By 1917, WWI had ground on for several unpleasant years. With casualties mounting on both sides and little change in battle lines from month-to-month, both the Allies (England, France and Russia) and the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottomans) sought new ways to break the stalemate. All countries involved wanted a quick end to the conflict for the simple reason that they were all running out of men to feed into the meatgrinder of trench warfare. In 1914, most European military types expected a “war of movement” where valiant cavalrymen on horseback would sweep through enemy positions and rapidly claim new ground. But the new reality of machine guns and artillery shattered that illusion quickly. Frustrated with their immobility in the face of enemy firepower, British officers Lieutenant-General Henry Tudor and Brigadier Hugh Elles cooked up a plan to use new technology to assault the well-defended German positions at Cambrai.
ASAP: A British tank attack failed, but ensuing German tank-panic caused havoc on the Western Front.Read on for details!
Allied command was wary of any sort of offensive action after the Battle of the Somme in 1916 claimed 400,000+ men’s lives for only 13 km (8 miles) of ground taken. But some keen officers like Tudor and Elles saw possibilities with the advent of the tank, a large armoured vehicle that ran on tracks and was fitted with either light artillery cannons (the Male version) or machine guns (the Female variant). The term “tank” came from the fact that factory workers building the strange vehicles were told that they were working on armoured water tanks (in the name of secrecy). Tanks had already been trialled in combat at the Somme, Ypres and elsewhere; but most got stuck in the mud or broke down. Learning from their mistakes, the British Tank Corps ordered a new and improved vehicle – the Mark IV – and decided only to use tanks on flat, dry land, like the terrain at Cambrai.
On November 20th, 1917, the British III and IV Corps waited quietly in their trenches for the opening shots of the battle. According to Tudor’s plan of battle, an artillery barrage would “soften up” the German defenses before switching to a creeping barrage – gunfire designed to move forward as friendly British troops advanced and provide them with cover. The guns were sited with innovative ranging intelligence and were able to accurately hammer Cambrai and keep the German 2nd Army’s heads down. The British Corps advanced on the left and right flanks of the 378 Mark IVs of the Tank Corps, taking several kilometres of ground fairly quickly under their artillery cover. The tanks busted through German barbed-wire entanglements and terrified the German infantrymen out of their trenches. Despite the horrendous noise and heat inside their Mark IVs, the British tank drivers pressed on.
But things began to go wrong as a tank collapsed a bridge at Masnières, holding up the advance, and an elite German anti-tank unit at Flesquières knocked out 40 Mark IV tanks before abandoning their position in the night. On November 21st, the British attack stalled at Bourlon Ridge and the Germans prepared to counter-attack.
The German counter-attack was savage, and their own artillery hammered the Bourlon Ridge. More British tanks were knocked out; they had been crucial in breaching the barbed-wire defenses the Germans considered “impregnable”, but were sitting ducks once they had reached their objective. In most sectors, German stormtroopers (specially trained raiding parties who snuck into trenches and engaged the British in vicious hand-to-hand combat) infiltrated and pushed the British out. The counter-attack succeeded in regaining most of what the Brits had quickly won with tanks and artillery; nearly 200 Mark IVs had been destroyed and both sides lost roughly 45,000 men by the end of the fighting on December 7th. Typically of WWI, land won by one army was rapidly retaken by the other. The most vulnerable moment for an attacking force is, after all, right when they have captured a new position: men are euphoric, exhausted, and have let their guard down.
But the battle was still viewed as a success. The Germans believed Cambrai to be a quiet spot on the Western Front; it was well-defended only because it had never been attacked much, and the defenders had plenty of time to decorate their positions with barbed wire and concrete. According to Bavarian Crown Prince Rupprecht the advent of tank warfare meant that “… surprise attacks like this may be expected [everywhere]. That being the case, there can be no more mention, therefore, of quiet fronts.” The Mark IVs themselves were fairly crude, but they helped introduce a new form of warfare where infantrymen followed closely behind tanks – much like war elephants in times past. Cambrai is yet another example of the futility of WWI offensive operations – but it is also the first example of a successful massed tank attack. Cavalry on horseback were a thing of the past, and a new era of warfare had begun.
In a hurry? Here are the ASAP notes on this topic.
- Who? The III and IV Corps (60,000+ men) of the British Army under General Julian Byng; their plan was conceived by Lieutenant-General Henry Tudor and Brigadier Hugh Elles, of the Artillery and Tank Corps respectively. They had 378 combat tanks with them. They faced off against 1 corps (roughly 30,000+ men) of the German 2nd Army under General Georg Marwitz.
- Where? Cambrai, France. The Western Front of WWI.
- When? November 20th-December 7th 1917 – the 2nd last year of WWI.
- What? Cambrai was a well-defended but quiet sector in the Western Front, held by the Germans. New British plans combining advanced artillery gunnery and Mark IV tanks (heavy armoured vehicles with big-time firepower) attempted to mount a surprise attack. The British overran the Germans quickly and pushed deep into German lines at Bourlon Ridge; but rapid counter-attacks pushed them back.
- Why? Allied commanders wanted to make a decisive breakthrough and finally begin to win on the Western Front. The new technology presented a perfect opportunity, and Cambrai was to be its proving ground. The attack succeeded at first because of the Brits’ skilful use of combined-arms tactics and surprise; they lost ground because the Germans were experts at counter-attacking positions they’d lost with stormtroopers and pre-sited artillery.
- Result: Very little territory changed hands, and 90,000 men (and 179 tanks) were lost. Cambrai did, however, help renew public support for the war effort in England and even the United States (where new technology has always been worshipped). The Germans became wary of surprise attack and were forced to shore up their Western Front defenses – which cost them in the long run and perhaps contributed to their defeat 1 year later in 1918. Tanks were used in almost every conflict following Cambrai and are still an integral part of military doctrine around the world.
Food for Thought
Like what you’ve read? Here are a couple essay questions/prompts to get you thinking. Good writing is all about answering questions the reader didn’t know they had, after all. These questions are to inspire further research, help with an academic paper, or maybe just get you thinking more about the topic.
- Is it fair to say that Cambrai was a British victory? Assess the strategic impact of the operation beyond its propaganda value.
- Assess the German reaction to Mark IV tanks.
- How did Cambrai help galvanize the American war effort?
- Were tanks inevitable? In what ways did Cambrai impact future conflicts that involved tanks?
- How have tanks been represented in popular culture since Cambrai?
Further Reading & Citations
Here are a couple useful sources for further reading or using to flesh out an essay. Remember to cite everything properly!
- Smithers, A. J. 1992. Cambrai: the first great tank battle, 1917. London: L. Cooper.
- Gliddon, Gerald. 2004. Cambrai 1917. Stroud, Gloucestershire: Sutton.
- Humphries, Mark Osborne, and John Maker. 2010. Germany’s Western Front: translations from the German official history of the Great War. Waterloo, Ont: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.
- Anderson, Alan D., Patricia Bryan, Charles Cannon, Barbara Day, and Julie Jeffrey. “An Experiment in Combat Simulation: The Battle of Cambrai, 1917.” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 2, no. 3 (1972): 229-47.
- Greenhalgh, Elizabeth. “Technology Development in Coalition: The Case of the First World War Tank.” The International History Review 22, no. 4 (2000): 806-36.