The Battle of Cambrai was the first large scale use of massed tanks in battle. Here British Mark IV tanks are being loaded onto railway trucks for transport to the front line, as part of the significant logistical preparations required for the attack. These are 'Female' tanks armed with machine guns, as opposed to 'Male' tanks armed with small artillery pieces. In total, the British deployed 476 tanks at Cambrai, including 378 in combat roles.
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At dawn on 20 November 1917, the British Third Army launched an attack towards Cambrai using innovative methods that were to become a common feature of the fighting on the Western Front in 1918.
The assault utilised the largest number of tanks yet assembled. It used an artillery barrage that was not previously registered, aiming to return an element of surprise to the battlefield. But ultimately, early British gains were largely retaken by German counter-attacks.
The attack began with significant gains on the opening day through a combination of effective artillery fire, infantry tactics and tanks. British forces made advances of around 5 miles, taking a number of villages. But by the end of the first day, over half of the tanks were out of action.
As the battle continued, British progress slowed amidst intense fighting. By 28 November the British had reached a position on the crest of Bourlon Ridge, where they held a salient. Two days later German forces launched a counter-offensive, utilising intensive artillery fire and infantry tactics that made use of infiltrating ‘storm’ troops. After more intense fighting, British forces retreated from their salient position, only leaving them with the gains they had made around the villages of Havrincourt, Ribécourt and Flesquières.
The Battle of Cambrai ultimately had little strategic impact on the fighting on the Western Front. Yet in the tactical methods used by both sides it was a precursor to the fighting of 1918 and also pointed the way towards more sophisticated combined arms tactics and armoured warfare.
Private Jason Addy served as a gunner inside a tank of B Battalion, Tank Corps during the Battle of Cambrai. In this audio recording, he describes his experiences initially during the Third Battle of Ypres and then during the Battle of Cambrai, including descriptions of the speed, noise and smell of a tank. During the Cambrai fighting, Addy saw action in the area near Havrincourt, where gains were made.
Whilst tanks were relatively new and high-tech, the conditions inside for tanks crews were basic, unpleasant and necessitated the use of equipment almost medieval in appearance. Tanks travelled at a speed little faster than walking pace. When struck by small arms fire, small splinters of metal often flew within the cabin. Crew members wore protective masks like this one, which was worn by Second Lieutenant Hassell when commanding a tank during the Battle of Cambrai.
Corporal George Coppard of the 37th Company, Machine Gun Corps was awarded this Military Medal for gallantry during the Battle of Cambrai. He later published his experiences in With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, amongst the most famous soldier accounts of the First World War. By the time of the Cambrai fighting, British machine gun tactics were a vital part of the combined arms methods that would prove so effective in 1918.
decorations and awards
A British Mark IV Female tank abandoned at a roadside near Le Pave on the Cambrai battlefield. By the end of the first day of the battle, around 180 British tanks were out of action through a combination of mechanical failure, difficult terrain or as a result of enemy action. First World War tanks were often unreliable and slow, but were a useful addition in combination with artillery and infantry.
Britain was the first combatant nation to use tanks in numbers during the First World War. German forces did use a small number of their own manufactured tanks, but also sought to salvage British tanks knocked out on the battlefield for German use. Even with procured British tanks, the German Army had far fewer tanks at their disposal.
Men of 11th Battalion, Royal Irish Fusiliers shepherd a group of German prisoners near Havrincourt of the first day of the Battle of Cambrai. The opening day of the attack saw rapid and substantial gains, including the taking of sections of the Hindenburg Line and the village of Havrincourt. These men were among over 4,000 German soldiers taken prisoner on 20 November.
Three British troops stand in a street in Marcoing on the first day of the Battle of Cambrai. Marcoing was one of several villages taken by British attackers on 20 November. But it was later retaken by determined German counter-attacks.
An artillery observation officer stands on a ruined wall in Havrincourt to get a better view of British artillery fire on German positions. Despite the extensive use of tanks at Cambrai, effective artillery fire was still central to success. Cambrai saw the first use of silent registration – where the fall of British shells on German guns and positions was calculated without the use of an extensive preliminary bombardment.
This aerial photograph shows part of the Cambrai battlefield from the British front line up to Bourlon Wood, one of the furthest points of the British advance. Together with techniques such as sound ranging and flash spotting, aerial photography was a key element of the advances made in artillery fire, particularly in attempting to neutralise German artillery – known as counter-battery fire. Accurate photographs of German positions enabled more accurate pinpointing of targets.