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Cambrai Memorial, Louverval, France Cambrai Memorial, Louverval, France
First Name: Harold Last Name: RATHBONE
Date of Death: 26/11/1917 Lived/Born In: Roehampton
Rank: Corporal Unit: East Surrey13
Memorial Site: Cambrai Memorial, Louverval, France

Current Information:




The Battle of Cambrai

This was a major British offensive on the Western Front that was launched on 20th November, 1917 and lasted through to the beginning of December. As the name suggests it was an attack towards the city of Cambrai and the important German railhead there, which it was hoped would be captured. The battle was notable for two things: the massed use of tanks for the first time and the success of the first day’s fighting when the formidable Hindenburg Line was breached and gains of five miles were made in places. In celebration the church bells throughout Britain were rung. However this success was short lived. The tanks were not reliable and the German defence stiffened as the fighting progressed and when they counter attacked in force on 30th November, the British came under so much pressure that they were forced to withdraw from many of the positions they had captured earlier on. Both sides suffered around 45,000 casualties during the course of the fighting.

40th Division were in reserve on the opening day of the Battle of Cambrai but on 22nd November they received orders to relieve the 62nd Division the next day and attack and capture Bourlon village and Bourlon Wood which stood on dominating heights from where the enemy commanded much of the battlefield. On 23rd November 120 Brigade were in reserve as the other two brigades of the division attacked. Bourlon Wood was captured by 119 Brigade but the village itself remained in German hands after 121 Brigade had been cut down by heavy machine gun fire, as they fought their way forward. Another attempt to take Bourlon village was made on 24th November and 14th Highland Light Infantry from 120 Brigade succeeded in getting a foothold there although their position was precarious. At 6.15am on 25th November, 13th East Surrey, the last unused battalion of 120 Brigade advanced to the relief of 14th Highland Light Infantry in Bourlon. They were immediately hit by machine-gun fire but some fought their way into the village. They were however too late to help the three isolated companies of 14th Highland Light Infantry near the railway who were surrounded and forced to surrender at 9.30am. With the odds stacked against them those from 13th East Surrey who had been fighting in the village began drifting back to the joint 13th East Surrey/14th Highland Light Infantry HQ where a determined stand was being made while maintaining touch with 119 Brigade in Bourlon Wood. The following day, 40th Division were withdrawn but 13th East Surrey HQ did not leave their stronghold in the south-east corner of Bourlon village until the evening and the other companies were not withdrawn from Bourlon Wood until the next day. 13th East Surrey sustained nearly 250 casualties during this operation, and although most of them, including that of Harold Rathbone, are officially recorded as being on 26th November, it is more likely that they occurred on 25th November and were not written up until a day later. 

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