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/