King George V, the British king-emperor, famously approved of Sir Douglas Haig’s appointment as c-in-c of the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front because, in the monarch’s opinion, the general was not too clever. To be fair, the word ‘clever’ was often a pejorative term in early twentieth-century Britain, with a meaning we have since extended to the phrase ‘too clever by half’, but the faint praise still says something basic about the way British ground forces were perceived by their leaders during the First World War.
When the War began, the British Army was a small, professional force of highly trained men, well capable of conducting clever manouevres in pursuit of clever tactics. Trying to do anything clever with gigantic armies made up of volunteers or conscripts, rushed to the front after minimal training, struck military professionals (like the King, who had spent fifteen years in the peacetime Royal Navy) as asking for trouble, so the bloated BEF needed a commander more comfortable with a sledgehammer than an epée.
Fair to say that’s what it got in Haig, and arguments will never cease about how the Western Front might have panned out if a bold British c-in-c had been given his head in 1917. But if Haig’s performance has rightly been described as dull and cautious, the man himself was quite capable of being clever, or at least shrewd, particularly when it came to looking after his job and reputation.
On 20 November, the British Third Army launched a relatively minor offensive north of Arras, towards Cambrai. Haig had originally vetoed the operation, but changed his mind in October, by which time the evident failure of his Ypres Offensive had left his good name in need of a success, what he called a ‘theatrical blow’, before the end of the year’s fighting season.
Haig’s was not the only reputation threatened by the summer failure at Ypres. The British Army’s vaunted new assault weapon, the tank, had proved spectacularly useless in the Flanders mud, giving weight to the substantial body of military opinion opposed to its priority development. The British Tank Corps, which was of course staffed by tank enthusiasts, looked for a way to restore faith in the weapon, and Third Army commander General Byng accepted a plan for a massed tank attack across dry ground in the Arras sector, between the Canal du Nord and St. Quentin.
The plan had been presented by Colonel John Fuller, the Tank Corps chief of staff and a figure well known to military historians as one of the twentieth century’s most influential and prescient armoured warfare theorists. Like most committed ‘tankies’, Fuller was regarded as something of an eccentric by his more orthodox superiors, and grew used to having much of his wartime tactical advice ignored or only partially followed.
By 1917 Fuller was already planning the future of tanks as long-range strike weapons, penetrating far beyond enemy lines under cover of strong air, motorised and artillery support. Though the War ended before sufficiently fast and reliable machines had been developed for the purpose, he laid out his ideas in a famous document known as Plan 1919. This was ignored, or at least rejected, by the British Army, as were his postwar writings on the subject (along with those of his oppo, Basil Liddell Hart), but his work was very well received in German military circles and formed the blueprint for what was later called Blitzkrieg.
The operation that began on 20 November (known to posterity as the Battle of Cambrai, and not be confused with the following year’s Cambrai Offensive) was the first BEF attack of any size to make use of Fuller’s tactical ideas, but they were fatally fudged by the high command.
Fuller recommended a massed raid across dry ground, without any warning in the form of a preliminary bombardment, followed by a rapid withdrawal – but Byng opted for a full-scale ‘breakthrough’ attempt spearheaded by the tank attack. Under those circumstances, Fuller insisted that armoured reserves were held back to exploit and protect any successes – but Byng sent all 476 available tanks in at once, along with six infantry and two cavalry divisions, supported by about 1,000 artillery pieces. As the icing on a cake that was already pretty unpalatable to tank commanders, the general also ignored forecasts of bad weather to launch on schedule.
Opening at dawn along a 10km front, and without a preliminary bombardment, the attack achieved complete surprise against the two German divisions holding the position. By the end of the first day the BEF had made gains of about 6km and forced a gap in the German lines that opened the road to Cambrai, although General Harper’s 51st Division had been halted in front of its first objective, the village of Flesquières.
Harper’s failure has excited controversy ever since. What you might call the ‘lions led by donkeys’ tendency has accused him of imposing his own, outdated ideas about tank tactics and keeping his infantry away from the machines, with expensive consequences. Apologists argue that the German defence system around Flesquières –heavier and cleverer than elsewhere in the sector – caused the setback, and forced Harper into a change of tactics to protect his men from heavy fire concentrated on the tanks. Harper died in the early 1920s without leaving any memoir, so the controversy can expect eternal life, but Flesquières wasn’t the reason the attack’s good start went wrong. The village was taken next day, and the British made small gains all along the battlefront, but without reserves they could do nothing to prevent German reinforcements blocking the road to Cambrai.
This being a war that somehow imbued field commanders with inexhaustible optimism (on land and in the air, not at sea), Haig took sufficient encouragement from the first day’s gains to press further attacks. They continued, with little or no success, until 30 November, when a major German counterattack got underway using the ‘infiltration tactics’ perfected on the Eastern Front in the late summer (3 September, 1917: Trial By Fire). The northern wing of the new British salient held but attackers broke through to the south, and almost all the ground gained by the BEF had been lost by the time fighting died down on 7 December.
The Battle of Cambrai made very little difference to the state of the War, despite costing 45,000 British and 50,000 German casualties. It did keep the Tank Corps in business, because despite a routinely disappointing outcome (from an attacking point of view) its opening gambit proved to the British high command that massed tanks could be effective. In contrast, Cambrai encouraged the German high command to the rather more sophisticated conclusion that, although tanks could bust through trench defences in ideal conditions, they didn’t solve the fundamental problem of how to exploit initial gains, and so weren’t worth the increasingly precious resources needed for extensive development.
The last major attack on the Western Front in 1917, Cambrai completed an almost uniformly disastrous year for the Allies in the theatre, but the tankies big moment at least gave the battle the appearance of strategic purpose. For a British government wary of war weariness in revolutionary times, and no less anxious than Haig to benefit from a ‘theatrical blow’, this was a godsend. Britain’s highly effective propaganda machine made a lot of noise at the time about the success of the tanks, and by the end of the War their fleeting impact at Cambrai has been woven into the kind of rational narrative that gets constructed for popular consumption around any final victory.
The tanks proved themselves at Cambrai, their leaders learned how to use them, they went on to roll over the German Army in 1918, and were thus established as the armoured weapon of the future. That was the narrative, and it was nonsense. It completely ignored the marginal nature of tank warfare during the 1918 campaigns, and later proved indifferent to the fact that tanks as used by the Allies during the War bore little resemblance in design or purpose to those that became the armoured weapons of the future.
A basis in fiction hasn’t prevented the narrative from growing and solidifying to persist into the present, so take a pinch of salt before you get comfortable with the anything the Anglophone heritage industry has to say about Cambrai during the next few weeks. If it’s still peddling the wartime tank narrative, you’re being sold hundred year-old propaganda.