'Tide of Iron': Cambrai, 1917

Mud, blood, and slaughter pretty much summed up the British experience of war during much of 1916 and 17.

After a disastrous first day on the Somme on July 1, 1916, the campaign turned into a five-month slog.

The British doggedly fought on, through worsening weather conditions, to eventually take the high ground which had been the objective on the opening day.

Cambrai: Building Up To Battle

Historian Hew Strachan has said that British commander Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig must be blamed for not preventing more slaughter when his planned breakthrough failed.

And to troops on the ground, the Third Battle of Ypres (or Passchendaele), Britain's primary offensive of 1917, must have seemed like a terrible sequel to the Somme.
 
Again, preliminary successes with mines at Vimy and Messines Ridge failed to translate into major successes when the main thrust was unleashed
 
Again, British soldiers fought on doggedly through four months of even worse conditions than had been experienced at the Somme.
 
Again, artillery support failed to neutralise the enemy as planned. And again, the High Command seemed to be out of touch with what was happening at the front. 
 
This was inevitable to an extent, with fronts as large as in the First World War, and communication methods as rudimentary as they were at the time.
 
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Chateau Wood, part of the battlefield of Third Ypres, or Passchendaele (image: Frank Hurley)
 
But tellingly, Haig's own chief of staff, Lieutenant General Kiggell, stood aghast towards the end of 'Passchendaele', as it came to be known.
 
He visited the front and found a vast swamp in which men had literally drowned in the mud:
"Good God, did we really send men to fight in that?"
Someone told him that 'actually sir', it was 'worse further up'.
 
One commander who was determined not to see the futility continue was JFC Fuller.
 
As a political figure between the two wars, Fuller's image is left rather tarnished by his association with the far-right.
 
His frustrations with British under-preparedness for the Second World War led him to the conclusion that Britain too needed to become a far-right militarised state, and he became involved with the BUF – the British Union of Fascists
 
 He didn't seem to take the view that defeating Nazi Germany by becoming Nazi Britain was rather self-defeating.
 
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Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, commander of the BEF, British Expeditionary Force, on the Western Front (left); and Major General JFC Fuller (right), a Lieutenant Colonel in the Tank Corps at the time of the Battle of Cambrai
 
But, his politics aside, during the First World War, Lieutenant Colonel JFC Fuller was a brilliant and innovative military thinker in the newly-formed Tank Corps who was determined to better integrate man and machine to achieve success on the battlefield.
 
His largely tank-focused doctrine became a template for, and fused with, a plan of attack near Cambrai - a vital supply point in the German Hindenburg Line. 
 
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Map showing the furthest point of British advance (blue line) before German counterattacks (red arrows) - the British advanced up and right from around the area of Havrincourt Wood in the centre (image from 'Cambrai 1917' by Alexander Turner © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)
 
The result was a set of spectacular early successes at the Battle of Cambrai, the centenary of which runs from November 20th to December 6th, 2017.
 
On the first day, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) took more ground in six hours than they had in three-and-a-half months at Passchendaele, or five months at the Somme.
 
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On the morning of November 20, 1917, the BEF executed a spectacular surprise attack on the German lines, overwhelming them with combined infantry and tank support; seen here is 12 Division attacking near La Vacquerie (image from 'Cambrai 1917' by Alexander Turner © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)
 
One delighted soldier who came up some hours into the battle to reinforce the attack said "the enemy wire had been dragged about like old curtains. The tanks appeared to have busted through!"
 
Part of the reason for the success lay in the selection of ground.
 
The German strategy of fighting a defensive war waged on their choice of higher-ground gave them a distinct advantage on the battlefield.
 
However, this also meant that the British were in a better position to tunnel underneath and then mine their positions, as they'd learnt to do by the time of the Battle of the Somme.
 
Similarly, at Cambrai, the Germans took full advantage of the ridges across the landscape, and of natural features like the Canal du Nord, which formed a natural defensive barrier.
 
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The Canal du Nord just in front of Havrincourt, in the northwest of the BEF’s advance zone, formed a natural obstacle to any enemy troops trying to cross and engage the Germans on the other side
 
Though, just as the apparent topographical advantage possessed by the Germans had been used against them through mining at places like the Somme or Messines Ridge, their position at Cambrai was also exploited.
 
