On the 20 November 1917, the allies smashed a seven-mile wide, four-mile deep hole in the Germans’ toughest defences near Cambrai. In six hours, they had advanced further than they had in three months at Passchendaele. Yet by 1 December, after a German counter attack, both sides held roughly the same territory as at the beginning of the bloody battle. So, can we truly say this battle was a success?
When we reflect upon history with a statistical eye and see that between 40 – 53 thousand British soldiers died in an effort that afforded the allies no more real gains that before the battle, it is hard for modern minds to see this as a victory. Officers and privates alike wrote home about the blood that made trench boards slippery and haphazard piles of bodies that clogged their newly acquired trenches. It seemed to reflect the same bitter reports of the last three years of war.
Yet, these reports were outnumbered by letters that spoke enthusiastically of their victory at Cambrai. In six hours these men, many of whom had come from the long and gruelling battles of Ypres, Passchendaele and the Somme, had achieved what they hadn’t been able to do in months at other battles. This victory, despite losing ground quickly, had given them the vital component of any soldier: hope.
It had also left the commanders confident that this was the type of attack that would win the war.
Unlike previous battles, the Battle of Cambrai did not follow a week-long artillery bombardment and it involved nearly every aspect of the British forces: tanks, infantry, artillery and aircrafts. Their combined effort resulted in 50ft thick belts of wire that would have taken weeks to cut through in a traditional attack, were mowed down in minutes and the Germans left completely unprepared.
Soldiers described the day as ‘a cakewalk’ or ‘a picnic’.
But the biggest victory of Cambrai goes to the tanks. After Passchendaele, many government officials and generals were reluctant to give the tanks such a prominent role in Cambrai and wrote the battle off before it had begun. It was the reason not enough men were assigned and, in the end, the reason why the Germans were able to launch such an effective counter attack.
Earlier this year during ROSL's Battlefield Tour we learnt a little more about the importance of the tanks in Cambrai whilst standing in the shadow of Deborah, a wrecked D51 tank that took part in the battle.
Deborah entered the village of Flesquieres, followed by the 153rd Brigade, and attempted to take out the heavy German guns and snipers. They managed to take out five of their assigned targets before the enemy fire became too heavy and forced the tank crew to retreat. Once she had left the defence of the last houses in the street, she was hit by a field gun and put out of action. A hole which can still be seen today when you visit.
Her captain, 2/Lt Frank Heap, was awarded the Military Cross for his brave efforts. On this day 100 years ago, he lost five members of his crew. Despite this he managed to lead the remainder of his crew and the tanks supporting infantry back to allied lines and safety. Inside the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery at Flesquieres Hill, on the outskirts of the village, there are four headstones side by side engraved: Gunner J Cheverton, Gunner W Galway, Gunner F W Tipping and Private W G Robinson. Lance Corporal George Charles Foot, DCM, is buried very near the others.
These men, working in cramped and close quarters would have been like a family. They relied and reacted to one another’s actions as if they were one body. It is these men we have to thank who secured the tanks place in the rest of the war, which ultimately led to victory and a turning point in modern warfare.