Background to the Battle
The town of Cambrai had been occupied
by the Germans since the autumn of 1914 and boasted a significant railhead with links directly back to Germany. This was therefore
a major point of supply for all the German forces in this northern part of France. The Canal du Nord, under construction in
1914 and still dry, passed west of the town, whilst some 5 miles to the east ran the Canal de L’Escaut (otherwise known
as the St Quentin Canal).
|Tanks emerging from woods
The land to the south, facing the British, was rolling
downland, that is a series of low ridges and valleys almost like the fingers of a giant hand pointing from the village of
Trescault and the adjacent Havrincourt Wood towards Havrincourt, Flesquières, Marcoing and Bonavis. Late in 1916 the Germans
began to construct a formidable defensive line from Arras in a south-easterly direction, incorporating the Canal du Nord and
Havrincourt and passing to the north of Trescault whereupon it climbed the Couillet and Bonavis ridges until it met the St
Quentin Canal, then following the canal south for many miles. The section between the canals was the strongest section, up
to five miles deep, with many rows of heavy gauge barbed wire, deep trenches, pillboxes and dugouts known to the British as
the Hindenburg Line. In reality the system comprised three parallel lines, the first facing the British was the Siegfriedstellung
(Siegfried Line), the second was Siegfried Zwischenstellung (Reserve or Support Line), and the third was Siegfried II Zwischenstellung
|An aerial view of the Cambrai battlefield
|Bourlon Wood on left with Fontaine-Notre-Dame beyond
By the end of 1916 the German army had suffered
badly at the hands of the British on the Somme, and the French at Verdun. Desperately short of reserves and reinforcements,
Field Marshall von Hindenburg ordered the construction of the new line and subsequent withdrawal the following March. The
German line now shortened and strengthened was, therefore, more easily defended by fewer troops. Although Cambrai was now
much nearer the front, it was considered that the Hindenburg Line would continue to secure the town and countryside around
it and the local villages would still be able to provide rest facilities for troops, particularly from the Ypres Salient,
and retain its reputation as the ‘Flanders Sanatorium’.
The line was so well constructed that it
was thought a limited number of second line troops, protected by earthworks, concrete emplacements, well sited artillery pieces
and machine guns could hold the line. The mass of barbed wire would severely limit British patrolling activities and, in any
event, advancing from the Somme over land that had been laid waste by the Germans, it would take several months to re-establish
front line positions.
On 10th November 1917 the Canadians beat
off a German counter attack on their newly won position on the ridge at Passchendaele, officially ending the Third Battle
of Ypres. By First World War standards the casualties incurred by both sides so late in the year would ensure a period of
rest through the worst winter months of the year to enable reserves, replacements and supplies to be brought forward before
any further major hostilities could resume in the Spring. Yet, unbeknown to the Germans, the Battle of Cambrai was in the
planning stage well before the end of the British offensive in Flanders was closed down, and was set to open on the 20th November.
Hitherto, the tank, which first saw action
on the Somme in 1916 at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, had only been used in relatively small numbers and was found to be
unreliable and ill-suited to heavily shelled and muddy terrain found on the Somme and at Third Ypres. Officers of the newly
instituted Tank Corps were anxious to prove, if used in sufficient numbers on firm ground, that the tank could be an effective
weapon to break the stalemate of trench warfare. Lt Col JFC Fuller, general staff officer of the Corps, proposed in June 1917
a tank raid at Cambrai with the effect of disrupting German communications and drawing attention away from the Ypres Salient.
This idea was turned down at GHQ who considered that the British Army should concentrate all their efforts on the forthcoming
Passchendaele offensive in the Salient. The proposal was revived in August by Fuller and his commanding officer Brigadier-General
Hugh Elles and this time had the support of Lt General Sir Julian Byng commanding the Third Army which currently faced the
Hindenburg Line. Although originally planned as a raid of some eight hours duration, Byng was considering a major push towards
Cambrai and favoured the idea of a massed tank element in the van of the battle.
