Being male I have a weakness for gadgets. This is good, as technology evolves it directly effects our day to day lives and the world around us, but as a history geek as well as a gadget one I was amazed when a friend showed me Linesman.
This programme gives access to somewhere in the region of 750 First World War trench maps, good in itself, but allows data to be combined with the modern day French IGN mapping. A wealth of other options allow for a contoured view of the landscape, a fly through view and exporting data to GPS/GPS enabled PDAs.
So now, with a bit of work, you can stand on the (military) spot of your choice, find trenches etc. But I've been having a lot of fun with laying my own tracks.
Using the grid references from the Assistant Director Medical Services (ADMS) war diaries from various divisions, I've been plotting the casualty evacuation routes of field ambulances at Arras, Ypres and Cambrai from 1917. This could be an extreme example of a geneologist trying to track "Uncle Albert's" war, but in my case it is an attempt to understand the casevac chainas part of my dissertation research. I'd started doing this on paper, but the ease with which Linesman allows this is amazing. By tracing the route of a trench the distance is measured, but the contoured/3d view helps get an appreciation of the ground, something which becomes paramount when carrying a stretcher.
I'm not claiming that I now understand all that was happening, I've just added another layer to the onion.
As said here, my essay is finished. Here is an easier on the eye version.
A veteran of the British Army’s attack of the 20th November 1917 near Cambrai would recognise the main features of a modern day all arms offensive. Cambrai saw the British Army bringing together operational factors such as surprise, intelligent use of artillery and a massing of force to break into the strong defensive positions of the Hindenburg Line. It was an early, almost experimental attempt at combining the power of tanks, artillery, infantry and airpower into a combined offensive tool and therefore provided both positive and negative lessons. All of which if heeded would be invaluable. But if the successful coming together of operational factors was the key to the triumphs of the 20th November, then unintelligent use of artillery, continued use of weak forces and communication breakdowns at all levels from Corps downwards would herald the later reverses and losses of the next fortnight.
The British Army has always tried to learn from its recent operational experiences and despite much written to the contrary this was often, quite logically, a “bottom up” process. The survivors of an operation would absorb the lessons both formally via the lessons learnt section of reports and informally from personal experience. To believe only the British Army was capable of this process is naïve. The constant process of development and counter-development maintained the stalemate of trench warfare, only an extraordinary superiority of material or true innovation would lead to a breakthrough. Whilst the nation mobilised to meet the former, individuals would provide the latter.
The plan for the Cambrai offensive came from at least two different people pushing forward ideas, but later partisan writing by such as Liddell Hart and J C Fuller has somewhat obscured the true birth of the attack. The Tank Corps was keen to prove its worth and probably needed to after a disappointing performance during Third Ypres and has often been credited with the inception of the offensive. Brigadier-General H Elles did submit plans for a surprise attack by tanks, aimed at a large-scale raid of the German lines, but so did the Brigadier-General General Staff of IV Corps, Brigadier-General H D De Pree, to Third Army, suggesting:
“a surprise attack with the aid of tanks on the FLESQUIERES-HAVRINCOURT Ridge, to take advantage of the apparent weakness of the enemy on this front in guns.”
Third Army was to considerably expand this scheme, incorporating the suggestions of the Tank Corps but also of Brigadier-General H H Tudor the officer Commanding Royal Artillery 9th (Scottish) Division. He proposed the use of an unregistered barrage combined with tanks breaking the enemy’s wire. An indication of the revolutionary nature of this suggestion is that other Artillery officers felt it couldn’t be achieved and it was only adopted on the direct orders of Third Army commander General Hon. Sir Julian Byng.
Field Marshal Haig gave the plan his backing, like the Tank Corp itself he needed a success. Political manoeuvring in Parliament by Lloyd George and the War Cabinet was putting pressure on the British Military command using the apparent failure of Third Ypres. Haig would later give his reasoning for the offensive against Cambrai, being to capture the Bourlon ridge which would turn the enemy’s defences in the area and threaten the German’s main rail communications and the town itself. The attack was to be re-assessed after 48 hours, the belief being this was the minimum for German reserves to reach the area, if necessary the objective would alter to securing the best winter positions possible.
