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The battlefields of Cambrai are amongst the least visited of the Western Front battlefields of World War 1. This is even more surprising when you realise how ground breaking the 1917 battle was. The Allies used what was then a revolutionary method of attack utilising massed tanks and aircraft. This method was subsequently intensively studied by the Germans and evolved into the blitzkrieg methods of the German Army in World War Two.

Only by chance I discovered that I had a Great Uncle who was killed in the 1917 battle. 2nd Lieutenant Sydney Elphick Sanders served in the 6th Battalion Royal West Kent Regiment and was killed on 30th November 1917. He has no known grave and is listed on the Cambrai Memorial to the Missing at Louverval.

The attack started at 06.20 on November 20th 1917 when the Germans were surprised by an intense artillery bombardment that began without warning. Previous offensives had been heralded by days and often weeks of artillery fire. Out of the November mists more than 350 British tanks advanced towards the massive wire and trenches of the Hindenburg Line defences supported by infantry and a creeping artillery barrage. The bulk of the initial attack went well with some units covering more than five miles from their starting point, an unheard of distance since the stalemate of trench warfare.

However, the exploitation phase was poorly handled and the cavalry units that were supposed to exploit the enemy disarray, were placed too far behind the lines and had difficulty moving forward swiftly. The Germans quickly reorganised their defences and within days the front was stabilized. Further attempts were made in the next 10 days by the British and Canadians near Bourlon Wood to push through to Cambrai, but were thwarted by stiff German defence.

By November 29th, the Germans had built up sufficient reserves to counter-attack. Their attack on 30th November 1917 utilised “Hutier Tactics” which involved small, lightly-equipped infantry units infiltrating the British frontline, attacking rear areas, and avoiding strongpoints, leaving them for attack by follow-up troops with heavier weapons. Many British army units were overrun and their unit commanders captured or killed. It was in this attack that my Great Uncle was killed at Lateau Wood. On December 3rd, General Haig the overall army commander gave orders to withdraw "with the least possible delay from the Bourlon Hill-Marcoing salient to a more retired and shorter line."

British casualties were over 44,000 men during the battle while the Germans lost about 45,000 men, but for the first time since 1914 the trench stalemate had been broken significantly and set in motion the end of the war in the following year.

 

cambrai battle map

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