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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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Liberty's Victorious Conflict: A Photographic History of the World War, Library of Congress // Public Domain
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WWI Centennial: The British Capture Jerusalem
General Allenby enters Jerusalem at the Jaffa gate, December 11, 1917
General Allenby enters Jerusalem at the Jaffa gate, December 11, 1917
Liberty's Victorious Conflict: A Photographic History of the World War, Library of Congress // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 296th installment in the series.

December 11, 1917: The British Capture Jerusalem

Located in the western Judean hills, Jerusalem’s strategic importance was exceeded only by its symbolic value as the ancient capital of the Holy Land, revered by three faiths and home to religious shrines including the Dome of the Rock, Western Wall, and Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Possession of the city would open the way to northern Palestine and Syria for the British Egyptian Expeditionary Force—but its loss would be an even bigger blow to Ottoman prestige.

Indian artillery in World War I
Library of Congress // Public Domain

After conquering Gaza in early November 1917, General Edmund Allenby decided to move on Jerusalem at once. The EEF pushed the Ottoman Seventh and Eighth Armies back at the Battle of Mughar Ridge on November 3, followed by the Battle of Nebi Samwil from November 17-24. The initial British efforts to capture Jerusalem failed, however, primarily due to a lack of heavy artillery as well as inclement weather. Oskar Teichman, a British medical officer, noted the challenging conditions when crossing a seasonal stream, or wadi, around this time:

On reconnoitering, we found the Warwicks crossing a swollen wadi, which had washed away the railway, and whose presence could not be discovered, as it was part of a great lake, until a horseman, who was riding through 2 or 3 feet of water, became suddenly submerged. It was an extraordinary sight: Several horses were swimming, and also men, some of the former disappearing altogether and being drowned in the swift current … On consulting my map, it was discovered that that the wadi in question was described as dry!

The British laboriously brought up artillery over muddy roads while holding off continuous Turkish counterattacks that attempted to recapture the village. On December 7, 1917, the British returned to the attack, prompting the Turks to withdraw from Jerusalem—forever, as it turned out—on the night of December 8. The Spanish consul in Jerusalem, the Conde de Ballobar, described the sad scenes as the beaten Turkish army evacuated the city:

The poor Turkish soldiers! The injured men that were passing by in front of my house were on foot, holding their wounds with their hands, full of blood, haggard. An officer came by on horseback with his arm bandaged and his body sustained by three soldiers on foot. The officer’s face expressed the most horrible suffering. He, just as the soldiers and wounded, went with his head down and looking sad, very sad.

Later the withdrawal turned into a chaotic race to leave the city, according to Ballobar. "I went back to the consulate, witnessing scenes of panic that cannot be described: Officers were running their horses at a gallop, soldiers as fast as their legs would carry them, women and children crying out loud,” he wrote. The inhabitants of the holy city didn’t comport themselves particularly well during the period of nonexistent government that followed, he noted:

The instincts of the inhabitants of Jerusalem were palpably shown. Everything that was capable of being stolen was disappearing into the hands of thieves of every caste, religion, and nationality that was swarming around there. Telegraph wire, half-destroyed cars, wood, old cans, etc. The scene was not very uplifting. From one of the balconies of the Hotel Kaminitz I saw an armoire being lowered down by ropes. And the Turkish police were watching all this without turning a hair.

On December 9, the city’s civilian mayor, hoping to prevent damage to its holy places and artifacts, visited Allenby under a white flag of truce and officially invited the British to enter. On December 11, Allenby, a savvy politician and diplomat as well as a skillful general, humbly entered Jerusalem on foot, instead of on horseback, to show respect as well as to convey the fact that the British didn’t view the inhabitants as conquered enemies, but rather victims of Turkish oppression. He immediately moved to reassure Jerusalemites that their lives, and the city’s treasures, would be protected:

Lest any of you be alarmed by reason of your experience at the hands of the enemy who has retired, I hereby inform you that it is my desire that every person pursue his lawful business without fear of interruption. Furthermore, since your city is regarded with affection by the adherents of three of the great religions of mankind and its soil has been consecrated by the prayers and pilgrimages of multitudes of devout people of these three religions for many centuries, therefore, do I make it known to you that every sacred building, monument, holy spot, shrine, traditional site, endowment, pious bequest, or customary place of prayer of whatsoever form of the three religions will be maintained and protected according to the existing customs and beliefs of those to whose faith they are sacred.

View of Jerusalem, 1917
The New York Times photo archive, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The people of Jerusalem, having endured Turkish misrule as well as hunger and disease over the last three years, naturally greeted the British as liberators, Ballobar wrote in his diary:

And here one can apply all the wildly enthusiastic phrases that the newspapers utilize on grand occasions. Really, I have never seen a popular enthusiasm so spontaneous and great. Every British soldier that passed by was followed and escorted by a throng of admirers that touched his uniform, caressed his horse, talked to him in all the languages of the Orient and admired him like a hero … The balconies were full of people. Many people were hugging each other in the street, others were mutually congratulating each other and all were walking around in their best clothes.

The fall of Jerusalem was a huge propaganda win for the British and their allies, with Prime Minister David Lloyd George memorably describing it as a “Christmas present for the British people.” Meanwhile T.E. Lawrence, who happened to be visiting Allenby’s headquarters when Jerusalem was captured, was embarrassed that the Arab Army hadn’t participated in the battles or liberation of the holy city, and vowed that the next time, at Damascus, the Arabs wouldn’t be bystanders, noting: “The ceremony of the Jaffa Gate gave me a new determination.”

See the previous installment or all entries.

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The Secret World War II History Hidden in London's Fences

In South London, the remains of the UK’s World War II history are visible in an unlikely place—one that you might pass by regularly and never take a second look at. In a significant number of housing estates, the fences around the perimeter are actually upcycled medical stretchers from the war, as the design podcast 99% Invisible reports.

During the Blitz of 1940 and 1941, the UK’s Air Raid Precautions department worked to protect civilians from the bombings. The organization built 60,000 steel stretchers to carry injured people during attacks. The metal structures were designed to be easy to disinfect in case of a gas attack, but that design ended up making them perfect for reuse after the war.

Many London housing developments at the time had to remove their fences so that the metal could be used in the war effort, and once the war was over, they were looking to replace them. The London County Council came up with a solution that would benefit everyone: They repurposed the excess stretchers that the city no longer needed into residential railings.

You can tell a stretcher railing from a regular fence because of the curves in the poles at the top and bottom of the fence. They’re hand-holds, designed to make it easier to carry it.

Unfortunately, decades of being exposed to the elements have left some of these historic artifacts in poor shape, and some housing estates have removed them due to high levels of degradation. The Stretcher Railing Society is currently working to preserve these heritage pieces of London infrastructure.

As of right now, though, there are plenty of stretchers you can still find on the streets. If you're in the London area, this handy Google map shows where you can find the historic fencing.

[h/t 99% Invisible]

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