Cambrai was famous for two things: it
saw the first great tank attack in history and, of equal importance,
the first preregistration of artillery for an offensive. The idea for
the large-scale use of British tanks started in early August 1917,
when J. F. C. Fuller (second general staff officer, Tank Corps) (q.v.)
and H. J. Elles (general staff officer, Tank Corps) put in a tank raid
scheme for the Cambrai sector to General Headquarters. Eventually,
headquarters agreed, and nine infantry divisions, five cavalry
divisions, and three brigades of tanks were made available for the
offensive under Julian Byng, general officer commanding, Third Army.
The key to the success of the Cambrai
attack of November 20, 1917, was threefold. First, some 376 Mark IV
fighting tanks were committed to the assault, to crush lanes through
the wire and to protect the infantry as they advanced. Second, the
artillery was able to do counterbattery and suppression work, and fire
a barrage, without previous registration. This worked because the
guns' targets had been plotted on maps beforehand, while each gun had
previously been fired behind the lines to establish its accuracy.
Third, because of the first two factors, the Cambrai offensive would
be a complete surprise.
a.m. on November 20,
tanks and infantry advanced with great success against an astonished
German defense. By nightfall, gains of two to three miles had been
achieved. However, cavalry exploitation was slow to develop, and
although more gains were made in the next nine days, German reserves
halted the attack. Then, on November 30, a German blitzkrieg
counterattack recaptured much of the ground lost. The surprise storm
troop tactics used here anticipated the methods of the German 1918
spring offensives (see Ludendorff, Erich and Ludendorff Offensive).
However, the original tank and artillery combined attack at Cambrai
had forever altered the modern battlefield.