Cambrai 1917: A Graph Review

by Bryn Hammond

A Graph Review
50, highpoints 70

Sub-title: The Myth of the First Great Tank Battle

Published 2009      paperback     978 029784553 9.     £14.99

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So much happened in World War 1, this is but a small part:

The first chapter neatly lays out the situation of the opposing sides on the Western Front where both sides had lost momentum and were deeply entrenched in positions that were constantly being strengthened, rebuilt. The BEF (British Expeditionary Force) being re-inforced with supplies hurriedly pushed to the front as well as troops literally fresh from the training grounds of England or ‘colonial’ troops from all directions that shipped over to fill the huge gaps left by the previous three years of mechanised slaughter by new technology in weaponry and defensive constructions. We learn of the different emphasise the opposing forces put on these developments. Both sides were suffering from serious attrition and were searching out the ways and means of reducing this whilst using the ferocity of each new development to break the seemingly static lines.

For the next chapter the author moves on to the thoughts of various officers from Haig downwards on the next moves required in this, now global, warfare.  A war that was using using unprecedented advances in naval (submarines), mechanisation on land for transporting troops (buses at the very least), design of armoured cars and the sudden importance of the RFC (Royal Flying Corps).

He picks his way through what must have been vast amounts of papers, official and personal, to pinpoint moments and players in the development of the planned attack using massed tanks for the first time. We read of the different tactics devised  to use tanks to clear the wide strips of  defensive wire and systems for getting tanks across trenches. The Tank Corps is moulded from volunteers across the services, transformed from Heavy Machine Gun to be a force that will change warfare on land. In the future. This book now proceeds to show how the plan was put into action and perhaps how much of modern, mechanised warfare was beginning to be developed from the planning, training and implementation. How the tanks fared, how the infantry worked. New tactics for artillery calculated to surprise the enemy and support actual troop and tank movement. Use of aircraft as recce and spotters ( not unusual but critical for this event) and specifically using them now to bomb and strafe targets at time critical moments.

Throughout the book Bryn Hammond offers us writings from all ranks across all events. From planning action, to being wounded and waiting for several days in Bourlon Wood for stretcher bearers. Privates to major-generals all have their place in this kaleidoscope of war.  We read how Italy has a brief role at a critical time for troop movements. By half-way through the book we understand that miles of telegraph cables, frequently cut and needing replacing are unable to replace the runners needed to carry battlefield messages.

The detailing continues, like the first day of fighting for Bourlon Wood and ridge, and the second and the third: the 26th Nov when a determined assault to take the Bourlon ridge and the village of Fontaine. The machine gun fire from Folie wood causing massive casualties on the right flank and the coverage of the whole front of the assault. All described first hand with quotes from assorted letters and reports, diaries etc as well as the author’s own words reporting the specific actions of officers and plans and their associated problems of the moment or mistakes.  Bryn Hammond continues to value the word of hindsight to be used as for learning, errors are pointed out, objectively.  The writing style is beautifully maintained with balanced explanation of aims, plans, actions and results using detailed knowledge of the author and elements of participants own words. Frequently we can follow one man’s personal writings through stretches of the campaign, in all different areas of the forces.

By the laying-out of events of the attack on the wider section of the front to the second, tighter advance from a small salient of success; we understand the attempt at a strategic success on taking Bourlon, village and woods and its high ridge. We come to see how the techniques of infantry and tank working together were being developed but where successful was not often communicated, usually because of the conditions of war and the difficulty of communications in general.  Not withstanding elements of not trusting new fangled machines and having to change to newly developed tactics.

P.394. “Without doubt, the Cambrai battle is chiefly remembered as a portend of the future. ………… Dec1st 1917. …..A day which, if it did not precisely mark the cusp between nineteenth century warfare and the ‘century of total war’, certainly epitomised it.”

Within this scenario we read of the frustration of cavalry divisions, always ready to be used but limited mostly to being scouts or support as dismounted infantry.  But for some it is different.

Saturday night, 1st Dec. “The line at La Vacquerie…..a scene of complete and utter disaster”.   The BEF were pushed out to edge of La V. and a German attack on Dec3 finally re-took La Vacquerie.

20th Nov. to 8th Dec…….Cambrai had failed as an attempt at a single stroke to break through and use its momentum to help end the war. However it was an offensive marked by the overall use, on both sides, of new as well as old, tactics. The BEF, planned co- ordinations of troops, tanks, artillery and aircraft, integrating new ideas and tactics with basic heroism,  The days struck new moulds of warfare; new use of artillery and major play with the newest weapon, the tank.  Even a charge of Cavalry versus machine guns, almost reminiscent of Balaclava. Massive use of aircraft on both sides. Richthofen, using his own squadron’s fame and strategy of maintaining superiority in numbers by integrating other squadrons into his flights. Eighteen days that contained street to street fighting, trench warfare, the deathly crossing of open fields, canals, deep fighting within dark woods.  Desperate attack and defence, re-take or re-defend and withdrawal to lines on a map, ridges on the ground. Logistics problems caused by initial success plus shortage of troops and reserves from the start may, with hind-sight, have held back the success of the operation. In the event Battle of Cambrai is maybe a mis-nomer as it was a target-too-far and maybe we should consider Bourlon Wood and Fontaine as the central characters here. The world has deemed Cambrai, 1917 as the first Great Tank Battle but reading this book would revise this to a battle that used massed tanks for the first time plus an array of new and old techniques that nearly worked but for the old bogeys of reserves, communication, logistics and the enemy.  A move towards the future that tank technology was taking but still had a lot further to go

This is my simplicity.  The last chapter of the book is a brief overview by the author that gives balance to the events. Again inserting personal accounts, thoughts on historical aftermath and brief narrative of the battle events. This was so useful. We got so caught up with the intimacy of events that the bigger picture got blurred.

Bryn Hammond’s last sentence is fitting for the battle for Cambrai and indeed all warfare:

“This story might have been dominated by the steel and fire of tanks and guns but such human tales and emotions, forming as they do a vital other dimension to the battle, could not and should not be forgotten”

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