29 November 2017

Cambrai 100: View from the turret

The 100th anniversary of the First World War battle best-known today for the role played by tanks was marked last week at CWGC cemeteries in France, where many lost in the fighting are now buried. The Commission’s Assistant Director General Mike Bullen, himself a former member of the Royal Armoured Corps, accompanied CWGC Commissioner Sir Bill Rollo at a service at the end of the commemorative week. Here he reflects on the commemorations and the battle’s impact on the use of arms today.

“20 November marked the anniversary of the start of the Battle of Cambrai and this was observed by a series of events organised by the local French population in homage to the sacrifice of 100 years ago. Large numbers attended a service at Flesquières and also the Cambrai Memorial.

Sir Bill Rollo and I headed for Cambrai on 24 November. As two former members of the Royal Armoured Corps, this battle held a special interest for us both, being the first use of massed tanks on the battlefield.

As a former tank commander, who ironically started his training in Cambrai Barracks, I am full of admiration for those early pioneers of tank warfare. The conditions under which they served were extreme and yet what they developed and achieved was extraordinary.

The machinery may have changed, but the character of those who serve has not. I am sure the men of today’s Royal Tank Regiment would recognise themselves in their forebears of a century ago – and that is one of the reasons why I felt privileged to have a chance to pay my respects to those who “Fear Naught”.  

We took part in the main ceremony at Louverval which was attended by several hundred serving and retired members of the Royal Tank Regiment. En route we visited the small but beautiful Orival Wood Cemetery near Bourlon Wood,which had been one of the objectives of the attack. Here we noted the grave of renowned poet Lt Ewart Mackintosh of the Seaforth Highlanders, whose grave had been visited by his relatives earlier in the week.

At Flesquières Hill British Cemetery, as at the other CWGC sites that we visited that day, we were particularly struck by the vast numbers of soldiers of the 51st Highland Division who had died during the battle, which all told, accounted for a total of nearly 85,000 casualties, killed, missing or wounded between the two sides. Five of the eight crewmembers from the Mark 4 tank “Deborah” lie here while the tank in which they had been fighting had been newly installed in a bespoke museum beside the cemetery. It seemed entirely apposite that their tank should now be preserved adjacent to the graves marking their final resting place. We met Philippe Gorczynski, the enthusiast behind the museum project and who had discovered the tank after six years of research, who briefed us, all the while holding a Lewis gun under his arm!

At Hermies Hill British Cemetery and opposite it Hermies British Cemetery lie many further casualties of the battle, including a large contingent from Yorkshire regiments. Among them is the grave where Brigadier Roland Boys Bradford VC is buried. He was killed at the Battle of Cambrai. At 25 years old, he was the youngest general officer of the British Army to lead troops in combat - his brother was also awarded a VC during the raid on Zeebrugge.

Finally, we arrived at the Cambrai Memorial adjacent to Louverval Cemetery. One cannot fail but to be inspired by the lists of names of the missing at such memorials and knowing that the scene of their death was the gently rolling countryside all around added a sombre note. The Jagger sculptures are most moving, depicting in fine detail two scenes from the trenches at the time. The Royal Tank regiment drumhead service was beautifully choreographed within the memorial and allowed the serving soldiers to reflect on the extraordinary efforts of their forebears under their regimental motto of “Fear Naught”. Sir Bill laid a CWGC wreath in memory of all those who are commemorated there, on what was miraculously a cold and perfect day for the service. 

Our final visit was to Tincourt New British Cemetery where we located many Chinese Labour Corps casualties, as well as Germans and again many rows of Scots soldiers, all of whom had succumbed to their injuries at the Field Hospitals there. As the sun set on the massed graves we were both glad to have made the effort to pay respects to the many fallen of such a famous battle. Despite the early marked success, the Germans countered and much of the territory gained was yielded. However, the lessons learned sowed the seeds for a more successful tactical use of combined arms, which endures to this day.”

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