Battle of Cambrai

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Battle of Cambrai
Part of: First World War
Course of the battle
Course of the battle
date November 20 to December 6, 1917
place Cambrai , France
output draw
Parties to the conflict

German EmpireThe German Imperium German Empire

United Kingdom 1801United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland United Kingdom


Georg von der Marwitz
Theodor von Watter
Otto von Moser
Hugo von Kathen

Julian Byng
William Pulteney
Charles Woollcombe
Edward Fanshawe

Troop strength
on November 20th
7 infantry divisions

on November 30th
18 infantry divisions
on November 20th
8 infantry and 3 cavalry divisions
476 tanks
14 air squadrons

on November 30th
15 infantry divisions

approx. 50,000 soldiers

approx. 45,000 soldiers

The Battle of Cambrai in World War I was the first major tank offensive in history and began on November 20, 1917, near the strategically important railway junction Cambrai in France , in 1917 a key supply position for the German Siegfriedstellung .

The British hoped that this battle is not only a breakthrough by the German supply system, but above all, the course of the war through the use of tanks (Engl. Tanks a decisive turn in favor of) Entente to give. The front lines had been more or less still for more than three years, and millions of soldiers had died in often pointless frontal attacks.

At the end of 1917, the Entente wanted to move from trench warfare to a war of movement against Germany with the support of new weapon technologies and the USA as a new ally - thus the Battle of Cambrai was seen as the prelude to the final overthrow of the German Empire.

The battle, in which a total of around 95,000 soldiers were wounded, killed or captured, ended on December 7, 1917 and did not bring any major success or change in the overall situation for either party.


initial situation

The war year 1917 was marked by the collapse of the Russian Empire . The Germans increasingly intervened on the Eastern Front to hasten the collapse. This weakened the German troops on the western front , because several troop units including material were relocated from the western front to the eastern front.

The Entente wanted to take advantage of this weakness and therefore launched several large offensives on the Western Front , which, however, did not bring about any significant changes. The French attempted a breakthrough on the Aisne and Champagne. More troops and guns were used than in the Battle of Verdun . The great losses led to poor morale on the French side. There were mutinies , to which the French military leadership responded with harsh sentences.

In 1917 the USA and Greece joined the war on the side of the Entente, which noticeably increased the Entente's self-confidence and certainty of victory after all the setbacks.

On May 20, 1917, the British launched a major offensive in Flanders . The losses were high and there was little gain in terrain. The offensive was canceled in November. After the grueling offensives in 1916, which ended in sheer battles of wear and tear , the generals had to realize that the previous tactics could not bring about any change. New strategies have been worked out. The British concentrated more and more on their tanks , the number of which grew steadily. From the mobility and combat value of this weapon they expected a change from trench warfare to warfare of movement. But in the meantime the tanks had lost the psychological effect that they triggered on their first missions. Their armor was still relatively weak and could not withstand concentrated flamethrowers , machine guns or artillery fire . In addition, the tanks could hardly advance through uneven and muddy terrain, which is why they could not be used particularly well in Flanders .

The Germans relied on shock troops and quickly deployable units to be able to effectively counter enemy offensives. This tactic was particularly coined and developed by Oskar von Hutier , who was looking for effective, new ways of using only a few, highly specialized units. This tactic was also named "Hutier tactic" after him. Because of the great success of this new warfare, von Hutier was very much feared by the Entente.

Planning the battle

General Sir Julian Byng, Commander in Chief of the British 3rd Army
Troop formation on November 19, 1917

In June 1917, John Frederick Charles Fuller and Henry Hugh Tudor proposed a tank attack near Cambrai. General Julian Byng , commander of the British 3rd Army , accepted the proposal and changed the plan, which only served to conquer Cambrai, to attempt to break through the German lines. He set the goal higher by ordering that the entire German front had to be broken through at this point - which would have been an extremely important and decisive success for the situation of positional warfare at the time, since a war of movement would now have been possible again. But the commander-in-chief, Sir Douglas Haig , postponed the ambitious and daring attack because he wanted to complete the Passchendaele ( Third Battle of Flanders ) operations first . When the fighting broke out there, Haig approved the plan as Operation GY in September 1917 .