By this time Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig,
C-in-C the British Expeditionary Force, was under considerable pressure to provide his political masters with a significant
victory. This would improve morale at home, encourage the Entente’s new American ally to fully commit to the fighting
on the Western Front and not least secure Haig’s own position. Haig was also aware that his Russian, French and Italian
allies were in trouble and he needed to distract the German High Command to concentrate its efforts against the British. Revolution
in Russia was to effectively remove her from the war, the new French C-in-C, General Pétain, was rehabilitating elements of
the French Army that mutinied following their debacle on the Chemin des Dames earlier in the year and the Italians had been
routed at Caporetto by a combined Austro-German offensive.
Byng was authorised to start planning an attack at Cambrai on 13th October with Z-day fixed
for 20th November. The concept of the operation had now changed—this was no longer a tank raid, but a full scale attack
aimed at securing a breakthrough. Due to the fighting in Flanders, further reserves could not be made available to the Third
Army, although the Cavalry Corps (5 divisions under Lt General Sir C.T. McM Kavanagh) was added to their number to exploit
any breakthrough and, of course, the Tank Corps were included to effect that breakthrough. Haig made the added proviso that,
if significant results had not been obtained within 48 hours, then the operation would be called off. It was thought that
it would take the Germans this time to bring forward sufficient reserves to counter the attack in any meaningful way.
The plan devised by Byng and his Third Army
staff was to use seven divisions of infantry and three brigades of tanks on a 10,000yd front between the two waterways to
effect a breakthrough of the Hindenburg Line towards Cambrai. The first assault would be spearheaded by tanks, which would
advance without a preliminary artillery barrage, followed by the infantry to secure the breach for the cavalry. III Corps
(4 divisions) on the right would capture and secure canal crossings at Masnières and Marcoing to permit the Cavalry Corps
to pass through and advance east of Cambrai. Meanwhile, IV Corps on the left, having secured the ridge at Flesquières, would
advance and take Bourlon Wood and Ridge to the west across the Bapaume-Cambrai road and push up the western side of Cambrai
with V Corps in support.
The use of new technology and improved tactics
would bring immediate success and have a profound effect on the future conduct of the war. The Mark IV tank, a direct development
of previous Marks with improved armour plating and fuel supply system, was available in number to breach the barbed wire systems
and cross trenches—fascines, bundles of brushwood held tightly together with chains and weighing between 1.5 to 2 tons,
were carried to lay in the trenches to provide a bridge for the tanks to cross trench widths up to 14 feet in places. Whilst
male tanks, armed with 6-pounder quick firing naval guns to take out pillboxes and enemy vehicles, and female tanks, armed
with machine guns, could kill troops, officers of the Tank Corps realised close infantry support was required to mop up resistance
and overcome field artillery emplacements.
Artillery was no longer required to reduce barbed
wire entanglements or to soften up trench positions. Their major roles were to create a creeping barrage to conceal the initial
advance and counter battery work. To effect total surprise, Brigadier General H H Tudor, BGRA (Brigadier General Royal Artillery,
i.e. the artillery commander) of the 9th (Scottish) Division, part of IV Corps, advocated that reliance be placed upon survey
methods of gun-laying instead of allowing preliminary registration by the usual practice of trial and error with ground and
air observation. Flash and sound ranging techniques had been developed to secure range and direction co-ordinates for enemy
The Royal Flying Corps were to provide increased
air interdiction which included fighter cover, bombing enemy aerodromes and other installations, strafing enemy lines and
reconnaissance. Balloon sections were also available for observation. Improved aerial photography and interpretation of images
allowed targets to be identified more efficiently and detailed information was forwarded to the artillery and combat squadrons
of the RFC.
The standard of staff work for this attack was excellent.
