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The Battle of Cambrai

20 November – 8 December 1917

On the 20 November the British Third Army launched an ambitious surprise attack at Cambrai in northern France. It was the final large-scale offensive of 1917 and for the first time the battle plan used combined all arms tactics.

Predicted artillery fire and close air support were coordinated with an attack by infantry and almost 400 tanks.

After the rapid progress of the first day the battle soon degenerated into a war of attrition. On the 30 November the German Army counter attacked, their first significant offensive on the Western Front since Verdun in 1916.


On the 27 July 1917 the Tanks Corps was created with Brigadier-General Hugh Elles as its commander.

Tanks had first been employed on the Western Front during the Battle of the Somme at Flers-Courcelette and were currently in action at Third Ypres (Passchendaele). However the crater strewn muddy battlefields of Flanders were not ideal terrain for tanks. The Tanks Corps Chief of Staff Colonel John Fuller drew up plans for a large-scale tank operation and chose the rolling chalk downland of Cambrai as a suitable location.

At the same time Brigadier-General Hugh Tudor, Commander Royal Artillery of the 9th Division (Third Army), wanted to conduct a surprise raid on the Cambrai front using the silent registration of artillery. Known as predicted fire, the guns would be aimed using a survey map and detailed calculations, rather than firing shells to register their targets.

The British Third Army held the line in the Cambrai sector and its newly appointed commander General Sir Julian Byng directed his staff to incorporate both Fuller’s and Tudor’s ideas into a plan of attack.

When it became clear in early October that the Passchendaele offensive in Flanders would not lead to the hoped for breakthrough, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), gave permission for Byng to proceed with what became known as Operation GY.

The plan of attack

Working in close cooperation, the tanks and infantry were to break through the Siegfriedstellung (Hindenburg Line), secure the crossings of the St Quentin Canal at Masnières and Marcoing and capture Bourlon Ridge.

The cavalry were to exploit the breakthrough and seize the crossings over the Sensée River. Cambrai, which was an important rail hub, would be taken and the German divisions holding the front line would be cut off.

Haig believed it was vital to capture Bourlon Wood and village on the first day. Situated on the ridge, they were of strategic importance as they overlooked the German positions to the north-west.

Six infantry divisions, all three tank brigades (476 tanks in total of which 378 were fighting tanks) and five cavalry divisions were assembled for the attack on the 20 November. Byng also had 1003 artillery pieces at his disposal. Almost three hundred planes of the Royal Flying Corp (RFC) would provide close air support. Extensive precautions were taken to maintain secrecy during the preparations for the offensive. The attack needed to be a complete surprise. To that end there would be no preliminary bombardment of the German line before Zero Hour and the artillery would use Tudor’s silent registration of targets.

Cambrai was a quiet sector. The Germans referred to it as the Flanders Sanatorium as men were taken out of the line at Ypres to rest and recuperate here, away from the heavy fighting.

It was held by General Georg von der Marwitz’s Second Army and the forces facing the British attack were part of Gruppe Caudry.

With priority being given to the fighting in Flanders, Gruppe Caudry was undermanned and had a shortage of heavy guns and ammunition. However, they still held a very strong defensive position. Based on the principle of defence in depth the Siegfriedstellung was a series of trench systems with extensive belts of barbed wire, strongpoints filled with machine guns and fortified villages. The Germans were also in the process of constructing a new defensive line, Siegfried II, which ran to the east of the St Quentin Canal.

Third Army would use tanks to create paths through the barbed wire for the infantry and they were to then work in cooperation to clear out the trenches and overcome strongpoints. To get over the trenches the tanks carried large bundles of brushwood known as fascines. These were dropped into the trench which allowed the tank to drive over the top. Other tanks would use grapnel hooks to roll up whole sections of barbed wire to allow the horses of the cavalry to pass without damaging their hooves.

Based on the estimated length of time it would take the German Eingrief divisions to move into position and launch a counter attack, Haig gave Byng 48 hours to prove that his plan would achieve its objectives.

