Battle of Cambrai II
The November–December 1917 Battle of Cambrai saw tanks come into their own on the battlefield. In the course of the Third Battle of Ypres (also known as the Battle of Passchendaele) during July–November 1917, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) sustained heavy losses. Nonetheless, BEF commander Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig persevered with offensive operations; within a few weeks he initiated the Battle of Cambrai. On the British side, the battle involved 19 divisions and three tank brigades of General Julian Byng’s Third Army. Initially only six German divisions were engaged, all from General der Kavalrie Georg von der Marwitz’s Second Army. During its course, however, the Germans committed a total of 20 divisions.
From their first use in September 1916 during the Somme Offensive, the British had deployed tanks in small packets. At Cambrai they had a Tank Corps of more than 400 tanks commanded by Brigadier General Hugh Elles. These included 376 of the latest Mark IV model, a slightly more powerful version of the 1916 Mark I. To the crews, the chief difference was that the Mark IV’s enhanced use of 12- millimeter armor meant a far greater possibility of keeping out the new German armor-piercing bullets. For the first time tanks were the key element of the British plan, and this time they were used en masse.
Haig directed his main attack at German-held Cambrai, about 35 miles south of Lille. The area had firm, dry ground, which was essential for tank operations. It also had sufficient cover for the British to assemble a large attacking force in secrecy. Also, the German defensive line here was only thinly held. It consisted of a series of outposts in front of three well-constructed lines of the main Hindenburg Line and two secondary lines located about 1 and 4 miles farther back. A 13-mile tunnel, 35 feet below ground, allowed German reserves to wait in safety.
The chief of staff of the Tank Corps, Colonel J. F. C. Fuller, developed the initial attack plan. He saw it as the first in a series of tank raids that would lead to a decisive battle in 1918. Haig and Byng expanded the plan into a full-blown offensive designed to smash a six-mile gap in the German lines, capture Bourlon Ridge four miles west of Cambrai, and then launch five cavalry divisions through the gap between the Canal du Nord and the Canal de l’Escaut to disrupt the German rear. Haig’s plan was clearly too ambitious for World War I conditions. Success depended on the British achieving complete surprise and securing Bourlon Ridge before the Germans could deploy their reserves.
The British employed low-flying aircraft to mask the noise of the arrival of tanks in their staging areas behind the front lines. The British also brought up 600 additional artillery pieces to provide supporting fire. These guns did not have the benefit of registration before the battle, however.The assault by nine tank battalions (374 tanks) followed by five infantry divisions began at 6:20 a.m. on the dry but foggy morning of November 20. Instead of a long and counterproductive preliminary bombardment, 1,003 British guns laid down a short but intense barrage on the German front line. The British then shifted their artillery fire rearward to disrupt the movement of enemy reserves and to blind German direct-fire artillery with smoke.
Tanks led the attack, each transporting at its front a large fascine (a bundle of brushwood). They were closely followed by the infantry, advancing in small groups in open order rather than in the usual extended-line assault formation. The tanks worked in teams of three, with each having a precise task. The first tank would crush a gap in the wire; without crossing the German front trench, it would turn left to work down the near side of the trench, sweeping it with machine-gun fire. The second tank would drop its fascine in the trench, thereby enabling the tank to cross the trench (often as much as 13 feet wide) and then turn left to work down the far side. The third tank would then move to the support trench, drop its fascine to cross, and also turn left. With fascines, each team of tanks would be able to cross three trench obstacles. British infantry were to mop up survivors, secure captured German trenches against counterattack, and prepare for the next move forward.
On the first day the British attack went largely according to plan. Most German infantry simply fled. At Masnières the Germans blew up a bridge while a tank was crossing the canal there, forcing the infantry to fight without tank support and impeding progress. The chief obstacle was at Flesquières, however. There a British infantry division came under withering German fire, and more than a dozen British tanks were knocked out in succession by German guns firing from behind wellsited and well-camouflaged concrete bunkers. (One of the enduring myths of the Battle of Cambrai is that at Flesquières a single German defender knocked out up to 16 tanks with one field gun.) If the infantry had been able to operate with the tanks, the German artillery pieces might have been destroyed.
By nightfall of the first day the advancing British had penetrated the Hindenburg Line up to five miles. In Britain church bells pealed in celebration, but the revelry was premature. The Germans held at Bourlon Ridge, and German Sixth Army commander Generalfeldmarschall Prince Ruprecht of Bavaria rushed up reserves to plug the gap. Because of heavy losses they had sustained in the Third Battle of Ypres (also known as the Battle of Passchendaele), the British did not have sufficient infantry reserves to counter the German reinforcements.The British also lacked tank reserves. Too many tanks had been committed in the first two waves, and many were either knocked out by German field guns or, more often, suffered mechanical breakdowns. In the first day 65 tanks were lost to enemy action, 71 broke down, and 43 got stuck. The great tank armada had disappeared.
When the British resumed their attack the next day, cooperative action between tanks and infantry was largely at an end, and the battle reverted to the typical World War I pattern. Although the British gained a foothold there, they never completely captured Bourlon Ridge. In the week that followed, virtually no more gains were made. Reinforced to 20 divisions, the Germans mounted a counterattack beginning on November 29. Utilizing new infiltration techniques, they also made effective use of ground-attack aircraft.
On December 3 Haig ordered a partial withdrawal. When the battle ended two days later, the Germans had not only recovered 75 percent of the territory lost on the first day but in the extreme south they had also made inroads into the original British positions. The British sustained about 44,000 casualties (9,000 of these taken prisoner). They also lost 166 guns and 300 tanks. German casualties totaled more than 41,000 men (11,000 taken prisoner) and 142 guns.
Although a failure from the British viewpoint, the Battle of Cambrai nonetheless restored surprise on the Western Front. It showed that tank and infiltration tactics could bring back battlefield fluidity. The battle demonstrated conclusively that for an attack to be successful, tanks, infantry, and artillery would all have to work together as combined-arms teams. This would be a hallmark of fighting on the Western Front in 1918.
Baumgartner, Richard. “Relentless Mechanized Assault.” Military History 3(4) (February 1987): 34–41.
Cooper, Bryan. The Ironclads of Cambrai: The First Great Tank Battle. London: Cassell, 2002.
Smithers, A. J. Cambrai: The First Great Tank Battle, 1917. London: Leo Cooper, 1992.
Tucker, Spencer C. Tanks: An Illustrated History of Their Impact. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2004.