Planning needed to be completed in a very short time and secrecy was a premium and many decoy measures and ruses were put
in place to ensure friend and foe alike might not learn the true intent of British activities in the lead up to the battle.
In the two to three days immediately prior to the battle, the Germans succeeded in taking some British prisoners, but it seems
they were unable to glean any specific information concerning the precise timing and extent of the attack. Never before had
so much equipment, ordnance, fighting vehicles and supplies been brought so far forward without being detected, much of this
was done at night.
Nineteen divisions of infantry, four of cavalry
and three brigades of tanks had to be accommodated and moved in and out of rear areas for training, particularly with regard
to operating with tanks. Roads and railways had to be built to move troops and heavy equipment, including the tanks—specialist
assistance was given by the US Army 11th (Railway) Detachment, who also supervised the rail transport for the tanks. Over
200 miles of communication cables were laid to divisional and brigade headquarters. Vast quantities of forage and water were
required for horses and mules—the Germans had poisoned many water sources in their retreat to the Hindenburg Line earlier
in the year. Secrecy was further enhanced by the dull, wet and misty November weather.
Brigadier Elles had scoured the rest of the Western
Front, supply depots, training establishments and factories to amass 476 serviceable tanks. From this number 378 were fighting
tanks arranged into 9 battalions, each comprising 36 tanks with 6 in reserve. These would be supplemented by 54 supply tanks (petrol, oil, water and ammunition), 32
wire pulling tanks, 9 wireless tanks (one per battalion), 2 bridging tanks and 1 transport tank to bring telephone cable forward
as the advance progressed.
The tanks were brought up by rail and unloaded from
flatbed wagons at a number of ramped positions from Ytres round to Heudicourt. They were hidden in woods, copses and villages
and camouflaged with netting and canvas.
After dark during the evening and night of 19th November, the
tanks were brought up to the start line. They were guided by white tape and the tank’s officer walking in front. To
reduce the noise of so many tanks moving at once, they advanced in first gear at approximately ½ mile per hour. The tank battalions
were arranged ‘G’, ‘D’, ‘E’, ‘H’, ‘B’, ‘A’, ‘I’,
‘F’, and ‘C’ from left to right and were in position just behind the British front line around midnight
where they were refuelled and greased. Everything was now ready and at 03.00 on 20th November Brigadier-General Elles’
Special Order No 6 was given to the crews:
Tomorrow the Tank Corps will have the chance for which it has been waiting for many months, to operate a good going in the
van of the battle.
2. All that hard work and ingenuity can achieve has been done in the way of preparation.
It remains for unit commanders and for tank crews to complete the work by judgement and pluck in the battle itself.
In the light of past experience, I leave the good name of the Corps with great confidence in their hands.
5. I propose
leading the attack of the centre division.
Although unusual for a commander in
modern warfare to take up position in the centre of an attack, Hugh Elles did and, to the surprise of its crew, took position
in ‘H’ battalions Hilda. He also carried the new Tank Corps flag, devised by Fuller and himself—brown, red
and green symbolising mud, fighting spirit and the green fields beyond and good going. At 06.10 (Z hour minus 10), all the
tanks were moving. At 06.20, 1003 artillery pieces opened fire and the infantry advanced. The Battle of Cambrai had begun.
On the German side prior to the battle, the defences before Cambrai, the Siegfriedstellung, were
lightly held by 3 infantry divisions comprising largely reserves and Landwehr troops who were older second-string troops supported
by 34 guns.
With the element of surprise, new tactics
and an overwhelming superiority in numbers, initial British progress was exceptionally good and rapidly took on the appearance
of a stunning victory. The Hindenburg Line was breached on a front of 6 miles, with a depth of penetration up to 4 miles,
thousands of prisoners were taken and many German guns were taken. It seemed that the long awaited breakthrough had been achieved,
and to celebrate this church bells were rung throughout Britain on 21st November for the first time since the war started.