Tuesday 20 November 1917

At 6.10am the tanks which had formed up half a mile behind the line began to move slowly forward (they had a top speed of 3.7mph) with their commander Brigadier General Elles leading the way in his tank Hilda.

Ten minutes later, at Zero Hour, the artillery opened up. Shells rained down all along the German line. Behind the protection of an artillery barrage and smoke screen, the tanks and infantry advanced.

Despite the low cloud and mist squadrons of aircraft of the RFC got airborne. The German defenders were taken completely by surprise and their front lines were quickly over run by the swiftness and weight of the British attack.

To the south of the line, Lieutenant General Sir William Pulteney’s III Corps had been tasked with securing the crossings of the St Quentin Canal at Marcoing and Masnières.

20th Division encountered strong resistance at the Zwischenstellung (Hindenburg Support Line) beyond La Vacquerie, while further south 12th Division had to tackle a series of fortified farms that had not been knocked out by the artillery barrage.

Several tanks were knocked out by direct hits from artillery firing over open sights. More were lost to mechanical failure but the advance continued and by 11am the first tanks had reached the St Quentin Canal at Marcoing.

Securing the canal crossings was vital to getting the cavalry out into the open country behind the German lines. The infantry were able to cross using the wooden bridges but at 32 tons, the tanks were a different story. The road bridge at Masnières was still standing but damaged, nevertheless tank F22- Flying Fox II attempted a crossing. The bridge collapsed, sending the tank into the water below. Fortunately its crew survived. A small number of cavalry units made it across the canal, but with daylight fading and insufficient forces available the advance was halted.

The main objective for Lieutenant-General Sir Charles Woollcombe’s IV Corps was Bourlon Ridge. The 62nd Division had a tough time capturing Havrincourt after encountering strong German opposition. The division’s 186th Brigade went on to capture Graincourt later that afternoon before pushing on towards Anneux. The 51st Highland Division were held up at Flesquières, one of the strongest defensive points of the Zwischenstellung.

Under the command of Major Krebs the outnumbered German soldiers put up a determined resistance. Several of their field guns were still in operation and the gunners of Field Artillery Regiment 108 had also been trained in anti-tank tactics, consequently tank losses were high. With no reinforcements available the Germans were forced to pull out of Flesquières during the night, but they had successfully stalled the British advance towards Bourlon Ridge.

As night fell on the 20 November Third Army had managed an unprecedented advance of between three and four miles along a six mile front and had captured over 4000 prisoners.

When the news of the success reached Britain a few days later church bells were rung in celebration. However IV Corps had failed to reach Bourlon Ridge. III Corps had only a tenuous hold on the far side of the St Quentin Canal and they had not taken the Siegfried II line of defences. They also had no infantry reserves. 179 tanks were out of action. Highlighting the unreliability of the Mark IV tank, around two thirds of those were due to mechanical breakdown or ditching.

The campaign continues

The attack resumed the following day, but without the element of surprise the momentum of the opening day was lost.

The 51st Highland Division occupied Flesquières and with tank support and the assistance of the 2nd Dragoon Guards went on to capture the village of Cantaing. Fontaine Notre Dame also fell to the Highlanders.

Further to the north, tanks and infantry of the 62nd West Riding Division captured Anneux but their advance towards Bourlon was halted by intense machine gun fire coming from Bourlon Wood. III Corps attempted to make further progress across the St Quentin Canal to capture Siegfried II and the village of Crèvecoeur, but after a day of heavy fighting had achieved very little.

General Byng’s 48 hours were up. Field Marshal Haig chose to continue with the campaign but now the focus would shift towards the capture of Bourlon Ridge.

German reinforcements continued to arrive at the Cambrai front to bolster their beleaguered fighting divisions. On the 22 November they launched a series of local counter attacks along the British line to regain lost ground. At Fontaine Notre Dame the depleted 1/4th Seaforth Highlanders put up a good fight but eventually had to retreat in the face of overwhelming force.

