From 17 November 1917, 11 DLI HQ was based at W.5.b – somewhere near Gouzeaucourt. At 6.20 am on 20 November, 20th Division attacked the enemy trenches at Cambrai, following behind the tanks. ‘A’ and ‘B’ companies of 11 DLI were already moving forward at 6 am behind the tanks hastily constructing roads to allow cavalry to move forward. ‘C’ and ‘D’ companies followed afterwards at 6.40 am, digging a new communications trench from the British front line towards the German front line, before starting work on a road between Villers-Plouich and La Vacquerie, with two platoons continuing the same work throughout the following night. Lt. Dan Ellwood was in charge of 8 Lewis gun teams providing anti-aircraft cover for the attack and they then moved into the forward area to join the infantry brigades mopping up the former German lines. After all that excitement, from 21 November the Pioneer battalion resumed duty for the next nine days working on roads to support the new front line, with their new HQ base at Q 36.a.8.2. That was the Battle of Cambrai from the viewpoint of a supporting battalion. Then it would all unravel and 11 DLI would be right in the thick of it.
For the first couple of weeks of November 1917, the 11 DLI war diary continued to refer to its HQ camp site by cryptic references (W3.c.5.7) indicating the level of secrecy around what was in hand. They were actually in the vicinity of the village of Gouzeaucourt. The work was all labour and little rest, so it is doubtful if the men had much time to think about what was going on, though we can be sure there was plenty of speculation. They were building shelters, communications trenches, but mostly working on road improvements. On 7 November, Captain Palmer left the battalion to join the Tank Corps and his place in charge of ‘A’ Company was taken by Captain WGL Sear.
A typical working day was 5 November when “Four companies (were) working on Villers-Plouich-Gouzeaucourt Road and Villers-Plouich-Gonnelieu Road. A party of 50 under 2/Lt Atlay (were) working on railway.” Meanwhile back in England it was Bonfire Night, though what sort of celebrations were made is anybody’s guess. At Number 6, Bridge Terrace in Darlington, Florence Bashforth gave birth to Thomas’s third child, John Raymond Bashforth, who would one day be my Dad.
Something of what was afoot became more apparent to some the lads, as on 9 November they were working on a model of the forthcoming operations. After several more days of the usual work, on 17 November, the battalion moved camp to the equally mysterious ‘W.5.b’. The stage was almost set.
On 1 October 1917, 11 DLI, along with the rest of 20th Light Division, was moved out of the Ypres area and sent to Bapaume, where they were attached to Third Army command. The battalion was strengthened by striking off some 240 ‘other ranks’ and bringing in another 280, plus 6 officers.
They then moved south and set up battalion HQ at the mysteriously named “Camp W3C.57” – the war diary gives no other location details. A little more can be deduced from this apparent secrecy, since the diary specified the names of the trenches on which the battalion worked for the whole of October, without respite: Mac Support, Loughborough Lane, Circus Switch, Denning Avenue, Fern Trench and Ashby Lane. Parts of it sound somewhat suburban, but these were in fact a section of the trench systems facing Cambrai. The work would become more interesting the following month and the purpose lying behind it more evident.