Battle of Cambrai (1917)
The Battle of Cambrai (Battle of Cambrai, 1917, First Battle of Cambrai and Schlacht von Cambrai) was a British attack followed by the biggest German counter-attack against the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) since 1914, in the First World War. The town of Cambrai, in the département of Nord, was an important supply point for the German Siegfriedstellung (known to the British as the Hindenburg Line) and capture of the town and the nearby Bourlon Ridge would threaten the rear of the German line to the north. Major General Henry Tudor, Commander, Royal Artillery (CRA) of the 9th (Scottish) Division, advocated the use of new artillery-infantry techniques on his sector of the front. During preparations, J. F. C. Fuller, a staff officer with the Tank Corps, looked for places to use tanks for raids. General Julian Byng, commander of the British Third Army, decided to combine both plans. The French and British armies had used tanks in mass earlier in 1917, although to considerably less effect.
After a big British success on the first day, mechanical unreliability, German artillery and infantry defences exposed the frailties of the Mark IV tank. On the second day, only about half of the tanks were operational and British progress was limited. In the History of the Great War, the British official historian, Wilfrid Miles, and modern scholars do not place exclusive credit for the first day on tanks but discuss the concurrent evolution of artillery, infantry and tank methods. Numerous developments since 1915 matured at Cambrai, such as predicted artillery fire, sound ranging, infantry infiltration tactics, infantry-tank co-ordination and close air support. The techniques of industrial warfare continued to develop and played a vital part during the Hundred Days Offensive in 1918, along with replacement of the Mark IV tank with improved types. The rapid reinforcement and defence of Bourlon Ridge by the Germans, as well as their subsequent counter-stroke, were also notable achievements, which gave the Germans hope that an offensive strategy could end the war before American mobilisation became overwhelming.
Proposals for an operation in the Cambrai area using a large number of tanks originated from Brigadier Hugh Elles of the Tank Corps, and the reliance on the secret transfer of artillery reinforcements to be "silently registered" to gain surprise came from Henry Hugh Tudor, commander of the 9th (Scottish) infantry division artillery. In August 1917, Tudor conceived the idea of a surprise attack in the IV Corps sector, he suggested a primarily artillery-infantry attack, which would be supported by a small number of tanks, to secure a breakthrough of the German Hindenburg Line. The German defences were formidable; Cambrai having been a quiet stretch of front thus far enabled the Germans to fortify their lines in depth and the British were aware of this. Tudor's plan sought to test new methods in combined arms, with emphasis on combined artillery and infantry techniques and see how effective they were against strong German fortifications. Tudor advocated using the new sound ranging and silent registration of guns to achieve instant suppression fire and surprise. He also wanted to use tanks to clear paths through the deep barbed wire obstacles in front of German positions, while supporting the tank force with the No. 106 Fuze, designed to explode high explosive (HE) ammunition without cratering the ground to supplement the armour.
Two weeks before the start of the battle, the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) began to train its pilots in ground-attack tactics. Before the ground offensive, the RFC was assigned sets of targets to attack, including trenches, supply points and enemy airfields.
The battle began at dawn, approximately 06:30 on 20 November, with a predicted bombardment by 1,003 guns on German defences, followed by smoke and a creeping barrage at 300 yd (270 m) ahead to cover the first advances. Despite efforts to preserve secrecy, the Germans had received sufficient intelligence to be on moderate alert: an attack on Havrincourt was anticipated, as was the use of tanks. The attacking force was six infantry divisions of the III Corps (Lieutenant-General Pulteney) on the right and IV Corps (Lieutenant-General Charles Woollcombe) on the left, supported by nine battalions of the Tank Corps with about 437 tanks. In reserve was one infantry division in IV Corps and the three divisions of the Cavalry Corps (Lieutenant-General Charles Kavanagh). Initially, there was considerable success in most areas and it seemed as if a great victory was within reach; the Hindenburg Line had been penetrated with advances of up to 5.0 mi (8 km). On the right, the 12th (Eastern) Division advanced as far as Lateau Wood before being ordered to dig in. The 20th (Light) Division forced a way through La Vacquerie and then advanced to capture a bridge across the Canal de Saint-Quentin at Masnières. The bridge collapsed under the weight of a tank halting the hopes for an advance across the canal. In the centre the 6th Division captured Ribécourt and Marcoing but when the cavalry passed through late, they were repulsed from Noyelles.
On the IV Corps front, the 51st (Highland) Division was held at Flesquières, its first objective, which left the attacking divisions on each flank exposed to enfilade fire. The commander of the 51st Division, George Montague Harper had used a local variation of the tank drill instead of the standard one laid down by the Tank Corps. Flesquières was one of the most fortified points in the German line and was flanked by other strong points. Its defenders under Major Krebs acquitted themselves well against the tanks, almost 40 being knocked out by the Flesquières artillery. The common explanation of the "mythical" German officer ignored the fact that the British tanks were opposed by the 54th Division, which had specialist training in anti-tank tactics and experience against French tanks in the Nivelle Offensive. The Germans abandoned Flesquières during the night.
