Cambrai, 20th November to 7th December 1917 Part 1


The Prelude

After the disaster of the French Nivelle Offensive and the spectacular Canadian capture of the Vimy Ridge on Easter Day (9th April 1917), the British Army continued assaults around Arras which were largely unsuccessful. But on the 7th of June, 1917, the Messines Ridge near Ypres was torn apart by the explosions of some 15 mines. Supported by a creeping barrage, British, Australian and New Zealand infantry and tanks surged forward to clear the ridge. Two days later the battle was closed. After an interval of some seven weeks, the attacks around Ypres on the 31st of July began Third Ypres. Soon the rains turned the battlefield into a swamp. Even when the rains stopped, the drying conditions allowed the exploding shells to throw up clouds of dust. During the terrible months of September and October, the troops fought forward over the swamp until on the 10th of November the Passchendaele Ridge was finally taken. Six kilometres of advance had taken fourteen weeks for a cost of some 225,000 British and Empire casualties.

As the tanks had proved unable to cope with the swamps of the Ypres Salient, the British High Command decided that the tanks rolling off the assembly-lines should be tried out in a mass attack on ground not ruined by earlier battles and capable of carrying the weight of each tank. After the Battle of the Somme, in early 1917 the Germans retired to the newly-prepared line of strong fortifications, the Siegfried Stellung (nicknamed the Hindenburg Line by the British), in front of the town of Cambrai. Not only was the ground suitable for tanks being relatively flat and well-drained, but also it gave the opportunity to test out the capability of the Mark IV tank to break through the new German defences.

When the proposal to attack the Hindenburg Line was first made, Fuller saw the assault as a tank raid. However during the planning process, the operation ‘grew by topsy’ into a large scale attempt to break through what British Intelligence thought was a weakly-defended German sector. The Divisions assigned to the assault had recently been at and taken heavy casualties at Third Ypres so were in the Cambrai sector being refilled with replacements of newly-arrived soldiers. To compensate for these soldiers not being battle-hardened, cavalry was substituted. The initial planning was for the battle to be terminated after forty-eight hours if no substantial gains had been made.


The Battle of Cambrai

Before most British offensives, long barrages were employed. But as with the assault on the Bazentin Ridge, a short barrage was used using predicted fire. Beforehand the cannons had been silently registered onto identified targets. But rather than the effective creeping barrage based on 10 yard lifts which was ideal for suppressing German fire (their troops naturally hid in their underground dug-outs until the barrage passed, by which time the British troops were entering their trenches), a lifting barrage was used with 100 yard lifts. To achieve longer range, the guns had been hidden behind a two-mile long screen of cut brushwood and bushes along the edge of Havrincourt Wood. The 378 Mark IV fighting tanks and 93 support tanks (54 supply tanks pulling sledges carrying ammunition, fuel, water, wire, etc., 32 fitted with grapnels for shearing away the belts of barbed wire to make gaps for the cavalry to pass through, 2 carrying bridging equipment and 5 fitted with wirelesses) had been brought forward by their sound of movement being masked by British aircraft flying over the German trenches and drowning the noise with their own and by the firing of the Vickers machine-guns. The tanks then moved forward to crush the barbed wire enclosures before the Hindenburg Line and achieved complete surprise.

Soon the tanks were beyond the German trenches and with the following infantry and cavalry began to advance through the open country behind the trench systems and stormed through the villages of Masnieres and Marcoing. But the tanks were slow and vulnerable to artillery and anti-tank fire. Their assault capabilities were rapidly weakened, especially on the ridge before the village of Flesquieres where the gunners of the German 54th Division manning the line had been specially trained by their commander, Lieutenant-General von Watter, to fight tanks. The gunners manhandled their 77mm cannons into exposed positions from where they could fire directly at the approaching tanks. Twenty-eight tanks were ‘brewed up’, and the 51st Highland Division lost the protection these tanks would have provided.

An innovative German tactic was for the machine-gunners in the front line to wait for the tanks to pass then fire upon the following infantry, leaving the second line to engage the tanks. Their response was given assistance by the lifting barrage which meant that the machine-gunners were able to wait for the barrage to lift beyond them before emerging to fire on the advancing British troops, a practice not possible with the creeping barrage. With the rapid dwindling in numbers of tanks and British soldiers, the Germans gained time to regroup well beyond their former trenches. At their defensive positions along Bourlon Ridge, they resisted stubbornly. As the tanks bottomed on the tree stumps, they were not able to greatly assist the assaulting British troops who were unable to securely capture Bourlon Wood lying along the Ridge.