Cambrai was chosen as a target primarily because, in contrast to Flanders or the Somme region , the terrain seemed better suited for a massive tank attack. The soil in Flanders softened quickly so that the tanks got stuck in the mud. This was particularly fatal at the Battle of Passchendaele . Even handicapped bumps such. B. shell holes, the tanks. The area around Cambrai was also equipped with fewer natural obstacles (rivers, roots, etc.). A successful operation was important after confidence in the tank weapon had waned.

The plan was complicated; his basic plan was to break through the German lines by means of a concentrated attack on a narrow front of five kilometers between the Canal du Nord and the Canal de Saint-Quentin . The British 3rd Army provided over half of its 19 divisions for this attack , although 14 of them had been used shortly before during the Third Battle of Ypres .

  • In the north, on the first day, the IV Corps (56th, 36th, 62nd and 51st Divisions ) under General Charles Woollcombe was to attack between Moeuvres and Havrincourt and attempt to conquer Flesquières and Graincourt. The V. Corps (initially only 40th, at the end of November also 2nd and 47th Divisions) under General Edward Fanshawe , which was in the second line behind this, was to follow this attack later - to secure the conquered area.
  • In the south the III. Corps (6th, 20th, and 12th Divisions) under General William Pulteney lead the main thrust in the direction of Marcoing, Crèvecoeur and Bonavis. This corps was to be preceded by the tank corps for a breakthrough, the following cavalry corps (1st, 2nd and 5th cavalry divisions) under General Charles Kavanagh was to try to quickly expand the bridgehead over the Scheldt Canal aimed at Masnieres. In addition, the 29th Division was made available here as a reserve for the immediate push. On the far right, in the area northeast of Épehy , the 55th Division of the VII Corps (General Thomas Snow) accompanied the attack to the northeast and covered the operation to the east against Honnecourt.
British soldiers have buried themselves in a shell hole. A tank in the background.

- It is an early stereo photograph; hence the two almost identical recordings . -

During the attack, new strategies were used in the still young tank war, which combined tank, air and infantry attacks (see also Combined Arms Combat ). Tanks came up especially in the first wave of attacks. Infantry followed at a distance of 45-50 meters to clear the battlefield, especially the trenches, of enemy troops. Some of the tanks carried fascines (sticks that were tied into a bundle with ropes), which they then dumped into the trenches . So transitions for the tanks and the following infantry were created. In addition, so-called "Gun Carrying Tanks" were intended to transport guns across the battlefield . Their task was changed during the battle, however, so that they were used for the transport of supplies and personnel, which quickly became far more important.

On November 12th, around 80 to 100 tanks with infantry had already been working together on the tactics for the battle at trenches. As there was a lack of time, the remaining units could no longer practice, which meant that these units in particular suffered high losses during the battle. The Tank Corps raised 476 tanks for the battle. More than 350 tanks were operational. 216 tanks should be in the section of III. Attack corps in first wave, with 96 tanks in reserve. The three tank brigades that were assigned were concentrated between Havrincourt and La Vacquerie and attacked the Scheldt Canal in the direction of Ribecourt and Crevecourt. The Tank Corps was commanded by Brigadier General Hugh Elles from a Mark IV nicknamed Hilda .

Since the German Jagdstaffel 11 (Jasta 11) had been relocated to the airfields near Cambrai, the British deployed 14 newly formed flight squadrons of the Royal Flying Corps especially for use at Cambrai in order to be prepared against the intervention of German fighter planes under Manfred von Richthofen .

The German positions were part of the Siegfried Line , accordingly well developed and secured by a double line of defense. A third was under construction. Before the battle, divisions that had suffered heavy losses in Ypres were relocated there for rest and refreshment. The German XIV. Reserve Corps and the "Caudry Group" located in this section had seven divisions (in the north: 240th and 20th Div ., 20th Ldw.-Div. , In the middle: 54th Div. , 9th Res.-Div. , In the south: 183. Div. And 79. Res.-Div. ) And belonged to the 2nd Army under General Georg von der Marwitz . An eighth, the 107th Infantry Division , was already on the way from Russia, as troops there had now been released as a result of Russia's withdrawal from the war.