Strict adherence to the higher ground meant their line had to follow the contours of the ridges they utilised, even if those ridges zigzagged and exposed it, making it easier to breach.
 
This is why a huge chunk of the British objectives lay north of the east-west line that runs between La Vacquerie and Havrincourt.
 
By concentrating large numbers of tanks and men on this chunk of front, the British were able to entirely bypass the truly formidable obstacle of the Canal du Nord that lay in front of Havrincourt, and push up behind much of the German frontline.
 
First World War Western Front
The German line near Cambrai - notice the horizontal course it takes between Havrincourt and La Vacqerie; the northern portion of the attack was aimed here and bypassed the Canal du Nord, shown left of Havrincourt
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A portion of an original map from the operation showing objectives and artillery targets 
 
The only question was; could the British pull off the logistical feat of moving vast numbers of both men and tanks before the battle without tipping off the Germans? 
 
Episode six of Hew Strachan’s The First World War describes how giant screens were erected behind the British lines to hide movements, and tracks of tanks or cavalry covered over with mud. One officer in the Tank Corps, Basil Henriques, said:
"The question ever uppermost in all our minds was 'does the Hun suspect anything?' It was most exciting!"
'The Hun' did not.
 
As 476 tanks, 378 of which were Mark IV combat tanks (an improvement over their predecessors, the Mark I used at the Somme), and thousands of infantry came out of the mist at dawn that November morning, German soldiers were caught completely off guard. German officers reported:
"[At] about 9 am, retreating infantrymen gave us an account of swarms of tanks – so many that it was absolutely impossible to stop them... A little later the tank monsters came creeping to the ridge to the south of the village. Not one of us had seen such a beast before."
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What the Germans would have seen rolling towards them - a Mark IV tank (image: Peter Trimming)
 
With the Germans quickly overwhelmed, the British were able to roll up their line and were only halted at the densely forested Bourlon Wood.
 
Whereas tanks played the starring role in the battle, their success was really a product of ingenuity in several areas.
 
All arms were becoming better integrated at this point, with the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) providing air superiority and observation.
 
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The Sopwith Camel, one of the aircraft flown by the RFC
 
Artillery techniques had also improved, moving from the crude pre-attack barrage of July 1, 1916, to a creeping barrage pre-registered and timed to fire and lift in steps.
 
In this way, curtains of fire acted as a protective screen for advancing troops and not just as a separate element of the attack that would cease the moment soldiers went into battle.
 
By November 1917, the creeping barrage was made even more precise by sound ranging that could better locate enemy guns, and predicted fire meant to knock them out quickly and precisely without costly targeting and adjusting that might give away the position of British artillery in the process.
 
Technology had improved too. By this point fuses on High Explosive shells had been designed to explode above the ground instead of once they'd hit it.
 
The latter scenario meant that many shells ended up in the ground rather than obliterating the barbed wire screens they were aimed at.
 
But HE 106 percussion fuses were sensitive enough to go off the moment they touched a whisker of wire, blowing huge chunks of the wire skirting the German trenches to bits.
 
For areas that weren't blown through, there were, of course, the 30-ton tanks ready to plough channels open for trailing infantry.
 
German trenches at Cambrai were wider and more difficult for tanks to cross than those at the Somme.
 
However, the Tank Corps had an answer to that too, as observed by one British soldier, George Coppard:
"The tanks, looking like giant toads, became visible against the skyline. Some of the leading tanks carried huge bundles of tightly bound brushwood [fascines], which they dropped into the wide German trenches, then crossed over them."
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An illustration of the technique tanks used for crossing wide trenches – the lead tank would drop its bundle of sticks into the first trench, cross over and skirt around the edge of the German trench lines, where it could harass any German soldiers inside with its guns; meanwhile the second tank would use the bundle from the first to cross the first trench, before advancing straight across to the support trench and depositing its bundle so that both tanks could cross over that as well (image from 'Cambrai 1917' by Alexander Turner © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)
 
As was so often the case in the First World War though, success by one side was often followed by countermeasures by the defender.
 
Even with all the innovation on show at Cambrai, World War One just worked against the attacker. And so it was at Cambrai.
 
While the British advance may have been spectacular, the sheer pace of it opened up weaknesses, as pockets of resistance were swept over and left behind to cause problems.
 
The most salient of these was at the village of Flesquieres.
 