Yet, as so often before, this was premature and the advance petered out and degenerated into the usual slogging match over
the next few days. The battle ended with a German counter attack on 30th November that recovered much of the lost ground and
some territory previously held by the British.
20th & 21st November
On the right 12th Division moved forward through Bonavis and Lateau
Wood, and dug in a defensive flank to allow the cavalry to pass, as ordered. On the extreme right of the attack the 7th Royal
Sussex forced their way into Banteux. The 20th Division captured La Vacquerie after a hard fight and then advanced as far
as Les Rues Vertes and Masnières to secure the bridge across the St Quentin Canal. Although it seems that the bridge was weakened
by a German demolition charge, it was decided to send a tank across first and, unfortunately, this tank, ‘Flying Fox’,
broke the back of the bridge. The way for the 2nd Cavalry Division, planning to move up to the east of Cambrai, was now effectively
blocked. It was not noticed that further canal crossings at Crèvecoeur-sur-Escaut were lightly defended until too late in
the day. Infantry could pass slowly over lock gates at Masnières. The Fort Garry Horse, part of the Canadian Cavalry Brigade,
had made Les Rues Vertes and, not anxious to remain stationary under fire, B squadron crossed the canal at a lock bridge and
moved off unsupported towards Rumilly, finding a way through German lines they were soon engaged by machine guns and those
not killed or taken prisoner struggled back through the night to British lines, mostly without their mounts. The Newfoundland
Regiment found their allocated wooden bridge to the west of the village and headed for the German line towards Rumilly. By
midnight much of the infantry of 38 Brigade were across the canal, clearing Masnières to prepare for an assault on the Masnières
In the centre 6th Division, once it had crossed
the Hindenburg Line, advanced to take Ribécourt and Marcoing. Elements of the 5th Cavalry Division were able to pass through
and take Noyelles but were repulsed in front of Cantaing.
Haig had been at pains to remind Byng and his staff
that the key to the battle was the early capture of the village and ridge at Flesquières and Bourlon Wood and Ridge. This
was the task of IV Corps on the left, and was to prove elusive. It was the task of the 51st Highland Division to secure Flesquières
as its first objective. Their commanding officer, Major General G M Harper, was distrustful of the tanks and ignored the perceived
wisdom of the Tanks Corps to ensure that the infantry followed closely in the tracks of the tanks. Harper reasoned that the
tanks would be perfect targets for German artillery and machine guns and thus his infantry would advance a good distance (at
best 200yds) behind the tanks. Nevertheless, the main Hindenburg Line was taken with ease well in front of Harper’s
anticipated timetable. Rather than pressing on in support of the tanks, the infantry were ordered to wait and regroup for
an hour, in accordance with the original plan, before advancing on Flesquières. The village had been reinforced by the German
27th Reserve Infantry Regiment which, in the lull, was able to establish itself and, together with field artillery drawn up
on dead ground behind the ridge, would effectively slow the British advance. The artillery put 11 tanks out of action that
came probing unsupported over the top of the ridge before the infantry came forward again.
At 09.30 the Highland Division moved forward
again, well behind the tanks. As the tanks crested the ridge exposing their lightly armoured bellies, the German artillery
opened fire and, within half an hour, 27 more tanks were on fire or abandoned along the ridge. Whilst the Highlanders eventually
silenced the guns, the advance at Flesquières was effectively halted. The German stronghold held out for the rest of the day
against persistent frontal attacks by Harper’s men and uncoordinated incursions into the village by the tanks. The German
infantry had found that in built-up areas they would stalk the tanks and bundles of grenades thrown beneath the tanks were
sufficient to blow a track off, immobilising the British ‘iron monster’. On the far left, the 36th Ulster Division
- the only division not supported by tanks - moved up the dry excavations at the Canal du Nord and reached the Bapaume-Cambrai
road. The 62nd West Riding Division had swept through Havrincourt and Graincourt to within reach of Bourlon Woods in the lee
of the ridge. This advance could not move forward for fear of exposing their right flank to Flesquières ridge still in German
hands. Similarly 6th Division on the right of the 51st Highland Division were slowed.
the first day’s gains were spectacular, the failure to take the Flesquières and Bourlon positions would prove costly.
