History Podcasts

British launch surprise tank attack at Cambrai

British launch surprise tank attack at Cambrai

At dawn on the morning of November 20, 1917, six infantry and two cavalry divisions of the British Expeditionary Force–with additional support from 14 squadrons of the Royal Flying Corps–join the British Tank Corps in a surprise attack on the German lines near Cambrai, France.

After the British debuted the first armored tanks during the massive Somme offensive in September 1916, their effectiveness as a weapon–aside from the initial value of surprise–was quickly thrown into doubt. The early tanks were maddeningly slow and unwieldy; navigation and visibility from their controls were poor and though they were impervious to small arms fire, they could be destroyed easily by shellfire. Moreover, the tanks often bogged down in the muddy terrain of the Western Front in fall and winter, rendering them completely useless.

As a result, by the fall of 1917 many on the Allied side had come to doubt the viability of the tank as a major force on the battlefield. Commanders of the British Tank Corps nevertheless continued to press for a new offensive, including the large-scale use of tanks on a comparably dry stretch of battlefield in northern France, between the Canal du Nord and St. Quentin, towards the Belgian border.

READ MORE: World War I Battles: Timeline

After initially vetoing the idea, British Commander in Chief Sir Douglas Haig changed his mind and authorized the operation, hoping to achieve at least one useful victory before the year was out. The attack, led by General Julian Byng of the British 3rd Army, went ahead on the morning of November 20, 1917, with all available tanks–some 476 of them–advancing on the German lines with infantry, cavalry and air support. Within hours, the British forced the German 2nd Army back to Cambrai, to the north, taking some 8,000 prisoners and 100 guns on their way.

The British lacked adequate support for their initial advance, however, and more gains were significantly harder to obtain. Though German Commander in Chief Erich Ludendorff briefly considered a general withdrawal of troops from the area, his commander in the region, Georg von der Marwitz, managed to muster a sharp German counterattack of nearly 20 divisions to regain nearly all the ground lost. Casualties were high on both sides, with German losses of 50,000 compared to 45,000 for the British.

While the use of tanks at Cambrai failed to achieve the major breakthrough for which Byng had been hoping, the attack nonetheless boosted the tank’s reputation as a potentially effective weapon for targeted use during offensive operations.

British launch surprise tank attack at Cambrai - Nov 20, 1917 - HISTORY.com

TSgt Joe C.

At dawn on the morning of November 20, 1917, six infantry and two cavalry divisions of the British Expeditionary Force–with additional support from 14 squadrons of the Royal Flying Corps–join the British Tank Corps in a surprise attack on the German lines near Cambrai, France.

After the British debuted the first armored tanks during the massive Somme offensive in September 1916, their effectiveness as a weapon–aside from the initial value of surprise–was quickly thrown into doubt. The early tanks were maddeningly slow and unwieldy navigation and visibility from their controls were poor and though they were impervious to small arms fire, they could be destroyed easily by shellfire. Moreover, the tanks often bogged down in the muddy terrain of the Western Front in fall and winter, rendering them completely useless.

As a result, by the fall of 1917 many on the Allied side had come to doubt the viability of the tank as a major force on the battlefield. Commanders of the British Tank Corps nevertheless continued to press for a new offensive, including the large-scale use of tanks on a comparably dry stretch of battlefield in northern France, between the Canal du Nord and St. Quentin, towards the Belgian border. After initially vetoing the idea, British Commander in Chief Sir Douglas Haig changed his mind and authorized the operation, hoping to achieve at least one useful victory before the year was out. The attack, led by General Julian Byng of the British 3rd Army, went ahead on the morning of November 20, 1917, with all available tanks–some 476 of them–advancing on the German lines with infantry, cavalry and air support. Within hours, the British forced the German 2nd Army back to Cambrai, to the north, taking some 8,000 prisoners and 100 guns on their way.

The British lacked adequate support for their initial advance, however, and more gains were significantly harder to obtain. Though German Commander in Chief Erich Ludendorff briefly considered a general withdrawal of troops from the area, his commander in the region, Georg von der Marwitz, managed to muster a sharp German counterattack of nearly 20 divisions to regain nearly all the ground lost. Casualties were high on both sides, with German losses of 50,000 compared to 45,000 for the British. While the use of tanks at Cambrai failed to achieve the major breakthrough for which Byng had been hoping, the attack nonetheless boosted the tank’s reputation as a potentially effective weapon for targeted use during offensive operations.

Timeline - 1917

The First World War spanned four years and involved many nation states.

This section lists the events of the year 1917, the fourth year of the war. This year saw the adoption by the German high command of the disastrous policy of unrestricted submarine warfare - disastrous in that it brought about America's entry into the war within the space of a couple of months, and ultimately led to her downfall the following year.

Meanwhile the British launched a major offensive at Passchendaele in autumn 1917: as at the Somme the previous year it proved a highly costly failure. 1917 also saw Russia's exit from the war amid two revolutions, the first in February and a second in October.

For a day by day account click any given month using the sidebar to the right.

Date Event
January 10 Allies state peace objectives in response to US President Woodrow Wilson's December 1916 peace note
January 31 Germany announces unrestricted submarine warfare
February 1 Germany resumes unrestricted submarine warfare
February 3 US severs diplomatic ties with Germany
February 23 - April 5 German forces begin withdrawal to strong positions on the Hindenburg Line
February 24 Zimmermann Telegram is passed to the US by Britain, detailing alleged German proposal of an alliance with Mexico against the US
February 26 US President Woodrow Wilson requests permission from Congress to arm US merchantmen
March 1 Zimmermann Telegram published in US press
March 11 British capture Baghdad
March 12 US President Woodrow Wilson announces arming of US merchantmen by executive order after failing to win approval from Congress
March 15 Tsar Nicholas II abdicates as a consequence of Russian Revolution
March 20 US President Woodrow Wilson's war cabinet votes unanimously in favour of declaring war on Germany
April 2 US President Woodrow Wilson delivers war address to Congress
April 6 US declares war on Germany
April 9-20 Nivelle Offensive (Second Battle of Aisne, Third Battle of Champagne) ends in French failure
April 9 Canadian success at the Battle of Vimy Ridge
April 16 Lenin arrives in Russia
April 29 - May 20 Mutiny breaks out among French army
May 12 - October 24 10th, 11th and 12th Battles of Isonzo fought, ending in Italian failure
May 28 Pershing leaves New York for France
June 7 British explode 19 large mines under the Messines Ridge
June 15 US Espionage Act passed
June 26 First US troops arrive in France, 1st Division
June 27 Greece enters the war on the side of the Allies
July 2 Pershing makes first request for army of 1,000,000 men
July 6 T.E. Lawrence and the Arabs capture Aquaba
July 11 Pershing revises army request figures upwards to 3,000,000
July 16 Third Battles of Ypres (Passchendaele) begins
July 31 Major British offensive launched at Ypres.
September 1 Germany takes the northernmost end of the Russian front in the Riga offensive
October 24 Austria-Germany breakthrough at Caporetto on Italian front
November 7 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia results in Communist government under Lenin taking office
November 20 British launch surprise tank attack at Cambrai
December 7 US declares war on Austria-Hungary
December 9 Jerusalem falls to Britain
December 22 Russia opens separate peace negotiations with Germany (Brest-Litovsk)

Saturday, 22 August, 2009 Michael Duffy

3 British Officers were executed by courts martial during the war, as opposed to 316 Private soldiers and 24 Non-Commissioned Officers. The vast majority were for desertions.

- Did you know?

Battles - The Battle of Cambrai, 1917

The Battle of Cambrai, launched in November 1917, heralded the first time tanks were used in significant force, a little over a year after they had made their tentative debut at Flers on the Somme in September 1916. By the autumn of 1917 the popular reputation of tank effectiveness had suffered. Aside from their undoubted initial value as a surprise tactic they were deemed to be of limited use in offensive operations, unwieldy and prone to malfunction.

So much so indeed that the German high command, having overcome their initial alarm at the sudden appearance of the huge mechanical beasts upon the battlefield, came to regard the tank with disdain, a device readily destroyed by use of concentrated field artillery. Given such an attitude it was perhaps unsurprising that German tank development came relatively late in the war.

Nevertheless the British Tank Corps remained convinced that earlier disappointments regarding tank use would be overcome once the new weapon was used in battlefield conditions less ill-suited than the muddy quagmire that characterised the Third Battle of Ypres, where once again the tank had succeeded only in generating cynicism.

Thus Lieutenant-Colonel John Fuller of the Tank Corps recommended wide-scale use of tanks upon the dry battlefield sited between the Canal du Nord and the St. Quentin Canal. Fuller's proposal was promptly taken up by Third Army commander Julian Byng - the commander on the ground - but was vetoed by British Commander-in-Chief Sir Douglas Haig who preferred to continue with operations at Passchendaele.

