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John Warwick Brooke, the Imperial War Museum // Public Domain
John Warwick Brooke, the Imperial War Museum // Public Domain

WWI Centennial: Surprise Attack At Cambrai

John Warwick Brooke, the Imperial War Museum // Public Domain
John Warwick Brooke, the Imperial War Museum // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 294th installment in the series.

November 20, 1917: Surprise Attack At Cambrai

By fall 1917 the basic pattern of attack on the Western Front was well established, with a huge artillery bombardment, sometimes lasting days or weeks, preceding a mass infantry assault across No Man’s Land—the model employed at Passchendaele. Then on November 20, 1917, at the Battle of Cambrai, the British tried something radically new: scrapping the lengthy artillery bombardment—which also warned the enemy an attack was coming—in favor of a stealthy surprise attack with tanks.

Since their debut at the Somme in 1916, the new wonder weapons had proved a little less wonderful than hoped—prone to frequent breakdowns, “ditching” or getting swamped in mud, and with limited range under the best of circumstances. However, a number of spectacular successes confirmed the temperamental vehicles’ potential in the right circumstances. Could new tactics, with massed tanks and no preparatory bombardment, deliver a breakthrough, ending the stasis of trench warfare?

With the British Expeditionary Force to the north exhausted after Passchendaele, it was left to General Julian Byng’s British Third Army, including Canadian and South African troops, to execute the giant live fire experiment. They would mount a surprise attack spearheaded by almost 400 tanks and two corps of infantry, using “infiltration” tactics similar to stormtroopers’. The attack targeted the town of Cambrai—a key supply hub for German forces holding the Hindenburg Line to the south.


Erik Sass

The initial attack was more successful than the British could have hoped: at 6 a.m. on November 20, 1917, hundreds of tanks began crossing no man’s land with six divisions of British infantry, supported by a simultaneous bombardment by just over 1000 artillery pieces of various sizes. The tanks cleared the way through barbed wire for columns of infantry who followed close behind, overrunning enemy trenches and surrounding strongpoints while the tanks pushed ahead. Meanwhile a smoke screen helped prevent the Germans from directing artillery fire on to the tanks. William Watson, a British tank officer, recalled:

In front of the wire, tanks in a ragged line were surging forward inexorably over the short down grass. Above and around them hung the blue-gray smoke of their exhausts. Each tank was followed by a bunch of Highlanders, some running forward from cover to cover, but most of them tramping steadily behind their tanks … Beyond the enemy trenches, the slopes from which the German gunners might have observed the advancing tanks were already enveloped in thick white smoke. The smoke-shells burst with a sheet of vivid red flame, pouring out blinding, suffocating clouds. It was as if flaring bonfires were burning behind a bank of white fog. Over all, innumerable aeroplanes were flying steadily to and fro. The enemy made little reply.

The sudden appearance of the tanks, emerging from the early morning mist, took many of the German defenders by surprise, surrendering to British infantry advancing close behind. Watson wrote:

Odd bunches of men were making their way across what had been No Man’s Land. A few, ridiculously few, wounded were coming back. Germans in twos and threes … were wandering confusedly towards us without escort, putting up their hand in tragic and amazed resignation, whenever they saw a Highlander. The news was magnificent. Our confidence had been justified. Everywhere we had overrun the first system and were pressing on.

By the end of the day the British attackers had advanced up to five miles in places—a huge win by the standards of the First World War. Watson described scenes in captured German positions well behind the front line:

We walked up the road, which in a few yards widened out. On either side were dug-outs, stores, and cook-houses. Cauldrons of coffee and soup were still on the fire. This regimental headquarters the enemy had defended desperately. The trench-boards were slippery with blood, and fifteen to twenty corpses, all Germans and all bayoneted, lay strewn about the road like drunken men.

However, the success at Cambrai also highlighted, once again, the shortcomings and basic limitations of tanks: as Watson noted, by the end of the first day four out of his 11 tanks were knocked out, three had ditched, and the remainder were short on gas.