At this time Bourlon Wood was unoccupied but would be reinforced by the Germans overnight. Previous experience in the Great
War had shown that, if a potential breakthrough was to be exploited, then fresh reserves and cavalry should be kept close
up behind the attack. Yet here Byng’s HQ was some 20 miles in the rear at Albert and Kavanagh’s Cavalry HQ was
at Fins some 6 miles back. Early reports of success were dismissed as optimistic at both these HQs and the cavalry advanced
to their start positions in accordance with the predetermined plan. There was also no flexibility of command whereby local
commanders could direct the cavalry to exploit opportunities as they arose. Movement orders could only be taken direct from
Cavalry HQ. The 2nd Brigade of the 1st Cavalry Division had assembled at Ribécourt in the Grand Ravine just after midday in
response to an erroneous report that Flesquières had been taken and they were ordered to charge the second objective. The
reality was that Flesquières was still in German hands, although the Highlanders had subdued the artillery to the east of
the village. Here was an opportunity for the cavalry to speed through the gap on the eastern flank of the village, which could
then be attacked from the rear in co-operation with Harper’s 51st Highland Division attacking to the front. In this
way Harper’s initial tactical errors could have been overcome and the whole Battle put back on track - Bourlon Ridge
could then have been taken and the way into Cambrai cleared. However, as Flesquières had not been taken and the cavalry received
no further orders, it kicked its heels in the Grand Ravine all afternoon, only to withdraw at the end of the day.
Overnight the Germans, considering themselves
fortunate that the British had not fully exploited their gains, were bringing up reinforcements to establish a viable defensive
line - the Cantaing Line - between Moeuvres, Cantaing and Revelon - armour piercing ammunition was also brought forward. They
withdrew from Flesquières as the strong British positions on the flanks made holding the village untenable. On the British
side the tanks returned to their rallying points where it was noted that 179 of the 378 fighting tanks had been put out of
action: 65 had been hit, 71 had mechanical problems and 43 had been ditched. At Cavalry Corps Headquarters, it was agreed
that “the situation is such that the cavalry has not fulfilled the role assigned to it”. Orders were issued which
required III Corps to gain the Beaurevoir-Masnières line, east of Marcoing and Masnières, and to capture Crèvecoeur to allow
the early passage of the cavalry whilst IV Corps were to take Flesquières overnight and push on to take the Bourlon position
at the earliest opportunity that day, and subsequent tasks would be as originally ordered so as to meet Haig’s 48 hour
deadline. The RFC were to assist by making low-flying attacks on the positions at Rumilly and Bourlon.
The Tank Corps had a night of feverish activity
repairing, rearming and refuelling as many serviceable tanks as possible and reassigning them to the following days attacks.
Unfortunately, whilst traversing the newly gained British positions to reach their start points for the following day, the
tanks cut many of the telephone wires just laid and the communications, never very reliable, became even more difficult. The
27th November broke dull and raining which would continue throughout the day hampering RFC operations and the movement of
At 06.00 Harper’s 51st Highland Division
found Flesquières deserted - securing the village they pushed on over the ridge to Cantaing with cavalry on their flank. Here
they were checked by fierce German resistance which was only overcome with the arrival of 13 tanks from B Battalion. The infantry
and dismounted cavalry mopped up and Cantaing was in British hands by 13.00 hours.
Six tanks from H Battalion took Fontaine,
four miles from Cambrai, bursting through the Cantaing Line and getting into the village half an hour before infantry of the
Seaforth Highlanders and Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders from the 51st Division followed up and occupied it. Harper now
ceased his attack as Bourlon Wood had not been taken, leaving Fontaine exposed. The village was cut off by the Germans and
the remaining infantry wiped out.
