Western Front 1918: The German Offensives

Cambrai

The Battle of Cambrai, 8 - 9 October 1918

A patrol from the 3rd Canadian Division in the ruins of Cambrai.Early October 1918 saw a slow-down in the pace of the combined Allied offensives. In the Argonne, on the Aisne and, far to the north, in Flanders, logistical difficulties and the onset of autumn rains seriously impeded communications, transportation of supplies and the forward movement of heavy artillery. Haig, however, seized on recent British successes, notably Fourth Army’s breaking of the Beaurevoir Line, and sought further to exploit events and reinvigorate the impetus of Allied attacks, by initiating a major joint Army assault on a 17 mile front, south of Cambrai. The attack, scheduled for 8 October, aimed seriously to imperil the retreating Germans and threaten a decisive breakthrough of their rapidly improvised defensive line.

At 1am on 8 October, in darkness and rain, the first of a series of carefully phased attacks was led off, by Third Army’s V Corps’ attempt to seize a northward extension of the Beaurevoir Line, still in German hands. Though supported by tanks, infantry progress was much slowed by uncut enemy barbed-wire and intense machine gun fire. The main Third Army attack (by IV, VI and XVII Corps) was launched at 4.30am behind a protective artillery bombardment. Although VI Corps experienced serious mishaps, the day saw significant advances despite German counter-attacks, some involving the use of captured British tanks. The New Zealanders (IV Corps) and 63rd Division (XVII Corps) achieved notable successes.

On the right, Fourth Army’s attack (from south to north, IX Corps, II American Corps and XIII Corps), supported by an immense artillery barrage and tanks, commenced at 5.10am. Despite subdued French assistance, hard fighting gained much ground and many prisoners were taken.

By evening British advances had rendered Cambrai untenable; enemy forces evacuated the city early next morning and, in a general withdrawal, sought shelter behind the line of the River Selle.

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