German Federal Archives // CC BY-SA 3.0 DE

Meanwhile the advantage of surprise had been used up and the Germans were rushing fresh troops to the battlefield to reinforce the beleaguered Second Army under General Georg von Marwitz. On November 23, the British continued the attack with an assault on Bourlon Wood, which they had identified as a key position, but already German resistance was stiffening. Watson left this impressionistic description of the British attack at Bourlon Wood on November 23:

At 10:30 a.m. the barrage fell and we could see it climb, like a living thing, through the wood and up the hillside, a rough line of smoke and flame. On the hillside to the left of the wood we could mark the course of the battle—the tanks with tiny flashes darting from their flanks—clumps of infantry following in little rushes—an officer running in front of his men, until suddenly he crumpled up and fell, as though some unseen hammer had struck him on the head—the men wavering in the face of machine-gun fire and then spreading out to surround the gun—the wounded staggering painfully down the hill, and the stretcher-bearers moving backwards and forwards in the wake of the attack—the aeroplanes skimming low along the hillside, and side-slipping to rake the enemy trenches with their guns.


German Federal Archives // CC BY-SA 3.0 DE

Once again, tanks delivered some impressive gains but they remained vulnerable to unexpectedly unfavorable ground conditions, mechanical breakdowns, and fuel shortages. Of course, despite their heavy armor they were hardly immune to enemy fire, and a single lucky shot by field artillery could spell the end of a vehicle and its crew. Watson described one terrible scene:

Flames were coming from the rear of the tank, but its guns continued to fire and the tank continued to move. Suddenly the driver must have realised what was happening. The tank swung towards home. It was too late. Flames burst from the roof and the tank stopped, but the sponson doors never opened and the crew never came out … When I left my post half an hour later the tank was still burning.

By the end of November the British had chalked up major gains that threatened German logistics in northern France and jeopardized the integrity of the Hindenburg Line. But between hundreds of casualties, mechanical issues, and dwindling fuel, the tanks were largely a spent force—and there was no way the Germans were going to leave the British to enjoy their conquests. Even worse, the Third Army’s new positions formed a vulnerable salient, exposed to enemy counterattack on both flanks.

On November 30, 1917 the Germans unleashed their biggest attack (or rather counterattack) on British forces on the Western Front since 1915, with a crushing artillery bombardment followed by infantry advances against all fronts of the salient southwest of Cambrai. The German counterattack displayed their own tactical evolution with stormtroop assaults, employing trench mortars, grenades and machine guns, closely coordinated with artillery to break up barbed wire entanglements and force enemy infantry to take shelter.

Over subsequent German counterattacks from December 1-7, the recently captured salient collapsed under the weight of superior numbers, reflecting the determination of the German general staff, which was determined to contain the threat to the Hindenburg Line. Private William Reginald Dick described outnumbered British defenders preparing for a German counterattack at La Vacquerie, a village south of Cambrai, on December 3, 1917:

Around and above is a turmoil of noise; the mighty roar of dropping shells, the incessant rending crashes of the explosions, the scream and thud of whizz-bangs, and permeating all, the booming thunder of the guns. In this battering inferno of sound, we have to shout to make ourselves heard. The earth quivers continuously under the metallic flail. Across the shattered soil behind our position, a barrage is falling, a vast unbroken curtain of spouting bursts, spraying up earth, smoke and steel in a dark and furious barrier, half veiled by dense black fumes that writhe, heave, and trail upward in a mist of dirty grey … The Lewis-gun team beside me crouch below their deadly charge; it is tilted up ready to heave on the parapet; a drum is fixed for immediate firing.

The German infantry, led by stormtroopers, advanced boldly into a wall of British fire:

I see the wide waste of the shell-churned soil, the tattered wire, and, well over, a dark and far-flung line of gray-clad stormers; behind them others rising fast, apparently springing from the drab earth in knots and groups, spreading out, surging forward. Simultaneously from our trench bursts a great roar of fire. I fire with fiercely jerking bolt, round after round merged into the immense noise …

As the German infantry approached, firing and throwing grenades, the British defenders were forced to withdraw to another trench in the rear:

Suddenly I hear faintly a medley of confused shouts. I see the men on the fire-step firing fast again, and up the trench they are firing both to front and flank … I see bomb smoke above the parapet to the right, I see men leap back from the fire-step and merge with another little rush of consumed wounded. The platoon sergeant waves his arm urgently, “Down the trench!”

