The German Army has been occupying Cambrai since the end of August 1914.
In November 1916, the German army, after having been put to the test, decided to withdraw its troops behind the Hindenbug line, known as the Siegfried line forwards Cambrai. This work stretched from Flanders to the Ardennes to a depth of about ten kilometers. They were made up of three parallels fortified lines composed of broad trenches, considerable networks of barbed wire, and numerous blockhouses which concealed batteries of cannons and nests of machine gunners. It was the most impressive fortification in Europe. It was considered as the greatest European barrier.
The choice of Cambrai was strategic. Indeed, the line protected a railways and road node which was very important for the German army.
To restore the morale of his troops General Byng of the third British Army proposed the use for the first time of massed tanks to demonstrate the efficiency of this new war engine which was still unknown by the Germans. More than 476 tanks were used during the Battle of Cambrai. This action was combined with the air force.
On November 1917, the front line ahead Cambrai was relatively quiet and the terrain was favorable to the movement of tanks. They were constructed in Lincoln in England by the Foster Company and they were unloaded in Le Havre. Then, tanks were transported in engine shops next to Albertville. For the Battle of Cambrai, they were transported by train in the stations of Gouzeaucourt, Fins, Ypres, Heudicourt and then hidden in the surrounding woods, in particular in the Havrincourt and Bourlon woods.
As far as the Air Force is concerned, the aircrafts observed all the changes made by the German Army so that the English could draw a precise map of the Hindenburg line and the military positions. These maps increased the surprise effect on the German Army and so the quick spread of the English forces the first day.
The strategy used by Lieutenant Colonel Fuller consisted in triggering the attack against the German Army simultaneously with 500 tanks on a narrow front. The objective was the liberation of Cambrai. This project had to be kept secret above all among the English forces. He planned to attack at the beginning of the winter to increase the surprise effect.
On the 20th November 1917 at ten minutes past six in the morning, tanks moved forward the no man’s land. Smoke bombs from the artillery hid the tanks. They spread rather rapidly. The Germans in their surprise made little response.
Trenches were passed over easily. From the first day, the Hindenburg line was penetrated to a depth of 8 to 19 kilometers. It was for the King of United Kingdom a victory and all the bells rang in the capital. It was the Cambrai day which is still commemorated by the Royal Tank Regiment on the Sunday following the Armistice Day.
The 21th November, Flesquières was in the hands of the English forces after being abandoned by the Germans at 4 a.m. It was the case for Noyelles, Anneux and Cantaing too. The St Quentin canal remained an obstacle, and Cambrai was still in possession of the Germans.
On 22nd November, the English were at Fontaine-Notre-Dame and in the Bourlon wood.
From the 23rd November, the battle was at a standstill. The tanks took no further part, and the movement war reverted to a static war.
On 26th November, the 4th German army arrived from the Russian front line to increase the German force.
On 30th November, General von der Marwitz organized a counteroffensive. Adopting once again the tactic of the pincer movement, the attack began on two different sectors: Bourlon and Banteux. The response was sharp, but the allies could not resist a long time this new offensive and retreated on 4th December in the morning.
After thirteen days of hard fighting, there was neither victorious nor vanquished. The front line remained the same as it was before the Battle of Tanks. Many villages were lost by the English. Only Flesquières and Ribercourt were in Allies’ hands. All the victory benefice of the 20th November was definitely lost.
The human losses were about the same on both sides: 44,200 Allies and 50,000 German soldiers killed or incapacitated.
Thus the battle of Cambrai was to give birth to modern warfare: on the one hand, the demonstration of the use of tanks and aircraft, on the other, the end of the cavalry. For the first time, The British limited at a huge extent the human losses whereas those of the enemy grew up. The tank has become the “life rescuer” of the plaguing troops.