Best-known today for the role played by tanks, Cambrai saw infantry, aircraft, artillery and even cavalry working together in new ways.

At 6.20am on 20 November 1917, British Empire forces launched an attack against the formidable German defences at Cambrai. They achieved a stunning success and church bells rang in celebration, but it was to prove short-lived.

German reinforcements were rushed in, and on 30 November they launched fierce counter-attacks, driving the British Army back towards its starting lines. By the end of the battle in early December 1917, more than 80,000 servicemen on both sides were dead, wounded or missing.

Best-known today for the role played by tanks, Cambrai saw infantry, aircraft, artillery and even cavalry working together in new ways. These technological and tactical innovations would eventually prove decisive on the Western Front.

Today, the cemeteries of the CWGC are lasting monuments to those who fought and died here.

Background

In September 1916, during the Battle of the Somme, the British Army used a new weapon. The ‘land ship’ was designed to crush barbed wire and traverse the killing ground between the front lines. It soon became known by its code name: ‘tank’.

It was hoped that tanks would break the deadlock of trench warfare on the Western Front, but their impact in 1916 and 1917 had been limited. They were slow, mechanically unreliable, often became bogged down in mud, and crews had to endure terrible heat and fumes.

In August 1917, the commander of the newly formed Tank Corps, Brigadier General Hugh Elles, proposed an operation to prove the ability of his tanks. He suggested an assault across the gently rolling chalk plains of Picardy, near the French town of Cambrai, an important railway hub. There had been little fighting here and the ground was not broken up by thousands of muddy shell holes. The Germans had heavily fortified the area and did not expect an attack. Their troops here included understrength units recovering from fighting elsewhere on the Western Front.

To support the British tank attack, artillery guns would fire a brief but highly accurate and ferocious bombardment moments before the assault. This would preserve the good ground conditions and, crucially, the element of surprise. In great secrecy, and under the cover of darkness, nearly 500 tanks, 1,000 guns, eight infantry and five cavalry divisions were massed at Cambrai. They included units from across Great Britain and the Empire: from Yorkshire and Scotland, to Newfoundland and India. Zero hour was set for 6.20am on 20 November 1917.

British Mark IV Female and Male Tanks of 'C' Battalion, including 'Crusty' and 'Centaur II' Nov 1917 Q 46941

British Mark IV Female and Male Tanks of 'C' Battalion, including 'Crusty' and 'Centaur II' November 1917. IWM Q 46941

The Battle

Thick fog had settled over the lines and German lookouts had no warning of the impending attack. At zero hour, the British guns opened fire and the tanks advanced. Brigadier General Elles led the attack himself from his tank, named Hilda, flying the new green, red and brown flag of the Tank Corps, designed by Elles himself. The German front line was quickly overrun and the tanks continued on, punching deep into the German defences.

As they reached the Flesquières ridge, at the heart of the battlefield, the fog began to clear. German gunners had been trained to engage tanks, and they began to methodically target and destroy the slow machines. Nevertheless, the attack was successful and, east of Flesquières, British troops broke through all the German defences. It was an advance of some five miles, an achievement not seen since the early stages of the war. Church bells were rung in Britain in celebration.

The cost of success had been high. Almost half of the attacking tanks had been lost, and the cavalry had failed to push on through the break in the German lines. Further advances were made over the following days, with the important positions at Bourlon Wood briefly captured on 27 November.

Fresh German reinforcements were now flooding into the area, including aircraft of the ‘Flying Circus’, the fearsome fighter squadron led by Manfred Von Richthofen, the ‘Red Baron’. On 28 November, with German resistance stiffening, and the British Army occupying a ‘salient’ of exposed positions deep into enemy territory, the attack was closed down.

On 30 November, the Germans counter-attacked. Using their own innovative infantry tactics, German ‘stormtroopers’ infiltrated into British lines, bypassing strong points. Many of the hard won British gains were lost and British units suffered heavy losses fighting desperately to hold back the tide. Finally, on 6 December, the battle was brought to a close, both sides exhausted by the ferocity of the fighting.   

German prisoners carry wounded British soldiers to the rear 20 Nov 1917 IWM Q 6281 

German prisoners carry wounded British soldiers to the rear 20 November 1917. IWM Q 6281

Aftermath

The Battle of Cambrai was a brief and bloody engagement, with more than 80,000 servicemen from both sides wounded, missing or killed. The attack had ultimately achieved little for the British Army, but it had demonstrated the shape of the fighting to come. Aircraft, infantry, artillery and tanks, all working together in a ‘combined arms’ operation had proved that even the strongest defences could be broken. The tactics seen at Cambrai in November 1917 would play an important part in eventual victory for the Allies in November 1918.

related Cemeteries & Memorials

Cambrai Memorial is a focal point for commemoration of the Battle of Cambrai. It bears the names of more than 7,000 British and South African servicemen who died in November and December 1917, but have no known grave.

Flesquieres Hill British Cemetery is the final resting place of 900 servicemen, and more than a third remain unidentified. The village of Flesquieres was at the heart of the Cambrai battlefields. Many buried here are known to have died during the fighting for Cambrai in 1917.

Orival Wood Cemetery was begun in November 1917. This intimate cemetery is the final resting place of more than 200 soldiers who died during the Battle of Cambrai in 1917.

Hermies Hill British Cemetery is the final resting place of more than 1,000 British, Australian, Canadian and New Zealand servicemen. The village of Hermies was just behind the British start lines during the Battle of Cambrai.