The choice of Cambrai for this attack was itself to help in regaining the essential element of surprise. Previously this area had been a quiet section of the front, many German divisions being moved to the “Flanders sanatorium” to recover from the fighting at Third Ypres. The ground was therefore relatively unbroken which would suit tanks in the attack. Additionally this would make the hoped for general advance logistically easier compared to the struggle forward after the Somme fighting of late 1916 and the more recent experience at Ypres. Earlier plans for offensives in this area had lead to some work on improvement of the transport network. This it was hoped would allow men and resources to be gathered in the area without raising German suspicions and then allow for a rapid push forward following any advance. These preparations dating from spring of 1917 had also produced assembly trenches and Brigade HQs, all of which would help to disguise the necessary build up of men and materials.To ensure the continued secrecy of the operation camouflage officers were established at Corps level, the effectiveness of their work being checked by squadrons of the Royal Flying Corps over flying the British lines.
Whether unwitting or not, it is possible that the choice of Cambrai as a site for an offensive operation brought in an element of the operational tempo which would break the German forces during the Hundred Days offensive of 1918. After the long and painful struggle of Third Ypres to launch another attack, distant from the centre of previous operations would have, and indeed did, stretch both sides. Commanders on both sides could be forgiven for considering the campaign “season” over.
Whilst history has often seen Cambrai as a tank battle it was within the field of gunnery that the most remarkable developments occurred. Artillery was the predominate weapon of the First World War during which it was to undergo a unique period of technological advancement. The combination of accurate surveying of the gun positions, identification of targets by aerial reconnaissance and sound ranging lead to a growing confidence in its new generation of gunners that powered advances in the Royal Artillery’s combat efficiency.
Despite its Heath Robinson development sound ranging enabled the identification of enemy gun positions and when matched with the improvements in mapping and gun position survey gave the British artillery an edge in the counter battery war. The further adaptation of the sound ranging techniques to measure a shell being fired through two separated sheets allowed individual guns to be calibrated against an accepted normal value. This realisation of the difference between guns and the accumulative effect of firing combined with the batching of ammunition by manufacturing dates dramatically increased the accuracy of British fire.
As the new gunners learnt and refined their trade further advances became possible, meteorological data was gathered and fed forward adding to the complex calculations previously though unnecessary by many within the Royal Field and Horse Artillery but now routinely used at gun positions. Map boards used for plotting the artillery batteries and targets positions relative to each other were warped for the first time to eliminate inaccuracies, a technique which would be used into the late 1950’s.
Many historians, such as Tim Travers, see the British Army as only functioning as a top down organisation but a study of the Royal Artillery, as with many corps or regiments, banishes this view. Much of the critical work on sound ranging was carried out by junior officers and men who, with the backing of higher formations, experimented with equipment and techniques. An essential microphone was developed from the ideas of a Corporal and Lieutenant Bragg’s work on electrically controlled Sound Ranging Sections resulted in, by mid 1917, accuracy in fixing German guns of 90%. The German artillery had not effectively mastered these techniques by their massive bombardments of March 1918.
Many of these factors had already been seen at Messines in June 1917 and the later battles of Third Ypres, Cambrai was to see the first large-scale use of an unregistered barrage. Traditionally gun batteries would fire a few observed rounds to ensure that the target was accurately identified and an attack would be preceded by a sustained barrage aimed at destroying the wire emplacements, in both cases effectively signposting any forthcoming offensive to the defenders. With the task of breeching the wire assigned to the Tanks and the new capability to “shoot off the map” the artillery could be assembled in secret and a hurricane style bombardment launched at zero hour. For the first time since Neuve Chapelle in 1915 the British attack would have the benefit of surprise.
Using an unregistered barrage had other effects, whilst infantry could expect to rotate in and out of the line, often the guns and gunners would stay in. No barrage would reduce the wear on both men and guns and lessen the logistical demands of supplying guns in action. By the careful control of movement and disguise of gun positions, artillery batteries could be placed further forward. For the attack this would extend the range of covering fire but was also too lead to many guns being captured during the German counterattacks. An additional decision that was to have both benefits and consequences was the move to neutralisation over destruction of enemy targets, particularly gun batteries. Rather than attempt to destroy the German gun positions during the opening barrage the aim was to purely suppress them. This was successful for the initial attack but left many German batteries able to join the barrage supporting the counterattacks of 30th November.
