The Battle of Cambrai in 1917 was carried out by the British Third Army, under the command of General Sir Julian Byng. 19 Divisions of infantry along with five Cavalry Divisions were assembled. A secret deployment of the newly developed Mk.IV Tanks loaded on to railway trucks, and transported to the front line. Once the Tanks arrived, they were moved into position under the cover of the night. This was to avoid detection from the German reconnaissance aircraft.
British Third Army attack the Hindenburg Line
The Battle of Cambrai started at 6:30am on 20th November 1917. The British artillery consisted of 1,000 guns which gave covering fire to the eight Divisions of the British Third Army advancing towards Cambrai, against three German Divisions. The British attacking force consisted of the IV Corps under the command of Lieutenant-General Charles Woollcombe on the left. Six divisions of the III Corps commanded by Lieutenant-General Pulteney on the right. There were also nine Battalions of the Tank Corps. 476 Mk.IV Tanks was the largest amount of Tanks that had been used in the First World War to date.
Four Royal Flying Corp (RFC) Squadrons provided air support. The Airco DH.5 low-level ground-attack aircraft, used for the strafing of German infantry and emplacements. Meanwhile, the Tanks just rolled over the deep barbed-wire fields that formed part of the Hindenburg Line. It had been part of the German defensive strategy on the Western Front.
The British advancement had been successful. The attack had broken through 3 trench lines, and up to 5-miles of ground being made. The 4th RFC Squadron provided ground attack missions supporting the 12th (Eastern) Division of infantry. Once the infantry reached Lateau Wood, they were ordered to dig in.
20th (Light) Division of infantry fought and passed through La Vacquerie. Tank F52 broke down shortly after dealing with a German sniper while in the valley. The Division advanced to capture a bridge across the St Quentin Canal at Masnières. On arrival at the canal bridge, Major P Hamond ordered the first Tank numbered F22 ‘Flying Fox II’ of F Battalion to cross the bridge. Due to the condition of the Bridge and the weight of the Tank, the girders collapsed into the canal along with Tank F22. All the crew escaped from the Tank while under fire from the retreating Germans.
The 6th Division of infantry captured Ribécourt and Marcoing under the command of Major-General T. O. Marden. Noyelles had been also been captured, before being driven back due to the late arrival of a cavalry regiment.
One infantry division and three divisions of the Cavalry Corps under the command of Lieutenant-General Charles Kavanagh were kept in reserve.
The 51st (Highland) Division with Major-General George Harper in command reached Flesquières, one of the most fortified locations along the Hindenburg line. Each flank of the 51st Division was exposed to volleys of fire from the defending Germans. It was noticed that the Tanks would be some distance ahead of the infantry. The Germans would hide letting the Tank go by, then used machine guns against the advancing British infantry. The Tanks came under fire from the German artillery firing anti-Tank shells. Around 40 Tanks were disabled, with many ablaze with fire.
One of those tanks was, Tank D51 ‘Deborah’. It was leading a company of the 153rd Brigade (part of the 51st Division) through Flesquières. They came under fire from Germans hidden in the ruins. The small company of infrantry had to withdraw from the sustained fire, Tank D51 continued through the village. As Tank D51 approached a crossroads from the cover of the buildings, it took five direct hits fired from a German field gun. Four of the crew were killed, and Tank D51 was out of action.
The Germans retreated from Flesquières in the cover of darkness of the night. Just to the west of Flesquières, the 62nd (2nd West Riding) Division had captured both Havrincourt and Graincourt, near the woods of Bourlon Ridge. The 36th Division had reached the Bapaume-Cambrai road.
The slowing advance of the British
Although the Hindenburg Line defences has been crossed, the British supplies found it difficult to supply the troops that had advanced the furthest. The German command had sent for reinforcements, which played a part in slowing down the British advance.
On the morning of 21st November, the British captured Cantaing. Further advancements towards Bourlon Ridge started with fierce fighting around Bourlon, and Anneux located just before the woods. When Anneux was captured, the 62nd Division could not enter Bourlon Wood. The Germans launched counter-attacks, and as a result, Moeuvers was captured. Fontaine was captured on the following day, but would change hands several times with costly fighting.