In time however Haig, disappointed at the lack of progress at Passchendaele, turned back to Fuller and Byng's scheme, attracted by the notion of achieving a useful victory using the new weapon before the year was out.

Byng, buoyed with the opportunity the command gave him, rejected Colonel Fuller's initial plan calling for an immediate withdrawal once the massed tank formation had successfully raided the German lines. Instead he aimed at achieving a major Allied breakthrough.

He scheduled the attack for November, even though weather conditions were predictably worsening. Consequently Tank Corps commanders feared that the planned attack would merely serve once again to further undermine the tank's doubtful reputation as an effective attacking weapon.

The attack was duly launched at dawn on the morning of 20 November 1917, with all available tanks advancing across a 10 km front. 476 tanks were accompanied by six infantry and two cavalry divisions (the latter to exploit any breakthrough), plus a further 1,000 guns. 14 newly formed squadrons of the Royal Flying Corps stood by - a forerunner of the blitzkrieg tactics employed to great effect by the German army during the Second World War. Notably the attack was not preceded by a preliminary bombardment, helping to ensure complete surprise.

Facing the British attack was the German Second Army led by Georg von der Marwitz. Within hours the lightly defended Germans were forced back some 6 km to Cambrai, the three trench systems of the Hindenburg Line pierced for the first time in the war.

The British achieved success all along the line, bar at Flesquieres (at the centre of the attack), where 51st Highland divisional commander Harper had determined not to work in tandem with tank commanders, suspicious of tank technology. Approximately 8,000 prisoners and 100 guns were captured on the first day alone.

Much encouraged (and greatly surprised) by the (for Western Front standards) notable gains of the first day, Haig determined to press on with the attack, although once the initial surprise had passed British gains proved much harder to come by nevertheless, Flesquieres was seized the following day. Unfortunately for Byng a lack of available support to follow-up the surprise breakthrough of the first day resulted in a critical loss of momentum.

Erich Ludendorff, the effective head of the German Third Supreme Command, ordered an immediate counter-attack only to discover that reserves could not be brought forward for a further two days. At one stage he even contemplated a general withdrawal from the Cambrai front.

Marwitz, the local commander, may have been stunned by the onset of the attack on 20 November. However in pressing home wave after wave of German counterattacks, starting 20 November, he worked to recover all ground lost to the British.

Some 20 divisions were deployed during the German counter-attack, which deployed so-called Hutier infiltration tactics (named after the German commander who had first deployed them, Oskar von Hutier). Within a week virtually all lost ground had been reclaimed.

During the battle casualties were high: the Germans suffered losses of approximately 50,000 and the British 45,000. If ultimately the massed deployment of tanks had failed to achieve the desired for breakthrough, it had nevertheless demonstrated the potential for targeted use of the tank in offensive operations.

In Britain news of the initial spectacular breakthrough served to greatly enhance Byng's reputation and it resulted in the ringing of church bells in Britain for the first time during the war.

Click here to view a map charting the progress of the battle.

Click here to read Arthur Conan Doyle's account of the battle. Click here to read German Army Chief of Staff Paul von Hindenburg's reaction.

Battle of Cambrai (1917)

The Battle of Cambrai (Battle of Cambrai, 1917, First Battle of Cambrai and Schlacht von Cambrai) was a British attack in the First World War, followed by the biggest German counter-attack against the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) since 1914. The town of Cambrai, in the département of Nord, was an important supply centre 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 tactics 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 Third Army, decided to combine both plans. [a] The French and British armies had used tanks in mass earlier in 1917, although to considerably less effect. [4]

United Kingdom

  • India[1]
  • Newfoundland[2]

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. [5] 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 counter-attack, were also notable achievements, which gave the Germans hope that an offensive strategy could end the war before American mobilisation became overwhelming. [6]

Tuesday 20 November 1917

At 6.10am the tanks which had formed up half a mile behind the line began to move slowly forward (they had a top speed of 3.7mph) with their commander Brigadier General Elles leading the way in his tank Hilda.

Ten minutes later, at Zero Hour, the artillery opened up. Shells rained down all along the German line. Behind the protection of an artillery barrage and smoke screen, the tanks and infantry advanced.

Despite the low cloud and mist squadrons of aircraft of the RFC got airborne. The German defenders were taken completely by surprise and their front lines were quickly over run by the swiftness and weight of the British attack.

To the south of the line, Lieutenant General Sir William Pulteney’s III Corps had been tasked with securing the crossings of the St Quentin Canal at Marcoing and Masnières.

20th Division encountered strong resistance at the Zwischenstellung (Hindenburg Support Line) beyond La Vacquerie, while further south 12th Division had to tackle a series of fortified farms that had not been knocked out by the artillery barrage.

Several tanks were knocked out by direct hits from artillery firing over open sights. More were lost to mechanical failure but the advance continued and by 11am the first tanks had reached the St Quentin Canal at Marcoing.

Securing the canal crossings was vital to getting the cavalry out into the open country behind the German lines. The infantry were able to cross using the wooden bridges but at 32 tons, the tanks were a different story. The road bridge at Masnières was still standing but damaged, nevertheless tank F22- Flying Fox II attempted a crossing. The bridge collapsed, sending the tank into the water below. Fortunately its crew survived. A small number of cavalry units made it across the canal, but with daylight fading and insufficient forces available the advance was halted.

The main objective for Lieutenant-General Sir Charles Woollcombe’s IV Corps was Bourlon Ridge. The 62nd Division had a tough time capturing Havrincourt after encountering strong German opposition. The division’s 186th Brigade went on to capture Graincourt later that afternoon before pushing on towards Anneux. The 51st Highland Division were held up at Flesquières, one of the strongest defensive points of the Zwischenstellung.

Under the command of Major Krebs the outnumbered German soldiers put up a determined resistance. Several of their field guns were still in operation and the gunners of Field Artillery Regiment 108 had also been trained in anti-tank tactics, consequently tank losses were high. With no reinforcements available the Germans were forced to pull out of Flesquières during the night, but they had successfully stalled the British advance towards Bourlon Ridge.

As night fell on the 20 November Third Army had managed an unprecedented advance of between three and four miles along a six mile front and had captured over 4000 prisoners.

When the news of the success reached Britain a few days later church bells were rung in celebration. However IV Corps had failed to reach Bourlon Ridge. III Corps had only a tenuous hold on the far side of the St Quentin Canal and they had not taken the Siegfried II line of defences. They also had no infantry reserves. 179 tanks were out of action. Highlighting the unreliability of the Mark IV tank, around two thirds of those were due to mechanical breakdown or ditching.

The Battle of Cambrai

The Plan

The major British battle of 1917 was The Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele), during which there were over 250,000 British casualties. Yet, as The Third Battle of Ypres was winding down, Haig was already planning another assault against the Germans. This was to take place in front of the town of Cambrai, by the British Third Army under its new commander, Sir Julian Byng. The German army had been put under massive strain at Ypres and Haig was convinced that Germany was coming to the end of its ability to carry on the war further blows against the German Army might end the war before the end of the year. He was also anxious for a victory before the end of the year to silence the growing criticism of his strategy on The Western Front.

The Battle of Cambrai is usually remembered as the battle in which tanks were used in large numbers for the first time. Brigadier-General Hugh Elles of the Tank Corps was keen to use tanks in large numbers on suitable ground. The British Third Army in front of Cambrai faced the formidable defences of the Hindenburg Line, but the ground here was firm and, as there had not previously been a major offensive, not pitted with shell holes. However, much of the British success on the first day of The Battle of Cambrai is explained by the use of innovations other than the tank.

A major problem of any large scale offensive on the Western Front was the inability to achieve surprise attacks were preceded by long artillery bombardments which were essential to cut the belts of barbed wire in front of the enemy trenches. The plan at Cambrai was to attack without any preliminary bombardment. New techniques allowed the British artillery to open fire on German positions as the attack began. Tanks were largely used to flatten the barbed wire, particularly in front of the formidable Hindenburg line.

The attack was to be on a six and a half mile front and was to be carried out by six infantry divisions supported by nine tank battalions, numbering over 430 tanks. The artillery barrage was provided by over 1000 guns and five cavalry divisions were available to exploit any breakthrough. Preparations were carried out in great secrecy, with tanks and guns brought up at night and heavily camouflaged or hidden in woods and buildings. The aims of the offensive were to break through the Hindenburg Line, take the high ground around Bourlon Wood, isolate Cambrai and advance behind the German lines to the North. The plan was very ambitious for the resources available as there were very limited reserve forces to follow up any initial success most of the Third Army was recovering after involvement in the Third Battle of Ypres.