To the west of Flesquières, the 62nd (2nd West Riding) Division swept all the way through Havrincourt and Graincourt to within reach of the woods on Bourlon Ridge and on the British left, the 36th Division reached the Bapaume–Cambrai road. Of the tanks, 180 were out of action after the first day, although only 65 had been destroyed. Of the other casualties, 71 had suffered mechanical failure and 43 had ditched. The British lost c. 4,000 casualties and took 4,200 prisoners, a casualty rate half that of the Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele) and a greater advance in six hours than in three months at Flanders but the British had failed to reach Bourlon Ridge. The German command was quick to send reinforcements and was relieved that the British did not manage fully to exploit their early gains. When the battle was renewed on 21 November, the pace of the British advance was greatly slowed. Flesquières, that had been abandoned and Cantaing were captured in the very early morning but in general the British took to consolidating their gains rather than expanding. The attacks by III Corps were terminated and attention was turned to IV Corps.
The effort was aimed at Bourlon Ridge. Fighting was fierce around Bourlon and at Anneux (just before the woods) was costly. German counter-attacks squeezed the British out of Moeuvres on 21 November and Fontaine on 22 November; when Anneux was taken, the 62nd Division found themselves unable to enter Bourlon Wood. The British were left exposed in a salient. Haig still wanted Bourlon Ridge and the exhausted 62nd Division was replaced by the 40th Division (John Ponsonby) on 23 November. Supported by almost 100 tanks and 430 guns, the 40th Division attacked into the woods of Bourlon Ridge on the morning of 23 November and made little progress. The Germans had put two divisions of Gruppe Arras on the ridge with another two in reserve and Gruppe Caudry was reinforced. The 40th Division attack reached the crest of the ridge but were held there and suffered more than 4,000 casualties in three days. More British troops were pushed in to move beyond the woods but the British reserves were rapidly depleted and more German reinforcements were arriving. The final British effort was on 27 November by the 62nd Division aided by 30 tanks. Early success was soon reversed by a German counter-attack. The British now held a salient roughly 6.8 mi × 5.9 mi (11 km × 9.5 km) with its front along the crest of the ridge. On 28 November, the offensive was stopped and the British troops were ordered to lay wire and dig in. The Germans were quick to concentrate their artillery on the new British positions. On 28 November, more than 16,000 shells were fired into the wood.
German 2nd Army
As the British took the ridge, the Germans began reinforcing the area. As early as 23 November, the German command felt that a British breakthrough would not occur and began to consider a counter-offensive. Twenty divisions were arrayed in the Cambrai area. The Germans intended to retake the Bourlon salient and also to attack around Havrincourt while diversionary attacks would hold IV Corps; it was hoped to at least reach the old positions on the Hindenburg Line. The Germans intended to employ the new tactics of a short, intense period of shelling followed by a rapid assault using Hutier infiltration tactics, leading elements attacking in groups rather than waves and bypassing strong opposition. For the initial assault at Bourlon three divisions of Gruppe Arras under Otto von Moser were assigned. On the eastern flank of the British salient, Gruppe Caudry attacked from Bantouzelle to Rumilly and aimed for Marcoing. Gruppe Busigny advanced from Banteux. The two corps groups had seven infantry divisions.
British VII Corps (Lieutenant-General Thomas D'Oyly Snow), to the south of the threatened area, warned III Corps of German preparations. The German attack began at 7:00 a.m. on 30 November; almost immediately, the majority of III Corps divisions were heavily engaged. The German infantry advance in the south was unexpectedly swift. The commanders of the 12th and 29th Divisions were almost captured, with Brigadier-General Berkeley Vincent having to fight his way out of his headquarters and grab men from retreating units to try to halt the Germans. In the south, the German advance spread across 13,000 m (13 km) and came within a few miles of the vital village of Metz and its link to Bourlon.
At Bourlon, the Germans suffered heavy casualties. Despite this, the Germans closed and there was fierce fighting. British units displayed reckless determination; one group of eight British machine guns fired over 70,000 rounds in their efforts to stem the German advance. The concentration of British effort to hold the ridge was impressive but allowed the German advance elsewhere greater opportunity. Only counter-attacks by the Guards Division, the arrival of British tanks and the fall of night allowed the line to be held. By the following day, the impetus of the German advance was lost but pressure on 3 December led to the German capture of La Vacquerie and a British withdrawal on the east bank of the St Quentin canal. The Germans had reached a line looping from Quentin Ridge to near Marcoing. The German capture of Bonavis ridge made the British hold on Bourlon precarious. On 3 December, Haig ordered a partial retreat from the north salient and by 7 December, the British gains were abandoned except for a portion of the Hindenburg line around Havrincourt, Ribécourt and Flesquières. The Germans had exchanged this territorial loss for a slightly smaller sector to the south of Welsh Ridge.
