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.
"Good God, did we really send men to fight in that?"
"The question ever uppermost in all our minds was 'does the Hun suspect anything?' It was most exciting!"
"[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."
"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."
"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."
The ruins of a tank at Fontaine-Notre-Dame (image: German Federal Archive)
"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."
"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."
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.