Home Land War Battlefields Cambrai 1917: The Myth of the Great Tank Battle

Cambrai 1917: The Myth of the Great Tank Battle

british-tank-crossing-trenchThe battle of Cambrai in November 1917 has entered history as a landmark battle: it is one of the first examples of modern warfare, that is it was an ‘all arms battle’. This implies that all branches of the armed forces were acting together – infantry, artillery, cavalry, tanks and the RFC. This was so different from the tactics employed in 1914 at the start of the war when the German army was the most professional and well-trained attacking force in Europe.

The features of the Western Front which had caused these changes in tactics were artillery, trenches, barbed wire and machine guns. At Cambrai the BEF was putting into action the learning curve they had experienced since 1916. First, the use of aircraft to bring height and distance to planning attacks on a strongly-held position. Secondly, predicted fire had returned surprise to the armoury of the attacker as counter-battery offensives could be carried out without the exploratory firing known as registration using flash spotting and sound ranging (which always alerted the enemy to the advent of a major offensive).  Brigadier General Hugh Tudor, CRA of the 9th (Scottish) Division, devised a plan by which the battle would proceed without a preliminary bombardment but would be accompanied by intense artillery action against all known German batteries.

british-tank-stablesThe battle of Cambrai evolved from a ‘hit and run’ tank raid devised by Lt-Colonel JFC Fuller, the chief staff officer of the Tank Corps. Tanks had been used in great numbers during Third Ypres, but to no great avail as the terrain was not in their favour. Instead the section of the line near Cambrai was chosen as the terrain was relatively undamaged, rolling chalk land. This idea evolved into a major battle involving 1000 guns, nine tank battalions, six infantry divisions and five cavalry divisions. Cambrai was an important railhead and headquarters town. To deny it to the Germans would be a major coup.

The planning of the battle was carried out by the Third Army commanded by General Byng. It was to a be a deep attack on a front of 10,000 yards (about 5.5 miles) between the canal du Nord and the Saint Quentin canal. The major obstacle in the line of attack was the Hindenberg Line, which involved two lines of fortifications, tens of yards of barbed wire, and concrete emplacements. Tanks were to carry fascines – thick bundles of wooden staves which were to be dropped into trenches to allow tanks to proceed across them without difficulty. Haig’s orders for the attack gave the attacking divisions 48 hours to reach their objective – the Bourlon ridge.

At 0620 on 20 November the attack began: the infantry advanced, the tanks rolled forward and the artillery barrage destroyed numerous German emplacements. Even Brigadier General Hugh Elles, commanding the Tank Corps, rode into battle in a Mark IV tank, ‘Hilda’. In all, some 350 fighting tanks were deployed.  The central divisions (in IV Corps) were 51st (Highland) and 62nd (2 West Riding), both highly experienced and well-trained. On their right were the 12th (Eastern), the 20th (Light) and the 6th (which made up III Corps), on their left the 36th (Ulster), whilst the 29th were kept in a support role.

The predictive fire on the Hindenburg Line and key points to the rear caught the Germans by surprise. As the men and tanks advanced, a creeping barrage was laid down to precede them. Not everything went to plan – the 62nd Division advance had started without their tanks. 51st Division found advancing with tanks difficult when the German trenches were too wide to be crossed – the tanks became ditched as the fascines were not wide enough. The other divisions advanced over open farm land and had few problems. 12th Division advanced as far as Bonavis and Lateau Wood, 20th Division captured La Vacquerie and advanced onto Masnieres where a tank broke a canal bridge over the St Quentin canal, resulting in the cavalry crossing in single file. 6th Division, after crossing the Hindenburg Line, captured Ribecourt and advanced to Marcoing. The 36th Division advanced up the dry canal bed of the Canal du Nord and reached the Bapaume-Cambrai road by nightfall. 51st Division became stuck on the Flesquieres ridge when their tanks were destroyed by an artillery group which had had previous training in using their guns in anti-tank warfare. Unfortunately Major-General Harper, CO of 51st division, was too far back to advise on the infantry being deployed in a pinching-out operation. 62nd Division fought their way onto the Bourlon ridge having taken Havrincourt and Graincourt.

The cavalry were not having the same effect and, where they crossed the St Quentin canal, they did so in small numbers which were not sufficient to cause the Germans problems. The cavalry support of the 6th Division did advance as far as Noyelles but were pushed back.

By the end of the first day the advance into German held territory was three to four miles deep but the Flesquieres ridge was still in German hands. Before the second day dawned, the Germans vacated Flesquieres ridge and the 51st Division advanced to Fontaine Notre Dame, where they were held up by fire from the wood. Few tanks were available on this second day so the infantry had to advance alone. 62nd Division continued in their attempt to take Bourlon Wood. One action, before the village of Anneux, was particularly costly: 186 Brigade led by the gallant Roland Boys Bradford took many casualties. 51st Division advanced on Fontaine Notre Dame, coming under enfilading fire on their right flank. This caused them problems all day.  III Corps had difficulty bringing up their artillery, so predictive fire was not available.

At 8.00 pm Haig’s 48 hours were up and decisions had to be made. Byng closed down the offensive of III Corps on the Eastern side, their job was to hold the salient against any German counter-attack. Haig advised Byng to take Bourlon Ridge and 40th Division was brought up to replace the 62nd. They attacked through ground mist in the morning of 23 November but were met by machine gun fire and were unable to take the wood. On their west flank, 36th Division made little progress against strengthening opposition. 51st Division were pushed out of Fontaine Notre Dame and 40th Division became stuck trying to take Bourlon village.

By 23 November, fresh troops were required and the Guards Division was brought in to bolster the attack on Bourlon wood and Fontaine Notre Dame. The Germans pulled back out of the wood and their artillery swamped the vacated space until the English forces had to withdraw. By nightfall the Guards had taken heavy casualties and had been pushed back to their starting line. At this point Haig instructed Byng to close down the battle and prepare to withdraw troops on 27 November.

The preparations for the German counter attack were first observed by VII Corps, on the east of III Corps. On 30 November, the attack came from the east in strength. It surprised a number of divisional commanders and stories of generals withdrawing while still in their pyjamas became commonplace. There were numerous examples of individual courage as the Germans advanced towards Havrincourt Wood, taking Banteux and Villers Guislain and Gonnelieu. As they advanced on Gouzeaucourt, they were held by increasing resistance.

This attack had been planned as the ‘anvil’, whilst the ‘hammer’ was a new attack from the north at Bourlon. They were repulsed by 47th and 56th Divisions which had relieved the 36th and 40th Divisions. The Germans suffered heavy losses and supply problems, and by 5 December the line had re-stabilised and now resembled an S-shaped double salient. The British still held the Flesquieres Ridge but had lost ground in the east. Casualties on both sides were comparable – about 44,000 each.

As a hit and run raid, the battle of Cambrai was a failure, and as a strategic operation to punch a hole in the German line it was a defeat. The German tactics of infiltration were to be improved and used again in the Spring Offensive of 1918. The "all arms battle" of the BEF was to be improved and led finally to the victories of Hamel and Amiens in the summer of 1918.

Reference: Bryn Hammond ‘Cambrai 1917', 2008

Contributed by: Peter J Palmer

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Last Updated ( Thursday, 04 June 2009 22:04 )  

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