There was a level of more than usual secrecy about military activities during November 1917. It applied equally to the work of 11th DLI Pioneers. Their location was recorded as W.3.c.5.7 – a map reference. While most companies were working on roads and communications trenches, one company was allocated to creating new accommodation at Q.30.d. Transport and communications seemed to be the order of the day – roads, railways, trenches.
Rumours would have done their rounds no doubt, as something was clearly afoot. Perhaps there was a hint when Captain C Palmer was transferred permanently to the Tank Corps and Captain WGL Sear took his place in charge of ‘A’ Company. The unusual task on 9 November of constructing ‘a model in connection with the coming operations’ might also have fed the rumours. That job lasted several days, so it was a complex affair. Then Captains Sear and Jee were called away to a Conference at Albert, where no doubt they began to get some of what lay behind the secrecy.
As the month progressed (more roads, tracks, shelters and communications trenches), the battalion was gradually moved forward to occupy the village of Gouzeaucourt and shelters in the area around. The shelters were as much to keep out prying eyes from the sky than protection. 20th Division began its attack on 20 November and 11 DLI followed up by digging forward communications trenches from the British lines. The Lewis guns moved from anti-aircraft duty to join the forward infantry brigades. Casualties began to mount: Lt WW Inglis was killed while others were wounded. The relentless work on roads continued until the end of the month.
There is little in the diary accounts to suggest what was happening at the Front. The 20th Division Infantry Brigades, supported by tanks, had captured the village of La Vacquerie and held a crossing on the St Quentin Canal. This was merely one sector on the right-hand side of a concentrated push through the Hindenburg Line at Cambrai. There was a six-mile advance, but only into an exposed salient. The Germans quickly organised their artillery to bombard the area and had already gathered twenty Divisions for counter-attacks, some deployed to slow the British advance almost immediately. The tanks had proved their worth by suppressing what the Germans had regarded as impregnable wire defences and by sheer surprise.
On 30 November, ‘B’ and ‘D’ Companies of 11 DLI were deployed in the Hindenburg Support Line, ‘A’ company was in shelters in a railway cutting at Villers Plouich, while HQ and ‘C’ Companies occupied shelters in a sunken road in Gouzeaucourt. Only from this day would the Pioneers demonstrate their true colours, well beyond what might be expected of ‘intelligent and organised labour’.