Tanks at Cambrai

I am writing this blog on the 20th November, which happens to be the date of the centenary of the first British massed tank attack.  The Battle of Cambrai started on 20th November 1917 and the secret weapon which the British had been developing since 1915 came into its own in a major way.

A fascinating programme was shown on Channel 4 last night: ‘Guy Martin’s WW1 Tank’.  It follows the story of Guy’s ambitious plan to build a working replica of a Mark IV WW1 tank in time for the centenary of their use at Cambrai.

At the same time I have just read an article on the use of the tanks at Cambrai in November’s Family Tree Magazine by the war historian Keith Gregson www.family-tree.co.uk .  He writes regularly for the magazine and I had the pleasure of hearing him speak in person in September at the Family History Fair at Sandown Park.  Keith’s grandfather was involved in that first attack near Cambrai as the British attempted to break through the Hindenburg line.

Tanks had been used earlier in the war, but many had broken down or been lost in the mud of the Somme. The Great Uncle of a friend of mine, one Harry Leat,  took the very first tank into battle (a Mark I) at the Battle of Flers in September 1916.  He survived that battle but was killed the following spring.

However, the landscape chosen for their massed use in November of that year was very different. The ground was hard and undisturbed – much better going for the tanks.  In a visit to the Cambrai area, Guy Martin’s guide Philippe Gorczynski explained the terrain and the great swathe of No Man’s Land covered with three enormous belts of barbed wire between the British front link and that of the Germans.  The element of surprise was important:  in any official correspondence regarding the vehicles’ transportation, they were referred to as ‘water tanks’, and so that’s how they got the name ‘tanks’.  They were transported to the front line as quietly as possible.

On 20th November 1917 375 tanks, according to the TV programme, moved into action.  Philippe described it as a ‘tsunami’.  They moved swiftly over the ground, ploughing easily through the barbed wire defences, and advancing 5 miles .  This was a huge triumph for the tanks as the Hindenburg line was broken through.  Although 8,000 Germans were taken prisoner of war on that day, tragically the Allies were not prepared for success on that scale and the reinforcements were not in place to be able to consolidate the position.  The delay enabled the Germans to launch a counter attack ten days later, reclaiming much of the gained ground.

However, the Mark IV tank would then be used for the rest of war, seeing very successful action the following year at the Battle of Amiens.

With crucial assistance from JCB and using the latest technology, Guy Martin’s dream of building the 30 ton tank eventually became a reality. Though his initial plan to drive it through Lincoln on Remembrance Sunday was thwarted, the final plan of taking it to Cambrai itself for the anniversary was even better.  Those involved in the project obviously gained much knowledge of how the tank was built and worked and also an appreciation for the conditions that the soldiers endured inside the vehicle, not least with the heat and engine fumes.

This reconstructed tank is apparently now going to the Norfok Tank Museum. For lots more information on the use of the tanks at Cambrai see http://tank100.com/category/cambrai/

Reconstructed Mark IV tank at Cambrai

Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor…

Well it’s that time of year again when the A Level students are submitting their university applications.   Psychology, Sports Science, Marketing, Chinese with Economics, Film Production, Linguistics, Aeronautical Engineering – you name it, you can do it at university these days.  Shall I  be a journalist or an Events Manager?  Should I go into digital marketing or nanotechnology?  For the most part these are choices our ancestors just did not have.  And whatever you apply for, whether a degree course or one of the increasing number of higher or degree level apprenticeships, the application process can be increasingly complex.

Back in my day, you applied for university on a paper application form written in black ink. I suppose we must have written a personal statement, but I really can’t remember doing that.  The choice of courses and universities was not vast.  Going to open days in advance of applying was definitely not a thing – you were invited for an interview and if you were lucky you might get to see some accommodation while you were there.  Today, of course, all the universities are after the same, currently small, pool of students and open days are big business.  If you applied for an apprenticeship forty-odd years ago you would almost certainly not have had to do a psychometric test or attend an assessment centre and would definitely not have had to do an interview by phone or skype as part of the selection process.

If I look through my family trees at ancestral occupations I can see that ‘agricultural labourer’ is far and away the most common. In rural areas the choice was limited – your father was an ‘ag lab’ so that’s what you went into too.  Not much family wealth, not much education, not much choice.

Ag labs

There are some more diverse occupations that occur on my family trees: stonemasons in Oxfordshire, bricklayers in north London and dyers in Derbyshire.  Creating a report through RootsMagic on my George family also reveals a French Polisher, a brushmaker, a blacksmith, a Police Constable and a gardener’s labourer.  (No tinkers or tailors).  Of course that’s just the men.  What about the women?  That same report shows a laundress and a Headmistress.  In other family groups there are women basically supporting their husband’s business, whether that was running a pub or shoemaking, but basically following marriage it was assumed a woman had occupation enough with running a home and raising a family.  And of course for women in some occupations (like teaching in the early days) it was forbidden to continue once you were married.

Mum was looking through her 1947 diary recently. She applied for teacher training and made a note in her diary that she received a letter from Furzedown College near Streatham on a Friday, inviting her for interview the following Monday!  Not much time for preparation.  She noted the timings of her fairly lengthy journey there on the Monday and reckoned the interview can’t have lasted more than a quarter of an hour judging by the time of the return train!  Certainly times have changed – nowadays a Primary Education application involves passing skills tests in English and Maths and the interview day may well include a written task, a presentation, a group exercise as well as an individual interview.

Mum’s diary also notes that her father’s cousin Edith (who is the Headmistress referred to above and whose village of Leigh in Staffordshire we visited earlier this year) came to visit that year and gave Mum 10 shillings! I wonder if she passed on any teaching tips?!

Tinker, tailor……. The choice of occupations is greater for today’s school leavers, but so are the hoops they have to jump through to get there.