The newly formed Tank Corps was to establish its reputation or destroy itself at Cambrai. Earlier operations on the Somme in 1916 and throughout 1917 had allowed the Corps thinkers to develop new tactics but hadn’t given the fledgling arm the security of an obvious victory. As the plans moved away from a raid to a full attack the Tank Corps role would evolve. Whilst used on mass, the tanks were not the prime factor in the attack. Their role was to get the infantry and later cavalry through the German wire. Troops could pick their way through a path of crushed wire but for the horses the wire would still be a problem, some tanks being fitted with anchors to pull the wire clear. This may have been aimed at getting the cavalry through and into the green fields beyond but it should not be forgotten that despite a number of older tanks being converted into supply tanks most stores, ammunition and water etc, would be moved on horseback or man packed. The tanks themselves had problems to overcome, parts of the Hindenburg defences had been designed to stop tanks traversing them. In the eternal cat and mouse game of warfare the Tank Corps had to find a solution, this being the use of bundles of wood, called fascines, which could be dropped into the trenches to allow the vehicles to cross. But in each solution there could be a problem and to enable the use of fascines tactics had to be adapted, tanks would work in groups of three dropping one fascine to cross each trench in a system.
Crucially for this first large-scale effort the tanks had had a chance to train with the infantry prior to the offensive, mainly due to the attacking divisions being pulled out of the line before the attack. The 51st (Highland) Division and 62nd (West Riding) Division moved to Wailly for 10 days training, which was well received as:
“The troops benefited very greatly from this, and developed the greatest confidence in the Tanks. It may safely be said that never have Divisions entered a battle with a higher moral or more confident spirit.”
For some units the time available was limited, the battalions of the 12th (Eastern) Division receiving half a day each, even this short period of training was extremely valuable in building an understanding between both arms. As well as allowing time for training this rotation of troops meant the infantry hadn’t been drained by the routine of trench life therefore entering the offensive relatively fresh and it limited the German chances of identifying the units in the line.
Famously Brigadier-General H Elles lead the tanks into battle personally and has received some criticism for this. For the attack of 20th November his tanks were attached to Corps, Divisions and in some cases down to Brigade level, all combat tanks being launched into the attack. With the available methods of communication and no reserves to control and coming from a military age were personal courage was still seen as important in a commander irrespective of level, there was not much else Elles could do.
The administrative work required to secretly assembly the necessary men and material was tremendous. No doubt the individual soldiers would grumble about the despised “Staff” but the planning process was a sign of the growing maturity of the BEF. By Cambrai the Corps had become a key level of command, much of the planning being devolved from, or co-ordinated by, the attacking Corps. The codification of tactics through pamphlets, (such as S.S. 143 Instructions for the training of platoons for offensive action, 1917), continued the evolution of command forward allowing a simplified and therefore more adaptable and rapid orders structure. Whilst Army and GHQ would sometimes give “Special Instructions” the British orders process was becoming much closer to the German mission based structure than is often credited.
As confidence in its own abilities grew within the BEF it became easier to try new operation methods. For Cambrai the key, defining, element was the introduction of an unregistered bombardment. This change in technique combined with excellent staff work and the strict maintenance of secrecy gave the BEF the crucial element of surprise. The sudden appearance on their parapet of tanks and infantry would overwhelm even the staunchest defenders. When the infantry meet resistance without the option of tank support they were not helpless. The re-organisation of the platoon into the prime offensive unit gave it the flexibility and apparatus to often overcome defended “localities” or counterattacks. Many of the divisions, like the 56th (London), conducted or defeated attacks through the trench systems without tank support.
Having chosen its ground for the attack the British Army found itself faced with a familiar conundrum. Despite the recent demands of Third Ypres and diversion of resources to Italy it had managed to mass a sufficient force to break into the Hindenburg position, but fitting the gathered forces into the relatively narrow front left little space for the reserves required for exploitation of success. By necessity many of the reserves, particularly the cavalry were held quite distant. As the troops became exhausted or held up only local reserves could be deployed, neighbouring units often missed opportunities to help forward stalled attacks due to a lack of communication sideways across the front.
