Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

British Cavalry Help Capture Monchy-le-Preux–11 April 1917

By Stephen Barker @ Oxford University's World War I Centenary Website

Monchy-le-Preux was one of the keys to the northern end of the Hindenburg Line, giving the Germans ideal observation over any advance from the British trenches in front of Arras five miles away. Third Army’s commander, General Sir Edmund Allenby, ordered the capture of the village and surrounding high ground, as objectives for the first day of the offensive—9 April. In the eventuality that VI Corps infantry broke through the "Green Line" just east of Monchy, Allenby ordered the Cavalry Corps, in conjunction with the infantry, to exploit the gains further, a distance of eight miles in total toward Cambrai.  However, he made it clear that the cavalry was not to be used unless the infantry achieved their first day objectives.

This is important, reflecting Sir Douglas Haig’s order that cavalry be ready to deliver significant advances, yet also be handled carefully. Seemingly contradictory—any such unprecedented breakthrough would inevitably lead to heavy casualties—it also revealed the fundamental tension between those senior officers who believed that a comprehensive "breakthrough" with cavalry was yet possible and those who subscribed to a "bite and hold" doctrine. Yet Haig had recognized the limitations of the use of cavalry early in 1916, when a revision of the existing prewar policy was undertaken. This stressed the value of close cooperation between cavalry and other arms, its ability to perform attacking and defensive duties and to operate in both mounted and dismounted roles.

British Cavalry and a Mark I Tank During the Arras Battle. Image Is Author's Own.

Cavalry was viewed increasingly as one of several mobile elements, including tanks, armored cars, aeroplanes, and bicycle-mounted troops, working with the infantry. If a breakthrough of the enemy line was not possible, horsemen were expected to use their mobility and dismounted firepower to enable the infantry to establish and broaden gaps at critical times in the battle. They were to be capable of an effectual dismounted role, sophisticated fire, and movement tactics, including the taking and holding of ground using speed and mobility.

In the context of trench warfare, the first day at Arras was a success, with ground up to a depth of three-and-a-half miles taken, but the gains fell short of Monchy-le-Preux. Its capture was planned again for the morning of 11 April, when four regiments from 3rd Cavalry Division supported the infantry attack. 3rd Dragoon Guards reached the Monchy-La Bergère road south of the village. Here they dismounted and took up firing positions with their Hotchkiss machine guns, joining up a defensive line between 111 and 112 Infantry Brigades. They endured heavy artillery fire and were strafed by low-flying aircraft, fighting as infantry to repel potential counterattacks.

North of the village, Essex Yeomanry and 10th Hussars, supported by the Royal Horse Guards, galloped eastward, looking to exploit any breakthrough. Meeting machine gun fire, they veered into its streets, as ordered, and then ventured out once more to escape shelling this time, only to be driven back. The arrival of the cavalry in the village enabled the struggling infantry to establish a defensive firing line. By deepening shell holes, deploying machine guns, and establishing two dressing stations, the dismounted cavalry stiffened the infantry’s resolve. They provided rapid reinforcements, leadership, and organizational proficiency at a crucial time, before the arrival of tanks and infantry secured the village.  Six hundred cavalrymen were casualties, and many more horses died. The animals were tethered in the open, as their riders took cover, while attempts to take them to the rear during a box barrage only increased the killing.

Monchy Has Two Memorials to Infantry Units That Helped Capture the Village in 1917:
The Newfoundland Regiment on the Left and the 37th Division on the Right.
No Mention Is Given to the Cavalry Units Discussed in This Article

Today, the apparent folly of employing horses during the Great War belies that fact that cavalry were the only mobile force capable of exploiting any breakthrough in the trench stalemate. For Allied commanders searching for ways to return to "open warfare" and to liberate French soil, there was no alternative—fast, dependable tanks were not yet available. Yet at Arras, although the possibility of a decisive breakthrough was planned for, so too was it acknowledged by GHQ that the task of the mounted arm had changed.

Source:   ‘War Horse’ at Monchy-le-Preux – 11 April 1917 (  

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