The Battle of Cambrai

23 November 2017 15:00

Lasting from 20 November – 30 December 1917, Cambrai was the first battle in which a mixture of tanks were used en masse along with heavy artillery and air power.

Dyke Philip in his gassed uniform during WWI

Initially, it was very successful, with large gains of ground being made, but German reserves brought the advance to a halt and ten days later a German counter-attack regained much of the ground. Ultimately it had a disappointing and costly outcome, but Cambrai is now seen by historians as the blueprint for the successful “Hundred Days” offensives of 1918.

By mid 1917, a series of technological developments had made it possible to fire accurately without the need for registering and accurately surveying the gun position, the mapping of enemy positions through aerial and ground observation, calculated reckoning of invisible enemy battery positions through triangulation on sources of sound and gun flash and advanced local meteorology and understanding of the effect of weather on the flight of the shell.

The planned role for the tanks was to advance all together, with the objective of crushing wire defences and suppressing firing from German trenches and strong points. The innovation of fascines to be dropped as makeshift bridges enabling the crossing of a wide trench removed one of the known shortcomings of the tank. Another new plan was for the infantry to follow the tanks through the gaps they made, moving in “worms” rather than the familiar lines.

The tanks were an operational success. This early result was widely regarded as being a great and spectacular achievement, so positive was it in comparison with the slow progress at Passchendaele.

Butt two months later, a court of enquiry convened to examine what had gone wrong at Cambrai. Initial success had been short lived and there was bitter disappointment at the net result. While losses did not equate to the Somme or Verdun, the British lost over 44,000 men during the Battle of Cambai while the Germans lost about 45,000 men.

A number of men were blinded at Cambrai, and came to our early centre in Regent’s Park in London. Philip Dyke, however, came to us much later. Philip, shown here as a young man in a photo kindly supplied by his family, enlisted in 1915 and went to France. His war experiences included taking part in the Battle of the Somme in 1916. In 1917 he was at the Battle of Cambrai. Interviewed much later in life he recalled what happened to him there:

"We were attacked with mustard gas shells and that was the first time I was ever hit. We had to walk 'follow me leader' and were taken to Rouen."

“The nurses were absolute angels, they would say to me 'You must stop coughing', and I'd say 'Chance would be a fine thing'. There was an 'E' on my card which meant I was going to England, but you don't feel too good anyway when you've just been blinded. I started to regain my sight because I only got fumes whereas those that got liquid would be blinded”.

Philip lost his sight for over a month, but, typically for those who had been exposed to gas fumes, there was an additional effect in the much-longer term. Philip eventually did lost his sight completely as a result of exposure to the gas, and joined us in 1991. Sadly he died the following year, but we remember him and those others who lost their sight at Cambrai as we mark the anniversary of the beginning of the battle.

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