The large-scale use of tanks was unprecedented but the application of new equipment and tactics was a familiar experience to the BEF. The absence of a plan, or doctrine, for the use of tanks in combination with infantry allowed commanders to adapt the deployment to meet local conditions, but it also gave freedom to ignore the advice of the specialists from the Tank Corps. The choice of Major-General Harper to push the tanks attached to his 51st (Highland) Division forward and place his infantry further behind weakened the strength of his attack against the Flesquieres Ridge. In some areas the defenders let the tanks pass, emerged and engaged the advancing infantry in a situation akin to the “race to the parapet” of earlier barrages. The tanks becoming isolated from the infantry came up against German artillery of the 54th Division, this unit having both training and experience in anti-tank operations managed to inflict significant casualties and stop the advance.
The check in front of Flesquieres caused a delay that allowed the Germans to reinforce the Bourlon ridge effectively ending the chance of a breakthrough. Haig was to authorise an extension to the 48-hour deadline in the hope of taking this dominating feature, seemingly forgetting the bitter lessons of High Wood and Delville Wood. This drew his forces into another drawn out slugging match with the Germans feeding in troops from their sheltered side of the feature. Small advances gave hope of success and attention seems to have been focused on events around Bourlon
The German counterattacks of 30th November would generally fall upon tired formations low in number but if this was the main factor in the reason for German success why didn’t the British collapse across the front?
Whilst giving some ground IV Corp managed to successfully hold up the German attacks. Units such as the 56th (London) Division hadn’t been as heavily engaged as some others but it was the British artillery that broke the attack. Due to a better logistics infrastructure in this area the weight of artillery in this area was remarkable.
In the area of Gonnelieu and Villers Guislain the German attacks were immediately successful. The troops of III Corp, particularly those of the 12th (Eastern) and 20th (Light) Divisions were tired and under strength. Additionally the 12th (Eastern) Division were deployed in a particularly restrictive position due to its initial movement to create a defensive flank, this gave little space for the expected “defence in depth”.
But two events had already placed the situation practically beyond the control of the troops on the ground. The positioning of the Corps boundary between III and VII Corps combined with the failure to co-ordinate defensive artillery fire plans did much of the German’s work for them.
The latter factor could generously be described as a “misunderstanding” between III and VII Corps with regards artillery resources. The German counterattack was not a surprise to the troops in the line, the various reports and enquiries after the battle all identified an awareness of the Germans gathering their forces. VII Corps’ 55th (West Lancashire) Division was thinly deployed over a wide front. As early as 21st November divisional commander Major-General Jeudwine discussed with his Corps Commander Lieut-General Sir T D’O Snow the possibility of a German attack. Jeudwine, in a report to the Chief of the Imperial Staff dated 4th January 1918 wrote:
“On the 21st November the Corp Commd VII Corp at my HQ discussed the probability of attack about VILLERS GUISLAIN and the troops available for defence, and informed me that he had no reinforcements to give me.
He expressed a wish that I should send a Battalion to VAUCELETTE FARM, which I did. As a consequence of what the Corp Commander told me I did not ask for reinforcements.”
A confused correspondence then took place between the 12th (Eastern) and 55th (West Lancashire) Divisions and VII Corps. Following verbal requests from the 55th (West Lancashire) Division elements of 12th Division’s and III Corps’ artillery were re-tasked to cover Jeudwine’s front. As the signs of an attack grew a fatal misunderstanding crept in. Jeudwine’s 55th (West Lancashire) Division believed that artillery assets from the neighbouring 12th(Eastern) Division and III Corps would place a barrage on his front at dawn on the 30th November. Both the 12th (Eastern) Division and III Corp believed that this barrage was only to be fired when called for or on sight of SOS signals from the trenches. No call for the barrage is recorded as being received and therefore the artillery started firing at approximately 7 am on seeing SOS signals. The effect of a barrage on the forming up points and advancing German troops can only be surmised, but in the IV Corp area similar had massively disrupted the German attack. The lack of clear co-ordination of artillery at Corps and Army level handicapped the defence of the sector. The loss of the Forward Observation Officers due to their forward position was not the main problem as many guns were in forward positions themselves, this was the missed opportunity of firing a reactive bombardment rather than pro-actively shelling the German’s potential assembly positions and approach routes.