Supported by almost ninety tanks and over twenty infantry battalions, IV Corps resumed their attack on Bourlon Ridge on the 23 November. An attempt by the 51st Highland Division to re-capture Fontaine Notre Dame failed. 40th Division fought a fierce close quarter battle with brutal hand to hand fighting as they pushed their way northwards through Bourlon Wood.

There were many casualties on both sides. To their left the 121st Brigade incurred heavy losses attempting to take Bourlon village. The fight to gain Bourlon Ridge continued over the next few days, with a final attempt on the 27 November ending in failure.

Haig blamed IV Corps and its commander Lieutenant General Woollcombe who he felt didn’t have “a real grip of it” for the lack of progress. With insufficient reserves, General Byng suspended offensive operations and ordered Woollcombe to dig in.

Counter Offensive

The German High Command had been making preparations for a large-scale counter offensive on the Cambrai front since the 23 November and had been moving reinforcements into the sector. They hoped to at least regain their original front line and they intended to do this by cutting off the nine by four mile salient the British attack had created.

The main attack would be by the Eastern Group made up of Gruppe Caudry and Gruppe Busigny. They would attack westwards towards Metz-en-Couture, capture Flesquières and Havrincourt Wood before heading northwards to meet up with Gruppe Arras advancing from the north towards Graincourt. There was to be no assault on the British defenders in Bourlon Wood, instead they would be bombarded with high explosives and gas shells before the attack.

The German High Command emphasised the importance of decisive forward movement during the attack.

The first waves of infantry were ordered to press on and not stop to deal with strongpoints or other potential hold ups. These pockets of resistance would be dealt with by later waves of infantry. These infiltration tactics later called ‘storm troop’ tactics were carried out by Stosstruppen units, although there were few of these at Cambrai. Instead the infantry regiments taking part were given limited training in the new techniques prior to the attack.

The counter offensive began on the 30 November. The weight of attacking numbers and the speed of the advance saw the British front line defences quickly overwhelmed. 35th Brigade headquarters in Villers- Guislan was swiftly over run leaving its commander Brigadier General Berkeley Vincent to gather together any men he could find and conduct a fighting retreat.

The commander of the 29th Division Major General Sir Henry de Beauvoir de Lisle had to flee his headquarters allegedly in his pyjamas, although he later denied this and claimed it was a different general. General Byng’s Third Army faced disaster and several divisions were in danger of being cut off. By 9am the British front line had been pushed back nearly three miles towards Havrincourt Wood. By 10am Gruppe Busigny had captured Gouzeaucourt, although it was retaken by the 1st Guards Brigade later that day.

However, the attack did not achieve as much as they had hoped for. Gruppe Caudry encountered strong resistance in and around La Vacquerie as the British units here had not gone into full retreat. To the north of Masnières the German infantry were stopped in their tracks by intense machine gun fire as soon as they left Siegfried II. To the west of Bourlon Wood, Gruppe Arras advancing southwards came under artillery fire before they’d even left their trenches. Here, heavy machine gun fire and a spirited British defence ensured they gained little ground.

The German High Command planned to renew their offensive the next day however they were pre-empted by Third Army who launched a series of attacks of their own. Forced to go on the defensive, the Germans committed more and more of their reserves to holding back the British assault. Their counter-offensive was called to an end later that night.

Fighting continued over the next few days but given the lack of reserves and the difficulties in trying to defend the Marcoing-Bourlon salient, Field Marshal Haig ordered a withdrawal to a stronger defensive position along the Flesquières Ridge.

Between the 20 November and 8 December, the British Third Army had 44,207 casualties while estimates for German losses range from 40,000 to over 50,000 men. By the end of the fighting almost all the British territorial gains had been lost, except for a small section of the Siegfriedstellung around Flesquières. The Germans had gained a similar amount of ground further along the line.