The first day of success was greeted in Britain by the ringing of church bells. The massed use of tanks, despite being a further increase on previous deployments, was not entirely new but the success of the attack and the resulting Allied press enthusiasm, including in the United States, were unprecedented. The particular effectiveness of the tanks at Cambrai was the initial passage through barbed wire defences, which had been previously "supposed by the Germans to be impregnable".
The initial British success showed that even the strongest trench defences could be overcome by a surprise attack, using a combination of new methods and equipment, reflecting a general increase in the British capacity to combine infantry, artillery, tanks and aircraft in attacks. The German revival after the shock of the British attack improved German morale but the potential for similar attacks meant that the Germans had to divert resources to anti-tank defences and weapons, an extra demand that the Germans could ill afford to meet.
Wherever the ground offers suitable going for tanks, surprise attacks like this may be expected. That being the case, there can be no more mention, therefore, of quiet fronts.
The German counter-attack showed the effectiveness of artillery, trench mortars and evolving stormtrooper tactics, adopted from a pattern introduced by General Hutier against the Russians. From the German perspective, questions arose regarding battlefield supply beyond railheads and the suitability of the MG 08 machine gun for rapid movement. By the end of the battle, the British retained some of the ground captured in the north and the Germans a smaller amount taken in the south. The British conducted several investigations, including a Court of Enquiry.
Sheldon wrote that both sides had c. 40,000 casualties and questioned the British Official History figure of c. 53,000 German casualties, calling them "inflated for no good reason". Miles recorded British casualties from 20 November – 8 December as 47,596, of whom 9,000 were taken prisoner and an official German total of c. 41,000 casualties, which Miles increased to 53,300 on the assumption that German figures omitted lightly wounded, which were counted in British casualty records. Harris wrote that 11,105 German and 9,000 British prisoners were taken.
The Battle of Cambrai is commemorated annually by the Royal Tank Regiment on Cambrai day, a major event in the regiment's calendar. The contributions of the Newfoundland Regiment at the 1917 Battle of Cambrai are remembered in the village of Masnières at the Masnières Newfoundland Memorial. Cambrai Day is also celebrated by 2nd Lancers (GH) of the Indian Army on 1 December every year as Lance Dafadar Gobind Singh (VC) of that unit was awarded the Victoria Cross during this battle. The name Cambrai was chosen in 1917 as the new name for the South Australian town of Rhine Villa, one of many Australian towns renamed during World War I to remove any connection with German place names. During the Remilitarization of the Rhineland in the late 1930s, Germany named a newly built Kaserne in Darmstadt for the battle, which was later merged with the nearby Freiherr von Fritsch Kaserne to become Cambrai-Fritsch Kaserne. The United States Army occupied Cambrai-Fritsch Kaserne from the end of World War II until 2008, when the land was returned to the German government.
- The battle is sometimes described as the first use of large numbers of tanks in combat or even as the first use of tanks at all. Although it was the first big combined arms operation, tanks had been used since the Battle of Flers–Courcelette on the Somme in September 1916.
- Hammond refuted claims that Harper's changes contributed to the British failure and wrote that they had been exaggerated by Wilfrid Miles, Christopher Baker-Carr and others. The attack was the sixth occasion when the division operated with tanks and the ground in the 51st Division area had far more small fortifications. The methods chosen had been tested in training and were not the cause of the check at Flesquières on the first day, which was due to the presence in the German 54th Division of Field Artillery Regiment 108 (FAR 108), specially trained in anti-tank tactics and the reluctance of Harper the divisional commander, to commit his reserve brigade.
- Some accounts claim five were knocked out by an artillery officer, Theodor Krüger, of FAR 108. Haig's dispatch praised the gunner's bravery in his diary. There is little evidence for Krüger's actions, although it is possible that he may have been responsible for as many as nine tanks. Twenty-eight tanks were lost in the action, through German artillery-fire and breakdowns. Haig concluded that skirmishing infantry was needed, to bring the artillery crews under small-arms fire to allow the tanks to operate.
- American troops played a slight role in the fighting on 30 November, when a detachment of the 11th Engineer (Railway) Regiment, working on construction behind British lines dug reserve trenches at Fins; they were later engaged in combat and had 28 casualties.
- Harris 1995, p. 62–63.
- Littledale 1918, pp. 836–848.
- Hammond 2009, pp. 429–430.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Battle of Cambrai (1917).|
- U.S. Army Center of Military History: World War I Campaigns
- The Cambrai Operations: 20 November to 7 December 1917 from the British Army in the Great War
- the battlefield today
- Map 1914–1918.net
- Photos of the battlefield taken 89 years to the month of the 1917 battle
- Lists of individual tanks and their actions at Cambrai