The Attack

On the opening day of the attack, 20 November 1917, the British gains of over four miles with low casualties were spectacular by the standards of World War 1 as much ground was gained in twelve hours than in over three months in The Third Battle of Ypres. It was the only occasion on which church bells were rung in Britain to celebrate a victory. Despite the successes, there were some disappointments, such as the failure to take Flesquières and the failure to capture an intact bridge over the canal at Masnières.

There were further gains on 21 and 22 November, but German resistance was increasing and the British were facing increasing numbers of counter-attacks. Haig urged Byng to focus on securing Bourlon Wood, which dominated the surrounding area. The Wood was captured, but retaken by the Germans.

The German Counter-attack

As the fighting around Bourlon Wood continued, the Germans were planning a major counter-attack. Revolution in Russia meant that she was no longer playing an active part in the war and the Germans were able to begin the process of bringing hundreds of thousands of troops to The Western Front from the East. The British were now within a salient (a bulge in the line) which they had punched into the German positions: it was as if British forces were inside a sack. On 30 November, the Germans launched an attack which largely took the British by surprise. Employing new infiltration tactics, a short, intense bombardment was followed by groups of storm troopers moving forward, by-passing strong points which were then left for following troops and artillery to deal with. Attacks were made on the salient from the North and South which were aimed at cutting off British forces inside it.

There was determined resistance in the North, often by mixed forces, including infantry, dismounted cavalry, engineers and Labour Corps. Many German attacks were broken up by artillery. The strongest attacks were in the South towards Gouzeaucourt, which fell to the Germans on the first day. A counter-attack by the Guards retook the village and a further attack on 1 December by the Guards and cavalry stabilised the situation. British losses mounted as German attacks continued and Haig ordered Byng to withdraw to a more easily defensible line. This withdrawal was completed by 6 December.


British losses were about 44,000 men, including prisoners. German losses were something similar. The Battle of Cambrai had failed in its objectives and virtually all of the ground gained in the early stages was lost. 11,000 German prisoners had been taken, but the Germans had taken 6,000 British prisoners.

The major consequences of Cambrai for the conduct of the war were political. As the German counter-attacks wiped out the early successes, the mood at home in the press and amongst politicians became one of anger. The Prime Minister, Lloyd George, had little faith in Haig following the casualties of the Somme and Passchendaele, and Cambrai made the gulf between Haig and the government even greater. More anger was caused by a report by Byng which concluded that no blame for the failure at Cambrai could be placed against senior commanders and that it was solely due to inadequate training amongst junior officers, NCOs and the men.

Haig was not removed, though he believed that this might happen. However, the senior staff officers around Haig, who were believed to be too anxious to carry out his bidding, were removed. The Government also began to limit the number of men available to Haig in an effort to prevent him launching further large offensives in 1918, which had major consequences when the Germans launched the first of their major offensives in the Spring.

Infantry Organisation in The British Army

An Army

There were eventually five British armies in France. Each comprised of 250,000 to 500,000 men and was commanded by a full general.


For administrative reasons armies were divided into three to five Corps, commanded by a Lieutenant General.


This was the largest formation which normally remained together. At full strength a division would number 20,000 men, commanded by a Major General. The Division was self contained. It was made up of twelve infantry battalions and also included a range of other units such as artillery, the medical corps, transport, engineers and a veterinary section. A thirteenth pioneer battalion was added to carry out tasks such as trench digging and building work.


Divisions were divided into three Brigades. Each Brigade was made up of four battalions and was commanded by a Brigadier General.


The battalion was the basic unit of the infantry of the British army in The First World War. At full establishment, it consisted of just over 1000 men, of whom 30 were officers. Men in a battalion would all be from one regiment, e.g. The First Battalion of The Lancashire Fusiliers. Men in a battalion remained together as a group during the war.

The battalion was usually commanded by an officer with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. A Major was Second-in-Command. The battalion headquarters included a range of officers, NCOs and privates responsible for administration, stores, transport, signals, medical care and a range of other duties.


A battalion was divided into four companies, usually lettered A to D or in the case of the Guards Regiments numbered 1 to 4. Each of the 4 Companies numbered 227 men at full establishment. Each was commanded by a Major or Captain, with a Captain as Second-in-Command.


The company was divided into 4 Platoons of about 45 men, each of which was commanded by a subaltern (a Lieutenant or Second Lieutenant).


Each Platoon was subdivided into 4 Sections, each of about 12 men under an NCO.

Tank organisation World War 1

The tank service was originally named the Heavy Section Machine Gun Corps, with tanks organised in companies. Each company was designated by a letter and each tank was numbered and given a name which began with the letter of the Battalion. The names of tanks in F Company included Fearless, Flying Fox, Ferocious and Fighting Mac. From November 1916 tanks were organised in Battalions. Although each battalion received a number, the system of lettering was also retained for naming each tank. A Battalion consisted of 3 Companies, each of which had 12 tanks. Each company was further divided into 4 sections of three tanks. Each battalion, therefore, comprised of 36 tanks. Mobile workshops provided the engineering back-up to service the tanks.

In July 1917 the Heavy Branch of the Machine Gun Corps became the Tank Corps. Each Tank Battalion had a complement of 32 officers and 374 men. The commander of The Tank Corps in France and Belgium was Brigadier General Hugh Elles.

The Origins of World War 1

An enormous amount has been written about the causes of the war and the general opinion of historians has changed greatly during the period since 1918. The opinion of the Allies as the war ended was very clear. Germany was required to accept responsibility for the war in the Versailles Peace Treaty, was forced to sign the “War Guilt Clause” and forced to pay reparations for the extensive destruction caused in France and Belgium during the four years of fighting. However, from the 1920s and 1930s onwards, attitudes began to change and the war was seen as a tragedy into which Europe had fallen, caused by factors in which all countries could be seen to bear some of the blame. But from the 1960s onwards, this view was challenged and many modern historians now see the ambitions and actions of Germany as the major factor in the outbreak of war in 1914. This is a subject which will undoubtedly continue to be discussed and written about for many years to come.

Unrest in the Balkans, the area of Southern Europe between the Adriatic Sea and Black Sea, played a key role in the outbreak of war. It was in this region that the incident leading to the outbreak of war, the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, took place on 28 June 1914. For centuries this area had been part of the Turkish Empire, but, as Turkey’s power declined, national groups broke away and formed new countries to govern themselves. This process was encouraged by Russia as a means of increasing her influence in the area and new countries such as Serbia looked to the Russian Empire for support. However, the ambitions of new Balkan states, particularly Serbia, were seen by the Austrian Empire as a direct threat. The Austrian Empire was made up of a patchwork of different nationalities and included modern day Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, parts of Poland and parts of Serbia. These peoples were also beginning to demand the right to govern themselves and this threatened to tear the Austrian Empire apart. Austria was determined to remove the threat of Serbia and the assassination of Franz Ferdinand by a member of a Serbian terrorist group gave Austria a justification to attack.

However, the crisis which arose from the assassination could not be kept local within the Balkans as the European powers were tied together in a series of alliances. These alliances have been seen as a key factor which resulted in the assassination dragging all of Europe into war. Germany had an alliance with Austria and Italy, this group often being referred to as the Triple Alliance. France had an alliance with Russia and, although Britain was not formally part of this alliance, she developed close relations with these two countries from about 1900 onwards this group is often referred to as the Triple Entente. After the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Austria was determined to attack Serbia while Russia was determined to support Serbia. Because of her alliance with Austria, Germany would be required to intervene to support Austria against Russia, which would then involve France who was bound by alliance to support Russia.

The alliance systems also bred mistrust and fear and each country had built up large armies. Austria was not the only country in Europe bearing a grievance, however. The German Empire had been established in 1871, but Germany had come into being at France’s expense, following the decisive defeat of France in The Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871. The creation of the new German Empire was declared in Versailles in 1871 while Paris was under siege. France was further humiliated by being forced to hand over the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine to Germany as part of the peace treaty which ended the war. A movement seeking “revanche” (revenge) established itself in France, though its influence prior to 1914 was limited.

Although each of the Great Powers in Europe had grievances which help to explain the outbreak of war in 1914, modern historians have focused more and more on the role of Germany. After 1871, Germany became a major world industrial power rivalling Great Britain. Yet many leading figures in Germany believed that their country was being denied the position in the world that she deserved as a result of her industrial strength. Furthermore, it was believed that Germany was being “surrounded” by Britain, France and Russia and being denied the position that she deserved in Europe. Germany began to seek colonies overseas and began a programme of naval expansion, which was clearly intended as a challenge to Britain. Britain drew closer to France and Russia and also began to increase the strength of her own navy. The launch of HMS Dreadnought introduced a new class of warship and sparked an arms race at sea as Germany responded with her own new warships.