Having been allowed to assembly and advance almost unopposed the German forces used the Banteux Ravine to pierce the boundary of Lieut-General Sir W P Pulteney’s III Corps and Lieut-General Sir T D’O Snow’s VII Corps. By placing the Corps boundary on the Banteux Ridge a fatal weakness had been introduced. The placement of boundaries on easily recognisable features is logical to prevent confusion, but the choice of the Banteux Ravine as a boundary was reckless. During operations on the Somme in July 1916 the boundary between the French and British forces had been moved so that one Army, the French, would be responsible for both sides of the river. A similar approach was required for a large feature such as the ravine. This decision was accented by an apparent failure of communication and co-ordination between units, from Corps down to platoon. If one formation wasn’t to cover the ravine careful integration of fire plans would be needed to provide the necessary security.
Writing after the attack, both Byng and Pulteney criticised the British machine gunners as being at fault, citing the German selection of gunners making them an elite. Byng further identified the German success being due to:
“one cause and one alone, namely -lack of training on part of junior officers and NCO’s and men”.
Conversely whilst accepting personal responsibility for the blame of the failures of 30th November, Haig felt the problem was:
“many of the men were very tired and unable to resist the enemy’s blow, as I believe they could have they been fresh.”
The responsibility for both of these points must stop with Byng and his Corps commanders. By late 1917 Corps had become the main tactical unit and therefore its commanders had the most control. For a number of his Corps to fail in similar ways points to a lack of control and guidance from Byng himself.
From August 1918 the British Army proved itself the most proficient offensive force on the Western Front, by its effective use of armour, artillery, airpower, infantry, command of logistics and planning the BEF was able to develop an operational tempo which was to shatter the German Army. It is no great stretch of the imagination to see the early steps of this in the fighting near Cambrai in November and December 1917. The experience of assaulting the prepared positions of the Hindenburg line was to provide many important lessons, some from the British attacks but also from the German counterattack. Not all these lessons, particularly the change in German offensive tactics seem to have been assimilated, but Cambrai was to be the proving ground of the British all-arms offensive.
The battle of Cambrai was also to show the importance of another key, but uncontrollable, factor to military operations, that of luck. For the British attack of 20th November luck provided mist to cover their early advances, but the unexpected arrival from the Russian front of a divisional relief for the 20th Landwehr division placed more troops than expected at the local German commanders disposal. The weather, the perennial enemy of British Generals, was to play a part during the German counterattacks, in a portent of March 1918, the British defenders were cloaked in mist.
 The National Archives (TNA);Public Records Office (PRO) WO 158/396, IV Corps No H.R.S 1-A, 23rd August 1917 quoted in Simpson, Andy Directing Operations: British Corps Command on the Western Front 1914-18 (2006) page 116.
 TNA;PRO, WO 158/54 Cambrai: Enquiry: Extracts from GHQ file. Summary of operations
 Miles, Captain, Military Operations France and Belgium 1917 Vol 3 Battle of Cambrai, reprint by Imperial War Museum. page 47
 TNA;PRO, WO 158/318 IV Corps report, 20th November to 1st December 1917. page 3
 Simpson, Andy Directing Operations: British Corps Command on the Western Front 1914-18 (2006) page 121
 Some British Army Tank Regiments still celebrate Cambrai day.
 See, Farndale, Sir Martin. History of The Royal Regiment of Artillery: the Western Front Woolwich (1986) Annex L
Farndale, Sir Martin. History of The Royal Regiment of Artillery: the Western Front, page 217
 See, Travers, Tim, How the War was won: Factors that led to victory in World War One
 Farndale, Sir Martin. History of The Royal Regiment of Artillery: the Western Front page 376-377
 Farndale, Sir Martin. History of The Royal Regiment of Artillery: the Western Front, page 217.
