As the Third Battle of Ypres drew to a close in the Passchendaele mud, Sir Douglas Haig gave his approval for General Sir Julian Byng, Third Army, to prepare for an attack on Cambrai in late November 1917. This would be the first time that tanks were used successfully en masse to spearhead the attack. In this blog post, we examine the objectives and success of the attack, and share the testimony of a tank commander who survived.
- Objectives and preparations
The objective was the town of Cambrai and beyond. Six infantry and five cavalry divisions, along with three tank brigades, would be used. Surprise and rapidity of action were of the utmost importance, as it was calculated that no large hostile reinforcements were likely to reach the scene of action for forty-eight hours after the commencement of the attack.
Unlike the quagmire of Passchendaele, the ground at Cambrai was, on the whole, favourable for the employment of tanks which were to play an important part. Facilities also existed for the concealment of the necessary preparations for the attack. In efforts to transform stasis into movement, the tank was developed under rushed conditions with the hope of breaking the entrenched stalemate of the Western Front.
In order to preserve secrecy up to the moment of attack it was decided to dispense with previous artillery preparation and depend, instead, on tanks to cut lanes through the enemy’s wire for the advance of the infantry.
- Into action
At the start of the battle forces were equally matched, with 250,000 German and British soldiers facing each other along a 6 mile front. The initial attack carried out by the tanks proved effective, and within three hours a line had been broken in the German defences.
Captain Joseph Gordon Hassell commanded the tank ‘Harrier’, one of 378 fighting tanks that took part in the battle. He wore a tank mask (pictured below), designed to protect the tank crew from ‘splash’ – flying metal splinters caused by the impact of bullets hitting the outer steel of the tank’s body.
In action if the tank was hit, slivers of hot steel began to fly – bullets hitting the armoured plates caused melting and the splash, as in steel factories, was dangerous to the eyes.
Hassell successfully advanced beyond the second Hindenburg line on to the village of Ribecourt and on to his final objective the third Hindenburg defence line; however, later that day ‘Harrier’ became one of 179 tanks that were put out of action by German artillery fire or mechanical failure.
Hassell described going into action:
‘I was in the second wave … we just managed to swing the tank through 90 degrees and start off downhill on our right, when the first shot took off my right… had we been broadside on, we should all have been done for. We received three direct hits – tank completely put out of action. This was after we had reached all our final objectives… Apart from the scratches we had no casualties…’
Whilst the Harrier crew emerged unscathed, there were many casualties on the first day of the battle – one of those who lost their lives on 20 November 1917 was Captain the Honourable Cecil Edwardes. His service history is interesting as he enlisted in December 1914 under the name of Thomas Lloyd, only confessing to this fabrication of identity in March 1917:
‘I, Cecil Edwardes, 3rd son of the 4th Lord Kensington, born May 31st 1876, do solemnly and sincerely declare that I was enlisted on the 28th day of December 1914, under the name of Thomas Lloyd, which name I now declare to be incorrect. The name of Cecil Edwardes, I now declare to be my true name, and I make this solemn declaration’
By way of explanation he wrote:
‘When war was declared I returned to England from South America but owing to financial matters I was unable to apply for a Commission and so enlisted in the 3rd Regiment of Scottish Horse in December 25th 1914… I was granted Special leave to forward to England to settle my affairs – which has now been done and I should now like to be known by my real name – now that I am in England, not bearing my real name is causing me a great deal of inconvenience.’
Edwardes was immensely popular and eight officers went up the day after his death, got his body out of the tank and carried him back for burial.
Hassell recalled that Edwardes ‘had a premonition of his death [at Cambrai]. He told us the day before the action of this – settled up all his affairs. He was immensely popular and eight officers went up the day after his death, got his body out of the tank and carried him back for burial. In the absence of a Padre, I conducted such a burial service as was practicable.’
This first day marked a decisive success for tank warfare, with five miles gained and 4,000 German soldiers taken prisoner – church bells were rung in Britain for the first time since the start of the war, to celebrate the advance. However, by 23 November , the tanks had lost their strength and the element of surprise. Haig had insisted that the woods were to be taken to enable a wider plan of attack. On November 27, the British attempted to take Fontaine, and the tanks were running into trouble in hemmed-in movements and technical malfunction. British war correspondent Philip Gibbs wrote: ‘no human being could stay alive there for a second after showing himself in the village.’ The British troops who had not entered Cambrai withdrew.
On 30 November the German Second Army counter-attacked, advancing almost three miles and capturing 6,000 British soldiers and 158 guns. Their combination of gas shells and close air support was as effective as the tanks had been for Britain at the start of the battle. On 2 December 1917 Haig instructed Byng to choose a secure winter line, withdraw and protect it – within a few days the battle drew to a close.
- Impact of the battle
Cambrai had failed to be the much hoped for turning point. The battle had resulted in 44,000 British and Canadian and 53,000 German casualties. However, the use of tank, infantry, artillery and cavalry in the Battle of Cambrai ultimately paved the way for combined arms operation of 1918. It was when these components – technology and man power – came together in tactical manoeuvres that success was finally achieved.
A century later, we pay tribute to all those who took part in the battle – share your stories with us on Lives of the First World War.