Manned by a small body of troops in the German second line, and supplemented by others who'd fled from Havrincourt, the soldiers there proved a formidable obstacle to advancing British troops.
 
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Trenches existed in incredible depth in the Hindenburg Line. Each set of Trenches had at least a fire trench and a support trench (and sometimes a third reserve trench); then beyond this first line of trenches would be a second set, usually on the next ridge, and then a third set behind that. Here, in the foreground, British soldiers of 51 Highland Division have passed through the German first line of trenches running between Havrincourt and La Vacquerie. They and their tanks are heading down the hill and up the other side towards the second line of German trenches. The village of Flesquieres is on the horizon, and in front of it are hidden field guns that have taken out a number of the tanks (image from 'Fortifications of the Western Front 1914-18' by Paddy Griffith © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)
 
There were a number of problems that beset the men advancing on Flesquieres.
 
The first was that there happened to be a battery of gunners there who were trained and well-practised at taking out tanks.
 
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A view from within the village of Flesquieres today (left), and from the tank monument outside the village (right), looking down the slope up which 51 Division advanced - the track is the same one cutting across the bottom right corner of the illustration above
 
Heavy artillery behind the German lines was hit by the British pre-attack and creeping barrage. But field guns, often dotted amongst and around the trench lines, were smaller and difficult to spot.
 
Compounding this problem was that 51 Division's commander, George Montague Harper, had used his own doctrine for deploying tanks, instead of that laid out by Fuller's plan and the Tank Corps. 
 
Weary of the new machines, and protective of his men, he'd ordered his infantry to stay back and let the tanks clear the way for them.
 
What was actually meant to happen was for the infantry to stay close behind so they could get through the barbed wire, but then for them to spread out and play a protective role.
 
They needed to locate field guns and lay suppressant fire on the gunners so the artillery pieces couldn't take out the tanks.
 
Without that support, over two dozen of the tanks were blown out of action and the attack on the village of Flesquieres ground to a halt.
 

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An original map showing the objectives of the 51 Highland Division – a plan to drive all tanks and men through the first line of German trenches (marked in blue as the 1st Objective). That then went straight through the village of Flesquieres, towards the brown line 2nd Objective. On the day, 51 Division was halted in front of Flesquieres
 
The position of German trenches also came into play.
 
Each line of German trenches was situated so that it was on the peak of a ridge looking down at an attacking enemy, but the next line of trenches was over on the next ridge to make it difficult for attacking artillery to shell more than one line of trenches at a time.
 
In some cases, there are also reports of field guns on the rear of a trench line, hiding behind the ridge but waiting to take out tanks or troops as they came over the horizon.
 
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The rear slope behind Flesquieres, where some field guns may have been sited to hit tanks coming over the ridge (if they'd managed to break through) (left); a monument to 62 (West Riding) Division which fought at Havrincourt, on the left flank of 51 (Highland) Division and west of Havrincourt (right). It's clear, looking into the distance, how the German trenches gave a view of attacking troops approaching through the valley 
 
As it happens, 51 Division was lucky. The Germans abandoned Flesquieres on the night of November 20/21.
 
But further north, where they had not been so quickly overwhelmed and outflanked, the Germans were able to put up more resistance.
 
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Original battle map showing the objectives of 62 Division on the left of 51 Division (assigned to Flesquieres on the right) - 62 Division were to push through the village of Havrincourt and the first line of German trenches (blue line) and up through the German second line of trenches (brown line), up behind the Canal du Nord (the feature on the left running north to south)
 
They'd been innovating just as the British had, and by late 1917, German defensive doctrine involved counter-attacks, often with Stormtroopers (or Stosstruppen).
 
These were small units of crack troops, hand-picked from men in their 20s with good sports records.
 
Lightly-armed, often with dozens of grenades, these men were trained to push into the enemy lines as far as they could, and leave supporting troops to mop up any enemy soldiers left behind.
 
But at Fontaine-Notre-Dame, the far point of the British advance, they were forced to improvise. 
 
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The furthest point of the British advance (shown in blue) – fierce fighting erupted in the dense Bourlon Wood, and in the streets of Fontaine-Notre-Dame when the Germans (shown in red) counter-attacked (image from 'Cambrai 1917' by Alexander Turner © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)
 
Finding single grenades ineffective against the tanks, the men in Fontaine instead filled whole sandbags with grenades.
 