The task of clearing Bourlon Wood was given to 186 Brigade of the 62 Division, commanded
by Brigadier-General RBT ‘Boys’ Bradford VC, at 25 he was the youngest general on the Western Front. Bradford had the support of 18 tanks from G Battalion and some squadrons from 1st Cavalry Brigade. The attack was delayed due to the late arrival of the tanks, whereupon all were thoroughly
briefed on their tasks. The attack did not go well. Positions that might have fallen easily the day before were now resisting strongly, the German troops in
the Hindenburg Support Line proving particularly stubborn, though the position was finally penetrated at one point. The tanks got into the Wood but the infantry were raked by machine-gun and artillery fire and were unable
to support them. Bradford’s brigade battered their way forward but were
eventually forced to dig in on the sunken lane facing the wood and hold the gains they had made, with the bulk of the Bourlon
position still untaken. 36 Division on the extreme left were left waiting to
continue their advance beyond Moeuvres once Bourlon had been taken.
On the right, III Corps captured Masnières after
a day of ‘street fighting’ as a prelude to a major attack on the entire Masnières-Beaurevoir-Marcoing Line, which
followed the course of the Canal de L'Escaut. At the same time two brigades, one each from 20th and 29th Divisions, began
a push against a mile wide section of the Masnières-Beaurevoir Line, between the Cambrai Road and Crèvecoeur. The attack began
well but quickly stalled as the infantry could not get across the canal bridges, which were under heavy German fire. Fearing
that the bridges would collapse under the weight of a tank, the tank commanders were unable to push their vehicles across
the canal and quell German resistance.
The German strength was now steadily increasing.
Three fresh divisions had already arrived at the front and six more were on their way. Crown Prince Rupprecht, commander of
the northern group of armies, realised as each day passed his situation became stronger and if he could hold on for a few
more days, then he would be in a position to mount a counter attack. The German troops were also becoming bolder against the
tanks, stalking them with grenades and armour piercing ammunition. 77mm field guns mounted on trucks were also found to be
effective anti-tank weapons.
Haig’s 48 hour deadline was now up and, most
importantly, the Bourlon position remained untaken. The decision for him—was he to return to the concept of a raid and
withdraw to a defensible line satisfied with limited gains, or was there a significant victory within his grasp if the Bourlon
position could be secured? The political pressure on Haig to provide the British people with a significant victory was immense
and probably accounts for his decision to follow the latter course. Haig’s instructions were that III Corps would go
over onto the defensive and hold the line of the Canal de L'Escaut, while IV Corps would devote all its efforts to the capture
of the Bourlon position. Third Army still had 3 divisions of V Corps in reserve and Haig obtained permission to retain two
of his GHQ Reserve Divisions currently earmarked for transfer to Italy. Therefore, IV Corps would be supported by a further
five infantry divisions and the Cavalry Corps which, together with tank and artillery support, should be enough to ensure
22nd - 28th November
The continuing effort on the 22nd was to
attempt to take and secure Bourlon Ridge. Fighting was fierce around Bourlon and at Anneux, just before the woods, and was
very costly. German counters squeezed the British out of Moeuvres and Anneux. Orders were received by 40th Division at Beaumetz to relieve 62nd Division the
next day. By now the roads were congested and breaking up under the strain of all the traffic in the build up and through
the battle, and 40th Divisional HQ took some 15 hours to travel the 9 miles to Havrincourt.
Major-General J Ponsonby and his 40th Division
staff drew up a plan to effect the relief and mount an assault. The 121st Infantry Brigade were set to
capture Bourlon village whilst 119th Infantry Brigade would assault the Wood, both jumping off from the sunken lane. On the
right flank the 51st Highland Division would again move forward and secure Fontaine. On the left, the 36th Ulster Division
would attack through Moeuvres. 92 tanks would be available to support these actions.
