Tank Attack at Cambrai: How the Tank Finally Proved Its Mettle in World War I

January 25, 2021 Topic: History Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: World War IBritish ArmyDouglas HaigTanksBattle Of Cambrai

Tank Attack at Cambrai: How the Tank Finally Proved Its Mettle in World War I

Badly needing a victory on the western front, British commander Douglas Haig turned to the fledgling tank corps for a breakthrough.

Here's What You Need to Know: While technically a disappointment, Cambrai nevertheless demonstrated what the tank could do.

British Brig. Gen. Hugh Elles walked past the Mark IV tanks of H Company, a solitary figure amid metal monsters that looked, according to one jaundiced observer, like giant toads. He stopped abruptly at tank H1, nicknamed “Hilda,” and banged its metal side with his ash walking stick, alerting the crew that he had arrived. Elles then climbed aboard, gingerly squeezing into Hilda’s open hatch. Within moments he had all but disappeared; only his head and shoulders remained in view.

Make or Break for the Tank

It was the morning of November 20, 1917, and the British Third Army was about to attack the Germans at Cambrai. But this was no ordinary battle. Its outcome would determine the fate of Elles’s newly minted Tank Corps and change the face of warfare on the Western Front and beyond. The tank was a new weapon of war, and its debut the year before was anything but auspicious. Elles knew that this was a make-or-break event, requiring a maximum effort from every officer and man in each tank.

Elles glanced at his watch, then looked straight ahead into the predawn gloom. The chalky ground was gentling rolling, culminating in a series of ridges. Here and there thick clusters of trees formed woods, their dark shapes forming opaque smears on the horizon. Pockets of mist shrouded the earth, the thin clammy tendrils adding a spectral quality to the scene. Somewhere in the distance was the Hindenburg Line, a formidable series of German trenches fronted by belts of barbed wire and defended by machine guns and artillery.

The British attack was scheduled to start at “Z hour,” 6:20 am, with the tanks slated to move out 10 minutes earlier. At 6:10, more than 400 tank engines coughed and sputtered to life. Hilda lurched forward, proudly flying the Tank Corps flag. The multicolored banner featured brown, red, and green horizontal stripes. Each color had a meaning, signifying the corps slogan: “Though the mud and blood to the green fields beyond.” A new chapter in mobile warfare was about to begin.

The British Army Bled White

The tank attack at Cambrai was an attempt to break the bloody stalemate that had evolved since the beginning of the war in 1914. In the autumn of 1917, General Sir Douglas Haig was a man in search of a victory—a search that was becoming increasingly quixotic. Initially, the British commander possessed enormous reserves of self-confidence, believing that God Himself had placed him in command. With such a divine appointment, who could doubt Great Britain’s ultimate triumph?

By late 1917, even Haig’s boundless enthusiasm was beginning to flag. The year before, the British Army had been grievously mauled at the Somme, and in the summer of 1917 Haig launched another major offensive at Passchendaele, a drive designed to advance through Flanders to a major German submarine base at Bruges. But Passchendaele, like the Somme, was an unmitigated disaster for the Allies. British, New Zealand, Australian, and Canadian forces literally bogged down in muddy shell holes filled with water from torrential rains. After months of savage fighting, the British had advanced a mere five miles, at a cost of another 400,000 casualties. Prime Minister David Lloyd George and the British cabinet were appalled. The British Army was being bled white, and Haig was doing nothing to stop the hemorrhaging.

In the meantime, the fledgling Tank Corps was in limbo, metal dinosaurs that seemed on the verge of quick extinction. Tanks were originally conceived as “landships,” able to cross barbed wire and heavy machine-gun fire with impunity. But the technology was still in its infancy and needed near-perfect conditions to succeed. Tanks were first used at the Battle of the Somme in 1916, but their debut was inauspicious. Proper tank-infantry coordination had yet to be worked out, and the heavy metal monsters had difficulty plowing through waterlogged soil that was pockmarked by shell holes. Conservative officers, wedded to the past, dismissed the tanks as abject failures. Outlined one member of the British general staff: “One, tanks are unable to negotiate bad ground; two, the ground on a battlefield will always be bad; three, therefore tanks are no good on a battlefield.”

