At 0600 on 20 November 1917, at Cambrai, the British army launched one of the most innovative and important battles of the First World War.
In need of success
In September 1916, the tank made its debut on the Western Front at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette during the Somme offensive. Since then, the newborn Tank Corps had evolved and innovated, as had their machines.
Britain was in need of some good news in 1917. The Western Front remained deadlocked. The French Nivelle Offensive had been a failure and the Third Battle of Ypres had resulted in bloodshed on a shocking scale. Russia was out of the war and Italy was faltering.
A daring plan
Attention turned to the town of Cambrai that had been in German hands since 1914. Allied forces in this sector were under the command of General Julian Byng, who got wind of a plan drawn up by the Tank Corps to launch a lightening strike against Cambrai spearheaded by massed tank attack. The town was a transport hub, located on the supposedly impregnable Hindenburg Line. It favoured a tank attack, having seen nothing like the sustained artillery bombardments that had churned up the ground at the Somme and Ypres.
Byng pitched the plan to Douglas Haig who was in approval. But as it evolved, the plan for a short, sharp shock mutated in to an offensive bent on seizing and holding territory.
Striking early successes
Byng was given a huge force of 476 tanks to spearhead the assault. The tanks, along with more than 1000 artillery pieces, were assembled in secret.
Rather than firing off a few registering (aiming) shots as was customary, the guns were registered silently using mathematics rather than cordite. A short, intense barrage was followed by the largest massed tank attack to date.
Cambrai was a coordinated attack, with the tanks leading the way, supported by the artillery and the infantry following on behind. The soldiers had received special training in how to work with the tanks – to follow behind them in worms rather than straight lines. This combined arms approach shows just how far Allied tactics had come by 1917 and it was this approach that would enable them to press the initiative in 1918.
The attack was a dramatic success. The Hindenburg line was pierced to depths of 6-8 miles (9-12km) with the exception of Flesquiéres where stubborn German defenders knocked out a number of tanks and poor coordination between the British infantry and tanks combined to foil the advance.
Despite the outstanding results in the first day of the battle, the British encountered increasing difficulties maintaining the momentum of their offensive. Many tanks succumbed to mechanical failure, become bogged down in ditches, or were smashed by German artillery at close range. The fighting continued into December, with the German launching a series of successful counterattacks.