Battle of Cambrai (1917)

Battle of Cambrai 1917
Part of the Western Front of the First World War

German soldiers recovering a British Mark IV tank
Date20 November – 7 December 1917
LocationCambrai, France
50°10′36″N 03°14′08″E / 50.17667°N 3.23556°E / 50.17667; 3.23556Coordinates: 50°10′36″N 03°14′08″E / 50.17667°N 3.23556°E / 50.17667; 3.23556
Result See Aftermath section

 British Empire


 United States (30 November only)
 German Empire
Commanders and leaders
United Kingdom Sir Julian Byng German Empire Georg von der Marwitz
2 Corps
476 tanks (378 combat tanks)
1 Corps
Casualties and losses
179 tanks

The Battle of Cambrai (called the Battle of Cambrai, 1917 by the Battlefield Nomenclature Committee; also sometimes referred to as the First Battle of Cambrai) was a British offensive and German counter-offensive battle in the First World War. Cambrai, in the Nord département (Nord-Pas-de-Calais), was an important supply point for the German Siegfriedstellung (known to the British as the Hindenburg Line) and capture of the town and the nearby Bourlon Ridge would threaten the rear of the German line to the north. Major General Henry Tudor, Commander, Royal Artillery (CRA) of the 9th (Scottish) Division, suggested trying out new artillery-infantry techniques on his sector of the front. During preparations, J. F. C. Fuller, a staff officer with the Tank Corps, was in the process of looking for a place to use tanks as raiding parties. General Julian Byng, commander of the British Third Army, decided to combine both plans into the attack.[lower-alpha 1]

Despite British success on the first day, mechanical unreliability, German artillery and infantry defences exposed the frailties of the Mark IV tank. On the second day, only about half of the original number of tanks were available. Subsequent British progress was limited. In the History of the Great War the British official historian W. Miles and modern scholars do not place exclusive credit for the first day on tanks but discuss the concurrent evolution of artillery, infantry and tank methods.[3] Numerous developments since 1915 matured at Cambrai, such as predicted artillery fire, sound ranging, infantry infiltration tactics, infantry-tank co-ordination and close air support. The techniques of industrial warfare continued to develop and played a vital part during the Hundred Days Offensive in 1918, along with replacement of the Mark IV tank with improved types.[4] The rapid reinforcement and defence of Bourlon Ridge by the Germans, as well as the subsequent counter-attack were also notable achievements, which gave hope that an offensive strategy could end the war before American mobilisation became overwhelming.[5]


British plan

See also: Tactics, 1917
Cambrai area, 1917

Proposals for an operation in the Cambrai area using a large number of tanks originated from Brigadier Hugh Elles of the Tank Corps, and the reliance on the secret transfer of artillery reinforcements to be "silently registered" to gain surprise came from Henry Hugh Tudor, commander of the 9th (Scottish) infantry division artillery.[6] In August 1917, Tudor conceived the idea of a surprise attack in the IV Corps sector, he suggested a primarily artillery-infantry attack, which would be supported by a small number of tanks, to secure a breakthrough of the German Hindenburg Line. The German defences were formidable; Cambrai having been a quiet stretch of front thus far enabled the Germans to fortify their lines in depth and the British were aware of this. Tudor's plan sought to test new methods in combined arms, with emphasis on combined artillery and infantry techniques and see how effective they were against strong German fortifications.[7] Tudor advocated using the new sound ranging and silent registration of guns to achieve instant suppression fire and surprise. He also wanted to use tanks to clear paths through the deep barbed wire obstacles in front of German positions, while supporting the tank force with the No. 106 shell fuze, designed to explode high explosive (HE) ammunition without cratering the ground to supplement the armour.[8]


Third Army

The battle began at dawn, approximately 06:00 on 20 November, with a predicted bombardment by 1,003 guns on German defences, followed by smoke and a creeping barrage at 270 metres (300 yd) ahead to cover the first advances. Despite efforts to preserve secrecy, the Germans had received sufficient intelligence to be on moderate alert: an attack on Havrincourt was anticipated, as was the use of tanks. The attacking force was six infantry divisions of the III Corps (Lieutenant-General Pulteney) on the right and IV Corps (Lieutenant-General Woollcombe) on the left, supported by nine battalions of the Tank Corps with about 437 tanks. In reserve was one infantry division in IV Corps and the three divisions of the Cavalry Corps (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 penetrated with advances of up to 8 km (5 mi). On the right, the 12th (Eastern) Division advanced as far as Lateau Wood before being ordered to dig in. The 20th (Light) Division forced a way through La Vacquerie and then advanced to capture a bridge across the St Quentin canal at Masnières. The bridge collapsed under the weight of a tank halting the hopes for an advance across the canal.[9] In the centre the 6th Division captured Ribécourt and Marcoing but when the cavalry passed through late, they were repulsed from Noyelles.[10]

