The Battle of Cambrai
The Great War 1914-18
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The town of Cambrai was captured by the Germans in 1914 and Crown Prince Rupprecht, commander of the 6th Army, established his headquarters there. For the next three years it was bitterly contested until September 1917, when, as the Germans evacuated in the face of the British and Canadian advance, they mined the town which was set on fire.
Badly battered during the fighting, for two weeks between 20th November and 4th December 1917 it was hoped it would be the scene of a great British victory. Tanks had been used for the first time on the battlefield during the Somme Offensive, but they had not fared as well as expected. More than a year later they were committed once again in what has become known as the first great tank battle in history.
The attack was under the command of General Sir Julian Byng who had a number of tanks at his disposal under the command of Major-General Hugh Elles. On the first day of the attack some 381 tanks advanced and overwhelmed the Germans and managed to force a gap of six miles into their defences. Victory seemed certain and church bells in Britain were rung to mark the occasion.
The British became victims of their own success, because the advance was not exploited due to the lack of understanding tactics in infantry and tank co-operation on the battlefield. The Germans reorganised their lines and the attack was halted by Haig on the 4th December. British losses were high, approx. 43,000 killed and wounded with around 6,000 taken prisoner. The Germans had lost over 41,000 killed and wounded and a further 11,000 taken prisoner. Lessons were learnt from the attack which would be of great benefit to the British in future tank operations.