Why was the British army defeated at the Battle of Cambrai (1917)

German troops with a destroyed British tank in 1917

The Battle of Cambrai was a British effort to break the stalemate on the western front through the use of a new weapon, the tank. The British had great hopes for the tank, which had been specially designed in order to end the bloody trench warfare in France and win the war for the allies. The British surprised the Germans by using the tanks to spearhead the assault on the Hindenburg Line in the Cambrai region. The British had some initial success but ultimately the battle ended in their defeat. This article will discuss why the British even with their new wonder weapon, suffered a defeat at the Battle of Cambrai in November-December 1917. It will show that the British failed to anticipate several challenges and the Germans ability to adapt their tactics, meant that the British army failed to achieve its goals.

Background

Since the First Battle of the Marne, the war on the western front had become a bloody stalemate. There had been many offensives and battles on the western front but the front line had hardly changed since the Fall of 1914.[1] The British had failed to break through the German lines at the Somme in 1916 and in the same year, the great German attack had failed at Verdun. The Germans had established a new defensive line in late 1916, the Hindenburg Line and this was an impressive network of trenches, minefields, and bunkers. It seemed in 1916 that there was no end in sight to the war. However, the British had decided to develop a new weapon; the tank. The first prototype was developed in 1915, it was known as ‘Little Willy’ or the Mark One.[2] This was initially a failure as it could not cross trenches. The tank was improved and by early 1916 the Mark three tanks was deemed ready for action. Tanks were first used by the British in 1916 during the height of the Battle of the Somme, in a desperate attempt to turn the tide of the battle and to break the stubborn German resistance, but they proved to be very ineffective and unreliable. Many simply broke down and became sitting ducks for German artillery.

Once the German’s overcame their initial surprise at the sight of huge hulks of metal lumbering forward, they devised tactics to counter the tanks. [3] The British persisted with the tanks, even though they proved to be mechanically unreliable at battles such as Arras. The French used the tank at the Chemin des Dames Ridge but it ended in a disaster. However, the British in particular had been making improvements to their tanks and the Mark IV tank was deemed to be superior to anything previous and could make a real difference. The Allies if they were to push the Germans back had to break through the formidable Hindenburg Line and by late 1917 the British believed that their new tanks and tactics could help them to inflict a decisive defeat on the Germans. In late 1917 the Allies are very concerned and many believed that the tide was turning in favour of the Germans. They had defeated Romania and Russia was all but out of the war. The Italians had only recently suffered a serious defeat at the hands of the Austrian and German army at Caporetto.

Preparation for the Battle

German troops with a captured British tank in 1917

By late 1917 many German Generals had open contempt for the tank. They believed that it was virtually useless on the battlefield. Despite this, the German began to build their own tanks. The British, especially the officers of the Tank Corps continued to promote the use of the tank. One of these officers was Lieutenant-Colonel John Fuller and he argued that they should be used in large formations and on dry and open ground. General Haig, initially rejected the suggestions but when it became apparent that the Third Battle of Ypres was a failure, the British High Command became desperate for some success.

Haig hoped that tanks would provide him with the decisive breakthrough demanded by the Allied governments worried by the crumbling Russian resistance. Cambrai was chosen as the scene of the offensive. The town and area were vital for the German Army’s transportation and supply system and more importantly it was set on a plain that was considered ideal for tank warfare. According to the despatches of General Haig ‘’the Cambrai front had been selected as the most suitable for the surprise operation in contemplation. The ground there was, on the whole, favourable for the employment of tanks which were to play an important part in the enterprise.’’[4]

Furthermore, the German units in the area had suffered heavy casualties during the recent fighting at Ypres. The British attack on the Cambrai sector was extremely sophisticated. The tanks would breach the Hindenburg Line and through this gap in the line, three Cavalry Divisions would be deployed and these would encircle the Germans in the area. There would be no artillery barrage before the attack and the British would rely on surprise. According to Haig ‘’it was calculated that, provided secrecy could be maintained to the last moment, no large hostile reinforcements were likely to reach the scene of action for forty-eight hours after the commencement of the attack’’ [5]. The British employed 500 hundred of the new Mark IV during the battle and also used a new delivery system to shower poison gas on German positions.[6]

The Battle

The Battle of Cambrai began on the 20th of November 1917. The British sent some 480 tanks into no man's land and they were closely followed by six divisions of infantry. The tanks advance was preceded by a poison gas attack, which was followed by a short but intense bombardment. The Germans were taken completely by surprise and the tanks made rapid progress and reached the German lines with little difficulty and the Mark IV tanks easily crossed the network of trenches. As they did they caused many trenches to collapse on the defenders, killing very many soldiers. The Germans were soon in disarray and many fled and several thousand surrendered to the British.[7] The British tanks and the soldiers advanced almost nine kilometres and they soon were in range of the town of Cambrai. At this stage the British Cavalry divisions were expected to pour through the breach in the Hindenburg Line.[8] The tanks unnerved the horses and this greatly slowed the advance of the Cavalry Divisions. Then there was the sheer number of vehicles and men in the area, the roads become congested and there was a huge traffic jam. It was estimated that it took some troops an entire day to cover four miles. This greatly slowed down the British advance.

