Cambrai, 20th November to 7th December 1917 Part 2


External Circumstances

As the attacks on the Passchendaele Ridge during the Battle of Third Ypres became bogged down in the Flanders mud, the proposal for an attack on the Hindenburg Line before the town of Cambrai was made. The original suggestion was to launch a large tank raid exploiting the Mark IV tanks rapidly coming off the assembly lines which could not effectively be used at Ypres. The topography of the rolling ground, well drained, in front of Cambrai offered the opportunity to use the strengths of the tanks in being able to cross open country and not rely on tarmaced roads, vulnerable to damage from shell fire.

The raid also offered the political and psychological benefits of achieving a victory after the many reverses and few successes of 1917. Hence the planning for the raid ‘grew by topsy’ so that it became a full-scale attack employing numerous divisions besides the tanks. But recognising that the divisions were weakened after their fighting at Third Ypres, two cavalry divisions were added to the force.


Selection of the Assault Units

The tank force was to consist of 378 Mark IV fighting tanks, 88 supply tanks – many pulling sledges, and 5 wireless tanks to relay information on progress back to British High Command. Some 1,000 cannons were supplied. Five infantry divisions were to be used in the main attack. These were the 62nd (West Riding), 51st (Highland), 6th, 20th (Light) and 12th (Eastern) Divisions. The 36th (Ulster) Division was to attack later the empty Canal du Nord and its spoilheap strongpoint. And the two cavalry divisions were to be available to advance in exploitation of a break through.


The Methods of Assault Adopted

Unlike the normal preliminary bombardment of sometimes days’ duration, a short but intensive barrage was fired by the cannons carefully positioned and camouflaged close to the two-mile long brushwood and bush screen which also hid the tanks. This positioning was to permit the cannons to range more deeply behind German front lines without needing to be moved forward once break through was achieved. The camouflage protected them against German counter-battery fire. The tanks had been brought forward with their engine and track noises being suppressed by the sound of aeroplanes flying over the German trenches and machine-gun firing.

After the intensive barrage, a lifting barrage with 100 yard lifts was fired as the tanks moved forward followed by the infantry. Despite the capture of some Ulster Division prisoners two days before making the Germans aware of an impending attack, this short barrage fooled the German defenders so they were surprised by unexpectedly finding themselves facing the advancing tanks. The tanks fanned out from the so-called Grand Ravine in front of Havrincourt Wood to crush the belts of barbed wire. The following infantry then entered and captured with relatively few casualties many sections of the German front line trenches.


The Rival’s Reaction

German commanders were aware of the basic abilities of the British tanks and some divisions had trained in using cannons, machine-guns and adapted rifles in an anti-tank role. The 54th Division at Flesquieres village were able to so weaken the attack on the first day that greater success was contained. The German High Command then used their skill in moving troops rapidly over the railway network to bring forward eleven divisions. When the momentum of the British assaults began to subside, these divisions were released into action and the British troops driven back to the Flesquieres Ridge and elsewhere to near their starting-lines.


Lessons of Cambrai

This battle was the first occasion when the major innovation of the Great War, the tank, went into action in large numbers. Their numbers were such that the preliminary bombardment was dispensed with in favour of allowing the tanks to attack with limited artillery support beforehand. This plan was the opportunity to test whether or not tanks could achieve surprise using their own cannon-fire to supplement the limited barrage. The plan worked well during most of the first 48 hours, the planned duration of the attack.

It was less successful in the co-ordination between the tanks and the following infantry. The infantry found themselves being caught by German machine-guns once the tanks had passed them. Instead the infantry could have advanced alongside the tanks using the steel walls of the tanks for protection from which they could destroy the machine-gun nests, leaving the tanks to destroy solid gun emplacements with their cannons and large concentrations of German troops with their machine-guns. Unfortunately better co-ordination required better communication between tank and infantry commanders and the existing wireless communications technology and design of the tanks prevented this. The wireless tanks, for example, proved to be ineffective. Furthermore the tanks themselves destroyed the means of communication. The brushwood fascines, weighing some two tons, positioned on their roofs to be used as fillers of trenches, brought down overhead telephone lines. The sledges being dragged behind the supply tanks cut the ground laid wires.

