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Battle of Cambrai (1917): Map

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The Battle of Cambrai (20 November - 3 December, 1917) was a Britishmarker campaign of the First World War. Noted for the first successful use of tanks in a combined arms operation, the British attack demonstrated that the Hindenburg Line could be penetrated, while the German counter attack showed the value of new infantry tactics that would later be part of the Kaiserschlacht. Liddell Hart called the battle "one of the landmarks in the history of warfare, the dawn of a new epoch."

Cambraimarker is a French town in the Nord départementmarker (Nord-Pas-de-Calais). In 1917 it was a key supply point for the Germanmarker Siegfried Stellung (part of the Hindenburg Line), and the nearby Bourlon Ridge would be an excellent gain from which to threaten the rear of the German line to the north.

British plan

The British plans originated from a memorandum by Colonel J. F. C. Fuller, the Chief Staff Officer of the newly formed Tank Corps (previously British tanks and their crews had been designated as "heavy machine gun" units). Fuller and other Tank Corps officers recognised that the Third Battle of Ypresmarker had turned into a stalemate. Under a continuous artillery bombardment which destroyed the drainage system of the area, heavy rains had turned the battlefield into a swamp in which the Tank Corps were unable to make any useful contribution. Fuller proposed on 3 August that "to restore British prestige and strike a theatrical blow against Germany before the winter", the Tank Corps make a surprise attack to recapture St. Quentinmarker, in a sector where open dry terrain would allow tanks to operate freely. As an attack in the St. Quentin area would have required cooperation with French armies, which would introduce complications and possibly compromise the secrecy essential to a surprise raid, the sector was changed to Cambrai.

The General Headquarters of the British Expeditionary Force remained fixated on the Battle of Ypres, and refused to provide infantry and artillery for the Cambrai attack. However, General Julian Byng, commanding the British Third Army, and the Tank Corps continued to press for it to be made. In mid-October, when it finally became obvious that the Ypres offensive could not achieve a breakthrough of the German lines, the Cambrai attack was authorised and its date fixed for 20 October.

Fuller envisaged the attack being mounted as a raid lasting eight to twelve hours, requiring only a brief artillery bombardment, and infantry support only to gather prisoners and recover or destroy captured artillery. Byng however intended to retain the ground captured, and to exploit by advancing towards the vital railway centre of Valenciennesmarker. He had few infantry divisions in reserve to achieve these more ambitious goals. Also, the proposed front for the attack was bounded by two canals. These would have secured the flanks of a raid, but would prevent a larger-scale attack being widened.

The battle

The battle began at 8 in the night on 20 November, with a carefully prepared and predicted, but unregistered, barrage by 1,003 guns on key German defences, followed by smoke and a creeping barrage at 300 yards ahead to cover the first advances. Despite efforts to preserve secrecy, the German forces had received sufficient intelligence to be on moderate alert: an attack on Havrincourt was anticipated, as was the use of tanks.

The attacking forces were six infantry divisions of the III Corps (under Lieutenant General Pulteney) on the right and IV Corps (under Lieutenant General Woollcombe) on the left, supported by twelve battalions of the Tank Corps, with a total of 381 tanks. In reserve were one infantry division in IV Corps and the three divisions of the Cavalry Corps (under Lieutenant General Kavanagh).

Initially there was considerable success in most areas, and it seemed as if a great victory was within reach; the Hindenburg Line had been successfully penetrated with advances of up to being achieved. On the right, the 12th Division advanced as far as Lateau Wood before being ordered to dig in. The 20th Division forced a way through La Vacquerie and then advanced to capture a key bridge across the St Quentin canal at Masnières. The bridge collapsed under the weight of the crossing tanks, halting the hopes for advance there. In the centre the 6th Division captured Ribécourt and Marcoing, but when the cavalry passed through, late, they were dealt a sharp blow and fell back from Noyelles.

On IV Corps' front, the 51st Division was stalled at its first objective, Flesquières, and this left the attacking divisions on each flank exposed to enfilading fire. The commander of the 51st Division, George Montague Harper, had substituted his own tank drill for the standard one laid down by the Tank Corps, and that an excessive distance between the tanks and the infantry contributed to the failure. Flesquières was also one of the strongest points in the German line and was flanked by other strong points. Its defenders under Major Krebs also acquitted themselves well against the tanks, engaging them aggressively. Almost forty tanks were knocked out by the Flesquières artillery, including sixteen by a single gun manned by a lone gunner. Despite this the Germans were forced to abandon Flesquières during the night.

The British Offensive.
To the west of Flesquières, the 62nd Division swept all the way through Havrincourt and Graincourt to within reach of the woods on Bourlon Ridge and on the British left, the 36th Division reached the Bapaume-Cambrai road.

Of the tanks, 180 were out of action after the first day, although only 65 had been destroyed. Of the other casualties, 71 had suffered mechanical failure and 43 had been 'ditched'. The British had suffered around 4,000 casualties and had taken 4,200 prisoners, a casualty rate half that of Third Ypresmarker (Passchendaele), and a greater advance in six hours than in three months there.

