Battle of Cambrai (1917)

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"Down in a Shell crater, We Fought Like Kilkenny Cats"

The Battle of Cambrai (20 November - 7 December 1917) was a British campaign of the First World War. Cambrai, in the Nord département (Nord-Pas-de-Calais), was a key supply point for the German Siegfried Stellung (part of the Hindenburg Line) and the nearby Bourlon Ridge would be an excellent gain from which to threaten the rear of the German line to the north. The operation was to include an experimental artillery action. Major General Henry Hugh Tudor, commander of the 9th Infantry Division, suggested trying out new artillery-infantry techniques on his sector of the front. During preparations, J. F. C. Fuller, a staff officer with the Royal Tank Corps (RTC), was in the process of looking for a place to use tanks as raiding parties. Field Marshal Julian Byng, commander of the British Third Army, decided to incorporate them into the attack.

The battle is erroneously noted for being the first use of tanks in a combined arms operation. Small combined arms attacks had been used at the Battle of the Somme with mixed results. Despite the initial success of the Mark IV tanks at Cambrai, German artillery and infantry defences exposed the frailties of their armour and the vehicles became mostly ineffective after the first day. The battle was largely an artillery-infantry battle that achieved offensive surprise and technical superiority against strong fortifications, but weak German infantry and artillery defences which quickly recovered. The British attack demonstrated that the Hindenburg Line could be penetrated and showed the value of new artillery and infantry doctrines, such as sound ranging and infiltration tactics, that would later play a vital part during the Hundred Days Offensive.

The popular perception of the battle as a tank battle was largely the result of extensive writings of biased historians Basil Liddell Hart and J. F. C. Fuller, of whom the later erroneously claimed credit for the operational plan. Liddell Hart, a critic of Douglas Haig, attempted to use the battle to indicate a "new" form of doctrine. Liddell Hart's position as Military Correspondent of the Daily Telegraph and The Times newspapers in 1925 to 1939, allowed him enormous access to the greater public and therefore great influence.[2] Several modern studies, and the British Official History, rejected their version of events.[3]

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