They then tied the sacks around one stick grenade which functioned as a handle for the whole bundle, and, using covering fire at the tank's observation ports, flung the whole bag under its tracks, blowing them off. 
 
Captain Groves was in command of one of the tanks that penetrated Fontaine, and found being inside a tank as difficult and terrifying as the German defenders were finding it dealing with them:
"Hell was let loose as we turned into the street. We were being fired at from the roofs – front, back and sides. A combination of splash and armour flaking [spall] made it most difficult to see anything when handling a gun … The gun ports were all lit up with sparks."

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The ruins of a tank at Fontaine-Notre-Dame (image: German Federal Archive)

Battle of Cambrai
Germans inspecting a captured tank at Fontaine in the winter of 1917 (image: German Federal Archive)
When his tank caught fire, Groves and his men inside made a lucky escape. Many tank crews were not so fortunate.
 
One German battery officer at Flesquieres described the carnage wrought by field guns on tanks: 
"Oh Lord, a column of fire was bursting out of the monster. Two of our men ran to the tank, and when they returned, they described the half-burned bodies of the crew."
Another solution to the tank problem at Fontaine was for the Germans to mount anti-aircraft guns on the back of trucks and drive around until within range of one of them.
 
Much like the field guns, the anti-aircraft gun was able to fire repeatedly until a given tank had been taken out.
 
Reviewing the battle afterwards, JFC Fuller was frustrated he'd not foreseen these problems:
"There was horrible slaughter in Fontaine, and I, who had spent three weeks before the battle in thinking out its possibilities, had never tackled the subject of village fighting. I could have kicked myself again and again for this lack of foresight, but it never occurred to me that our infantry commanders would thrust tanks into such places."
By December 7, 1917, the Germans had wrested back much of what had been taken. 
 
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Trench lines of the British and the Germans at the start of the battle on 20 November (dotted lines) and at the end of the battle on 7 December (solid lines); (image from 'Cambrai 1917' by Alexander Turner © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)
 
 

Frustrated as Fuller was, he was wrestling with a problem that was largely unsolvable under conditions at that time.

A lack of adequate communication on the battlefield, impossible without mobile radios, made any large-scale breakthrough impossible to organise and coordinate properly. 

But the battle had helped the British Army better integrate and use tanks, as well as air power and artillery. 

Fuller, though, went back to the drawing board. He realised that the ponderous nature of trench warfare was the crux of the problem.

No breakthrough could ever occur because any attack was slowed down sufficiently to allow time for the enemy to regroup, reform, and counter-attack.

He began to formulate a method of hitting the enemy’s trenches and his rear lines simultaneously.

It was methodical, and like Cambrai, integrated all elements – artillery, tanks, infantry, cavalry, airpower – but on a much larger scale.

Three phases would be executed: The first would be an attack with planes (armed with bombs) and medium tanks against the enemy's headquarters, crippling his command and control of his forces.

The second would be a larger-scale Battle of Cambrai – artillery, heavy tanks, and infantry rolling out en masse to smash the enemy’s lines.

The third phase would incorporate cavalry, light tanks, and infantry on trucks following the retreating enemy to prevent them reforming and counter-attacking.

The name of his brainchild? Plan 1919.

Outpaced by events - German Army (and societal) collapse, improvements in interoperability in the British and French armies in the 100 Days Offensive of 1918, and the arrival of the Americans -  Fuller's plan quickly became obsolete. 

Instead, his ideas were later picked up and developed by the Nazis into a blueprint for their Blitzkrieg method of overwhelming force in World War Two.

The question of whether they could have ever been used by the Allies to win a decisive victory in World War One remains one of military history's great "What Ifs".

To learn more about the Battle of Cambrai, read 'Cambrai 1917: The birth of armoured warfare' by Alexander Turner and visit Osprey Publishing for more titles on military history, such as Paddy Griffith's 'Fortifications of the Western Front 1914-18'. For a children's account of the war replete with illustrations (including one of Cambrai just below), get 'World War 1: Wars That Changed the World' by Ken Hills. 

Battle of Cambrai
Illustration that, because it shows tanks surprising and going over German lines, is a better depiction of the attack on Havrincourt or La Vacquerie, for example, than Fontaine or Flesquieres (image from ‘World War I’ by Ken Hills © Cherrytree Press Ltd)

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