However, the British had failed to reach the heights of Bourlon Ridge. The German command was quick to send up reinforcements overnight and was relieved that the British did not manage to fully exploit their early gains. When the battle was renewed on the 21st, the pace of British advance was greatly slowed. Flesquières, which had already been abandoned, and then Cantaing were captured in the very early morning, but in general the British took to reinforcing their gains rather than expanding. The efforts of III Corps were officially halted and attention was turned to IV Corps.

The continuing effort was aimed at Bourlon Ridge. Fighting was fierce around Bourlon and at Anneux, just before the woods, was very costly. German counter-attacks squeezed the British out of Moeuvres on the 21st and Fontaine on the 22nd. Even when Anneux was taken, the 62nd Division found themselves unable to even enter Bourlon Woods. The British were left exposed in a salient. Haig still wanted Bourlon Ridge and the exhausted 62nd Division was replaced by the 40th Division under John Ponsonby on the 23rd. Supported by almost a hundred tanks and 430 guns, the 40th attacked into the woods of Bourlon Ridge on the morning of the 23rd. They made little progress. The Germans had put two divisions of Gruppe Arras on the ridge with another two in reserve, Gruppe Caudry was reinforced and to challenge the RFC, the squadrons under the Red Baron were assigned. The British 40th Division did reach the crest of the ridge but were held there and suffered over 4,000 casualties for their efforts in three days.

More British troops were pushed in to move beyond the woods to Fointaine, but the British reserves were rapidly depleted and the Germans were still sending in more reinforcements. The final British effort was on the 27th by the 62nd Division aided by thirty tanks. Early success was soon reversed by a German counterattack. The British now held a salient roughly by with its front along the crest of the ridge. On the 28th the offensive was officially ended and the British troops were ordered to lay wire and dig in. The Germans were quick to concentrate their artillery on the new British positions. On the 28th, over 16,000 rounds were fired into the wood.

The counter-attack

The German Counter-Attack.


As the British used up their strength to take the ridge the Germans were reinforcing the area more generally. As early as the 23rd the German command felt that a British breakthrough would not occur and began to consider a counter-offensive. Twenty divisions were arrayed in the Cambrai area. The Germans intended to retake the Bourlon salient and also to attack around Havrincourt while diversionary attacks would hold IV Corps. Overall it was hoped to at least reach the old positions on the Hindenburg Line. The Germans intended to employ the new tactics of a short, intense period of shelling followed by a rapid assault using Hutier infiltration tactics, leading elements attacking in groups rather than waves and bypassing strong opposition. For the initial assault at Bourlon three divisions of Gruppe Arras under Otto von Moser were assigned. On the eastern flank of the British salient, Gruppe Caudry attacked from Bantouzelle to Rumilly and aimed for Marcoing. Gruppe Busogny advanced from Banteux. These two corps groups totalled 7 infantry divisions.

Although Lieutenant General Thomas D'Oyly Snow, the commander of the British VII Corps to the south of the threatened area, warned of the German preparations, the British III Corps took no action.

Captured British tank at Cambrai


The German attack began at 07:00 on 30 November. Almost immediately the majority of III Corps divisions were heavily engaged. The initial speed of the German infantry's advance was completely unexpected by the British. The commanders of 29th and 12th divisions were almost captured, with Brigadier-General Vincent having to fight free from his own encircled headquarters and then grab men from any retreating units to try to halt the Germans. In the south the German advance spread across and came within a few miles of the vital village of Metz and its link to Bourlon.

At Bourlon itself, the men under Moser met with stiffer resistance. The British had assigned eight divisions' worth of fire support to the ridge and the Germans suffered heavy casualties. Despite this the Germans closed and there was fierce fighting. British units displayed reckless determination - one group of eight British machine guns fired over 70,000 rounds in their efforts to stem the German advance around Bourlon.

The concentration of British effort to hold the ridge was impressive but allowed the German advance elsewhere greater opportunities. Only counter-attacks by the Guards Division, the fortunate arrival of British tanks and the fall of night allowed some form of line to be held. By the following day the impetus of the German advance was lost, but continued pressure on 3 December led to the German capture of La Vacquerie and the withdrawal of the British from the east of the St Quentin canal. The Germans had reached a line looping from the ridge at Quentin to near Marcoing. Their capture of Bonvais ridge made the British hold on Bourlon precarious.

Aftermath

Frontlines before and after the battle.
On 3 December Haig ordered a retreat from the salient and by 7 December all the British gains were abandoned except for a portion of the Hindenburg line around Havrincourt, Ribécourt and Flesquières. The Germans had exchanged this territorial loss for a sweep of land to the south of Welsh ridge.

Total casualties for both sides were around 45,000 each with 11,000 Germans and 9,000 British taken prisoner. In terms of territory the Germans had recovered the early losses and a little more. Despite the outcome, the battle was seen as evidence that even the strongest trench defenses could be overcome by a massive tank attack, however the territory gained was later lost by a Stormtrooper offensive. The British had seen the advantage of tanks while the German command had seen the potential of new flexible infantry tactics, with assaults led by independent groups of Stormtroopers.

Cambrai 1919


Bourlon wood seen in the distance from the Flesquières Heights Cemetery


References

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