Of course the formidable German stormtrooper units suffered heavy casualties during the German counterattack as well, according to the German novelist Ernst Junger, who described grenade duels with British troops in adjoining trenches at Cambrai in his novel and memoir, Storm of Steel:

The British resisted manfully. Every traverse had to be fought for. The black balls of Mills bombs crossed in the air with our own long-handled grenades. Behind every traverse we captured, we found corpses or bodies still twitching. We killed each other, sight unseen. We too suffered losses. A piece of iron crashed to the ground next to the orderly, which the fellow was unable to avoid; and he collapsed to the ground, while his blood issued on to the clay from many wounds. We hurdled over his body, and charged forward.

Junger described the unique thrill, and terror, of combat with grenades:

One barely glanced at the crumpled body of one’s opponent; he was finished, and a new duel was commencing. The exchange of hand-grenades reminded me of fencing with foils; you needed to jump and stretch, almost as in a ballet. It’s the deadliest of duels, as it invariably ends with one or other of the participants being blown to smithereens. Or both.

During the course of the Battle of Cambrai, the Germans suffered around 45,000 casualties, compared to around 44,200 British. Today the Cambrai Memorial commemorates 7000 British and South African soldiers who died during the battle and were buried in unknown graves.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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WWI Centennial: Wilson’s “Four Principles,” Broadway Closes

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 301st installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here.

In addition to the momentous events that finished the First World War, the year 1918 brought one of the most remarkable periods of diplomacy and international politics in American history, as President Woodrow Wilson sought to reshape the world based on the national ideals of democracy and self-determination. The effort reflected Wilson’s belief in American exceptionalism, meaning a special character derived from the United States’ democratic traditions, which gave the American people a historic mission to spread liberty, justice, and the rule of law to the rest of the world.

This sweeping attempt to remake the world based on political and philosophical ideals, though ultimately unsuccessful, wasn’t quite as impractical as it might seem. As Europe destroyed itself in a paroxysm of violence, the United States of America—already the world’s largest economy before the war even began—gathered unprecedented power over the affairs of other nations. U.S. lending to the Allies rose from $2.25 billion in 1917 to $7 billion by the end of 1918, giving Wilson the “whip hand” in negotiations with his European colleagues (in fact, a large portion of these loans were spent on American war supplies, spurring America’s wartime economic boom). France and Britain also imported huge amounts of American grain, meat, butter, and other foodstuffs to ward off starvation, and coal and oil for heat in the winter.

British what imports, World War I
Erik Sass

U.S. agricultural and oil exports, World War I
Erik Sass

Meanwhile British and French investors were forced by their governments to sell off foreign assets to raise dollars for war purchases, and American investors swooped in to buy up undervalued assets, giving the U.S. even more financial leverage globally: as the total stock of British foreign direct investment around the world fell from £4.26 billion in 1914 to £3.1 billion in 1918, and French FDI fell from 45 billion to 30 billion francs over the same period, American FDI soared from $3.5 billion to $13.7 billion.

Most important was America’s critical contribution in manpower and war production, which finally broke the stasis on the Western Front in the summer of 1918. By the end of the war there were 2 million American soldiers in Europe plus almost 2 million more back home ready for deployment. In the desperate days of June 1918, General of the Armies John “Black Jack” Pershing joined the Allied prime ministers in requesting that the American Expeditionary Force be expanded to 100 divisions, with 80 to be in France by April 1919; the U.S. Army had grown to 62 divisions by the time the war ended in November 1918, including 43 in France.

In this context it was widely hoped that Wilson would use America’s newfound power to dictate a just peace in Europe, and the idealistic president felt summoned to this sacred duty, even if it meant conflict with Britain and France. (Wilson insisted that America was an “Associated,” not “Allied,” power, to highlight America’s freedom from any obligation to respect the Allies’ postwar plans for Europe and the world.)

On January 8, 1918 Wilson outlined a new world order in the “Fourteen Points,” calling for the immediate evacuation of Belgium, Serbia, Romania, and Montenegro by the Central Powers; the dissolution of Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, liberating their oppressed nationalities; the creation of Poland; the return of Alsace-Lorraine from Germany to France; open diplomacy and an end to secret treaties; free trade; arms control agreements; and the formation of an international organization to enforce the rules, later called the League of Nations.

With these specific issues addressed, Wilson moved on to broad ideals in a speech to Congress on February 11, 1918, setting forth some steering ideals for his postwar vision in the “Four Principles.” First, all territorial adjustments to the map of Europe should be made solely “to bring a peace that will be permanent.” Second, the peacemakers had to respect the rights of small nations and regions: “Peoples and provinces are not to be bartered about from sovereignty to sovereignty.” Third, the interests of local populations trumped those of the Great Powers: “Every territorial settlement involved in this war must be made in the interest and for the benefit of the populations concerned, and not as a part of any mere adjustment or compromise of claims amongst rival states.” Fourth, all smaller groups aspiring to nationhood should receive sanction, as long as their goals don’t stir “discord and antagonism” in conflict with other groups.