There was a belief held by some leading figures in the German military and government that war was inevitable and Germany’s actions in 1914 were important in driving Europe towards armed conflict. Rather than restraining Austria following the assassination in Sarajevo, Germany encouraged action against Serbia.

It was not inevitable that France be drawn into the war, but Germany’s only plan for war involved attacking France and this attack was to include the invasion of neutral Belgium. This attack took place on 3 August and was undoubtedly the decisive factor in support for the war amongst public opinion in Britain.

Yet even as war broke out, few realised the four years of horror that was to follow, leaving ten million dead and changing the face of Europe for ever.

Deadlock on the Western Front

The abiding image of World War 1 is of two sides in deadlock, facing each other across no man’s land. It is of soldiers dug into opposing lines of trenches, from which they launched repeated attacks resulting in very little gain and massive casualties. There is much truth in this image but, like all popular images, the reality was more complicated. When war broke out in 1914 neither side imagined a war fought in trenches and lasting several years. The Germans planned a war in which their armies would sweep through Belgium and Northern France and defeat the French armies within a matter of weeks. Germany would then be free to transfer its troops to the East to defeat Russia. This was the famous Schlieffen Plan. France planned to launch an invasion across the German border into Alsace Lorraine the so called Plan 17. In Britain it was popularly believed that the war would be over by Christmas 1914.

The First World War was not always deadlocked in trench warfare. The opening months of The First World War were not fought in trenches, rather it was a war of movement and manoeuvre, as were the closing months of 1918. Nor was the war fought in trenches away from the Western Front in Europe. The war in the East, fought between Germany and her ally Austria against Russia, was never a war of trenches and deadlock this is also true of the fighting between Britain and Turkey in the Middle East.

However, between November 1914 and March 1918, the war on the Western Front was one of deadlock. Fighting took place between two sides occupying lines of opposing trenches which never moved more than a few miles and stretched from the Channel coast, through Belgium and France to the Swiss frontier. It was here on the Western Front that the outcome of the war was to be decided each side knew it had to win here or lose the war. If this situation was not planned for, why did it arise?

One reason for the deadlock was that the technical development of weapons gave a massive advantage to defenders. The development of bolt action, breach loading rifles greatly increased the fire power of infantry a regular British soldier in 1914 was trained to fire 15 rounds per minute. Machine guns created a hail of bullets to pour into the ranks of attacking infantry. The German MG08 machine gun could fire 400 rounds per minute and had an effective range of over 2000 yards. Above all, attackers moving in the open were exposed to artillery fire. By 1914, the effectiveness of shells, and the rate of fire and accuracy of artillery had increased greatly. Troops concentrating in front lines in preparation for an attack were obvious targets for artillery, and attackers crossing no-man’s land often had to pass through a wall of high explosive and shrapnel. As the war progressed, the power of the artillery increased enormously. To gain protection from these weapons both sides went underground, into trenches, dug outs, bunkers and tunnels.

A German MG08

Another explanation of the deadlock is that trench systems were not simply ditches dug into the ground. Trench systems became fortresses of multiple trenches, fortified villages, concrete bunkers, underground dugouts and belts of barbed wire. This was particularly true of the German system. With the two notable exceptions of The Second Battle of Ypres in 1915 and The Battle of Verdun in 1916, the Germans sat on the defensive in France and Belgium between November 1914 and March 1918 in order to concentrate efforts against Russia in the East. They created multiple systems of defence, often miles wide. For infantry, the prospect of attacking these positions across shell torn ground in the face of machine gun fire and a wall of exploding shells, was an enormously daunting prospect which frequently led to high numbers of casualties.

One of the most basic reasons why it was impossible to break the deadlock on the Western Front was the inability of commanders to control events once an attack began. Telephone lines from the front line were regularly cut by shellfire and runners were routinely wounded or killed. Various kinds of visual signals were used and aircraft provided aerial observation but, without a system of portable radio, getting information back to commanders was slow and unreliable. Commanders prepared meticulous plans of attack, but once a battle began events moved beyond their immediate control and they often had little idea of what was actually happening. Generals dreamed of ending the deadlock, breaking through the enemy trench lines and creating a war of movement in the countryside beyond. There were a number of occasions where attacks went well initially and where attackers captured the enemy’s first system of trenches, but success ended here. Commanders were not aware of where and when attacks had gone well or of where they had failed and were not able to move reserve troops forward to the right place at the right time. On the other hand, defenders found it much easier to fall back to another trench line, create new lines of defences and plug gaps in their lines with reserve troops. Contrary to popular myth, many senior commanders were killed as a result of going forward in an attempt to gain information and control events.

Another basic explanation of the deadlock was the fact that both sides were evenly matched and could call on a seemingly endless reserve of men and supplies. This was the first war in history in which modern industrial powers fought each other. Each side mobilised populations numbering tens of millions and produced previously undreamed of quantities of weapons and supplies which constantly replenished the losses suffered on the Western Front. The war became one of attrition (wearing out) in which the loser would be the side which could no longer find the young men to draft into the army to replace casualties or maintain production at home. Ultimately, it was Germany’s inability to continue to do this which decided the outcome of the war.

Germany’s industrial capacity and supply of essentials, such as food, was slowly strangled by the British naval blockade. The arrival of American troops in 1918 further tipped the balance against Germany. However, there was no rapid breakthrough or collapse. Germany was driven back towards its borders from the summer of 1918, but this was a costly process involving assaults against successive lines of defence. History generally remembers the slaughter at Verdun, on the Somme and at Passchendaele, but some of the most costly battles were those occurring in the final months of fighting.

British Mark IV Female Tanks being loaded

The Battle of Cambrai was the first large-scale use of massed tanks in battle. Here British Mark IV tanks are being loaded onto railway trucks for transport to the front line, as part of the significant logistical preparations required for the attack. These are 'Female' tanks armed with machine guns, as opposed to 'Male' tanks armed with small artillery pieces. In total, the British deployed 476 tanks at Cambrai, including 378 in combat roles.

The attack began with significant gains on the opening day through a combination of effective artillery fire, infantry tactics and tanks. British forces made advances of around 5 miles, taking a number of villages. But by the end of the first day, over half of the tanks were out of action.

As the battle continued, British progress slowed amidst intense fighting. By 28 November the British had reached a position on the crest of Bourlon Ridge, where they held a salient. Two days later German forces launched a counter-offensive, utilising intensive artillery fire and infantry tactics that made use of infiltrating ‘storm’ troops. After more intense fighting, British forces retreated from their salient position, only leaving them with the gains they had made around the villages of Havrincourt, Ribécourt and Flesquières.

The Battle of Cambrai ultimately had little strategic impact on the fighting on the Western Front. Yet in the tactical methods used by both sides it was a precursor to the fighting of 1918 and also pointed the way towards more sophisticated combined arms tactics and armoured warfare.

Ongoing Significance of the Battle of Cambrai

Cambrai as a battle is significant for two main reasons. It saw the first mass use of the tank and their first use as a concentrated, powerful force. Their success on the battlefield was combined with the significant, positive impact they continued to have on public opinion. To the public this was a wholly British weapon that had repeatedly proven itself able to defeat the Germans.

Cambrai secured the place of the tank in the British Army

Taken together these factors secured the future of the Tank Corps in the British Army and convinced commanders that it had a vital role to play on the Western Front. For these reasons Cambrai is still commemorated by the soldiers of the Royal Tank Regiment.

Another aspect of the story of the tank at Cambrai was how the battlefield became the source of much of Germany’s tank force. Dozens of abandoned Mark IVs were captured during the counterattack. After repairs, around 40 were pressed into German service in 1918. In fact they would use more Mark IVs than their own A7V.

The second reason for Cambrai’s significance is the effect the lessons learned from it would have in 1918. The importance of coordination between different arms and services had been shown to dramatic effect. Artillery, infantry, tanks, aircraft, logistics, staff and signals had all worked together as a system to launch a successful attack with complete surprise against strong defences.

This system would reach its full potential at Amiens on the 8 th August 1918, a battle that began the Hundred Days Offensive, which led to victory for the Allies. The Hundred Days demonstrated two elements missing at Cambrai – a willingness amongst commanders to shut down a successful attack before it got bogged down, and the resources to quickly launch another in a different area. We’ll continue to look at developments during 1918 on this blog.

The Battle of Cambrai was a vital part of the learning process the British Army went through as it became the army that won the First World War. The parts of this sophisticated system were falling into place, but in the winter of 1917, at Bourlon Wood, Flesquieres and Masnieres, they weren’t quite there yet.

For more information on the Battle of Cambrai, watch The Tank Museum YouTube documentary, Cambrai: The Tank Corps Story.

Find out more about First World War tanks and beyond in the books below.

