The Battle of Cambrai (20 November to 4 December 1917)


The Battle of Cambrai, an attack launched against the Hindenburg Line in November 1917, was yet another bloody and pointless offensive on the Western Front. Nevertheless it revealed tactical innovations on both sides that would be used to great effect in the fighting of 1918 to end the deadlock which had paralysed the belligerents on the Western Front since 1914.

The most spectacular of these was the British Army's use of tanks which were, for the first time, to be a decisive element in a battle; however the new counter-attack methods employed by the Germans were probably the most important leap forward in the short and medium term.

Tanks were first used by the British in September 1916 during the Battle of the Somme and were revealed to be of little use once the enemy got past the initial element of surprise. Fighting in 1917 seemed to confirm the growing doubts about these unreliable machines which were both slow and vulnerable to heavy artillery. Attempts by the British to field them at Arras and Passchendaele and the French at Chemin des Dames Ridge ended in disaster.

German High Command was not slow to express its contempt for the new weapon either, judging it to be of little use and having no future. However, on the British side, the officers of the Tank Corps made a determined effort to promote the use of their cumbersome machines, insisting that they could bring about the much hoped for breakthrough. One of these officers was Lieutenant-Colonel John Fuller and he advocated using tanks en masse on dry terrain as opposed to the muddy fields of Flanders. Repeatedly rejected by General Douglas Haig prior to Cambrai, a large tank operation became inevitable when the British realized that the Third Battle of Ypres was turning into a tragic failure. From that moment on Haig counted on tanks to provide him with the decisive breakthrough expected by an Allied public opinion worried by the weakening Russian resistance.

Cambrai was chosen by British command as the scene for the offensive. The town, one of the principal railway intersections and German garrisons of the Western Front, lay on a vast chalky plain which was ideal terrain for the tanks. The town was indeed protected on its western side by the powerful defences of the Hindenburg Line; however British intelligence knew that the point of attack was held by troops who had been weakened by great losses at Ypres and subsequently transferred to a portion of the front which the Germans considered to be of minor importance.

The plan of attack devised by General Julian Byng, commander of the British 3rd Army, was extremely sophisticated. He proposed a frontal attack on the Hindenburg Line to create a breach in the German front which could be exploited by three divisions of cavalry which would go on to envelop and capture Cambrai. Preparations for the attack also broke with recent military dogma: there would be no preliminary heavy shelling in order to preserve the element of surprise, hundreds of tanks would be used to open up a route through the defences, and air support would intervene at the German rear to check the arrival of reinforcements.

The attack began on 20 November at 6.20 a.m. along a ten kilometre wide front. The Tank Corps provided 476 tanks (of which 350 were armed) to lead six infantry divisions into the field. The bombardment which accompanied the attack was carefully timed and took the Germans by surprise. The British also used Livens projectors to shower poison gas on various parts of the front.

Preceded by a rain of explosive shells, the tanks made quick progress and soon reached the enemy's trenches. The Hindenburg Line had never before been so deeply penetrated. The surprise and terror provoked by the tanks among the German ranks caused several units to retreat and the British took 8,000 prisoners on the first day of the offensive. Never had an attack advanced so quickly since 1914 and by the evening of 20 November the British vanguard had won nine kilometres of terrain and was closing in on Cambrai.

But once again the problem of capitalizing on the initial breakthrough reared its head. Anecdotal evidence points to a British tank compromising the movements of the cavalry in the vicinity of Masnières Hill but a more fundamental problem was the tardy arrival of reinforcements caused by the heavy congestion on the roads: it took fifteen hours for troops to cover the final five kilometres to the front...

In fact, the impact of the first assault dissipated along with the element of surprise and the Germans were soon harassing the foremost troops from the heights of Bourlon Wood. On 23 November the British started to do something about this, just as the bells began to peal in Great Britain to mark what seemed to be a miraculous victory. Under a hail of artillery fire, several tanks and a Welsh infantry brigade succeeded in getting a foothold in part of Bourlon Wood but soon found themselves isolated.

Ludendorff's first reaction to execute a major retreat was rapidly abandoned in favour of mounting a counter-attack. He set about assembling twenty divisions and by the morning of 30 November they were poised to retaliate. Their success was immediate and devastating. Supported by a barrage of poison gas shells, the Germans advanced more than five kilometres in two hours and, at one point, threatened to envelop several British divisions which had become isolated in a minor salient. Ludendorff put into practice new methods of fighting which consisted of infiltrating the enemy's lines with small groups of highly-skilled and heavily-armed soldiers. Developed by the field commander Oskar von Hutier, these new infiltration tactics had already been successful on the Italian front.

By the time the fighting had come to a close, on 4 December, the initial and unexpected success of the British Army had deteriorated into a total failure. All the terrain which had been won in the initial stages of the offensive had to be abandoned and the losses, although similar for both sides, were high. The British casualties amounted to 44,000 killed, wounded and lost in action (including 6,000 prisoners) and the Germans 45,000 (including 10,000 prisoners).

Yves Le Maner
Director of La Coupole
History and Remembrance Centre of Northern France