 Fascines were also issued to the Royal Artillery units scheduled to advance
 TNA;PRO, WO 158/318 IV Corps report, 20th November to 1st December 1917. page 5
 TNA;PRO, WO 158/360 12th Divisional Report on Operations 20th November 1917. page 8
 The 36th (Ulster) Division lost some men prior to the attack, possibly leading to a raised German expectation of an attack.
 The 6th Division could have attacked Flesquieres to assist forward the 51st (Highland ) Division.
 A rifle company of the 6th Royal West Kents was holding its front line with 42 men.
 TNA;PRO, WO 158/52 55th Division Reply dated 4th January 1918,
 TNA;PRO, WO 158/52 Report on Operations of the Third Corps on the 30th November 1917,
 TNA;PRO, WO 158/54 Byng to GHQ dated 18th December 1917
 TNA;PRO, WO 158/54 Haig to CIGS dated 24th December 1917
The Plan. From Public Records Office WO 95/ 1851
"Companies will move forward in rear of their tanks, taking care that their names are known to all ranks and that the tanks are not lost. All trenches on the route are to be mopped as they pass and objectives detailed as per map consolidated and wired as soon as wire can be obtained. All officers will have a general compass bearing.
Lewis gun sections [see here for platoon organisation] should remain outside wire till last and cover the passage of the remaining sections through the wire.
"B" Company, on reaching objective will at once get touch with 36th Infantry Brigade at R.22.c.45.10
"A" & "C" Companies will keep their platoons in BLEAK SUPPORT and follow in rear of the SUFFOLK REGT, taking over and consoliding the post in advance of BLEAK SUPPORT."
Putting away my notes I found this from the 9th Battalion War Diary (Public Records Office WO 95/1851)
"At zero- 10 the tanks started and a heavy barrage was put down on all the enemy trenches and batteries.
All "A" coy tanks, one of "C" and two of "B" coys stuck in either our own front line or a sunken road and only the coolness of the commanders of these companies, viz Captains CAPPER, BARLTROP and WHALLEY saved the situation.
These officers kept their Coys in hand and led them through other gaps.
All Coys after this delay reached and consolidated their objectives. Many Boches were killed or captured and in addition a vast supply of all kinds of munitions and stores included one heavy mortar, two medium, three heavy MG's and two light ones and several grenadewerfers.
The Boche made no immediate counter attack.
"A" Coy under Capt. CAPPER had the more difficult consolidation but this was well carried out by this officer."
Well finally it is over. I can now agree with my wife and admit that the battle of Cambrai is over, its in the past. Sort of.
I have always found myself interested in the battle of Cambrai, but never got round to having a good look at it. So I looked, maybe not "good" but to the best of my abilities and found it fascinating.
Eventually I'll post a bibliography but I found the Official History, Directing Operations by Andy Simpson, How the War was won by Tim Travers and the History of the Royal Regiment of Artillery: Western Front by Sir Martin Farndale as crucial. This last work heavily influenced my eventual feeling that whilst famous as a tank battle, Cambrai should really be noted for the changes in artillery usage. Lessons learnt at Cambrai were applied by the Tank Corps at Amiens, but the lessons learnt by the gunners were applied again and again throughout the war.
Reading some of the documents produced for the enquiry into the offensive and German counter offensive, has now got me interested in the link between the tactics used by the Germans at Cambrai at the end of November + beginning of December 1917 and those of March 1918. So the next obsession begins!
Still ploughing through the books, articles etc.
I'm starting to feel that part of the success for the British initial operations lay in the previous work done on both plans for attacks/raids in the area and the build up of a logistical infrastructure. This allowed a massing of force which when combined with the change in artillery and armour techniques gave a break into the Hindenburg position.
However, the necessary reserves were not there to exploit this success leading to a dragged out fight for positions such as Bourlon Wood. This left the British vunerable to the German counter-attack which itself ran out of steam as the British fell back on their existing logistics network. This statement is not meant to degrade the importance of the British troops efforts in defence.
I'll try and place a proper bibliography on here very soon.
As my descent into obsession continues I thought I'd post some detail on my thought process (or lack of) with regards my next essay. I have mentioned elsewhere I'm studying for a MA and this is partially assessed by essays, my next one being on why the British attack at Cambrai initially succeeded and ultimately failed.