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World War I: Battle of Cambrai

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World War I: Battle of Cambrai

British tank crossing a trench, 1917

Photograph Source: Public Domain

Battle of Cambrai - Conflict & Dates:

The Battle of Cambrai was fought November 20-December 6, 1917, during World War I (1914-1918).

Armies & Commanders:

British

  • General Julian Byng
  • 2 corps
  • 324 tanks

Germans

  • General Georg von der Marwitz
  • 1 corps

Battle of Cambrai - Background:

In mid-1917, Colonel John F.C. Fuller, the Chief of Staff of the Tank Corps, devised a plan for using armor to raid the German lines. Since the terrain near Ypres-Passchendaele was too soft for tanks, he proposed a strike against St. Quentin where the ground was hard and dry. As operations near St. Quentin would have required cooperation with French troops, the target was shifted to Cambrai to ensure secrecy. Presenting this plan to British Commander-in-Chief Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, Fuller was unable to obtain approval as the focus of British operations was on the offensive against Passchendaele.

While the Tank Corps was developing its plan, Brigadier General H.H. Tudor of the 9th Scottish Division had created a method for supporting a tank attack with a surprise bombardment. This utilized a new method for targeting artillery without "registering" the guns by observing the fall of shot. This older method frequently alerted the enemy to impending attacks and gave them time to move reserves to the threatened area. Though Fuller and his superior, Brigadier General Sir Hugh Elles, had failed to gain Haig's support, their plan interested the commander of the Third Army, General Sir Julian Byng.

In August 1917, Byng accepted both Elles' attack plan and along with Tudor's artillery scheme to support it. Through Elles and Fuller had originally intended for the attack to be an eight- to twelve-hour raid, Byng altered the plan and intended to hold any ground that was taken. With fighting bogging down around Passchendaele, Haig relented in his opposition and approved an attack at Cambrai on November 10. Assembling over 300 tanks along a front of 10,000 yards, Byng intended for them to advance with close infantry support to capture enemy artillery and consolidate any gains.

Battle of Cambrai - A Swift Advance:

Advancing behind a surprise bombardment, Elles' tanks were to crush lanes through the German barbed wire and bridge the German trenches by filling them with bundles of brushwood known as fascines. Opposing the British was the German Hindenburg Line which consisted of three successive lines approximately 7,000 yards deep. These were manned by the 20th Landwehr and 54th Reserve Division. While the 20th was rated as fourth-rate by the Allies, the commander of the 54th had prepared his men in anti-tank tactics utilizing artillery against moving targets.

At 6:20 AM on November 20, 1,003 British guns opened fire on the German position. Advancing behind a creeping barrage, the British had immediate success. On the right, troops from Lieutenant General William Pulteney's III Corps advanced four miles with troops reaching Lateau Wood and capturing a bridge over the St. Quentin Canal at Masnières. This bridge soon collapsed under the weight of the tanks halting the advance. On the British left, elements of the IV Corps had similar success with troops reaching the woods of Bourlon Ridge and the Bapaume-Cambrai road.

Only in the center did the British advance stall. This was largely due to Major General G.M. Harper, commander of the 51st Highland Division, who ordered his infantry to follow 150-200 yards behind his tanks, as he thought the armor would draw artillery fire on his men. Encountering elements of the 54th Reserve Division near Flesquières, his unsupported tanks took heavy losses from the German gunners, including five destroyed by Sergeant Kurt Kruger. Though the situation was saved by the infantry, eleven tanks were lost. Under pressure, the Germans abandoned the village that night (Map).

Battle of Cambrai - Reversal of Fortune:

That night, Byng sent his cavalry divisions forward to exploit the breach, but they were forced to turn back due to unbroken barbed wire. In Britain, for the first time since the start of the war, church bells rang in victory. Over the next ten days, the British advance slowed greatly, with III Corps halting to consolidate and the main effort taking place in the north where troops attempted to capture Bourlon Ridge and the nearby village. As German reserves reached the area, the fighting took on the attritional characteristics of many battles on the Western Front.

After several days of brutal fighting, the crest of Bourlon Ridge was taken by the 40th Division, while attempts to press east were halted near Fointaine. On November 28, the offensive was halted and British troops began to dig in. While the British had been spending their strength to capture Bourlon Ridge, the Germans had shifted twenty divisions to the front for a massive counterattack. Beginning at 7:00 AM on November 30, German forces employed "stormtrooper" infiltration tactics which had been devised by General Oskar von Hutier.

Moving in small groups, German soldiers bypassed British strong points and made great gains. Quickly engaged all along the line, the British concentrated on holding Bourlon Ridge which allowed the Germans to drive back III Corps to the south. Though fighting quieted on December 2, it resumed the next day with the British being forced to abandon the east bank of the St. Quentin Canal. On December 3, Haig ordered a retreat from the salient, surrendering British gains except for the area around Havrincourt, Ribécourt and Flesquières.

Battle of Cambrai - Aftermath

The first major battle to feature a significant armored attack, British losses at Cambrai numbered 44,207 killed, wounded, and missing while German casualties were estimated at around 45,000. In addition, 179 tanks had been put out of action due to enemy action, mechanical issues, or "ditching." While the British gained some territory around Flesquières, they lost approximately the same amount to the south making the battle a draw. The final major push of 1917, the Battle of Cambrai saw both sides utilize equipment and tactics that would be refined for the following year's campaigns. While the Allies continued to develop their armored force, the Germans would employ "stormtrooper" tactics to great effect during their Spring Offensives.

Selected Sources

 

 

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