The Battle of Cambrai was an attack launched in November 1917 against the vaunted Hindenburg Line and is known for the first use of tanks en masse having been used firstly on the Somme in September 1916.
These great lumbering machines helped break the deadlock on the Western Front but were criticised for being prone to mechanical failure and also being very slow which therefore made them easy targets for heavy artillery. Attempts to use them in battle before Cambrai had all ended in disaster
Cambrai was chosen as the place for using tanks because it lay on a chalky, plain thus making it ideal for this weapon. The western side of the town was protected by the defenses of the Hindenburg Line. The German troops here had been fighting in the Ypres Salient at Passchendaele and had been moved to this sector for a rest as it was not considered to be important by the German high command.
The attack was planned by General Julian Byng now commanding the 3rd Army and was to be a frontal assault which would punch a hole through the Hindenburg Line. This would then be exploited by three British divisions of cavalry and capture the town with an enveloping movement. To maintain the element of surprise no preliminary bombardment was planned just the advance of tanks that would open the way. British air support would attack the German rear, thus preventing reinforcement being brought forward. At 6.20am on the 20th November the attack began along a front of ten kilometers. The new Tank Corps advanced with 476 tanks of which 350 were armed. These tanks led the way for six infantry divisions and, accompanied by a large artillery bombardment and the use of gas from Liven Projectors, the Germans were taken completely by surprise and the tanks made very quick progress in reaching the enemy trenches and breaking through the German line.
This complete element of surprise and terror caused by the use of so many tanks caused the Germans to retreat. The Hindenburg Line had never been breached so deeply before and not since 1914 had the British Army advanced so quickly. By nightfall the British had conquered nine kilometers of German occupied ground and were close to the town of Cambrai. They had also captured 8,000 prisoners.
However, the same old problem arose, that being how to capitalize on the initial breakthrough. It has been thought that the movement of the tanks affected the cavalry around Masnières Hill but the real problem was the slow arrival of reinforcements that was caused by the roads being heavily congested, which meant that the last five kilometers to the front took almost fifteen hours to cover. The Germans were soon harassing the forward troops from the heights of Bourlon Wood which was not addressed until 23 November when Welsh infantry, accompanied by tanks, clawed out a foothold on the edge of the woods.
The Germans’ first reaction to the British offensive was to instigate a retreat but then Ludendorff soon abandoned this and mounted a counter attack on the 30th November using twenty divisions. This counter attack brought immediate success for the Germans who advanced five kilometers in just two hours threatening to envelop the British divisions who had become isolated. New German methods of fighting were used which involved infiltrating the enemy’s lines in small groups of highly trained heavily armed soldiers. These methods were already being used in the Italian front and the battle came to a close on the 4th December and the unexpected success achieved by the British at the beginning of the battle had turned into another failure. All the terrain won by the British Army was abandoned and casualties were extremely high totaling 44,000 killed, wounded or missing in action along with 6,000 taken prisoner. It can be said that fortunately enough the German losses were of a comparable nature with 10,000 prisoners being taken.
Cambrai is not a frequently visited battlefield or battlefield tour and when touring here you hardly ever bump into other visitors to this expansive plain. Rifleman Tours can arrange and personal/private battlefield tour of Cambrai along with a visit to see the recovered Deborah Tank.