The capture of Bourlon Wood
During the morning of 23rd November, the 62nd Division was relieved by the 40th Division, under the command of Major-General John Ponsonby. The 40th Division supported by 100 Tanks and 430 artillery guns, attacked the woods of Bourlon Ridge, not much progress was made. This was down to the Germans reinforcing Gruppe Caudry and two divisions of Gruppe Arras on the ridge, with another two divisions in reserve.
The 40th Division fought up to the crest of the ridge where the advance stopped. They were held there with casualties in the region of 4,000. More British troops were sent, but these reserves were soon depleted as more German reinforcements arrived, and the intense fighting continued.
On 27th Novemeber, the 62nd Division supported by 30 Tanks were sent as further British reinforcements. The 62nd Division began with success, but was pushed back with a German counter-attack. The British troops still held the crest of the ridge.
The British troops were ordered to dig in and lay wire for defences on 28th November. The Germans bombarded the British position on the ridge (in the wood) with their artillery, with more than 16,000 shells.
The German 2nd Army counter-attacks
The German command saw that the British advance had stalled, and with further reinforcements, they could regain lost ground. The Germans assembled 20 divisions of the German 2nd Army in the area of Cambrai for a counter-attack, under the command of General Georg von der Marwitz.
At 7am on 30th November, the Germans began a counter-offensive. Artillery bombardment, air attacks, and storm troop infantry tactics similar to what the British used. German infantry advanced quickly to the south, unexpected by the majority of the British III Corps that were being heavily engaged.
During the morning, Lieutenant Andrew E. McKeever of 11 Squadron RFC flew his Bristol F.2b fighter on a reconnaissance patrol over Cambrai. Once over the enemy lines, he saw a pair of German two-seater observer aircraft, under the protection of seven Albatross DV fighters. McKeever turned and opened up the forward firing .303 Vickers machine gun on the one of the German scouts, destroying it. He then turned around to head back to the British lines when five of the Albatross fighters gave chase. McKeevers gunner, Lieutenant Leslie Powell fired using the ring mounted Lewis machine gun, and quickly downed two Albatross fighters. After McKeever shot a further Albatross down, Powell’s Lewis gun jammed. McKeever feigned being shot by rolling the aircraft over, diving towards the ground. Fooled by the bluff, the Germans broke off the chase. McKeever levelled out just 25-feet above the ground, then headed towards the British lines.
The British commanders, Major-General Arthur B. Scott of the 12th (Eastern) Division, and Major-General Henry Beauvoir de Lisle of the 29th Division were almost captured. Brigadier-General Berkeley Vincent had to fight his way out of his headquarters. He commanded some retreating units and tried to stop the German advance that had a spread of 8-miles, and just a few miles from the village of Metz.
At Bourlon, three divisions of Gruppe Arras made an assault towards the ridge. A British group of eight machine-gunners fired over 70,000 rounds against the advancing Germans that were suffering increasingly heavy casualties. By 1st December, the British had slowed the advancement of the Germans.
The Germans captured La Vacquerie and Bonavis ridge on 3rd December. The British withdrew from the east bank of the St Quentin canal at Masnières. Field Marshal Douglas Haig, known as ‘Butcher Haig’ ordered a partial retreat. This resulted in abandoning the hard-fought British gains in the north of the line. By 6th December, the partial retreat had been complete. The Hindenburg Line near the villages of Havrincourt, Ribécourt and Flesquières stayed under British occupation.
Casualties and losses
On the first day, out of 476 Mk.IV Tanks, 65 had been destroyed, 71 suffered from mechanical failure, and 43 had been ditched. The British had around 4,000 casualties, and took 4,200 German prisoners.
The British had a greater advance in six hours on the first day; than in three months at Flanders. The casualty rate of Cambrai was half the casualties of the Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele).
British suffered the most from the Battle of Cambrai, 75,681 casualties which 10,042 were killed. The Germans had 54,720 casualties, including 8,817 killed.