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.
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.
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.
As Alexander Turner explains in 'Cambrai 1917: the birth of armoured warfare', the operation was significant, not only as the first major of tanks, but also because it enabled tank doctrine to be advanced.
The Battle of Cambrai was fought, effectively, as a large-scale raid to consolidate and apply previous lessons learnt about tanks. No longer were they to be deployed in isolation to support infantry, where their commonplace breakdowns did more damage to the potential success of an attack.
Instead, they were now to be pooled in larger groups so breakdowns mattered less, and to lead the attack, with infantry supporting them.
According to Turner:
"(JFC Fuller) recommended a large-scale raid as the best showcase for (the new Tank Corps') tanks … (he) settled on Cambrai as … he saw its favourable setting - perfect for a raid. Bounded by the St Quentin Canal, his proposed force of infantry, tanks, cavalry and aircraft could wreak havoc behind the German front line, whilst protected from counterattack by the canal obstacle."
The other advantage Cambrai had over the battlefield of Third Ypres, of course, was its relatively dryer and harder ground - a prerequisite for the effective deployment of tanks.
Cambrai: How the Battle Unfolded
The result was a set of spectacular early successes at the Battle of Cambrai, the centenary of which ran from November 20 to December 6, 2017.
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.
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.
"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."
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.
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. Sound Ranging could be used to locate enemy guns. Then predicted fire could 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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
"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.
This is why it's a little difficult to assess who 'won' the Battle of Cambrai. In one sense the Germans did because they managed to take back many of the objectives first seized by the British. Though as the map above shows, the British also took and retained some new ground of their own.
The battle also helped the British Army better integrate and use tanks, as well as air power and artillery. In this sense, at least, it was a positive result for the British, since every battle on the Western Front was really part of a learning curve as the Allies wrestled with the problem of how to break the deadlock.
Fuller certainly 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.