The Four Principles were broad enough to permit a range of interpretations. Once again officials on both sides of the European conflict were afraid to openly differ from Wilson’s vision, yet accused their enemies of paying Wilson lip service. In a speech on February 25, 1918, the German chancellor, Georg von Hertling, claimed to agree with Wilson’s proposals in the Fourteen Points and Four Principles, but added that Germany had to have security guarantees from Belgium before evacuating the country and also accused the Entente Powers of violating Wilson’s rules. In response British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour blasted German hypocrisy and reiterated the Allied demand that Germany evacuate Belgium before peace negotiations could begin, pointing out that this injustice was the cause of the whole war.

Both sides could agree to the Four Principles in part because they were so vague, but also because they hoped to use them for their own ends. For example, in Eastern Europe the Germans still calculated that supporting the cause of national self-determination would allow them to dominate newly independent states in the Baltic, Poland, and Ukraine, eventually forming a regional trade bloc under German leadership. For their part Britain and France were happy to cancel promises of territory around the Adriatic Sea to Italy on the grounds of self-determination for local Slavic populations. They also clearly intended to disregard Wilson’s ideals, for example with their division of the Ottoman Empire’s old territories in the Middle East in the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Finally, Wilson’s guidelines simply couldn’t reconcile conflicting claims between a jumble of old and new nations in Eastern Europe: On the heels of the First World War the region saw a new round of violence with wars between combinations of Poland, Ukraine, Russia, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, and the Czech Republic.

BROADWAY CLOSES

As the president put forth his vision for a new world order, at home Americans faced growing wartime shortages as well rising prices due to inflation. In one coldly symbolic development, on February 12, 1918 the theaters of Broadway were temporarily closed to conserve coal for the war effort. Most of the theaters remained closed through cold winter months, shutting down the vital heart of New York City around Times Square, although they reopened in the spring.

The heating fuel shortage was real enough, compounding hunger among the urban poor. In January 1918 Philadelphia had suffered a “coal famine,” prompting one widow to tell the Philadelphia Inquirer: “We’re almost starving, my babies and me. It’s all right to almost starve. We’re pretty near used to that, but we can’t freeze. I could, but my babies can’t.”

U.S. coal price, World War I
Erik Sass

Across the U.S. and Europe, shortages and rising prices triggered a wave of industrial unrest in the latter years of the war, as complaints about low wages and high prices flowed together with demands for political reform. In Britain the number of strikes per year rose from 532 incidents involving 276,000 workers in 1916, to 1165 incidents involving 1.1 million strikers in 1918. In Germany the number of strikes rose from 137 in 1915 to 772 in 1918, as the number of workers involved soared from 11,639 to 1.3 million. Amid growing privation and suffering on the home front, the sinews of the war economy were beginning to snap.

See the previous installment or all entries, or read an overview of the war.

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Dan Kitwood, Getty Images
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This Just In
Flights Grounded After World War II Bomb Discovered Near London City Airport
Dan Kitwood, Getty Images
Dan Kitwood, Getty Images

London City Airport grounded all flights on the night of February 11, after a World War II bomb was found in the neighboring River Thames, The Guardian reports.

The half-ton bomb was revealed Sunday morning by development work taking place at the King George V Dock. Following its discovery, police set up a 702-foot exclusion zone around the area, closing local roads and shutting down the London City Airport until further notice. According to the BBC, 261 trips were scheduled to fly in and out of London City Airport on Monday. Some flights are being rerouted to nearby airports, while others have been canceled altogether.

The airport will reopen as soon as the explosive device has been safely removed. For that to happen, the Met police must first wait for the river's tide to recede. Then, once the bomb is exposed, they can dislodge it from the riverbed and tow it to a controlled explosion site.

The docks of London’s East End were some of the most heavily bombed points in the city during World War II. Germany’s Blitz lasted 76 nights, and as the latest unexpected discovery shows, bombs that never detonated are still being cleaned up from parks and rivers more than 75 years later.

[h/t The Guardian]

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