The battle

The British offensive

After the British attack on the late evening of November 20th, 1917

The line-up of the British troops at the beginning of the battle was from right to left (from a British perspective): 55th (West Lancashire) Division ( Jeudwine ), 12th (Eastern) Division ( Scott ), 20th (Light) Division ( Smith ), 6th Division ( Marden ), 51st (Highland) Division ( Harper ), 62nd (2nd West Riding) Division ( Braithwaite ) and the 36th (Ulster) Division ( Nugent ). The 29th Division ( de Lisle ) was ready in reserve.

On November 20, 1917 morning at 06:20 that started barrage of artillery and at 06:15 the attack of the first tanks wave, which with fog shelling was supported. The smoke grenade bombardment meant that the German troops had hardly any opportunities to observe, so that no artillery fire and no aerial reconnaissance were possible. In addition, since the mist was mistaken for gas, a gas alarm was given, which meant that the infantry in the trenches was impaired in their performance.

In contrast to earlier offensives, in which the barrage was sustained for days, sometimes even for weeks, the initial artillery bombardment at Cambrai was very brief. On the one hand, the Germans were to be surprised by the early start of the ground attack; on the other hand, they did not want to make the area impassable for their own tanks with too many shell holes.

Despite the greatest military secrecy on the British side, the Germans had been warned and had triggered their medium alert. They anticipated a British advance at Havrincourt and even the use of tanks.

At the beginning of the offensive, despite the increased German alert, the element of surprise was on the British side, and the entire German position system, with one exception, was lost within a few hours. The British had managed to break through the front line over a width of twelve kilometers and penetrate more than six kilometers deep. The British units suffered only minor losses, the 2nd Battalion of the 20th Light Division reported four dead and the 14th Battalion seven.

On the right flank, Bonavis and the Lateux-Wald were taken by the 12th Division before they dug in as ordered. The 20th light division captured La Vacquerie and took an important bridge over the St. Quentin Canal at Masnières. This bridge was important for the entire battle to allow the cavalry to make a quick attack on Cambrai. However, the bridge was destroyed; According to various sources, either by a British tank that damaged the bridge with its weight while trying to cross it, or by the bridge being blown up by the Germans. This slowed the crossing of the canal and made effective cavalry attacks impossible.

The 6th Division reached and captured Ribécourt and Marcoing . In the course of their further advance towards Cambrai, however, they encountered considerable German resistance late in the evening and was thrown back.

The 51st Highland Division failed to capture their first target, Flesquières . Flesquières was the strongest point of the German defense. The defenders under Major Krebs attacked the advancing British tanks with heavy artillery fire and were able to destroy 40 tanks off Flesquières.

The failure of the 51st Highland Division exposed the flanks of the other divisions. This failure was probably mainly due to a lack of coordination between the tank and infantry units, as the commander of the 51st Highland Division, Major General George Montague Harper , as a traditional commander, mistrusted tank weapons. After the first breakthrough of the German lines around 8:30 a.m., he let his men rest and thus shook the British timetable on this section of the front. When fighting resumed, he withdrew his infantry almost 100 meters behind the advancing tanks, instead of positioning them on either side of the tanks, as the actual plan of attack provided. His infantrymen were thus without armor cover and had to retreat at the first enemy fire . The tanks advancing alone were also easy targets for the German cannons and were put out of action one by one. Other tanks were able to shut down the German batteries shortly afterwards, but it was already too late. Flesquières was fiercely defended by the Germans until late at night. Bypassing the place was out of the question for the British, as there was no corresponding order.

The 62nd (2nd West Riding) Division captured Havrincourt and Graincourt and then advanced to the heights of the forest of Bourlon. The 36th Ulster Division made it to the Bapaume-Cambrai Strait.

On the evening of November 20th the first large tank attack ended. The German front had been pierced over a width of 16 kilometers and a depth of nine kilometers, but the important hill at Bourlon had not been taken.

Depending on the source, 4,000 to 8,000 Germans were captured and 100 guns looted. The British had lost 4,000 men and 49 tanks to direct hits. However, many of the remaining tanks were badly damaged, and more than 40 had their tracks broken.