The Long, Long Trail

20 November – 30 December 1917: the Cambrai operations. A British attack, originally conceived as a very large scale raid, that employed new artillery techniques and massed tanks. Initially very successful with large gains of ground being made, but German reserves brought the advance to a halt. Ten days later, a counter-attack regained much of the ground. Ultimately a disappointing and costly outcome, but Cambrai is now seen by historians as the blueprint for the successful “Hundred Days” offensives of 1918.

“The Battle of Cambrai ranks as one of the most thrilling episodes of the whole war. Tanks at last came into their kingdom. The notion that the Hindenburg Line was impregnable was exploded”.
Captain Stair Gillon: The Story of the 29th Division: a record of gallant deeds.

Cambrai was a splendid success …

There is a trend among military historians to assign the eventual military defeat of Germany to well planned and co-ordinated assaults by the Allies, in which industrial might and the hard learning of four years of war combined to great effect. Beginning on 8 August 1918, the British Expeditionary Force undertook a series of large scale attacks on multiple fronts in which artillery, armour, aircraft and infantry operated effectively together in “all arms” battles. The opening of the Battle of Cambrai on 20 November 1917 is often identified as the first demonstration of the sophisticated techniques and technologies required to effect such a battle. On that day, the British attack broke deeply and quickly into apparently impregnable defences with few casualties. This early result was widely regarded as being a great and spectacular achievement, so positive was it in comparison with the recent ghastly slog to Passchendaele. The Daily Mail called it a “Splendid Success” and headlined on 23 November with “Haig through the Hindenburg Line”.

“Flying Fox”
British tank “Flying Fox”, stuck fast and blocking the key canal bridge at Masnieres.

… until it all went wrong

Yet two months later, a court of enquiry convened at Hesdin to examine what had gone wrong at Cambrai. This unusual step was taken after questions had been asked by the War Cabinet, following a German counter attack that had apparently come as a surprise and against which the British forces lost ground and suffered heavy losses. Initial success, even if containing the seeds of a war winning approach that would germinate on the Santerre plateau in August 1918, had been short lived, and there was bitter disappointment at the net result. One respected commentator, a former junior officer, said that “Cambrai was a highly speculative gamble which I find inexplicable, so out of character is it with the rest of Haig’s career, not because it was inventive but because it was haphazard, not thought through” and that it was a “harum-scarum affair, ill-planned and feebly directed, yet in military history it stands as the most significant battle of the First World War“. [Charles Carrington, Soldier from the wars returning (London: Hutchinson & Co, 1965), pp.205-6]


When the Official History of the battle was being compiled, Lieutenant General Sir Launcelot Kiggell, Haig’s Chief of General Staff in late 1917, said that he could give no definite date as to the first discussion of Cambrai, nor would any written record be found as all was verbal at the inception of the campaign. He recalled that General Hon. Sir Julian Byng, commanding Third Army, had come to see Haig around three months before the attack, asking to be allowed to make a surprise assault at Cambrai. Thereafter, according to Kiggell, the plan “just growed”.

Byng would have been aware of an existing arrangement, prepared in June 1917 by Fourth Army’s III Corps after Haig had ordered it to examine breaking the German defences in the Cambrai area. Some preparations had already been made in accordance with this plan before Third Army took over the Cambrai front in early July. It required a methodical “bite and hold” advance in four stages using six Divisions. This approach probably seemed unimaginative to the characteristically optimistic Byng, but it was conventional by the standards of the latter half of 1917.

It appears that it was the enthusiasm of the Tank Corps and the artillery that swayed opinion at GHQ and Third Army and built support for the “harum-scarum” operation that eventually took place. Brigadier General Hugh Elles, commanding the Tank Corps in France, and his chief staff officer, Lieutenant Colonel John Fuller, visited both the Montreuil General Headquarters and that of Third Army at Albert several times in August 1917. They made a convincing case that with growing strength in France, the Corps should not be frittered away at Ypres but used collectively to punch a hole into the enemy defences. Cambrai, being on relatively undamaged rolling chalk land, would be ideal although they favoured an attack in French Flanders, which GHQ vetoed. Elles and Fuller talked of a short, limited heavy raid designed to cause damage and chaos – a tactical operation designed to kill, not capture ground. Major General John Davidson, Chief of Operations staff at GHQ, was taken with the idea as was Byng, already mulling over such an operation at Cambrai. Independently and at the same time, IV Corps in Byng’s Army had developed a scheme for a surprise attack using unregistered artillery. The Tank Corps much approved of the idea, for it would avoid the devastation of ground that had caused so much difficulty for the machines at Ypres.

Hindsight: The genesis of Cambrai can be traced easily enough through these developments in the summer of 1917. Enthusiasts, learning from prior disappointments, were developing new ideas and advocating their use, finding in Byng an equally enthusiastic and respected figure who achieved a consensus of support at the highest levels of command. The pace at which Third Army created the plan, then trained and assembled their forces and executed a successful attack indicates a growing maturity of the organisation and processes required to make this so. Yet the improvised, experimental nature of Cambrai was a root cause of the lack of planning and feeble direction highlighted by Charles Carrington. The sketchy nature of the plan is to some extent forgivable, for here was a chance to leave the disappointments of Passchendaele behind and do something audacious. What is much more difficult to understand is the strategic need to carry out this operation at all, the objective of employing these ideas at this place and at this time, and the evident lack of thought about potential outcomes.

Why here, why now?

Why Cambrai at all? Its strategic significance as the target of a surprise attack is far from clear. After falling to the Germans in 1914, Cambrai had become an important railhead, billeting and headquarters town. It lay at a junction of railways connecting Douai, Valenciennes and Saint-Quentin, and as such was on the supply routes coming in from Germany and the northern and eastern industrial areas of occupied France, as well as a lateral route down which men and material could be moved along the western front. It was also on the Saint-Quentin canal, from which the front could be supplied along the River Scheldt with which it was contiguous. As a military target, Cambrai would be a useful capture to deny the enemy a key part of his communication system. But it lay behind a formidable defensive position. Assuming this could be breached, it would also be most difficult to fight through an industrial town, as had been recognised in 1915 when attacks on the not dissimilar Lens were avoided. It would seem that Cambrai was chosen at least as much because it was in Byng’s area and that the Tank Corps were convinced the ground was to their advantage, as for any other sound military reason.

The Hindenburg Line
By 1917, Cambrai had become one of the most important railheads and HQ towns behind the German lines. In front of it lay the immensely powerful Siegfried Stellung – better known to the British as the Hindenburg Line. So strong was the defensive position here that German Divisions decimated during Third Ypres were sent here to recuperate and refit. It included two lines of fortifications, with barbed wire belts tens of yards wide, concrete emplacements and underground works. A third parallel line was also under construction. The map inset above shows the German withdrawal from he Somme to the Hindenburg Line in spring 1917 and the main defensive position faced by the British at Cambrai..

The British force at Cambrai

Byng’s growing enthusiasm, even with Haig’s support, was insufficient to summon up forces for the operation while Third Ypres was still underway. One GSO1 staff officer at GHQ – Brigadier General E. N. Tandey – recalled a meeting in September 1917:

“I was called one afternoon, in the absence of the MGGS, to the Chief’s chateau. I found him alone with General Byng. He quietly announced that as he intended to attack with the Third Army at Cambrai with tanks in early November … he wanted to tell General Byng exactly which Divisions he could have for the purpose. He told me that he had offered him 2 or 3 which he named. I remember my quandary as I had to tell him that none of those he had selected (and one or two others he also mentioned) … would be fit to go into the attack by the date named, as they would not have had the minimum time necessary to absorb their reinforcements without which they could not be battle formations. I thought he would eat me”.

Kiggell counselled that there were insufficient troops to undertake both operations and Third Army’s action was placed on hold. It was not until 13 October that Haig gave his approval, and another two weeks after that before Byng briefed his Corps commanders.

The Hindenburg Line in the Cambresis (Cambrai area)
From the British Official History .

The plan of attack

In Third Army orders – codenamed Operation GY – issued on 13 November 1917, the attack was defined as acoup de main, “to take advantage of the existing favourable local situation” where “surprise and rapidity of action are … of the utmost importance”. It was also to be a deep attack on a 10,000 yard (5.6 mile) front that would be “widened as soon as possible”. Once the key German Masnieres-Beaurevoir line had been breached by III Corps, the cavalry would pass through, reach around to isolate Cambrai from the rear and cut the railways leading from it. Haig would later say that the purpose of the attack was to compel the enemy to withdraw from the salient between the Canal du Nord and the Scarpe, although the objectives must be achieved within 48 hours before strong enemy reserves could come into play. So the high speed and short tactical operation had somehow become one of seizing and holding ground, and while not quite a plan for strategic breakthrough – there were never enough reserves to exploit a breakthrough – the orders had faint resemblance to the original concepts.

