Battle of Cambrai (1917)

Hundreds of British Tanks Breach the Hindenburg Line at Cambrai

General Byng' s Army, After Nearly Reaching Its Objective, Forced to Retreat

British Forces, 250,000
Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, Commander
Third British Army, General Sir Julian Byng
Detail of U. S. Army Engineers

German Forces, 500,000
General von Marwitz, Commander
Bavarian Army—Crown Prince Rupprecht

The multiple defenses of the Hindenburg zone were breached and deeply penetrated for the first time, on a seven-mile front, west by south of Cambrai, in a brilliant surprise attack launched before daybreak on November 20, 1917 by the Third British Army, commanded by General Sir Julian Byng. By so simple a stratagem as merely omitting the usual violent artillery "preparation," which would have advertised to the enemy that an attack in force was/impending, and relying instead on the crushing power of 600 armored "tanks" to batter down the concrete works and wire barriers in the Hindenburg zone, General Byng had taken the Germans wholly unawares, overrunning their outer defenses, capturing 10,000 prisoners and in 48 hours advancing eight miles through three parallel lines of defense to the very walls of Cambrai.

Here the British advance was stopped by the interposition of 250,000 Bavarian Reserves, hurriedly sent to the scene. There being no British Reserves available to assist in exploiting his gains, General Byng was compelled at length to' retreat out of the German zone. This withdrawal, however, before an enemy force outnumbering his troops two to one, detracts not a single iota from the glory of General Byng's achievement. Incidentally, it was the good fortune of an American contingent, composed of U. S. Army engineers and physicians, to assist the British during their retreat from Cambrai. Exchanging their engineering tools and medicine packs for weapons of war, at a crucial moment, the Americans jumped into the fray and gallantly assisted in breaking the force of the German counter-attacks. General John J. Pershing, as the guest of General Byng, was an interested observer of the whole operation. Let us now examine the Cambrai maneuver in its strategic details.

The British Strategy

General Byng's thrust at Cambrai, across the Hindenburg hurdles, was undertaken in the hope of gaining a quick, notable victory which, as a partial offset to the enemy's alarming successes on all fronts, might tend to restore the lowering morale of the Allied troops. The Italian disaster at Caporetta, coming so soon after the capitulation of the Russian armies and followed by the British slaughter in the Ypres region and the French fiasco at Craonne, had filled the Allied troops with dismay. Germany already had transferred hundreds of thousands of soldiers from the Eastern to the Western fronts and assuredly, before spring set in, would place 1,500,000 fresh troops in France, Italy and Belgium.

It was necessary at once to strike a blow at Germany which should serve to divert the, enemy reserve troops from the Italian front and enable Italy to catch her breath. Field Marshal Haig accordingly planned the surprise attack on the Hindenburg line, opposite Cambrai, using General Byng's army as the battering ram. It was his intention, after piercing the outer defences of the Hindenburg line, to advance rapidly through the enemy zone in two columns, one to the capture of the commanding heights of Bourlon Woods, overlooking Cambrai on the west, the other to the seizure of the heights of Crevé Coeur, just south of Cambrai. With these key positions in his possession, he might compel the speedy evacuation of Cambrai and possibly start the Germans on a general retreat eastward out of France.

Selecting as his chief point of attack the seven-mile sector of the Hindenburg line, lying between the Bapaume and Peronne Roads, he gave orders that the advance should begin before daylight on November 20, 1917. He emphasized the importance of reaching all objectives within 48 hours, or before the Germans could bring their reserves forward to the relief of Cambrai. The success of the movement depended first upon the quick conquest of the German outer defenses in a surprise attack; secondly, on a swift crossing of the Scheldt River by the column on the right, whose objective was Crevé Coeur; third, on the prompt occupation of Bourlon Woods by the column on the left flank.

British Tanks Cross Hindenburg Line

All through the night of November 19, 1917, General Byng's army had been quietly preparing for the secret attack. The troops were in tiptoe readiness for the short dash forward; the 600 steel-clad tanks, that could level houses, trees and walls as easily as a child might bend a blade of grass, were carefully concealed from German view. At 5 o'clock, on the morning of November 20, 1917, the British guns laid down a smoke barrage to conceal the movement of the troops. Then, at a signal, the 600 tanks moved rapidly forward across No-Man's Land, snapping asunder or trampling down the great belts of wire which protected the German front, and in a jiffy getting astride of the enemy's outer trenches. As the tanks rolled clumsily forward, sending showers of bullets before them, the British batteries in the rear hurled thousands of shells into the Hindenburg zone.

