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Over View of the Battle of Cambrai in World War I (1917)

A senior air warrior, graduate from the Staff College and a PG in military studies. He is qualified to write on war and allied matters.



The First World War was the first truly global war, though the main battle field was in Europe. In this war new inventions were tried out which later were honed for specific use during the Second World War. The battle at Cambrai is of special significance as a totally new weapon system was tried out. This was the tank, which was a British invention. At that time many including the General Haig was skeptical about the tank thrust but unknown to him a revolutionary new concept had made an appearance which the Germans used to good effect in World War II.

The tank made an appearance in this battle.. It was the main weapon that was used in the attack by the allies on German lines at Cambrai. The tank which was invented by the British first was after various stages of development put into action during this battle. The allies were on the lookout for a weapon system that could bypass the trenches and barbed wire defenses of the Germans to get a significant breakthrough.

Opinion of Military Thinkers

Some military thinkers notably JFC Fuller were of the view that a massed assault by tanks could break the German defenses and give a significant breakthrough to the allies

It must be mentioned that General Haig the British commander in Chief had his doubts about the efficacy of the tank, yet he acquiesced in their use.

Initially the use of the tank was not encouraging as the behemoths got stuck in the mud, but the tank corps commanders were of the view that in case an attack was mounted on Cambrai, it could be a success given the terrain which was flat and plain. General Haig acquiesced with the plan and an attack on Cambrai was planned, with an idea to breach the formidable Hindenburg line also referred to as the Siegfried Line.

Field Marshal Douglas Haig

Field Marshal Douglas Haig

The battle and Birth of a new concept

Why Cambrai? This had been taken by the Germans in 1914 and was the center of an elaborate supply chain and had become an important rail head, billeting and military Headquarter town. Its strategic position could not be underestimated.

The British made a slight change in the manner in which they began their offensive this time. In all earlier offensives the advance had started with a heavy artillery bombardment. This time this was not the case so that the Germans could not get a clue that an offensive was on the way. The tanks were massed for the attack and the sound of the tank engines was thought to be muffled by flying fighter sorties over the German lines.

Making of History

Unknown to the troops and the military commanders this assault was the making of history as a new concept was being put into practice. 476 Tanks were readied for the assault with support infantry following up. The tank used was the Mark IV, which had a less noisy engine.

The assault began at 0620 am on 20 November 1917. The tank corps was led by their commander Hugh Elles in a Mark IV tank called ‘Hilda’. The Germans were initially taken by surprise and the tanks made excellent headway. As reports trickled into GHQ of General Haig, it began to dawn on the high command that a great victory was on its way. The tanks were able to move a distance of about 4 miles against formidable defenses in just about 4 hours of the commencement of the battle, with only about 4000 casualties. It was a great effort and the High Command had visions of breaking the stalemate of trench warfare. Many opined that victory was at hand.

The Attack Bogs Down

However the battle did not go as per the British plan. The British had also brought in Sikh infantry from the British Indian army to support the tank assault. The Sikh infantry played a prominent role in the early capture of many trenches and surrender of German soldiers.The attack got bogged down after that as the Germans brought in reinforcements and counterattacked. By afternoon 179 tanks had been destroyed or disabled and the advance had petered out.

By the evening of the 21st it was clear that continuing to attack on the eastern flank of the battlefield, across the St Quentin Canal at Marcoing and Masnieres, was no longer viable. The British now realized that fighting in this difficult terrain was savage and many tanks got bogged down. The infantry could not move forward without the tank cover. Attacks and counter-attacks continued until the 27th, when the British decided to end the offensive. They thought to just consolidate their gains. The Germans, however, surprised the British.

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The Germans counter attacked and recovered most of the area they had lost in the initial thrust. The German offensive was in full swing on 30th and the British were hard pressed to retain their gains.The British suffered heavy casualties and were forced to retreat and by 10 am the Germans had reached Gouzeaucourt, an advance of 3 miles. Reinforcements were rushed in and the the front was stabilized.

The battle thus ended without a decisive victory for the British. The army reported 44,207 casualties in all with 6000 taken POW. The German losses were estimated around 50,000.


Last Word

The battle of Cambrai remains an important battle of the First World War. It is important as for the first time a new weapon system, the Tank was tried with some success. It opened the way to a new concept in war called Blitzkrieg which the Germans used with great success during the initial stages of World War II. The defeat of France inside 40 days flows from the lessons of the Battle at Cambrai and the Tank thrust of the British Tank regiment.

There was great disappointment in England at the failure of the Tank offensive but unknown to the commanders at that time a revolutionary new concept of warfare had been ushered in.


MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on December 12, 2020:

Kitchener was as per the old school and didn't understand the significance of the tank

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on December 12, 2020:

Thank you Tom, Kirchner was C-in-C India. One of his daughter/relation as per grapevine was seduced by the Maharajah of Patiala.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on December 12, 2020:

Thank you Pamela, its a pleasure to read your comment.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on December 12, 2020:

This is an interesting account of use of the tank in WW!. I didn't know when the tank came into play. I think 44,207 casualties is awful, but war has taken so many more. This is a very good article, MG.

tom on December 12, 2020:

kitchener called tank a toy,winstons folly tank

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on December 12, 2020:

Tom, thanks for commenting. Not many people realize the contribution of the Indian army. Even in the tank assault the Indian infantry was in the forefront. Gen Haig was no doubt incompetent because he never visualised the role of tanks and was not enthusiastic about the offensive. You are right all the senior officers fought as YO in WW I. Even Hitler was a corporal. The empire was lost but for the intervention of the USA and of course the 1.5 million Indian army. The Indian army also broke the back of the Ottoman empire in Palestine. The British were ungrateful and carried out the Jallianwala Baug Massacre when General Dyer fired on unarmed peaceful crowd.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on December 12, 2020:

Nehru, thank you for commenting.

tom on December 12, 2020:

indian expeditonary force saved western front,1;5 million indian troops and labour corps saved empire,not tanks ,in 1917 uk food stocks reserve few weeks,about to open peace talks,but us intervention saved french and uk ,russia kocked out,germans now one front war,storm troopers mobile infantry were elite,haig in competent,first tench war civilwar,aussie farmers invented barbed wire,1918 a7 v german tank,germany could have won but for us,us wanted to get back 21 billion dollars loan from franceand uk,garman generals of ww2 were captainsa and majors in ww2,indian army saved empire,reward jallian wallabagh,

R Mehra on December 12, 2020:

This was a pathbreaking battle and brought in a new concept. Very interesting for a student of warfare

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