Cambrai salient north, 1917

On the IV Corps front, the 51st (Highland) Division was held at Flesquières, its first objective. This left the attacking divisions on each flank exposed to enfilade 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.[lower-alpha 2] Flesquières was one of the strongest points in the German line and was flanked by other strong points. Its defenders under Major Krebs acquitted themselves well against the tanks, almost 40 being knocked out by the Flesquières artillery.[lower-alpha 3] There is little evidence for Krüger's actions, although it is possible that he may have been responsible for as many as nine tanks. Twenty-eight tanks were lost in the action, through German artillery-fire and breakdowns. Haig concluded that skirmishing infantry was needed, to bring the artillery crews under small-arms fire to allow the tanks to operate.[13] The common explanation of the "mythical" German officer ignored the fact that the British tanks were faced with the German 54th Division, which had specialised training in anti-tank tactics and experience against French tanks in the Nivelle Offensive. The Germans abandoned Flesquières during the night.[14]

Men of the 16th Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles of the 36th Ulster Division moving to frontline 20 November 1917

To the west of Flesquières, the 62nd (2nd West Riding) 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 ditched.[15] The British lost c.4,000 casualties and took 4,200 prisoners, a casualty rate half that of Third Ypres (Passchendaele) and a greater advance in six hours than in three months at Flanders but the British had failed to reach Bourlon Ridge.[16] The German command was quick to send reinforcements and was relieved that the British did not manage fully to exploit their early gains.[17] When the battle was renewed on 21 November, the pace of British advance was greatly slowed. Flesquières, that had been abandoned and Cantaing were captured in the very early morning but in general the British took to consolidating their gains rather than expanding.[18] The efforts of III Corps were officially halted and attention was turned to IV Corps.[19]

Cambrai salient south, 1917

The effort was aimed at Bourlon Ridge. Fighting was fierce around Bourlon and at Anneux (just before the woods) was costly.[20] German counter-attacks squeezed the British out of Moeuvres on 21 November and Fontaine on 22 November; when Anneux was taken, the 62nd Division found themselves unable to enter Bourlon Wood. The British were left exposed in a salient. Haig still wanted Bourlon Ridge and the exhausted 62nd Division was replaced by the 40th Division (John Ponsonby) on 23 November. Supported by almost 100 tanks and 430 guns, the 40th Division attacked into the woods of Bourlon Ridge on the morning of 23 November and made little progress.[21] The Germans had put two divisions of Gruppe Arras on the ridge with another two in reserve and Gruppe Caudry was reinforced. The 40th Division attack reached the crest of the ridge but were held there and suffered more than 4,000 casualties in three days. More British troops were pushed in to move beyond the woods but the British reserves were rapidly depleted and more German reinforcements were arriving.[22] The final British effort was on 27 November by the 62nd Division aided by 30 tanks. Early success was soon reversed by a German counter-attack. The British now held a salient roughly 11 km × 9.5 km (6.8 mi × 5.9 mi) with its front along the crest of the ridge.[23] On 28 November, the offensive was stopped 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 28 November, more than 16,000 shells were fired into the wood.[24]

German Second Army

The German counter-attack

As the British took the ridge, the Germans began reinforcing the area. As early as 23 November, the German command felt that a British breakthrough would not occur and began to consider a counter-offensive.[25] Twenty divisions were arrayed in the Cambrai area.[26] The Germans intended to retake the Bourlon salient and also to attack around Havrincourt while diversionary attacks would hold IV Corps; 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.[27] On the eastern flank of the British salient, Gruppe Caudry attacked from Bantouzelle to Rumilly and aimed for Marcoing.[28] Gruppe Busigny advanced from Banteux. The two corps groups had seven infantry divisions.[27]