The attacks commenced through early morning ground
mist on the 23rd. The 119th Brigade advanced down a 1000yd slope from Anneux, across the sunken land and up the final rise
into the wood under shell fire. The Welshmen of 119th Brigade engaged in close hand-to-hand combat with the enemy and, after
3 hours of vicious and exhausting fighting, succeeded in pushing through and occupying the northern and eastern ridges of
the Wood. The 121st Brigade were less successful, being cut down by heavy machine gun fire, and few got as far as the village,
although 7 tanks did, but were unsupported and the survivors withdrew. On the flanks, the 36th and 51st Divisions made little
progress against strengthening opposition.
The Germans now bombarded the Wood incessantly and,
to add to the British problems, von Richthofen’s squadrons had appeared on this front and were beginning to wrest air
superiority from the RFC. Over the next few days further troops were committed, including the Guards Division, an elite force,
who were tasked with securing Fontaine but, in the face of overwhelming numbers, were forced to withdraw, sustaining many
casualties. In Bourlon Wood many battalions were decimated by artillery fire. Three companies of the Highland Light Infantry
fought through to the far side of Bourlon, but were cut off and gradually annihilated.
Then it began to snow, and life began to settle into trench
normality as the troops settled into their current positions. The British now sat some way ahead of the position of 20th November,
being in possession of a salient reaching towards Cambrai, with the left flank facing Bourlon and the right alongside the
top of the slope which ran forwards to Banteux. Most troops had been fighting through the year at Arras, Ypres and now Cambrai
and were exhausted. It is of little surprise they were slow to dig in and consolidate their gains as would have been the normal
practise. The Battle of Cambrai was closed down by Byng with Haig’s confirmation, and this was as good a place to winter
as any, but the Germans had different ideas.
The German Counter Attack
German counter strike was being planned from 23rd November when they realised that the British had shot their bolt. Some 20
divisions were now being assembled in the Cambrai area. Rupprecht met Luddendorf, effectively commander of all German troops
on the Western Front, to finalise plans to at least recover their old Hindenburg Line positions. Von der Marwitz, in command
of 2 army, was to use forces which constituted the Arras, Caudry and Busigny Groups to mount a two-pronged attack to roll
the British up towards the north.
Caudry and Busigny Groups would attack with 7 divisions
on a line from Rumilly to Banteux south and east in a direction through Flesquières and Havrincourt Wood to Metz, whilst 3
divisions of the Arras Group would thrust south through the Bourlon position and link up around Flesquières. Local British
commanders facing the St Quentin Canal on the right were concerned with the increased German activity, but their reports were
largely disregarded at Third Army HQ who thought any major counter attack would fall on the Bourlon position where the Germans
were continuing to shell incessantly with gas mixed in with their barrage.
30th November - 8th December
The German attack began in dense fog at 07.00 on 30th November
and after a hurricane pre-dawn bombardment. Deploying stormtroopers and flamethrowers, the Busigny Group launched a fierce
attack across the Banteux Ravine. This attack was supported by aircraft which came down to strafe the British trenches. At
the same moment, artillery fire from the Arras and Caudry Groups began to fall on the III and IV Corps positions.
The German tactic to use fast moving stormtroopers
to infiltrate enemy position where leading elements attacked in groups rather than waves by-passing strong points which would
be mopped up later, were used for the first time here. These tactics would be honed and used again in the German breakout
in March 1918.
Villers Guislain soon fell and Gouzeaucourt, originally
well behind the front line, was in German hands by 08.30. The Caudry Group applied pressure along the Canal de L'Escaut in
an attempt to secure Masnières and push south but were being held by 29th Division. The rapid advance of elements of the German
attack led to a delay at Gouzeaucourt while these elements regrouped and awaited further orders. Their inability to both push
on and failure to take the British strongpoint at la Vacquerie, for example, led to a lost opportunity to overcome III Corps
and apply pressure on IV Corps, from the rear, now being attacked at Bourlon.
