Mark IV Male tank – heading towards the green fields beyond…
One of the battles of the Great War that has always held my attention is the Battle of Cambrai – November 20 – December 7, 1917. As autumn creeps to winter and we enter the anniversary period of this struggle, my mind once more turns to this battle.
My first exposure to the battle was the SPI wargame, To The Green Fields Beyond. SPI taught a lot of armchair historians about war through their simulations. I played the game twice and realized just how important this battle was – not in the Great War, but in the wars that were to follow.
Cambrai is often mislabeled as the first large-scale use of tanks. It wasn’t, tanks had been used in battle since the autumn of 1916. It was the first use of tanks in a combined arms strategy – where infantry, airpower, artillery, and armor worked on concert. The battle was not the grand strategic victory that the British had envisioned, but it was a foreshadowing of the blitzkrieg attacks that would dominate the early stages of WWII.
I’ve visited the Imperial War Museum and always have enjoyed seeing the Mark IV tank they had on display. These things were beasts. Twenty-nine tons they moved at painfully slow speeds topping at four mph. There were eight crew who all basically worked on top of a huge hot engine. The tanks were steaming pressure cookers for the crew. At slow speeds they were almost always under fire. The “Male” tanks mounted two six-pounders and three Lewis machineguns. The “Female” versions mounted five Lewis guns. Reeking of fuel and packed with ammunition, they were creeping targets that demanded enemy fire rain in on them. Yet when I saw the tank at the museum, I realized just how small and cramped they really were. It was hard to imagine five men, let alone eight, crammed into one of them. It had to be exciting and frightening to crew one of these lumbering beasts.
The battle itself started out stunningly well for the BEF. Six infantry divisions were supported by an unprecedented 437 tanks. The tanks were equipped to lay fascines, bundles of sticks, across the trenches. The vision was clear, the tanks could creep across the trenches with the infantry in close support. Earlier use of tanks alone had proved that they were vulnerable without infantry support. The tanks were able to bring their guns to bear at deadly point blank ranges on the German defenders.
The battle initially was a stunning success, if anything it was too successful. The heavily defended Hindenburg Line was broken. Church bells rang in Britain in celebration. The attack drove five miles into the German lines. There were hopes, for the first time in years, of reaching the rear areas – the “Green fields beyond.” While by modern standards five miles was nothing, in the later years of the Great War it was stunning.
Then the problems set in. The tanks began to break down in large numbers. The British, for all of their planning, had not allocated the proper number of troops to exploit the breach in the German lines. The Germans, employing new troops “Stormtroopers” and tactics, were able to counterattack and eventually would erase the British gains.
The ultimate impact of the battle was to reshape the thinking of the use of a tank as part of a combined arms operation. The two weeks of fighting had changed how military planners viewed warfare. Armor’s role was cemented. The foundation for the tactics and tools of WWII were forged at Cambrai.