British VII Corps (Lieutenant-General Thomas D'Oyly Snow), to the south of the threatened area, warned III Corps of German preparations. The German attack began at 7:00 a.m. on 30 November; almost immediately, the majority of III Corps divisions were heavily engaged.[lower-alpha 4] The German infantry advance in the south was unexpectedly swift. The commanders of the 29th Division and 12th Division were almost captured, with Brigadier-General Vincent having to fight his way out of his headquarters and then grab men from retreating units to try to halt the Germans. In the south, the German advance spread across 13 km (8 mi) and came within a few kilometres of the vital village of Metz and its link to Bourlon.[30]

At Bourlon the Germans suffered heavy casualties. Despite this, the Germans closed and there was fierce fighting.[31] 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. The concentration of British effort to hold the ridge was impressive but allowed the German advance elsewhere greater opportunity. Only counter-attacks by the Guards Division, the arrival of British tanks and the fall of night allowed the line to be held. By the following day, the impetus of the German advance was lost but pressure on 3 December led to the German capture of La Vacquerie and a British withdrawal on the east bank of the St Quentin canal. The Germans had reached a line looping from Quentin Ridge to near Marcoing. The German capture of Bonavis ridge made the British hold on Bourlon precarious.[32] On 3 December, Haig ordered a partial retreat from the north salient and by 7 December, 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 slightly smaller sector to the south of Welsh Ridge.[33]



Frontlines before and after the battle

The first day success was greeted in Britain by the ringing of church bells.[34] The massed use of tanks, despite being a further increase on previous deployments, was not entirely new but the success of the attack and the resulting Allied press enthusiasm, including in the United States,[2] were unprecedented. The particular effectiveness of the tanks at Cambrai was the initial passage through barbed wire defences, which had been previously "supposed by the Germans to be impregnable."[35]

The initial British success showed that even the strongest trench defences could be overcome by a surprise attack using a combination of new methods and equipment, reflecting a general increase in the British capacity to combine infantry, artillery, tanks and aircraft in attacks.[36] The German revival after the shock of the British attack improved German morale but the potential for similar attacks meant that the Germans had to divert resources to anti-tank defences and weapons, an extra demand that the Germans could ill-afford to meet.

Wherever the ground offers suitable going for tanks, surprise attacks like this may be expected. That being the case, there can be no more mention, therefore, of quiet fronts.

The German counter-attack confirmed the effectiveness of artillery, trench mortars, and evolving stormtrooper tactics,[38] adopted from a pattern introduced by General Hutier against the Russians.[36] From the German perspective, questions arose regarding battlefield logistics much forward of the railhead infrastructure, as well as the offensive suitability of the MG 08 machine gun.[39] By the end of the battle, gains and losses by the opposing forces were largely proportionate, the British having advanced modestly in the north and the Germans in the south. British disquiet concerning the German counter-offensive gains led to several investigations, including convening a Court of Enquiry.[38]


Captured British tank at Cambrai

Sheldon wrote that both sides had c.40,000 casualties and questioned the British Official History figure of c.53,000 German casualties, calling them "inflated for no good reason".[37] Miles recorded British casualties from 20 November – 8 December as 47,596, of whom 9,000 were taken prisoner and an official German total of c.41,000 casualties, which Miles increased to 53,300 on the assumption that German figures omitted lightly wounded, which were counted in British casualty records.[40] Harris wrote that 11,105 German and 9,000 British prisoners were taken.[41]


The contributions of the Newfoundland Regiment at the 1917 Battle of Cambrai are remembered in the village of Masnières at the Masnières Newfoundland Memorial.[42]

The name Cambrai was chosen in 1917 as the new name for the South Australian town of Rhine Villa, one of many Australian towns renamed during World War I to remove any connection with German place names.