Bourlon was attacked at 09.00 by the Arras Group
following an hour-long intense bombardment. However, the infantry assault was largely held by the 3 British Divisions of IV
Corps at Bourlon. Cantaing and Bourlon Wood were held, although the 47th Division was driven off the crest of the ridge. At
Moeuvres, east of Bourlon Wood, the 56th Division, holding part of the Hindenburg Line, found this position a disadvantage,
for the Germans were able to bomb their way into the heart of their position up the line’s communication trenches.
After just six hours the Germans had almost cut
off the British salient from Havrincourt to Bourlon, and advanced up to 3 miles in places. The attack from the south and east
had done particularly well and in the north only desperate fighting by the British in defence of their positions had prevented
the Germans from destabilising the whole British Front Line. By now Byng had been stunned into action and was pushing reinforcements
forward including the Cavalry Corps, to fight as dismounted infantry, the Guards and 62nd Division.
By the 30th November, many of the tanks were out
of action and those that could be recovered had been removed and those still able to run were being entrained for their depots
in the rear to be overhauled. Some tanks were still dispersed in Havrincourt Wood and others were being loaded onto trains
at Fins. Local Tank Corps officers and tank commanders, upon hearing the commotion of battle, rapidly set to and mustered
all the serviceable tanks they could, refuelled and rearmed them, and were able to provide a total of 63 to support the hard-pressed
infantry. This action alone was probably more miraculous than anything they had achieved on 20th November at the forefront
of the British advance.
The Guards retook Gouzeaucourt at 14.30 and, with
23 tanks, took up positions around the village to consolidate the defence, and were ready to counter attack the following
day to recapture part of their old pre 20th November line east of the village. The Germans, now suffering the British dilemma
of ‘what might have been’, still felt there was scope for further success and called for a 6 Division thrust by
the Busigny and Caudry Groups towards the line from Beaucamp to Trescault, taking Gouzeaucourt, La Vacquerie and Villers-Pluich
on the way. This was planned for 09.30 on 1st December, but was thwarted by the British counter attack some two hours earlier.
Sixteen tanks led the attack by the Guards
against Gauche Wood, south of Gouzeaucourt. With the help of dismounted cavalry, the wood was taken by 11.30. The surviving
tanks pushed on to Villers Guislain to join up with elements of the 4th Cavalry Division, but heavy machine-gun fire prevented
the cavalry getting up to join them and the tanks withdrew at nightfall. On other parts of the front, the British counter
attacks were less successful, but as the line had been pushed
back eastwards, the danger of a German breakthrough to Metz had been averted.
The Germans succeeded in retaking Masnières
and pushing part of the British front back across the Cambrai-Bapaume road from the Hindenburg Line position, but that was
the limit of their success. Like the British attack ten days earlier, the German counter offensive had, in effect, run its
course, although the battle would continue for another six days. On 3rd December, continued German pressure led to the fall
of La Vacquerie and the withdrawal of the British from east of the St Quentin Canal. Haig also ordered a further retreat from
the salient, and by 7th 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
Third Army reported losses of dead, wounded and
missing of approximately 44,000 between 20th November and 8th December. Of these, 6,000 were taken prisoner by the Germans
on 30th November. German losses have been estimated at between 45,000 and 55,000 with 10,000 taken prisoner on 20th November.
The Tank Corps had performed well above expectation
throughout, although they paid a heavy price in men and materials. 1,153 officers and men were listed as killed, wounded or
missing, over 25% of those who took part. Of the 474 tanks that started the battle, less than a third were fit for further
use, but these losses were soon made up with new tanks, the Mark V, which had heavier armour and a more reliable engine.
The improved German infantry tactics would lead
to sparkling success in the spring of 1918, but superior British equipment, both tanks and artillery, and training would ensure
effective all-arms warfare securing eventual victory for the Allies.
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