The strong defences of the Hindenburg Line
This is a map of a small part of the Hindenburg Line, north west of Flesquieres. The position to be attacked consisted of two trench systems, with deep barbed wire defences in front of each. The trenches were dotted with concrete blockhouses containing machine gun posts, signals stations, infantry shelters and so on.

Dawning of a new era

The operational factors that led to initial British success were
> the ability to maintain surprise
> emphasis on neutralisation of enemy firepower
> adequate weight of artillery and deployment of well trained if hardly fresh troops.

A contributory factor was intelligence of the enemy’s dispositions and ability to reinforce and counter attack, which appears to have been reasonably accurate. Things were also helped by a corresponding intelligence failure on the part of the German Second Army.

Cambrai battle lines
This is a map of a small part of the Hindenburg Line, north west of Flesquieres. The position to be attacked consisted of two trench systems, with deep barbed wire defences in front of each. The trenches were dotted with concrete blockhouses containing machine gun posts, signals stations, infantry shelters and so on.

Dawning of a new era: artillery

Previous British offensives in France had characteristically opened with a long bombardment of the German positions, with the intention of destroying barbed wire defences, trenches and strong points to allow as unhindered as possible a passage for the infantry to capture the position. Even before bombardment opened, guns would be registered by the firing of observed ranging shots, with adjustments being made to line, range and shell fuze setting to ensure that firing would be accurate. These methods had proven to have several disadvantages, not least being that there was no concealment of imminent attack.

By mid 1917, a series of technological developments had made it possible to fire accurately without registering. The new technologies and associated methods included accurate survey of the gun position mapping of enemy positions through aerial and ground observation calculated reckoning of invisible enemy battery positions through triangulation on sources of sound and gun flash advanced local meteorology and understanding of the effect of weather on the flight of the shell improved reliability of munitions through improved quality control in manufacture calibration of the wear condition of the gun barrel, and the training of battery officers and NCOs in the mathematical methods required to turn this complex set of factors into physical settings of the fuze, sights, elevation and position.

It is apparent that although the methods to exploit these developments were evolving, they had not as a whole been driven into artillery doctrine from the top: their use at Cambrai was an innovation from below, for the idea of a surprise bombardment using the new methods came from Brigadier General Tudor, officer Commanding Royal Artillery of the 9th (Scottish) Division. By August he had discussed his idea with Brigadier General Hugo de Pree of IV Corps General Staff and in turn had gained the approval of the commander of IV Corps, Lieutenant General Sir Charles Woollcombe. That the new methods had not been enthusiastically adopted may have been due to lingering doubts about their effectiveness: IV Corps Order 320, issued on 15 November 1917, said that the barrage “being unregistered cannot be expected to be as accurate as usual”.

The surprise bombardment using predicted firing from there on became a key part of Third Army’s plan. The concealment of assembly of more than 1000 guns and howitzers on the fronts of III and IV Corps and the success of the opening bombardment at 6.10am on 20 November 1917 were strong contributory factors to the bells ringing in Britain three days later. It was not just surprise that made the artillery effective: weight of firepower and the proportion devoted to neutralisation of enemy batteries were also important factors. The number of guns and the 900,000 rounds assembled for the operation were approximately equivalent to those used in the preliminary bombardment to the successful attack on Vimy Ridge six months before.

Dawning of a new era: tanks

If the secret concentration of a large number of guns was impressive, the assembly of 476 tanks possibly surpassed it, although when running in low gear at low engine speed, the new Mark IV version tanks, although just as heavy, slow and difficult to manoeuvre as their predecessors, were remarkably quiet. Even so, aircraft flew up and down the area on 18 and 19 November as a ruse to mask the sound as the tanks moved up. While this and other signs of unusual activity had somewhat raised the state of alert – for example, German Second Army placed54 Division at readiness – and raids had taken prisoners from the assault units, it is clear from German reports that their intelligence had failed to identify the imminence and nature of the British attack. The planned role for the tanks was to advance en masse, with the objective of crushing wire defences and suppressing firing from trenches and strong points. The innovation of fascines to be dropped as makeshift bridges enabling the crossing of a wide trench removed one of the known shortcomings of the current tank design. Much attention had been paid to training, particularly for co-operation between infantry and tank, with the units designated to make the initial assault being withdrawn to Wailly for this purpose. An innovation was that the infantry would follow the tanks through the gaps they made, moving in “worms” rather than the familiar lines: their training seems to have done much to improve infantry confidence in the tanks, hitherto seen as a mixed blessing. The tanks were a notable operational success. Shrouded by mist and smoke, they broke into the Hindenburg Line defences with comparative ease in many places.

British infantry, having moved up into captured German trenches at Havrincourt on 20 November 1917.

Phase: the Tank attack, 20 – 21 November 1917

Third Army (Byng)
Cavalry Corps (Kavanagh)

1st Cavalry Division
2nd Cavalry Division
5th Cavalry Division.
III Corps (Pulteney)
6th Division
12th (Eastern) Division
20th (Light) Division
29th Division.
IV Corps (Woollcombe)
36th (Ulster) Division
40th Division
51st (Highland) Division
56th (1st London) Division
62nd (2nd West Riding) Division.
VII Corps (Snow)
55th (West Lancashire) Division.

The attack was launched at 6.20am on the 20th November. The British Divisions in the front line were, from right to left, the 12th (Eastern), 20th (Light), 6th, 51st (Highland), 62nd (West Riding) and 36th (Ulster). In immediate support was the 29th, and ready to exploit the anticipated breakthrough and sweep round Cambrai were the 1st, 2nd and 5th Cavalry Divisions.

The Tank Corps deployed its entire strength of 476 machines, of which more than 350 were armed fighting tanks. They were led by the Tank Corps GOC, Hugh Elles, in a Mk IV tank called ‘Hilda’.

The attack opened with an intensive predicted-fire barrage on the Hindenburg Line and key points to the rear, which caught the Germans by surprise. Initially, this was followed by the curtain of a creeping barrage behind which the tanks and infantry followed.

On the right, the 12th (Eastern) Division moved forward through Bonavis and Lateau Wood, and dug in a defensive flank to allow the cavalry to pass unrestricted, as ordered. On the extreme right of the attack, the 7th Royal Sussex got into Banteux, which had been subjected to gas attack from Livens projectors.

The 20th (Light) Division captured La Vacquerie after a hard fight and then advanced as far as Les Rues Vertes and Masnieres where there was a bridge crossing the St Quentin Canal. Securing the bridge was going to be vital for the 2nd Cavalry Division, planning to move up to the east of Cambrai. However, the weight of the first tank to cross the bridge, ‘Flying Fox’, broke its back. Infantry could cross slowly by a lock gate a couple of hundred yards away, but the intended cavalry advance was effectively halted. An improvised crossing also allowed the B squadron of the Fort Garry Horse to cross, but they were left unsupported and withdrew. For no good reason, it was not noticed that further canal crossings at Crevecoeur-sur-Escaut were very lightly defended, until too late in the day.

The cavalry were hampered by uncertain communications regarding progress and the collapse of the canal bridge at Masnieres under weight of a passing tank did not help, either, as there were few crossing points. But it seems that the cavalry was indifferently commanded. Lieutenant General Sir Aylmer Haldane (VI Corps) assigns blame to Cavalry Corps commander, Lieutenant General Charles Kavanagh, “who was vague as regards his intentions”.

The 6th Division, once it had crossed the Hindenburg Line, moved forward and captured Ribecourt and fought as far as and through Marcoing. The 5th Cavalry Division advanced through them but were repulsed in front of Noyelles.

The 51st (Highland) Division had a very hard fight for Flesquieres, but its failure to capture it and keep up with the pace of the advance on either side left a dangerous salient which exposed the flanks of the neighbouring Divisions. Much has been written about the failure of the Division to move on Flesquieres and the apparent unwillingness of its commander, Major General George Harper, to support the idea of a tank attack and the new infantry tactics to go with it. This has its roots in criticism by Baker-Carr and Liddell Hart in 1930 (eight years after Harper’s death), comprehensively demolished by John Hussey in his article ‘Uncle Harper at Cambrai’, Stand To! The journal of the Western Front Association, 62 (2001), pp.13-23, reprinting from British Army Review, 117 (1997).

On the left of Flesquieres, the 62nd (2nd West Riding) Division fought hard through the ruins of Havrincourt, up to and through Graincourt and by nightfall were within sight of Anneux in the lee of the commanding height crowned by Bourlon Wood. The division had covered almost five miles from their start point, and were exhausted. (This was later claimed to be a record advance in the Great War for troops in battle).

The 36th (Ulster) Division moved up the dry excavations of the Canal du Nord, and lay alongside the Bapaume-Cambrai road by nightfall. By recent Western Front standards, the advance was little short of miraculous, and victory bells were pealed in Britain on the 23rd. In the light of subsequent events, this was indeed ironic.

