The Battle of Cambrai

The Battle of Cambrai (Battle of Cambrai, 1917, First Battle of Cambrai and Schlacht von Cambrai) was a British attack followed by the biggest German counter-attack against the British Expeditionary Force  (BEF) since 1914, in the First World War. The town of Cambrai, in the département of Nord, was an important supply point for the German Siegfriedstellung (known to the British as the Hindenburg Line) and capture of the town and the nearby Bourlon Ridge would threaten the rear of the German line to the north. 

Major General Henry Tudor, Commander, Royal Artillery (CRA) of the 9th (Scottish) Division, advocated the use of new artillery-infantry techniques on his sector of the front. During preparations, J. F. C. Fuller, a staff officer with the Tank Corps, looked for places to use tanks for raids. General Julian Byng, commander of the British Third Army, decided to combine both plans. The French and British armies had used tanks in mass earlier in 1917, although to considerably less effect.

After a big British success on the first day, mechanical unreliability, German artillery and infantry defences exposed the frailties of the Mark IV tank. On the second day, only about half of the tanks were operational and British progress was limited.

In the History of the Great War, the British official historian, Wilfrid Miles, and modern scholars do not place exclusive credit for the first day on tanks but discuss the concurrent evolution of artillery, infantry and tank methods. Numerous developments since 1915 matured at Cambrai, such as predicted artillery fire, sound ranging, infantry infiltration tactics, infantry-tank co-ordination and close air support.

The techniques of industrial warfare continued to develop and played a vital part during the Hundred Days Offensive in 1918, along with replacement of the Mark IV tank with improved types. The rapid reinforcement and defence of Bourlon Ridge by the Germans, as well as their subsequent counter-strike, were also notable achievements, which gave the Germans hope that an offensive strategy could end the war before American mobilisation became overwhelming.

British Plan

Proposals for an operation in the Cambrai area using a large number of tanks originated from Brigadier Hugh Elles of the Tank Corps, and the reliance on the secret transfer of artillery reinforcements to be “silently registered” to gain surprise came from Henry Hugh Tudor, commander of the 9th (Scottish) infantry division artillery. 

In August 1917, Tudor conceived the idea of a surprise attack in the IV Corps sector, he suggested a primarily artillery-infantry attack, which would be supported by a small number of tanks, to secure a breakthrough of the German Hindenburg Line.

A German-captured British tank in 1917 (Battle of Cambrai).

The German defences were formidable; Cambrai having been a quiet stretch of front thus far enabled the Germans to fortify their lines in depth and the British were aware of this. Tudor’s plan sought to test new methods in combined arms, with emphasis on combined artillery and infantry techniques and see how effective they were against strong German fortifications. Tudor advocated using the new sound ranging and silent registration of guns to achieve instant suppression fire and surprise.

He also wanted to use tanks to clear paths through the deep barbed wire obstacles in front of German positions, while supporting the tank force with the No. 106 Fuze, designed to explode high explosive (HE) ammunition without cratering the ground to supplement the armour.

Air Support

Two weeks before the start of the battle, the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) began to train its pilots in ground-attack tactics. Before the ground offensive, the RFC was assigned sets of targets to attack, including trenches, supply points and enemy airfields.

The Battle:

Third Army

Cambrai salient north, 1917The bridge at Masnières, collapsed by the weight of a Mark IV tankA Mark IV (Male) tank of ‘H’ Battalion, ‘Hyacinth’, ditched in a German trench while supporting 1st Battalion, Leicestershire Regiment near Ribecourt during the Battle of Cambrai, 20 November 1917.

1917: a British tank destroyed by the Germans on the Western Front during World War I (Battle of Cambrai). A German-captured British tank in 1917 (Battle of Cambrai).

The battle began at dawn, approximately 06:30 on 20 November, with a predicted bombardment by 1,003 guns on German defences, followed by smoke and a creeping barrage at 300 yd (270 m) ahead to cover the first advances. Despite efforts to preserve secrecy, the Germans had received sufficient intelligence to be on moderate alert: an attack on Havrincourt was anticipated, as was the use of tanks.

1917: a British tank destroyed by the Germans on the Western Front during World War I (Battle of Cambrai).

The attacking force was six infantry divisions of the III Corps (Lieutenant-General Pulteney) on the right and IV Corps (Lieutenant-General Charles Woollcombe) on the left, supported by nine battalions of the Tank Corps with about 437 tanks. 

In reserve was one infantry division in IV Corps and the three divisions of the Cavalry Corps (Lieutenant-General Charles Kavanagh). Initially, there was considerable success in most areas and it seemed as if a great victory was within reach; the Hindenburg Line had been penetrated with advances of up to 5.0 mi (8 km). On the right, the 12th (Eastern) Division advanced as far as Lateau Wood before being ordered to dig in.

The 20th (Light) Division forced a way through La Vacquerie and then advanced to capture a bridge across the Canal de Saint-Quentin at Masnières. The bridge collapsed under the weight of a tank halting the hopes for an advance across the canal. In the centre the 6th Division captured Ribécourt and Marcoing but when the cavalry passed through late, they were repulsed from Noyelles.

On the IV Corps front, the 51st (Highland) Division was held at Flesquières, its first objective, which left the attacking divisions on each flank exposed to enfilade fire. The commander of the 51st Division, George Montague Harper had used a local variation of the tank drill instead of the standard one laid down by the Tank Corps. Flesquières was one of the most fortified points in the German line and was flanked by other strong points. Its defenders under Major Krebs acquitted themselves well against the tanks, almost 40 being knocked out by the Flesquières artillery.