It was to prove fateful to the ambitions of the British. However, this was not apparent in the days after the beginning of the battle and many in London believed that they were on the verge of a great victory. In many British towns and cities, the Church Bells rang out in celebration of their victory at Cambrai. The British continued to advance and , several tanks and a Welsh infantry brigade succeeded in establishing themselves in the vicinity of Cambrai.[9] The German High Command initially wanted to order a general retreat but Ludendorff decided to launch a counter-attack. He gathered several German divisions in the area of Cambrai. They attacked the British at several points and they are immediately successfully. The German artillery had begun to inflict heavy losses on the British Tank Corp. The enemy had identified the facilities of the British Mark IV tank and they no longer were able to make a significant difference in the battle.[10]

The Germans also employed Stormtroopers during the counterattack and they succeeded in infiltrating the lines of the British and disrupting their rear areas and supply lines. After a few hours, some British Divisions had been cut off and had to make a hasty retreat. As these divisions retreated they came under attack from German Stormtroopers. The British retreated from all their early gains and at one stage it seemed that the German 2nd army would break through the allied lines, until a counterattack, led by some tanks pushed them back. This successful, British counterattack is seen as the end of the battle.[11]

Results of the Battle

The British had gained a significant amount of territory at first but the German counter-attack meant that this was almost all lost, while the Germans are able to actually capture new territory south of Cambrai. The British suffered rather fewer casualties than the Germans. The British lost some 44,000 killed, wounded and missing in action, the Germans suffered in the region of 45,000 casualties. The battle came to be seen as a British defeat and when news arrived that the battle was not the great victory that it seemed it would be in the early stages of the battle. British morale was badly affected by the defeat.[12] The British High Command was still committed to the use of the tank and in many ways, the Tank Corps had performed very well.

The Germans regarded Cambrai as a great victory and they were emboldened to plan for a great offensive in the Spring of 1918, the Kaiser’s or Ludendorff Offensive.[13] The British learned a lot from the failure at Cambrai. They realised that they needed to reinforce any gains quickly. They also learned that the Cavalry could not really work with tanks. The British learned much from the defeat, especially about the coordination of artillery, tanks and infantry for a successful attack. They developed new tactics that were to be successfully used in the great allied offensive of the Fall, 1918, which resulted in the collapse of the Imperial German Army.[14]

Reasons for the British failure at Cambrai

British troops from the 36th Ulster Division at Cambrai in 1917

The are many reasons for the British failure at Cambrai. The attack was well planned but the planners failed to anticipate several key things. First, the failed to appreciate that once the tanks had been able to punch through the German Hindenburg Lines that there needed to be promptly reinforced. Any territory that was captured had to be quickly reinforced. The British were simply too slow to take advantage of the opportunity provided by the tanks. Then the planner failed to anticipate that the area would become very congested with tanks, horses, and men. This caused a massive tailback and this impeded the British as they advance towards Cambrai. The British General Staff also failed to appreciate the difficulty of coordinating a cavalry charge with tanks. The British also did not use their tanks effectively after they had broken through the Hindenburg Lines, despite the terrain being very suitable for tank warfare.[15]

If Haig and the other generals had ordered the tanks to advance rapidly when the Germans were retreating and their morale had all but collapsed, then the outcome of the battle could have been very different. Then there was the German reaction to the initial onslaught of the British, initially, they had fled and were in a headlong retreat. However, the German High Command react positively and their prompt response saved the situation.[16] Ludendorff in particular, was very positive and he ordered an immediate counterattack. This took the British off guard and as a result, they are thrown into disarray. More importantly, after the initial shock the Germans adapted their tactics, they used trench mortars and light artillery to knock out the British Mark IV advance. The Battle of Cambrai was also the first time on the western front that the German’s used Stormtrooper tactics. They had been developed on the Eastern Front and they proved to be very effective at Cambrai.[17]

Conclusion

The battle of Cambrai is often erroneously referred to as the first battle where tanks are employed. However, the battle was the scene of the first coordinated assault by tanks and infantry. The battle was an initial success for the British and it seemed that they have breached the Hindenburg Line and were about to inflict a decisive defeat on the Germans. However, unforeseen events slowed the British advance and a failure to anticipate what would happen after the tanks had achieved their goals, meant that they were slow to take advantage of their early gains. The German counterattack was very impressive, the use of Stormtroopers turned the tide and meant that they could drive the British back. The battle was technically a defeat for the British but the lessons they learned was very important in the development of new tactics that helped them to win the war in 1918.

References

  1. Keegan, John. The First World War (London, Pimlico, 1999), p. 45
  2. Hammond, B. Cambrai 1917: The Myth of the First Great Tank Battle. London: Orion, 2009), p. 14
  3. Hammond, p. 56
  4. Haig, Sir Douglas, Fifth Despatch (Battle of Cambrai, 1917) The Long, Long Trail. Available at http://www.longlongtrail.co.uk/battles/british-field-commanders-despatches/sir-douglas-haigs-fifth-despatch-battle-cambrai-1917/
  5. Haig, 1917
  6. Sheldon, J. The German Army at Cambrai (Barnsley: Pen & Sword. 2009), p. 65
  7. Keegan, p. 267
  8. Sheldon, p. 77
  9. Hammond, p. 144
  10. Hammond, p. 134
  11. Sheldon, p. 119
  12. Sheldon, p. 234
  13. Gray, Randal, Kaiserschlacht, 1918: The Final German Offensive, Osprey Campaign Series 11 (London: Osprey, 1991), p. 176
  14. Pitt, Barrie, 1918 The Last Act.Pen & Sword Military Classics. (Barnsley: Pen and Sword) 1962, p. 45
  15. Keegan, p. 378
  16. Sheldon, p. 146
  17. Hammond, p. 178

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