Planning the Attack on Cambrai: From a Raid to a Full-Scale Assault

The 37-year-old Elles was a fierce defender of the tank concept, and he was not about to give up without a fair trial. In this, he was seconded by his chief of staff, Lt. Col. J.F.C. Fuller, who had prepared a plan for the future employment of tanks in a blitzkrieg-like raid in the vicinity of Cambrai, 45 miles south of Passchendaele in northern France. The ground there was firm and comparatively unscarred by war, making it perfect for a “go in, go out” style of raid that would finally demonstrate the tank’s potential.

Elles found an unexpected ally in General Sir Julian Byng, commander of the British Third Army. Byng was an early convert to the plan and enthusiastically pushed to Haig the idea of using tanks. In the aftermath of Passchendaele, Haig knew all too well that his job and reputation were on the line, and he gave the green light for the project. But the seeds of the Cambrai plan, watered by Haig’s desperation and nurtured by Byng’s enthusiasm, soon grew into something entirely different from Fuller’s more modest original conception. It was now going to be a full-scale attack instead of a raid, an attack that Haig and Byng fully expected would lead to the long-dreamed-of breakthrough that had eluded the Allies since 1914.

Cambrai was an important transportation center, the hub of a railway network, but its physical capture was only part of the plan. The principal battlefield lay between the Canal du Nord and Canal de San Quentin, inland waterways that ran roughly parallel to one another, some five to six miles apart. They would secure the flanks of the operation. The first objective was to punch a hole five miles wide into the vaunted Hindenburg Line. Once that was achieved, the next goal was to secure breakthrough points on both the right and the left. On the right, several bridges that spanned the San Quentin Canal had to be captured intact. On the left, the high ground at Bourlon Wood was another key to victory.

After the infantry and tanks achieved their objectives, British cavalry would cross the canal and sweep down Bourlon Ridge, plunging deep behind enemy lines. They would then sweep northward and take the bridges over the Sensee River, cutting off German forces south of the river. The cavalry would also create havoc behind enemy lines, allowing the Third Army to exploit the situation and advance quickly toward Valenciennes. The trickle of British cavalry would become a flood of infantry, artillery, and tanks, ever widening until the breach in the Hindenburg Line was beyond repair. The more Byng though about it, the more convinced he was of the plan’s success.

476 Tanks

The German forces manning the Cambrai sector of the Hindenburg Line were part of General Oskar von Watter’s Battle Group Caudry. There were three divisions in the line, but they were generally understrength. The German High Command was not unduly alarmed—Cambrai was considered a quiet sector, and above all they had confidence in the strength of the Hindenburg Line and the efficient killing ability of their machine gunners. The Cambrai portion consisted of three trench lines, each two to three miles apart. There were deep dugouts, resistance centers laid out in checkerboard fashion, and belts of barbed wire 50 yards thick.

There were serious flaws in the British plan. The six corps assigned to the Cambrai offensive, codenamed Operation GY, were fresh from the Passchendaele fiasco. They had been mauled, and they were exhausted. Worse still, few reserves were available. The Tank Corps was going to throw every man and machine into the fight. There would be 378 fighting tanks going forward, crushing barbed wire, crossing trenches, and hopefully silencing German resistance. After the tanks had flattened the barbed wire, the resulting tangled “mat” was considered suitable for infantry to cross, but not horses. To solve that problem, 32 support tanks were fitted with towing gear and grapnels. The grapnels would hook the flattened wire, pull it aside, and gather it into prickly balls, making a clear path for cavalry horses’ hooves. Other support tanks were fitted to carry supplies, bridging materials, telephone cables, and wireless apparatus. Altogether, 476 tanks were going to take part in the battle.

Firing “straight from the map”

As Z hour approached, both tank crews and the infantry behind them felt a growing excitement, a heady mixture of elation, adrenaline, and understandable fear. “Like all the rest I was excited at the prospect of going into battle behind these new-fangled, Wellsian monsters,” Corporal George Coppard recalled. “I felt they were really going to exact retribution, on behalf of all of us, for the countless miseries and privations that we poor blighters had suffered at Jerry’s hands. This was to be the reckoning.”