Successful though the day was, with an advance three to four miles deep into a strong system of defence in little over four hours at a cost of just over 4000 casualties, it was on 20 November that things began to go wrong, leading inexorably to failure ten days later. Third Army failed to fulfil its objectives, notably in that the cavalry had been unable to push through a gap at Marcoing-Masnieres and on to encircle Cambrai itself. Nowhere had the Masnieres-Beaurevoir line been convincingly penetrated, and the key Bourlon ridge, dominant of the northern half of the battlefield, remained firmly in German hands. No fewer than 179 tanks had been destroyed, disabled or broke down. By the afternoon, the attack had already lost its early impetus.

Byng was all for carrying on, issuing orders to III Corps at 8pm to continue the push into the Masnieres-Beaurevoir line to allow passage of the cavalry, and to IV Corps for finally completing the capture of Flesquieres and Bourlon before the 48 hour limit was reached. With few fresh troops, surprise lost, the tanks weakened and the field artillery in the process of moving up, the renewed attack had all the hallmarks of “penny packet” Somme fighting and achieved little. Late on 21 November, Byng ordered the III Corps operation to halt and for consolidation to take place.

Driven by the tactical importance of the position, absence of signs of growth of German strength and the fact that Third Army had not yet called upon V Corps (which had been placed at its disposal as reserve at the outset of the battle), Haig ordered Byng to continue with the attack on Bourlon. This was a serious command failure. The audacious sweep to capture Cambrai and force evacuation of a wide area to the Scarpe had become a bitter yard by yard fight for a difficult feature of landscape.

Phase: the capture of Bourlon Wood, 23 – 28 November 1917
Note: the official title of this phase is a little misleading.Only IV Corps fought for the wood itself.

Third Army (Byng)
III Corps (Pulteney)
6th Division
12th (Eastern) Division
20th (Light) Division
29th Division.
IV Corps (Woollcombe)
1st Cavalry Division
2nd Cavalry Division
Guards Division
2nd Division
36th (Ulster) Division
40th Division
51st (Highland) Division
56th (1st London) Division (transferred to VI Corps on 24 November)
62nd (2nd West Riding) Division.
VII Corps (Snow)
55th (West Lancashire) Division.

When first presented with the Byng’s plan for the attack, Douglas Haig recommended strengthening the left flank in order to take Bourlon Wood very early. He wasted his breath: Byng ignored his advice. By nightfall on the 20th, it was clear that Haig had been right. From the dominating height of the wood, the Germans held the British advance in front of Anneux and Graincourt. There was good news, however, as the 51st (Highland) Division finally crept into Flesquieres, abandoned during the night by the Germans.

On the morning of the 21st, the Highlanders moved forward with the aid of two tanks towards Fontaine Notre Dame, but were held up by fire from the wood. Harper ordered a halt until the 62nd (2nd West Riding) Division had captured the heights. The latter had a violent and costly battle for Anneux, led by the 186th Brigade under Roland Boys Bradford. To the north, the 36th (Ulster) Division, planning to continue their advance beyond Moeuvres, waited for the success signal, signifying that the 62nd had captured Bourlon. It never came, for the 62nd could not penetrate beyond the sunken lane facing the wood. By the evening of the 21st, Haig was satisfied that ‘no possibility any longer existed of enveloping Cambrai from the south’. The British were now in an exposed position in the lee of Bourlon Wood, the capture of which would still prove to be useful, in cutting German access to key light railway lines feeding their front. Haig and Byng decided to press on, even though it meant deepening the salient that had been created and throwing in even more troops into this northern sector of the battlefield.

On 22 November, the GOC 40th Division at Beaumetz-les-Cambrai received orders to relieve the 62nd Division the next day. The 40th was a division of Bantams, men under regulation height. By now the roads were breaking up under the strain of thousands of men, wagons and lorries. It took 40th Divisional HQ 15 hours to travel the 9 miles to Havrincourt. A relief and assault plan was quickly drawn up: 121 Brigade to capture Bourlon, 119 Brigade to go for the wood, both jumping off from the sunken lane. On their right, the 51st would move forward to Fontaine. On the left, the 36th would go in again at Moeuvres. 92 tanks would support these units. They attacked through ground mist on the morning of the 23rd. Some of the units of the 40th had to cross 1000 yards down the long slope from Anneux, across the sunken lane and up the final rise into the wood, all the while under shell fire. There was close and vicious fighting in the wood, but after 3 hours the Welsh units of 119 Brigade were through and occupying the northern and eastern ridges at the edge of the undergrowth. 121 Brigade was cut down by heavy machine gun fire, and few men got as far as the village. 7 tanks did but were unsupported and the survivors withdrew. On the flanks, the 36th and 51st Divisions made little progress, against strengthening opposition.

Over the next few days, further troops were thrown into the battle, including the Guards Division, which advanced into Fontaine. Once his troops had been driven from the wood, the enemy switched all of his artillery onto it. Battalions in the wood were wiped out. Three companies of the 14th HLI miraculously penetrated to the far side of Bourlon but were cut off and gradually annihilated. And it began to snow. The weary troops settled into the newly-won positions. The British now sat some way ahead of the position of 20th November, being in possession of a salient reaching towards Cambrai, with the left flank facing Bourlon and the right alongside the top of the slope which ran down towards Banteux.

“All arms” fighting broke down, the tanks few and impotent in the thick woodland of Bourlon and La Folie, and defeated in the ruined streets of Fontaine Notre Dame. Behind the front, the roads resembled those at Morval a year before, the traffic unable to move through mud and snow, along roads for which there was insufficient stone and labour to carry out adequate running repairs. The “ray of hope” had become a slow, piecemeal and inevitably costly shambles. Third Army closed down offensive operations on 27 November and units were ordered to consolidate. Three days later, The German Army struck back.

Note: VI Corps (Haldane) carried out a major subsidiary action at Bullecourt on 20 November 1917, using 3rd and 16th (Irish) Divisions.

Phase: the German counter attack, 30 November – 3 December 1917

Third Army (Byng)
III Corps (Pulteney)
1st Cavalry Division
2nd Cavalry Division
4th Cavalry Division
5th Cavalry Division
Guards Division
6th Division
12th (Eastern) Division
20th (Light) Division
29th Division
36th (Ulster) Division
61st (2nd South Midland) Division.
IV Corps (Woollcombe) (relieved by V Corps on 1 December)
2nd Division
47th (2nd London) Division
59th (2nd North Midland) Division.
V Corps (Fanshawe)
2nd Division
47th (2nd London) Division
51st (Highland) Division (entered into Corps command 3 December)
VI Corps (Haldane)
3rd Division
56th (1st London) Division (relieved by 51st (Highland) Division on 2/3 December).
VII Corps (Snow)
21st Division
55th (West Lancashire) Division.

A British tank, damaged and captured in Fontaine Notre Dame, in a photograph taken once the Germans had defeated the Guards Division attack through the village.

The German reaction to the initial British attack

On 17 December, Lieutenant General Thomas Snow wrote from VII Corps HQ to Third Army: “The abnormal movement and increased registration were duly recorded in the Corps Daily Intelligence Summary these were believed at first to be connected with an expected divisional relief, though as time went on the suspicion grew that they might mean something more“.

VII Corps stood to the right of the tired III Corps. Facing the area Gouzeaucourt-Epehy, it had not been part of the main attacking force at Cambrai but had carried out subsidiary operations. The “something more” reported to Snow over the days since the British attack had been called off had since turned into disaster for both Corps. Recovering from the initial shock of the attack, Second Army had quickly arranged for reinforcements to move to Cambrai. By good fortune, 107 Division had arrived in the area to relieve a Landwehr Division on 9 November undetected by British intelligence – and was deployed piecemeal to help stem the attack next day. The situation for the Germans was serious for a while: two divisions virtually destroyed, gaps in the line, ammunition short, and infantry details being sent in to shore up the defences. The fighting at Bourlon was bitter and at times worrying, with reports of men retiring in disorder from Fontaine. But if the slowdown in the British attack in the afternoon of 20 November had given precious time to regroup, the concentration on Bourlon after 21 November provided the opportunity to thoroughly reinforce. An entirely new command, the XXIII Reserve Corps or Busigny Group, came into being on 23 November, bringing together the 5 Guard, 30, 34 and 220 Divisions, arriving from other parts of the front to face the British VII Corps. It is little wonder that Snow received reports of unusual activity. Other formations arrived to reinforce the Caudry and Moser Groups, opposing III and IV Corps. By 27 November, the balance had swung to such an extent that an opportunity for a vigorous counter attack presented itself.