In the wake of the tanks, a large body of British Cavalry swept over the enemy line, some seizing the German batteries, others the machine-gun emplacements and still other squadrons penetrating far behind the line and seizing the nearby villages. Close on the heels of the cavalry, and yelling like fiends, came the British Infantry. As they entered the German trenches they encountered the bewildered Germans, with the lethargy of sleep heavy upon them, just emerging from their dugouts and coverts. Ten thousand Germans at once threw up their hands in token of surrender, but at several points along the front the Germans attempted to use their machine guns. These were quickly captured. The British casualties were slight. Of all the thousands that participated in the opening assault, only 20 were killed and 100 wounded. The Germans, besides losing 10,000 prisoners, suffered heavy losses.

Mt. Vesuvius Blown Up

Rushing through the gaps in the German defenses, one British brigade climbed up and over the knoll known as Mt. Vesuvius. Scarcely had they advanced into the plain beyond when the knoll was blown up by a concealed German mine. Havincourt, La Vacquerie, Bonavis and other points were captured by this brigade within an hour. Before noon the British left flank had reached Flesquires, while on the right the British Cavalry had entered Ribecourt and approached close to Marcoing. At Ribecourt the British surprised the Germans at their morning meal, and the hungry Tommies promptly confiscated the German food.

British Tanks Smashed at Flesquires

The first serious resistance was encountered at Flesquires, where a battery of German guns played havoc with the British tanks. Some of the tractors were smashed by direct hits; others were overturned by shell fire; still some others got bogged; one of them fell into a canal; but the greater number plunged ahead unhindered and without injury. Between Masnieres and Crevé Coeur the Germans managed to destroy several of the important bridges spanning the Scheldt River. This was a matter of vital consequence to the British, since it prevented their right flank crossing the river and occupying the last line of German trenches as had been planned.

The first German counterattack was launched northeast of Masnieres in mass formation, as in the early days of the War. Waiting until the German squares had approached to within half a mile of their front, the British machine guns opened fire and in a jiffy the German squares were dissolved. An hour later, the Germans counter-attacked at Marcoing, but this attack also was beaten down by heavy artillery and machine-gun fire. Some pretty fighting also took place in the streets of Noyelles, where the belligerent forces met in hand-to-hand encounter. Finally, in a determined bayonet charge, the British forced the Germans back across the canal.

Before the day's fighting ended, the British had advanced nearly five miles in places, and besides 10,000 prisoners had captured 100 guns and liberated many towns. The enemy, however, remained in possession of Bourlon Woods and the heights of Grève Coeur. Because of the destruction of the Scheldt bridges, the British Cavalry were unable to push forward and seize the final German positions.

British Capture Bourlon Woods

On the second day of the battle, the British left wing advanced through the village of Fontaine and on to the outskirts of Bourlon Woods, ten miles from Cambrai on the west. Before evening, however, they were compelled to yield Fontaine to the Germans. The British right flank, on the other hand, had been baffled in their attempt to secure the heights of Crevé Coeur, just south of Cambrai. By this time the British were in a rather precarious situation. They had failed to occupy their objectives and were now locked up in a salient which might be attacked from three sides. Moreover, they knew that German reinforcements were hastening toward Cambrai in overwhelming numbers. One at least of the main objectives must be occupied quickly if the British movement was not to end in failure. With no reserves available to assist him in exploiting his guns, General Byng resolved nevertheless to secure Bourlon Heights at all hazards.

The fighting along the wooded slopes of Bourlon, on November 25, 1917, was spectacular. Tanks and airmen paved the way for the onrushing infantry. It was hard fighting, but the British advance was continued successfully until the northeast corner of the wood was reached, where the tanks were held up by a strong force of the enemy. British airplanes, meantime, wheeled and rewheeled over the heads of the Germans, sending streams of bullets into the German ranks and forcing the enemy to retire. The tanks then pushed on and the conquest of the wood was completed.

As the British advance entered the village of Bourlon, the Germans delivered a heavy counterattack, compelling the British to withdraw slightly and enabling the Germans to gain a new footing in the northern edge of the forest. The British again surged forward, the dismounted cavalry with the infantry, and between them they reestablished the old line. Dusk settled down about the contending forces, but they continued to shoot and thrust at one another in gathering darkness. Several times through the night the Germans reformed and swept forward against the village, but were hurled back.

The Fighting Near Cambrai

The Germans, meantime, had brought up strong reinforcements and massed them near Cambrai, although they could no longer detrain them there, as the station was under the fire of the British guns and the town itself had been evacuated by the civilians. Hard fighting continued for a week about Bourlon Woods and village, westward of Moeuvres and eastward around the half- burned village of Fontaine-Notre-Dame.

