The Battle of Cambrai holds a special place in the history of armoured warfare as the first mass tank attack, and one of the most successful of the First World War.
In Part 1 we looked at the British Army’s experience of 1917 and the path that led to Cambrai. In Part 2 we consider some of the innovations first used in the battle.
The Return of Surprise
By 1917 surprise seemed to have disappeared from the Western Front. It was accepted as a truism that launching an attack without some kind of preliminary artillery bombardment to cut barbed wire and suppress enemy defences would simply lead to failure and heavy casualties.
In fact advances in artillery techniques meant that this was becoming less true. Accurate mapping and surveying allowed gunners to know their exact location. Better meteorology allowed the effect of weather on shells in flight to be predicted. The cutting edge science of flash-spotting and sound ranging meant German guns could be accurately located, and aerial survey could accomplish the same for other positions.
Individual guns were now calibrated to record their exact muzzle velocity, and shells were sorted according to variations in their weight. These factors, which could have great effects on accuracy, could now be compensated for.
All these developments came together so that by the autumn of 1917 British artillery could have a high confidence of hitting a target with their first rounds and without needing to fire ranging shots that would give away an attack’s intended location.
There was also less need for a long preliminary bombardment before an attack. This was partly because of this increased accuracy, but also because it was now accepted that attempting to completely destroy German defences was unlikely to succeed. More useful was a short bombardment that would keep the defender’s heads down whilst the infantry advanced and captured the position.
Brigadier General Henry Tudor, artillery commander in the 9th Division, was the first to recognise the implications of these developments. He proposed testing these new techniques with a raid in the Cambrai sector. This was a quiet area, defended by German units left understrength and exhausted from combat elsewhere. Importantly, the ground was undamaged by shellfire.
Tudor presented his plan to his superiors at British Third Army during August. His idea had one drawback – there was no way to cut the German barbed wire before the infantry reached it.
Enter the Tanks
Tanks offered a solution. If they led the attack they could crush the wire. By the time Tudor presented his plan commanders at Third Army were aware that the Tank Corps was keen to go into battle on good terrain and assigned them this role in the operation.
During September the Tank Corps commander, Brigadier General Hugh Elles, was briefed on Tudor’s plan. He encouraged its expansion beyond a raid into an attempt at a break through.
Detailed plans were developed during September and October, and the operation, named GY, was approved in mid-October.
Since the war the idea for Cambrai has often been traced back to the concept of the ‘tank raid,’ developed by Tank Corps staff officer Colonel John Fuller. Fuller himself played a major role in promoting this interpretation, although evidence from the time suggests his idea had only a limited impact.
Fuller’s idea was to use tanks for small scale, short duration attacks that would inflict casualties on the Germans but not seek to hold ground.
The problem was that this would, by design, not achieve a break through, however it would draw German attention to weakly defended areas of their lines, making any future British attacks there more risky.
As a concept, tank raids offered little the Army couldn’t already do, and were the exact opposite of what Cambrai became.
The Battle of Cambrai is popularly, and rightly, remembered as a major tank battle, but the tanks were only ever intended to play a supporting role. Perhaps a more balanced way of looking at it might be as the first combined arms battle to make large use of tanks.
For more information on the Battle of Cambrai, watch The Tank Museum YouTube documentary, Cambrai: The Tank Corps Story.
Find out more about First World War tanks and beyond in the books below.