Counter strike On the same day that Byng was closing down his offensive, Second Army received orders to hit back. The plan – devised and organised with exceptional pace for an action of this magnitude – was for a main force from the Busigny and Caudry Groups to strike from the south, recapture the Hindenburg positions at Havrincourt and Flesquieres and then roll up the British forces now stuck in Bourlon Wood, when forces of the Arras Group north and west of that area would also join the attack. Such was German confidence that reserves were assembled to exploit success, and a further operation north of Saint Quentin was authorised to add to the pressure. On 28 November, operations opened with a heavy gas bombardment of Bourlon.

Two days later, the counter attack began in earnest. On the right flank, south of the Gouzeaucourt-Bonavis road, the break into British positions was swift. The defending 55 (2/West Lancashire) Division and much of 12 (Eastern) and 20 (Light) Divisions seemed to evaporate, and Snow called for reinforcements as early as 9am. Many artillery batteries soon came within range of advancing German infantry. Both they and units hurriedly ordered to shore up the clearly splintering defence were shocked at what they saw. Not least of them was the Guards Division, still recuperating from a mauling in Fontaine Notre Dame and now heading into what would become a bitter fight to hold the enemy at Gouzeaucourt: “First we had to struggle through the flood of terrified men … nothing seemed to stem the torrent of frightened men with eyes of hunted deer, without rifles or equipment, among them half-dressed officers presumably surprised in their sleep, and gunners who had had the sense and calmness to remove the breech blocks from their guns and were carrying them in their hands. Many were shouting alarming rumours, others yelling “Which is the nearest way to the coast?”
[Norman D. Cliff, To hell and back with the Guards (Braunton, Devon: Merlin Books Limited, 1988) p.85]

Counter strike
The German counter attack pushed the British forces back through Gonnelieu and Villers Guislain.

The German plan was simply to cut of the neck of the salient by attacking on each side, with the strongest blow to come on the southern side. The blow fell at 7.30am on the 30th November, and was devastatingly fast and effective. By 9am, the Germans had penetrated almost 3 miles towards Havrincourt Wood. Byng’s Third Army faced disaster, with the real prospect of several divisions being cut off in the trap. The first attack fell on the 55th (West Lancashire) and 12th (Eastern) Division on the south-eastern side of the salient. The Germans climbed the slope to re-take Lateau Wood, pushed up the complex of shallow ravines south of Banteux, moved through Villers Guislain and past Gouzeaucourt. Amongst the troops defending the artillery positions at Gouzeaucourt were the11th United States Engineer Company. The direction of the assault was across British divisional boundaries, and the command structure rapidly broke down as the troops became mixed up.

Three German divisions attacked to the north, supported by an intense Phosgene barrage, intending to cut the Bapaume-Cambrai road near Anneux Chapel. They were repulsed by the machine gun barrage of the 47th (London), 2nd and 56th (London) Divisions, who had relieved the 36th and 40th. No Germans reached the road. Fierce fighting continued in the southern area for Gonnelieu, Les Rues Vertes and Masnieres.

Eventually, on the 3rd December, Haig ordered a retirement ‘with the least possible delay from the Bourlon Hill-Marcoing salient to a more retired and shorter line’. The audacious plan had failed and although some ground had been gained, in places the Germans were now on ground formerly occupied by the British. A small salient remained at Flesquieres, which was an exposed position ruthlessly exploited by the German assault in March 1918.

The improvised defence gradually sealed the position and once again an initially promising attack lost momentum. The German attack met a far stronger defence north of the road, but even there, weight of artillery and numbers told, and hard-won positions were reluctantly given up by the British. Once again, the battle resembled the Somme: piecemeal attack and improvised counter attack. The German army suffered from problems familiar to the BEF: heavy losses, chaotic supply, and battlefield command breakdown that did not seize upon and propagate success. By 5 December, the line had re-stabilised. The net result of the Cambrai operation in terms of ground was that north of Gonnelieu the British had gained from their 20 November start line, standing on the Hindenburg Support positions snaking around Flesquieres and Welsh Ridge – while south from Gonnelieu they had been pushed back an average of 3000 yards with the loss of Villers Guislain. Both sides now occupied their respective bulges in an S-shaped double salient.

Enquiry and recriminations

Viewed as a heavy hit and run raid, Cambrai had been a failure. As a more strategic operation, designed to punch a deep hole, capture Cambrai, disrupt German rail communications and compel withdrawal from there to the Scarpe, it was a dismal defeat. Stories began to filter back of headlong retreat of Generals caught in their pyjamas, and of new, wonder German tactics that sliced easily through the British defences. Questions were rightly asked in the War Cabinet, which requested an enquiry. Haig pre-empted it, having already organised one of his own.

The collective view of the operational factors contributing to British defeat was outlined very clearly in the papers assembled for the enquiry. That the enemy attack had been a surprise was denied. All those consulted said it was expected and suitable defensive measures had been taken. Far from admitting that the men holding these positions were tired, having not been relieved, on the contrary they were, according to Byng, “elated, full of fight”. Both of these points are open to challenge. Byng, Haig and Smuts all assigned the absence of serious resistance on the southern part of the front to a lack of training among junior officers, NCOs and men – a much more credible factor, but one directly attributable to the rush to undertake the operation despite advice from the staff that the divisions were simply not in a condition to undertake it. The tactically poor position and thinly held front resulting from the 20 November assault is hardly mentioned and where it is, is denied. Reports also mention the panic-inducing effect of rumours of defeat passing quickly between units and back down the lines of communication. No mention is made of the breakdown of all arms fighting, nor the serious communication failures that led to the commander of 29th Division (Major General Sir Henry de Beauvoir de Lisle) claiming that he knew nothing of the German attack before it was upon his headquarters.

The fact remains that, innovative as it was, the British assault was insufficiently successful. The initially winning operational factors proved unequal to the task of stopping the enemy from regrouping. In addition, German tactics had proven an ability to break quickly into a sketchily held front: a portent for 1918.The “dawn of hope” theory of Cambrai has merit, but as far as evidencing a learning curve is concerned, it is overstated. All arms success had come by luck rather than great design. More important is that the battle provided a basis from which operational strengths could be identified and refined, and weaknesses eliminated, by the time of the key victories at Hamel and Amiens in June and August 1918.

Enquiry at Hesdin
The papers of the enquiry into the defensive failure at Cambrai are held at the National Archives in Kew.


Third Army reported losses of dead, wounded and missing of 44,207 between 20 November and 8 December. Of these, some 6,000 were taken prisoner in the enemy counterstroke on 30 November. Enemy casualties are estimated by the British Official History at approximately 45,000.

Senior Officer casualties 20 November 1917 – 7 December 1917
Lt-Col William Alderman DSO Officer commanding 6th Royal West Kents. Killed in action 20 November 1917. Buried in Fifteen Ravine British Cemetery.
Lt-Col Thomas Best DSO and Bar Officer commanding 1/2nd Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. Killed in action 20 November 1917. Buried in Ruyaulcourt Military Cemetery.
Lt-Col Charles Linton DSO MC Officer commanding 4th Worcesters. Killed in action 20 November 1917. Buried in Fins New British Cemetery.
Lt-Col William Kennedy MC Officer commanding 18th Welsh Regiment. Killed in action 23 November 1917. Commemorated on Louverval Memorial to the Missing.
Lt-Col Clinton Battye DSO Officer commanding 14th Highland Light Infantry. Killed in action 24 November 1917. Buried in Moeuvres Communal Cemetery Extension.
Brigadier-General Roland Boys Bradford VC Officer commanding 186 Brigade HQ. Aged 25 when killed on 30 November 1917. Buried in Hermies British Cemetery.
Lt-Col Kenneth Field DSO Officer commanding 38th Siege Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery. Killed in action 30 November 1917. Commemorated on Louverval Memorial to the Missing.
Lt-Col Henry Gielgud MC Officer commanding 7th Norfolk Regiment. Killed in action 30 November 1917. Commemorated on Louverval Memorial to the Missing.
Lt-Col Ralph Hindle DSO Officer commanding 4th Loyal North Lancashire Regiment. Killed in action 30 November 1917. Buried in Unicorn Cemetery, Vendhuile.
Lt-Col Donald Anderson MC Machine Gun Officer, 61st Division. Killed in action 3 December 1917. Commemorated on Louverval Memorial to the Missing.

Subsequent: the action of Welsh Ridge, 30 December 1917

Third Army (Byng)
V Corps (Fanshawe)
63rd (Royal Naval) Division.
VII Corps (Snow)
9th (Scottish) Division.

On 30/31 December, German troops dressed in white camouflage suits surprised British battalions in snow on the southern part of the Cambrai front. A difficult defensive action took place: the Action of Welch Ridge.

List of site sources >>>

Watch the video: Scenes During the Offensive on the Cambrai Front 1917 speed corrrected (January 2022).