The Battle of Cambrai

20 November – 4 December 1917

This battle significantly changed future battle tactics when on November 20th the British 3rd Army launched the attack using tanks for the first time in warfare. This tactic provided considerable gains on the opening day through the combined use of artillery fire, infantry and the tank itself. British forces advanced around 5 miles, taking a number of villages but by the end of this first day, over half of the tank force was out of action. Field Marshal Douglas Haig approved the planned attack on Cambrai (encircling the town) while the battle of Passchendaele was still being fought and he threw everything at it; cavalry, air power, artillery, infantry and tanks.

At 6:20 a.m. British forces, surprising their German counterparts by direct artillery and 350 tanks advanced across the ground supported by infantry.The 62nd division (West Riding) advanced the 5 miles from this starting point, an astonishing distance when compared to the Somme and Verdun. However, not everything went to plan. The 2nd Cavalry division failed to cross the vital St Quentin canal because a tank crossing the bridge broke its back. Although the battle continued, British progress slowed due to intense fighting but by November 28th they had reached a position on Bourlon Ridge which they held. Two days later Germany launched a counter attack using intensive artillery and infantry tactics incorporating the use of ‘storm’ troops. This offensive forced the British to retreat only leaving them with gains of the villages of Havrincourt, Ribécourt and Flesquières.

This battle ultimately had little impact on fighting on the Western Front yet tactical methods used by both sides proved to be pivotal in the battles of 1918 and also pointed the way to future armoured warfare.

British tank crossing a trench whilst on its way to take part in the Battle of Cambrai, November 1917. © IWM (Q 6286)

British tank crossing a trench whilst on its way to take part in the Battle of Cambrai, November 1917. © IWM (Q 6286)