  1. The battle is sometimes described as the first use of large numbers of tanks in combat, or even as the first use of tanks at all. Although it was the first successful combined arms operation on a large scale, the first use of tanks occurred in September 1916 at the Battle of Flers–Courcelette.[1] The French and British armies had deployed tanks in large numbers earlier in 1917, although to considerably less effect.[2]
  2. Hammond refuted claims that Haper's changed contributed to the British failure that had been exaggerated by Miles, C. Baker-Carr and others. The attack was the sixth occasion when the division operated with tanks and the ground in the 51st Division area had far more small fortifications. The methods chosen had been tested in training and were not the cause of the check at Flesquières on the first day of the offensive, which was due to the presence in the German 54th Division of Field Artillery Regiment 108, specially trained in anti-tank tactics and the reluctance of Harper the divisional commander, to commit his reserve brigade.[11]
  3. Some accounts claim five were knocked out by an artillery officer, Theodor Krüger Batterie Feld Artillerie Regiment 108. Field Marshal Haig's dispatch praised the gunner's bravery in his diary.[12]
  4. American troops played a slight role in the fighting on 30 November, when a detachment of the 11th Engineer (Railway) Regiment, working on construction behind British lines dug reserve trenches at Fins; they were subsequently engaged in combat and had 28 casualties.[29]


  1. Harris 1995, p. 62–63.
  2. 1 2 Harold A. Littledale. With the Tanks. The Atlantic Monthly. December 1918
  3. Hammond 2009, pp. 429–430.
  4. Miles 1991, p. 291.
  5. Miles 1991, pp. 173–249.
  6. Miles 1991, pp. 4–6.
  7. Miles 1991, pp. 17–30.
  8. Hammond 2009, p. 57.
  9. Miles 1991, p. 69.
  10. Miles 1991, pp. 66–67.
  11. Hammond 2009, pp. 83–86, 435.
  12. Sheffield & Bourne 2005, p. 348.
  13. Hammond 2009, p. 233.
  14. Miles 1991, pp. 59, 108.
  15. Miles 1991, p. 90.
  16. Miles 1991, p. 88.
  17. Miles 1991, pp. 98–100.
  18. Miles 1991, pp. 101–107.
  19. Miles 1991, pp. 88–93.
  20. Miles 1991, pp. 108–114.
  21. Miles 1991, pp. 115–126.
  22. Miles 1991, pp. 126–136.
  23. Miles 1991, pp. 144–161.
  24. Miles 1991, pp. 162–175.
  25. Rogers 2010, p. 180.
  26. Sheldon 2009, pp. 188–207.
  27. 1 2 Sheldon 2009, p. 208.
  28. Sheldon 2009, p. 207.
  29. Miles 1991, p. 187.
  30. Sheldon 2009, pp. 234–242.
  31. Sheldon 2009, pp. 255–268.
  32. Sheldon 2009, pp. 273–297.
  33. Miles 1991, pp. 257–258, 275–277.
  34. Miles 1991, p. 278.
  35. Sheldon 2009, p. 9–10.
  36. 1 2 Sheldon 2009, p. ix.
  37. 1 2 Sheldon 2009, p. 312.
  38. 1 2 Hammond 2009.
  39. Sheldon 2009.
  40. Miles 1991, pp. 273–274, 382.
  41. Harris 2008, p. 406.
  42. Nicholson 1964, p. 517.


  • Hammond, B. (2009). Cambrai 1917: The Myth of the First Great Tank Battle. London: Orion. ISBN 978-0-7538-2605-8. 
  • Harris, J. P. (1995). Men, Ideas and Tanks: British Military Thought and Armoured Forces, 1903–1939. Manchester: Manchester University Press. ISBN 0-7190-4814-1. 
  • Harris, J. P. (2009) [2008]. Douglas Haig and the First World War (repr. ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-89802-7. 
  • Miles, W. (1991) [1991]. Military Operations France and Belgium 1917: The Battle of Cambrai. History of the Great War Based on Official Documents by Direction of the Historical Section of the Committee of Imperial Defence. III (Imperial War Museum & Battery Press ed.). HMSO. ISBN 0-89839-162-8. 
  • Nicholson, G. W. L. (2006) [1964]. The Fighting Newfoundlander: A History of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment (Carleton Library ed.). Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press. ISBN 0-7735-3133-5. 
  • Rogers, D., ed. (2010). Landrecies to Cambrai: Case Studies of German Offensive and Defensive Operations on the Western Front 1914–17. Solihull: Helion. ISBN 978-1-906033-76-7. 
  • Sheffield, G.; Bourne, J. (2005). Douglas Haig: War Diaries and Letters 1914–1918 (1st ed.). Weidenfeld & Nicholson. ISBN 0-297-84702-3. 
  • Sheldon, J. (2009). The German Army at Cambrai. Barnsley: Pen & Sword. ISBN 978-1-84415-944-4. 

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