The following night, the German high command was able to send reinforcements from the back ranks very quickly, so that increased resistance was offered when the battle continued the next morning. Although Flesquières could now be captured, since the Germans had withdrawn from the place, but the British advance was then ended here.

The main focus of the British now lay in the conquest of the heights of the forest near Bourlon and the further advance on Fontaine. A fierce battle broke out in front of the forest. It was possible to break through to Fontaine for a short time on November 21, but the next day the German defense pushed the British back again. The forest heights were still fiercely contested, as Field Marshal Haig insisted on the conquest. He replaced the heavily decimated 62nd Division by the 40th Division ( Major General Ponsonby ), which continued the fight on the morning of November 23, but continued to make little progress. Although it was able to reach the crest of the hill, it suffered losses of almost 4,000 men in just three days. More and more British units were sent to this section of the front as reinforcements until the supplies stalled. The last unsuccessful attempt was made on November 27th by the 62nd Division with the support of 30 tanks. General Byng did not continue the British offensive resolutely enough: French reinforcements were not deployed, the tank corps did not form any reserves, while the Germans were constantly increasing their troops. Overall, the British offensive could be viewed as a failure because it had not achieved its ambitious goals (complete breakthrough and conquest of Cambrai). On November 27, the British tanks were withdrawn from the front for a thorough overhaul. On November 28th the order came to stop further advances, and the soldiers dug into their positions. At the same time the weather conditions deteriorated and it started to snow.

The German counter-offensive

Georg von der Marwitz (AOK 2)
After the German counter-offensive on December 6, 1917

Only ten days after the British attack, i.e. on November 30, 1917, the German troops were ready for the counterattack, in which the Supreme Army Command deployed shock troops on the western front on a large scale for the first time . The chief of the German army command, General Erich Ludendorff , had called in strong units and on November 27th ordered the 2nd Army to prepare for a counterattack. This attack was conducted with three corps groups with 13 divisions, three divisions remained on the defensive, two more in army reserves. The northern attack group, charged with the main attack by General der Kavallerie Georg von der Marwitz , attacked belatedly; the southern groups began their attack first, which should also be more successful.

The task of the German artillery was to take out the British batteries with the help of gas and HE shells and the infantry with shrapnel grenades . The procedure created by Georg Bruchmüller provided for the combined use of various types of poison gas , the so-called colored shooting , which forced the opposing artillerymen to first remove the gas masks due to certain volatile irritants ( blue cross ) (see mask breaker ) and then inhale deadly lung warfare agents ( green cross ) without protection. The infantry units were assigned shock troops or they formed their own shock formations . These troops were given special armament depending on their task, such as B. flamethrowers, machine guns, grenade throwers and. a., because they should quickly break through the opposing systems of positions. The following, regular infantry should eliminate the last resistance. Field fortifications and bunkers were destroyed by artillery batteries (infantry escort guns ) advancing with the following infantry .

After the groups "Caudry" and "Busigny" had opened the fight in the center with an advance on Marcoing and in the south with the advance on Banteux at 8:50 am, the group "Arras" took hold of the north between Moeuvres and Bourlon at 11:50 a.m. Although the strongest of the attacking forces, the "Gruppe Arras" quickly encountered strong British resistance. In addition, the British front in the Moeuvres - Bourlon area had already been reinforced for a few days by the newly deployed Divisions No. 2, 47, 56 and 59.

The Germans forced a breakthrough all along the line. The Entente, which did not expect a counterstrike of this size and had accordingly drawn weakly fortified defensive positions around the newly conquered area, was taken by surprise. The groups "Caudry" and "Busigny" succeeded in advancing eight kilometers over a width of around 16 kilometers on the first day of the counterattack. The group "Arras", which had started later and met stronger resistance, had less success: They only managed to advance four kilometers over a width of ten kilometers by December 6, 1917. The Germans captured 9,000 British soldiers, captured 148 pieces of artillery, 716 machine guns and more than 100, mostly damaged, tanks. There was again a stalemate as both sides suffered heavy losses; the fighting was temporarily stopped on December 7th.