The decision of General Charteris to ignore the reports about the arrival of the three fresh German divisions from the Russian front was unacceptable – a decision for which he was later sacked. Their presence and fighting capability left the infantry and the cavalry seriously exposed to counter-attack once the tank force had been spent (over half being damaged or destroyed, being stranded by falling into trenches, or breaking down mechanically during the first day) and the eleven German reserve divisions brought up by railway. These events suggest the lesson was that having achieved the break through, the vulnerable units should have been allowed to consolidate until the tank force had been revitalised and the cannon line moved further forward, the principle of ‘bite and hold’. Originally planned as a 48 hour attack, the continuation beyond the first two days for limited gain was a reversion to the type of control which had brought such poor returns during the last weeks of the Battle of the Somme.

Nevertheless the development and exploitation of the tank was clear evidence that the Allies had at last pulled back the technological lead of the Germans. Fortunately the German High Command were complacent that their way of waging war still gave them a competitive advantage – thus they regarded the tank as something of a joke. Their attempt to build a tank, the A7V, was pathetic. Its performance was mediocre, its country-country ability almost non-existant, and its design suggested a miniature mobile Hohenzollern Redoubt. The 9 tanks they built were rapidly put out of action. Instead they took to recycling broken-down British tanks left behind after Cambrai by mending them and painting on the Iron Cross. Together with repaired French tanks they had some 170 recycled Allied tanks to use in the Kaiser’s Offensive of the spring and early summer of 1918 – but these were soon used up.

This failure to understand the importance of the new technology and to develop an effective rival machine in sufficient numbers to protect their infantry meant that during the Offensive their mobile storm troopers speedily made great gains but suffered huge casualties. These troops were the cream of the German Army soldiers drawn from Western Front units and units no longer needed in Russia. They were carefully trained in assault techniques. But once they were used up, the poor calibre of the remaining troops was to be exposed in the assaults at le Hamel, St. Mihiel, and then at Amiens.


Rating the Quality of the Operation

Examining the analysis of the 34 questions using the Likert Scale, the deviation was found to be favourable by 4.9%. The distribution showed a marked concentration on performance ranging from the good to the poor with very few being considered either very good or very poor performance. This mean that overall the performance was as might be expected to be achieved by competent managers but showed little sign of sustained excellence. The events after the first 48 hours can be held to justify this conclusion.


Views of the Battlefield

021

The Grand Ravine Cemetery on the southern edge of Havrincourt Wood, typical of many Great War cemeteries which are geographically isolated yet often visited by Western Front visitors. 35mm photograph taken July 2000.

022

The Grand Ravine, from Havrincourt Wood, up which the tanks climbed towards the Flesquieres-Ribecourt ridge. 35mm photograph taken March 1999.

023

Another view of the Grand Ravine showing that it is nothing more than a gentle incline towards the Hindenburg Line on the Flesquieres-Ribecourt ridge. 35mm photograph taken July 2000.

024

The modern bridge at Masnieres across the St Quentin Canal replaces the bridge which collapsed under the weight of the tank ‘Flying Fox’ on the 20th of November that effectively drained away the impetus of the British advance. 35mm photograph taken July 2000.

025

The Newfoundland Regiment’s Caribou Memorial on the northern edge of Masnieres which could also commemorate the success of the Fort Garry Horse during the battle for which Lieutenant Henry Strachan was awarded the Victoria Cross. 35mm photograph taken March 1999.

C.S. Jagger’s bas relief on the Cambrai Memorial at Louverval

A bas relief by C.S. Jagger carved on one of the walls of the Cambrai Memorial at Louverval which vividly illustrates in stone the nature of trench warfare. 35mm photograph taken March 1999.