Cambridgeshire Regiment special: Brave, bold and brilliant

PUBLISHED: 12:11 27 July 2006 | UPDATED: 11:56 04 May 2010

MOMENT OF TRIUMPH: An illustration of the German surrender, ringed top left, as the Cambridgeshire Regiment storm the Schwaben Redoubt.

MOMENT OF TRIUMPH: An illustration of the German surrender, ringed top left, as the Cambridgeshire Regiment storm the Schwaben Redoubt.

THIS year marks the 90th anniversary of an event so remarkable and special that is difficult to grasp the awful reality, the dreadful human cost and the historical significance and transfer it into words. On October 14, 1916, the Cambridgeshire Regiment,

THIS year marks the 90th anniversary of an event so remarkable and special that is difficult to grasp the awful reality, the dreadful human cost and the historical significance and transfer it into words. On October 14, 1916, the Cambridgeshire Regiment, after months of military failure and a heavy loss of life, captured the formidable German stronghold - the Schwaben Redoubt.

Many attempts had been made to take this strategic position and all had failed, but on October 14 the regiment, including a large number of men from the Ely area, under the command of Lt Col Edward Riddell, not only took the Redoubt, but managed to hang on to it.

General Douglas Haig, commander-in-chief for the British Expeditionary Force in France and Belgium, described it as "one of the finest feats of arms in the history of the British Army.

This week, we tell you some of the background and mention some of the men who gave the lives to change the course of the First World War. In subsequent weeks we will bring you some of the personal stories and tell you about a reunion event at Ely Cathedral later in the year.

IT was the battle that ensured the name of the Cambridgeshire Regiment would be forever remembered by military historians.

More importantly, it was the battle that guaranteed soldiers from Cambridgeshire would be honoured for their skill and bravery in pulling off a spectacular battlefield success that so many others had tried but failed to achieve.

The battle by the Cambridgeshires to capture the Schwaben Redoubt was part of the British Army's costly Somme offensive, and is an event uniquely special to the Cambridgeshire Regiment.

By First World War standards the Cambridgeshire Regiment's loss of life in this historic action was slight, with 32 killed and a further 186 wounded.

The Redoubt, a series of trenches and dug-outs sited on a high point overlooking the British lines and bristling with machine guns, was of great strategic importance and had been fought over many times with considerable loss of life.

But this time would be different. Lt Col Edward Riddle planned and led the assault on October 14, 1916, when the men, some just teenagers, advanced under a creeping barrage - heavy artillery fire focused on land in front of the advancing soldiers - and set up positions within the defended area without loss of life. The attack concentrated on more than one side of the triangular placement and had Royal Flying Corps support.

The fierce fighting that followed developed into a hotly-contested struggle, commanded by corporals and junior commanders with bayonets and hand grenades.

The bewildered German occupants were routed and surrendered, and the Cambridgeshires went on to hold the Redoubt for a further 24 hours before being relieved, having beaten back several determined counter attacks.

The Western Front in the First Word War, particularly the Somme battles, have long suffered from a bad press. Ask the man in the street what he knows about the Somme and he will almost certainly speak of thousands of over-burdened soldiers going 'over the top' to be slaughtered by machine guns on the first day (July 1, 1916).

A more knowledgeable person might also tell of the grinding muddy attrition battles that ran into November, with neither side gaining much ground at huge cost in casualties.

However, in the midst of this awful attrition the occasional glimmer of military achievement shines though. One such example is the Cambridgeshires' storming of the Schwaben Redoubt.

The Redoubt, the centrepiece of the German defence in the Somme sector, was taken briefly by the 36th Ulster Division in July, but was almost immediately recaptured in a German counter-attack.

Between July and October it was attacked no fewer than six times, all to no avail. The main problem was how to hold on to the position against the dreaded German counter attacks.

But Lt Col Riddell did everything right. He argued for and won the case for massive artillery and air support and based his successful tactics on lessons learned from the mistakes of other failed assaults.

The Cambridgeshires set off at 2.45pm and followed the creeping barrage very closely. Consequently they got into the Schwaben trenches with few if any casualties.

A savage close-quarter infantry battle then took place - four hours of hand-to-hand fighting with bayonet and grenade against tough and aggressive German opposition.

Gradually, despite several setbacks, they won the upper hand. Each dugout was cleared in turn and they bombed along the trenches until the whole site was in their hands. Both sides ran out of grenades.

Then came the decisive trick. Instead of reorganising and consolidating in the old German trenches, the Cambridgeshires moved forward 100 yards and, under cover of darkness, dug a new defensive line by joining up shell holes, scraping and digging as best they could. They even managed to place barbed wire in front of this new line.

So when the counter attack came at 4am next morning the German barrage landed behind the Cambridgeshires, in the original trenches.

Because of this the Cambridgeshires were able to stop the counter attack dead in its tracks with rifle and machine gun fire. The same applied to the next two counter attacks.

The Schwaben Redoubt was taken and held at last.

The success was accorded the following accolade in a subsequent press report: "The splendid achievement in which the men so greatly distinguished themselves will earn for them the pride and admiration of the country whose name they bear.

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