The German counterattack proved to the Entente that Germany could not yet speak of a military defeat, and the front line was also stabilized again. The battle hardly changed the course of the front. The British achieved slight gains in terrain at Havrincourt, Ribécourt and Flesquières, while the Germans conquered terrain south of the Welsh Mountain. The Entente had to realize that the war could drag on for a long time, because the German troops continued to successfully resist.

Air support

Lieutenant Kurt Küppers, 1914 to 1918

To clarify the progress on the ground and to ward off enemy aircraft, both sides had a few squadrons stationed in the Cambrai area.

For example, on the afternoon of November 22nd, a German aircraft flew between Fontaine and the forest of Bourlon to survey the situation. At first she reported poor visibility, but in the evening on a second flight that the area was being controlled by British troops. Shortly afterwards, British ground forces fired at the plane and it crashed on the German front. Both men survived badly wounded.

A German machine was also shot down at Flesquières that day. Here, too, both inmates survived and were taken prisoner.

The Australian major Roy Cecil Phillipps succeeded in shooting down a German fighter plane near Cambrai, and the next day, November 23, the German lieutenant Kurt Küppers shot down a British aircraft at around 3 p.m. Little is known that the famous German pilot Manfred von Richthofen also took part in this battle in the air. On November 23, 1917, he recorded his 62nd victory in the air. Further successes on both sides are noted for November 30th. The Canadian flying ace Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Edward McKeever had particular success . When he attacked two German two-seaters around noon, seven Albatros DV fighters tried to defend them. In a fierce aerial battle, McKeever managed to shoot down four of the machines south of Cambrai.

The British Captain Edmund Roger Tempest also shot a German albatross northwest of the Bourlon Forest.

See also: air war in World War .


In total, the losses amounted to around 50,000 soldiers on the German and 45,000 on the British side. More than 250 British tanks were destroyed or captured by the Germans.

The German losses for the period from November 20 to December 6, 1917 are given in the German General Staff Works on the First World War as follows:

  • German losses: 41,000, including 27,000 in the British attack from November 20 to 29, 1917, 14,000 in the German counterattack from November 30 to December 6, 1917
  • British losses: 45,000
  • German booty: 9,000 prisoners, 165 artillery pieces, 200 mine throwers, 600 machine guns, 70 tanks
  • British booty: 11,000 prisoners, 145 guns

The German losses can be verified using the figures in the medical report on the German Army and the information in the Statistics of the Military Efforts of the British Empire, which are based on figures from the Reichsarchiv. According to this, the German troops in the British sector of the front suffered the following losses in the period from October 1 to December 31, 1917 (2nd and 6th Army, 4th Army is not included because of the battle in Flanders):

  • wounded: 22,931
  • fallen: 8,817
  • missing: 22,972
  • Total losses: 54,720

Most of the casualties may have occurred in the Battle of Cambrai. The German 2nd Army was involved in the battle from November 21, 1917 to December 10, 1917.

The British official work Statistics of the Military Effort of the British Empire gives the following losses on the Western Front for the period from November 20, 1917 to December 31, 1917:

  • wounded: 48,652
  • fallen: 10,042
  • missing: 16,987
  • Total losses: 75,681

The amount of this information suggests that the British casualties were higher than the 45,000 soldiers mentioned above.

For the period from November 20 to December 10, 1917, 192 German officers and 11,190 German men were reported as prisoners of war, 9,879 of them soldiers in the first week of the offensive.

The British tactics for coordinating infantry, air and tank forces set new standards in warfare and were successfully used by the Germans as a blitzkrieg tactic during World War II . The Germans recognized the advantage of specially trained assault battalions or shock troops and the Hutier tactics (targeted deployment of these troops in small operational areas). In addition, the advantage of mobile divisions that could be quickly relocated to critical sections of the front became apparent. This knowledge also enabled the Germans to achieve success in the 1918 spring offensive .

The English sculptor and painter Henry Moore took part in the battle as a young man and was injured in a gas attack. The later author Ernst Jünger took part in the German recaptures. He processed the experiences, among other things, in his book In Stahlgewittern (Chapter: Double Battle at Cambrai ). A Bundeswehr barracks in Kusel was named after the artillery sergeant, Theodor Krüger .

