his tanks. Lieutenant-Colonel John Fuller of the Tank Corps and General Julian Byng, commander of 3rd Army, recommended that a massed assault by 400 tanks should be mounted across the firm, chalky ground to the southwest of Cambrai. Haig adopted this proposal, confident that the tanks would punch a whole through the Hindenburg Line and allow a breakthrough.

A diversionary attack was set up to draw the Germans away from the actual area of the intended attack. The diversionary assault was to be eight miles to the northwest of Cambrai, where the British line passed through the villages of Bullecourt and Fontaine le Croisilles . The units selected to make this subsidiary attack were 3rd Division and 16th (Irish) Division.

The 10 RDF, as part of 16th (Irish) Division, were involved in the attack at Cambrai, where, according to the divisional historian, the "swift and successful operation by 16th Division was a model of attack with a limited objective." They captured 3,000 yards of trench, and took 635 prisoners from the German army's 470th and 471st Regiments and 330 German bodies were counted in the trenches. More importantly though, the diversionary assault contributed greatly to the initial success of the Cambrai offensive by the British, though the offensive eventually sputtered to a halt and the war dragged on into 1918.

Hindenburg Line at Bullecourt

An aerial photograph taken after the war, in the Summer of 1920, of the part of the Hindenburg Line which faced the British at Bullecourt. The Tunnel Trench part of the German Line would have beenhalf a mile off camera on a leftward continuation of the Hindenburg Line. The camera is above no man’s land, looking east of northwards, on a bearing of about 30°. The road at bottom left is that from Bullecourt to Fontaine-lès-Croisilles. The road running from front to back of the picture is that from Ecouste-Saint-Mein, behind the British line, to Hendecourt, behind the German line - this is the modern D956. The inscription ‘S.W. Bullecourt’ is misleading, the point indicated is just outside the north-west corner of the village. In the photograph, the Hindenburg support line trench extends across the background, to the north of the village and has a dense strip of wire in front of its trench. The general line of the front line trench passes across the centre of the picture, from left background to right foreground. By the end of the war the village had been destroyed and appears only faintly here, to the right of the road.

The defences of the Hindenburg Line opposite their positions consisted of Tunnel Trench, a heavily defended front-line trench, with a second, or support trench, some 300 yards behind. The whole area was scattered with concrete machine-gun forts, or Mebus, similar to those that had decimated 16th Division at the Battle of Langemarck three months earlier.

Tunnel Trench as one might expect from the name, had a tunnel. The tunnel was 30 or 40 feet below ground along its whole length, with staircase access from the upper level every 25 yards. The entire tunnel had electric lighting, and side chambers provided storage space for bunks, food, and ammunition. Demolition charges had been set that could be triggered from the German rear in order to prevent the defences from falling into British hands.

Tunnel Trench attack

16th Division, attacking on a three-brigade front, was assigned the task of capturing a 2,000 yard section of the trench network. On the right flank of the Irishmen, 3rd Division's 9th Brigade was detailed to capture an additional 800 yards. One unusual feature of the attack was that there was to be no preliminary bombardment as surprise was the key to the success of the operation. Once the assault began, though, 16th Division's artillery, reinforced with guns from the 34th Division, would open a creeping barrage upon the German positions.

The morning of the advance, November 20th, was overcast, with low visibility. At zero hour, 06.20, the Divisional 18 pounder-field guns opened fire, and the leading assault companies sprang from their jump-off positions. At the same time, Stokes mortars began to lay a smoke barrage upon the German trenches in imitation of a gas attack. This deception proved successful, as many German troops donned cumbersome gas-masks and retreated to the underground safety of the tunnel, thus leaving the exposed portion of the trench undefended.

On the left flank, the attack of the 49th Brigade was launched by 2nd Royal Irish Regiment and 7/8th Royal Irish Fusiliers. They quickly crossed the 200 yards of no-man's-land and reached the enemy frontline just as the barrage lifted. Resistance above ground was minimal, and storming parties began the task of flushing the Germans from the tunnel with Mills bombs and bayonets.

In the centre, 10th and 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers headed the attack of the 48th Brigade. The advance here was so rapid that the Irish found many Germans still wearing gas masks and unable to fight. Two more Mebus, Juno and Minerva, were stormed and many more prisoners taken, particularly by 10th Dublin Fusiliers which captured 170 Germans.

Leading the attack on the right flank was 6th Connaught Rangers and 1st Royal Munster Fusiliers, both of which belonged to the 47th "Irish Brigade". After capturing their assigned section of Tunnel Trench, two companies of Rangers pressed forward to assault the strong points known as Mars and Jove. The Rangers worked around to the rear before pressing home with the bayonet.

The front was finally stabilised three days later when 7th Leinster Regiment recaptured and consolidated Jove and successfully assaulted the untaken section of Tunnel Trench.

On the first day of the Battle of Cambrai, General Byng's eight attacking Divisions achieved complete surprise and pierced the Hindenburg Line, driving the Germans back four miles towards the town of Cambrai. They captured 8,000 prisoners and 100 guns for the loss of only 5,000 British casualties. Unfortunately, Byng lacked sufficient reserves to consolidate his success, and German counter-attacks recovered most of the ground they had lost.

Although the capture of Tunnel Trench contributed greatly to the early success at Cambrai, it proved costly as the battalions involved had suffered 805 casualties. Most of these occurred close to Jove Mebus, where the Connaught Rangers had engaged the enemy in hand-to-hand combat.

Perhaps an idea of the ferocious nature of this form of trench warfare can be gleaned from Father William Doyle, chaplain of the 8th Dublin Fusiliers, who remarked, "We should have had more prisoners, only a hot-blooded Irishman is a dangerous customer when he gets behind a bayonet and wants to let daylight through everybody."

There were further 10th Battalion deaths at the end of the month of November. I have not yet been able to find a record of what happened on 29/30 November 1917. I assume that it was a German Counter attack

10th Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers - Campaigns