Unfortunately the BEF Director of Military Intelligence, Brigadier-General John Charteris, did not accept the information that three fresh German divisions had recently arrived from the Eastern Front following the collapse of Russia and so misinformed Sir Douglas Haig. These divisions helped slow the advance until the arrival of another eleven divisions over the next few days. During the first forty-eight hours, the British troops had achieved great success, measured by capturing formidable trench systems and large numbers of prisoners, despite the two set-backs at Flesquieres and Bourlon Wood.

The dilemma for the British military tacticians was now either to halt the attack and retreat to defensible positions or to continue with the aim of consolidating on Bourlon Ridge. This would give visual observation dominance over the land around the town of Cambrai – a substantial prize under the conditions of the Western Front. The British High Command decided to commit the limited reserves available in seeking to achieve this consolidation but the German troops on the ridge continued to fight valiantly. Skilfully exploiting their railway system to speedily bring up their reserve divisions, the German High Command then launched a series of attacks and by the 8th of December had driven back the British infantry to near their start-lines of the 20th of November although they held on to Flesquieres and its Ridge, Ribecourt and Havrincourt.

The British began the battle with very limited reserves because of the casualties suffered at Third Ypres and the troops sent to northern Italy to bolster the Italian Army following its disaster at the Battle of Caporetto. After days of fighting, British troops were left with small gains, and the tank force was spent. Communications also soon broke down because of the tanks. The fascines on the top (bundles of brushwood to aid in crossing trenches) brought down the overhead telephone wires. whilst the sledges being dragged behind the supply tanks cut the ground-laid wires. Furthermore the Mark IV tanks were still not mechanically reliable and were too easily disabled by artillery and anti-tank rifle fire. Nevertheless the use of tanks en masse was the most dramatic innovation using machinery during the Great War by the British High Command.


The Aftermath

Cambrai was the last major offensive of 1917. Together with the battles of Arras and Third Ypres, it had achieved little despite early promise. Although the new technologies of tanks, the creeping barrage, counter-battery fire and the continuous wave wireless were not sufficiently reliable to give sustainable competitive advantage, nevertheless they were changing the face of battle after the previous three years of stalemate and horrendous casualty lists.


Questions

1. Why did the planned assault at Cambrai ‘grow by topsy’?

2. What measures were taken to achieve surprise?

3. What limited the exploitation of the successful breakthrough?

4. Why did communications fail, both on the battlefield and with British Intelligence?

5. What skills did the Germans show during the course of the battle?


Touring the Cambrai Battlefield

As Professor Brian Bond of the Department of War Studies, King’s College London, has commented, touring the Cambrai battlefield is difficult because the present road layout does not relate to the routes followed by the advancing tanks and infantry in 1917. This is because the dry ground freed the tanks from having to drive along roads so they were able to follow the contours of the ground rather than having to keep to the roads. The battlefield is to the west of the city of Cambrai. Havrincourt Wood is at the bottom of the shallow valley, strangely called the Grand Ravine, along which the tanks drove up to Flesquieres and Ribecourt. The tanks broke through to Marcoing and Masnieres beyond, towns on the St. Quentin Canal. The bridge at Masnieres replaces the one which collapsed under the weight of the first British tank crossing it, thereby ruining the advance of the mechanical forces. At the northern edge of Masnieres beside the N44 road is the Caribou monument marking the Newfoundland Regiment’s contribution to the battle (as well as the Canadian Fort Garry Horse which broke into the open country beyond but had to withdraw because their support was delayed by the collapsed bridge). In this part of France other Caribou are also found, at Gueudecourt and at Beaumont-Hamel. The latter statue presides over the famous Newfoundland Memorial Park where the Royal Newfoundland Regiment marched to thei deaths on July the 1st, 1916.

To the north of the N30 road from Cambrai to Bapaume is Bourlon Wood, on the Ridge dominating the relatively flat countryside to the west of Cambrai. The Memorial to the Missing at Louverval further along on the right of the road has the superb bas relief panels by C.S.Jagger which capture in stone the essence of trench warfare.