Second battle of Cambrai

Graincourt church ruins in 1918

In the course of Marshal Foch's " Hundred Days Offensive " from August to November 1918, the British 1st , 3rd and 4th Armies , the French 1st Army , the Canadian Corps and Australian and American troops attacked in the Saint-Quentin - Cambrai area forced a 65 km wide breakthrough through the German Hindenburg line . There was a second battle at Cambrai on October 8 and 9, 1918, in which the British had learned from their mistakes in 1917 and now proceeded with adequate infantry support. Cambrai was completely retaken on October 9th. The German troops then withdrew to new defensive positions behind the river Selle.

The destroyed city of Cambrai in 1919

The battlefield today

The area surrounding the battlefield today

The two French motorways A2 ( Paris - Brussels ) and A26 ( Reims - Calais ) now run right through the former battlefield southwest of Cambrai . At Graincourt and south of the forest of Bourlon there is a very busy motorway junction . The fertile soil, on which the tank battle raged at the end of 1917, has long been used again for agriculture .


Tank battle memorial in Cambrai

In the city park of Cambrai, where the large memorial statue of Louis Blériot is also located, there is also a memorial to the attack of the Entente on November 20, 1917, which was led by the British 3rd Army. This includes a plaque commemorating the civilian casualties the battle claimed.


On the large cemetery of Louverval on the N30 is the British memorial to the fallen of the Battle of Cambrai, the Cambrai Memorial . It stands on a terrace at the end of the cemetery and was designed by H. Chalton Bradshaw and decorated with a sculpture by C. S. Jagger .

The following inscription is noted on a board:


The names of the fallen soldiers follow.

Bourlon Forest

In the fiercely contested forest of Bourlon, at the entrance to Bourlon, the Canadians erected a memorial on a hill . It consists of a stone block with an inscription on a terrace that can be reached by stairs. The trees on the terrace are still the original trees from the time of the battle of 1917. They were badly damaged by shell fire and were later restored to health.

German military cemetery near Cambrai

In the German military cemetery on the Route de Solesmes there are 10,685 German and 502 British dead. The military cemetery was established in March 1917. The architect was Wilhelm Kreis , who also designed the main monument. From 1921 to 1924, the French side expanded the facility by moving more Germans.



  • Line Of Fire - Cambrai , 2003

Individual evidence

  1. Reichsarchiv Volume XIII, Map supplement No. 10. (Location November 20, 1917)
  2. ^ Reichsarchiv Volume XIII, Map supplement 12 (location November 30, 1917)
  3. Note: The German units indicated on this card are only partially correct, none of the newly added German units (further twelve divisions) are noted on it, and the 20th Agricultural Div., 54 ID. and the 79th Res.-div. has already been pulled out of the front. Furthermore, the northern wing of the British 3rd Army had already been reinforced with four additional divisions (2nd, 47th, 56th and 59th).
  4. Reichsarchiv Volume 31, The Tank Battle of Cambrai, Berlin 1929 Counterattack, pp. 174 and 175.
  5. High Command of the Army: The World War 1914 to 1918, volume thirteenth, p. 143 f.
  6. ^ Medical report on the German Army in the World War 1914/1918, III. Volume, Berlin 1934, p. 55 for the numbers of the 4th Army; Statistics of the Military Effort of the British Empire during the Great War 1914-1920, London 1922, p. 361.
  7. ^ Statistics of the Military Effort of the British Empire during the Great War 1914-1920, London 1922, p. 327.
  8. ^ Statistics of the Military Effort of the British Empire during the Great War 1914-1920, London 1922, p. 632.
  9. a b The German necropolis of Cambrai. In: Chemins de mémoire. Ministère de la Defense , accessed July 30, 2013 .

Web links

Commons : Battle of Cambrai  - Collection of images, videos and audio files


Individual links to aerial battles at Cambrai:

This article was added to the list of excellent articles on April 19, 2005 in this version .

Coordinates: 50 ° 7 '  N , 3 ° 8'  E