Illustration of the Battle of Cambrai

Cambrai 1917: How The World’s First Great Tank Battle Unfolded

Illustration of the Battle of Cambrai

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.
Australian 4th Division field artillery brigade passing through Chateau Wood, near Hooge in the Ypres salient, 29 October 1917 by Australian War Memorial
Chateau Wood, part of the battlefield of Third Ypres, or Passchendaele (image: Frank Hurley; Australian War Memorial, E01220)

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.

Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig and JFC Fuller
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. 

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.

Map showing British advances and German coutnerattacks made during the Battle of Cambrai 1917
Furthest point of British advance (blue line) before German counterattacks (red arrows) - the British advanced from around Havrincourt Wood in the centre (image from 'Cambrai 1917' by Alexander Turner © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

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.

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.

Illustration of the British attacking with early tanks during the Battle of Cambrai, 1917
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.

Canal du Nord, France
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 (images: writer's collection)

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
picture of original 1917 map showing objectives for the Battle of Cambrai
A portion of an original map from the operation showing objectives and artillery targets (image: writer's collection)
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 the Channel 4 series 'The First World War' (based on the Hew Strachan book of the same name) 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."
World War 1 tank
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.

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."

maps showing how World War 1 tanks trench crossing strategy
Map illustrating how tanks coordinated movements and used stick bundles to cross over trenches (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.

British tanks and infantry attacking German trenches near the village of Flesquieres during the Battle of Cambrai in 1917
Tanks & infantry from 51 Division leave German first line trenches & head towards second line trenches in front of Flesquieres (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.

Flesquieres village, views from inside and out
Flesquieres today (left), & 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 picture above (images: writer's collection)
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.
A map of part of the Battle of the Cambrai showing objectives for the British on the first day
Day 1 first (blue) and second (brown) line objectives for 51 Division including taking Flesquieres, but German guns halted the advance (image: writer's collection)
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.
pictures showing positions of German second line trenches during the First World War in Flesquires and Havrincourt near Cambrai, France
Rear slope behind Flesquieres where field guns could have hit tanks coming over the ridge (left); a monument to 62 Division at Havrincourt (right) - the Germans made good use of the high ground (images: writer's collection)

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.

An ordnance map of British objectives day 1 for the Battle of Cambrai, 1917
Objective lines for 62 Division on the left and 51 Division on the right; the feature on the left running north to south is the Canal du Nord (image: writer's collection)

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. 

Map showing the furthest point of British advance during the 1917 Battle of Cambrai
Furthest point of the British advance – fierce fighting erupted in Bourlon Wood & in Fontaine-Notre-Dame when the Germans (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."

British Mark IV tank wreck near Cambrai in 1917
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.
Map of the Battle of Cambrai in 1917
British and German trench lines 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. 

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. 

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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