The common explanation of the “mythical” German officer ignored the fact that the British tanks were opposed by the 54th Division, which had specialist training in anti-tank tactics and experience against French tanks in the Nivelle Offensive. The Germans abandoned Flesquières during the night. Men of the 16th Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles of the 36th (Ulster) Division moving to the front line 20 November 1917

To the west of Flesquières, the 62nd (2nd West Riding) Division swept all the way through Havrincourt and Graincourt to within reach of the woods on Bourlon Ridge and on the British left, the 36th Division reached the Bapaume–Cambrai road. Of the tanks, 180 were out of action after the first day, although only 65 had been destroyed. Of the other casualties, 71 had suffered mechanical failure and 43 had ditched. The British lost c. 4,000 casualties and took 4,200 prisoners, a casualty rate half that of the Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele) and a greater advance in six hours than in three months at Flanders but the British had failed to reach Bourlon Ridge.

A Mark IV (Male) tank of ‘H’ Battalion, ‘Hyacinth’, ditched in a German trench while supporting 1st Battalion, Leicestershire Regiment near Ribecourt during the Battle of Cambrai, 20 November 1917.

The German command was quick to send reinforcements and was relieved that the British did not manage fully to exploit their early gains. When the battle was renewed on 21 November, the pace of the British advance was greatly slowed. Flesquières, that had been abandoned and Cantaing were captured in the very early morning but in general the British took to consolidating their gains rather than expanding. The attacks by III Corps were terminated and attention was turned to IV Corps.

The effort was aimed at Bourlon Ridge. Fighting was fierce around Bourlon and at Anneux (just before the woods) was costly. German counter-attacks squeezed the British out of Moeuvres on 21 November and Fontaine on 22 November; when Anneux was taken, the 62nd Division found themselves unable to enter Bourlon Wood.

The British were left exposed in a salient. Haig still wanted Bourlon Ridge and the exhausted 62nd Division was replaced by the 40th Division (John Ponsonby) on 23 November. Supported by almost 100 tanks and 430 guns, the 40th Division attacked into the woods of Bourlon Ridge on the morning of 23 November and made little progress. The Germans had put two divisions of Gruppe Arras on the ridge with another two in reserve and Gruppe Caudry was reinforced.

The 40th Division attack reached the crest of the ridge but were held there and suffered more than 4,000 casualties in three days. More British troops were pushed in to move beyond the woods but the British reserves were rapidly depleted and more German reinforcements were arriving.

Hussars in Cambrai

The final British effort was on 27 November by the 62nd Division aided by 30 tanks. Early success was soon reversed by a German counter-attack. The British now held a salient roughly 6.8 mi × 5.9 mi (11 km × 9.5 km) with its front along the crest of the ridge. On 28 November, the offensive was stopped and the British troops were ordered to lay wire and dig in. The Germans were quick to concentrate their artillery on the new British positions. On 28 November, more than 16,000 shells were fired into the wood.

German 2nd Army

As the British took the ridge, the Germans began reinforcing the area. As early as 23 November, the German command felt that a British breakthrough would not occur and began to consider a counter-offensive.

Twenty divisions were arrayed in the Cambrai area. The Germans intended to retake the Bourlon salient and also to attack around Havrincourt while diversionary attacks would hold IV Corps; it was hoped to at least reach the old positions on the Hindenburg Line.

The Germans intended to employ the new tactics of a short, intense period of shelling followed by a rapid assault using Hutier infiltration tactics, leading elements attacking in groups rather than waves and bypassing strong opposition. For the initial assault at Bourlon three divisions of Gruppe Arras under Otto von Moser were assigned.

On the eastern flank of the British salient, Gruppe Caudry attacked from Bantouzelle to Rumilly and aimed for Marcoing. Gruppe Busigny advanced from Banteux. The two corps groups had seven infantry divisions.

British VII Corps (Lieutenant-General Thomas D’Oyly Snow), to the south of the threatened area, warned III Corps of German preparations. The German attack began at 7:00 a.m. on 30 November; almost immediately, the majority of III Corps divisions were heavily engaged. The German infantry advance in the south was unexpectedly swift.

The commanders of the 12th and 29th Divisions were almost captured, with Brigadier-General Berkeley Vincent having to fight his way out of his headquarters and grab men from retreating units to try to halt the Germans. In the south, the German advance spread across 13,000 m (13 km) and came within a few miles of the vital village of Metz and its link to Bourlon.

At Bourlon, the Germans suffered heavy casualties. Despite this, the Germans closed and there was fierce fighting. British units displayed reckless determination; one group of eight British machine guns fired over 70,000 rounds in their efforts to stem the German advance.

The concentration of British effort to hold the ridge was impressive but allowed the German advance elsewhere greater opportunity. Only counter-attacks by the Guards Division, the arrival of British tanks and the fall of night allowed the line to be held.

By the following day, the impetus of the German advance was lost but pressure on 3 December led to the German capture of La Vacquerie and a British withdrawal on the east bank of the St Quentin canal.

The Germans had reached a line looping from Quentin Ridge to near Marcoing. The German capture of Bonavis ridge made the British hold on Bourlon precarious. On 3 December, Haig ordered a partial retreat from the north salient and by 7 December, the British gains were abandoned except for a portion of the Hindenburg line around Havrincourt, Ribécourt and Flesquières. The Germans had exchanged this territorial loss for a slightly smaller sector to the south of Welsh Ridge.

Taken from: https://en.wikipedia.org