Cambrai - 1917

That there was a possible alternative to the ghastly strategy of attrition was shown by the brilliant British success at Cambrai in November 1917. This was the first effective tank attack in history. Three-hundred and eighty of these new monsters rolled across No Man's Land, just as a massive bombardment opened up. Huge technical advances in the methods available to artillery meant that the entire bombardment was able to be planned off the map. The elimination of the usual preliminary bombardment took the Germans by surprise, not to mention the fact that they thought the British would be incapable of an attack while Third Ypres still continued. The trenches of the first systems of the Hindenburg Line were quickly crossed; and by nightfall the Allies had reached the open countryside beyond, but still with the prospect of facing the German second and third lines of defence. The hoped-for breakthrough appeared to have come at last. In Britain church bells were joyfully rung; and the German Supreme Command considered options for a general retreat. Both reactions were premature. The initial gains could not be exploited because the British lacked a reserve of tanks and had insufficient troop reserves available in France. The Germans meanwhile rallied and checked the attack and in fact launched a major counter-attack of their own. Despite the obvious limitations of the tank—its unwieldiness, its lack of mechanical reliability, the appalling conditions in which the tank crews had to operate, Haig remained a great enthusiast.

Cambrai also has an important place in Canadian battle records, for here the Canadian Cavalry Brigade and the Newfoundland Regiment fought with distinction with the British formations. Soon after the battle, the Newfoundland Regiment was granted the title "Royal"—the only regiment so honoured during the war.

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