November 20, 1917 – Battle of Cambrai Begins as 400 British Tanks Charge the German Lines
Pictured – Over 370 British tanks smashed through the German lines at Cambrai on November 20, 1917. It was history’s first “tank battle,” and for the new weapon of war, a qualified success, but British failed to exploit their sudden break-through.
“War, nothing but war.” So said France’s new Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau after hearing of the Bolsheviks request for an immediate armistice between the Allies and the Central Powers. But Britain, not France, had come to be the major player in that struggle. Recuperating from the Passchendaele offensive, and now at the helm of major efforts in Palestine, Greece, and Italy, British forces on the Western Front began another major operation on November 20, 1917.
A quarter of a million British soldiers were gathered along a six-mile front facing the city of Cambrai, held by a quarter of a million Germans. General Julian Byng held command, and with his men he had been given a thousand artillery pieces and three hundred planes grouped into fourteen squadrons.
But the real role was to be played by the tanks. Over 400 of them had been assembled at Cambrai, ready to be used en masse for the first time in history. The idea had been proposed by a junior military officer named J.C. Fuller, who argued that a large tank attack like this would stun the Germans. The tank had been used before, at the Somme and then at Ypres, but only in small numbers, and technical problems had so far given many British officers reasons to doubt their use. Cambrai was to change that.
A British Mark IV tank makes its way to the starting point. This is a “male” tank, because it has a cannon. “Female” tanks had only machine-guns.
At 6:10 AM, the British guns opened up in a short but intense preliminary bombardment. The tanks massed, keeping their engines in low gear to mask the noise. As the barrage crept forward, so did the tanks, an enormous, continuous metal line on the battlefield. The infantry followed behind them.
German soldiers had faced tanks before and given a good account. The British weapon was scary, but it was slow and bulky, and could be knocked out by a well-placed artillery shell, mine, or even in a bullet shot from a powerful enough gun. But they had never faced this. Hundreds of British tanks emerged and rolled through the barbed wire, as German bullets bounced harmlessly off.
“Tank panic” spread throughout the German lines. Tank commander Captain D.G. Browne gleefully watched as “the triple belts of wire were crossed as if they had been beds of nettles, and 350 pathways were sheared through them for our infantry. The defenders of the front trench, scrambling out of dug-outs and shelters to meet the crash and flame of the barrage, saw the leading tanks almost upon them.” The tanks were an invaluable shock weapon, “grotesque and terrifying.” The British and Irish troops advancing in their wake mopped up German hold-outs. By the end of the day, they had advanced five miles.
But it was not all good luck for the British. Most distressingly, a tank crushed a bridge over a canal, which held up the cavalry division meant to exploit a break-through. Haig, as always, had readied the horsemen to sweep through a hole in the German lines, riding on and finally creating a decisive victory. Now, because of bad luck, they could not. Browne cursed them in his memoir. One squadron of Canadian cavalry, the Fort Garry Horse, did make it to the battlefield and charged a German machine-gun battery with sabres drawn. In a short fight they cut up fifty Germans until they were blocked by a sunken road. The Canadians dismounted and fought with both rifles and swords back to Masnières, where the infantry had advanced. They made it the closest to Cambrai of any British soldier that day.
And not all the Germans ran. Royal Flying Corps recce flights failed to spot German artillery batteries in the hamlet of Flesquières, half-way between the starting-point and Cambrai. The German gunners boldly stayed at their post and wreaked havoc on the British landships. One junior officer destroyed seven tanks before falling to a British bullet; he was the only German to be personally mentioned in British military despatches during the war.