Crown Prince Rupprecht, in command of the Bavarian reserves, was attempting to thwart Byng's advance by an encircling movement, but up until December 1, 1917, his attempt had resulted in failure. Although at certain points the Germans pierced the British lines and captured positions, men and guns, they paid dearly for their enterprise, their losses near La Vacquerie in 12 hours' fighting having been greater in number than in any similar period of fighting since the War began. Relatively, the British line remained as it was before the German drive, and tactically it was still as strong as ever.

The Battle of Maguieres

The Germans now endeavored to pierce the front at Masnieres, launching ten separate counter-attacks. Enemy infantry kept surging forward in waves and as each wave advanced it was broken. The attacking forces were mowed down like wheat before the wind, but with characteristic Prussian discipline they continued to fill their ranks and advance until the last assault failed. Les Roesvertes was captured by the Germans, but a British counter-attack pushed them back again. In the first rush about Gouzeaucourt, the Germans took many prisoners and recovered some of their lost guns, but before they could move this artillery back a British counter-attack swept them eastward again. Some towns in the Cambrai sector changed hands half a dozen times in the rolling, tumbling, shifting fight.

American Engineers and Surgeons to Rescue

At Gouzeaucourt, where the British line was lightly held, the Germans, on November 30, 1917, had succeeded in breaking through in great masses. Back of the British front, in the devastated Somme region, there were companies of U. S. Army Engineers engaged in building and operating strategic railways close up to the German lines. With them were several American surgeons. Caught suddenly in the press of battle, these Yankee engineers and medics aided in stemming the German advance. Seizing picks, shovels and what few rifles they could find, these American professional men "fought like wildcats." They suffered heavily in killed, wounded and prisoners, but they held back the enemy, continued to occupy positions in the back line British trenches until their withdrawal late in January.

The Battle of Bourlon Wood

The arrival of 250,000 German reserves in the Cambrai sector having made certain a speedy attack on the British salient, General Byng was forced to order a retreat from Bourlon Wood in the hope of straightening out his front. The Germans, now outnumbering the British two to one, pressed their advantage to the utmost. On December 3, 1917, furious battles were in progress all the way from Gonnelieu to Masnieres. Nowhere, however, did the Germans succeed in penetrating the British line. In the new salient extending from Queaut to Veudhalle, the British fought so valiantly that the fields were piled with the German dead. Fifteen waves deep, the Germans advanced to the attack, but the phalanxes melted away before the British gunfire. Still, as the dead dropped in piles, other Huns filled the gaps, and gradually the British line gave way.

General Byng's withdrawal was so secretly effected that the unsuspecting Germans continued to make attacks on places already vacated, shelling uninhabited territory for hours with a hurricane barrage. Then they attacked in dense masses, but the German storm troops found the forest of Bourlon garrisoned only with their own dead. One sprinkling of British shrapnel sufficed to send them scurrying back, after which came more thick waves of German "shock troops," charging over the crest and on both sides of Bourlon, where they found positions occupied only by rats. The British did not leave any loot in the evacuated section. Every dug-out was destroyed; even telephone wires were neatly rolled up and taken away.

Shattered and plowed with shells, full of stagnant water, and of dead, Bourlon Wood was by this time a loathsome place. The Gennans having drenched the forest with gas-shells, every bush reeked with poison and the floating mists were heavy with it Though the British had evacuated this sinister forest, they had surrendered nothing vital. The breach in the Hindenburg line was just as wide as before. And in expelling the British, the Germans had paid a fearful price—their casualties being estimated at 100,000.

Germans Break Through at Gouzeaucourt

Meantime, the Germans had been assailing the British line on the south side of the salient, just below the Scheldt. This part of the line was being held, as a "quiet sector," by a British division just released from Flanders. The Germans in overwhelming force fell on this wounded division and broke through the line, penetrating westward to the villages of Gonnelieu, Villers-Guislan and Gouzeaucourt. It seemed inevitable that the Germans would saw off the salient and capture Byng's army entire. But they were frustrated by the heroic resistance of the British.

Liquid Fire Used

On December 12, 1917, the Germans made a vigorous attempt to drive another wedge into the British line, between Bullecourt and Queant. In successive waves, the Bavarians fell upon the sector in an endeavor to overpower the defenders, but the British held tenaciously to their ground. A second attack on the following day proved a complete failure. As the year drew to a close the Germans renewed their efforts to force the British line. Preceded by liquid fire, the enemy attempted to rush the British positions on a front of 1,200 yards around the Welsh Ridge, south of Marcoing. The first rush carried the Germans into trenches on the ridge, but the British, in a counter-attack, expelled the enemy and restored the position.