In the course of my coverage of the Somme campaign of 1916, I have already mentioned the introduction of the newest form of mechanised warfare, namely the tank. These early versions of the devices that would come to dominate land-based warfare were, in many ways, paper tigers, things that looked and sounded impressive, but which were prone to breakdown and gas leaks, and so slow as to be easy targets for even the most rudimentarily prepared defensive position. Tanks in World War One were mostly a support for infantry attacks as opposed to being the main event, capable of inflicting an immense psychological shock on the enemy, but simply not reliable enough to carry an offensive on their own.
The big exception to this, in some ways at least, is the Battle of Cambrai, which took place between November 20th and the 7th December 1917. Located 80kms or so south of Ypres, where the Battle of Passchendaele was just coming to a merciful conclusion, the sector that encompassed the front near Cambrai – the town itself being held by the Germans since 1914 – was considered “quiet”, being a place where major offensive actions had not taken place, and where the war was mostly a thing of raids and artillery bombardments. But at the end of 1917, the British decided to amalgamate different plans calling for the use of new artillery tactics and a tank raid in force, as part of an experimental combined arms offensive. Cambrai was chosen as the target for numerous reasons: it was an important railroad junction, but the ground was also deemed especially suitable for armour, with the Tank Corps commanders preferring to avoid the quagmire of Passchendaele.
The British artillery performed spectacularly at Cambrai, both in the way they assembled their guns without tipping off the Germans, and in their new techniques of “registered fire”, wherein a confluence of geography, math and meteorology was employed to place guns where the enemy was unlikely to know where they were even after they opened fire. When the sudden bombardment opened on the misty morning of November 20th, the Germans in the “Hindenburg Line”, were caught largely by surprise. And then, out of the fog, came 476 tanks, with thousands of infantrymen trailing in their wake.
On the far right of the British advance, as part of IV Corps, was the 36th (Ulster) Division, in action for the first time since Langemarck. Their initial target was the empty Canal de Nord, and they were some of the few who actually went forward that day without lumbering armoured behemoths in front of them. Using a combination of bombs, trench mortars and traditional infantry assaults, aided by creeping bombardment, the Davison took its initial objective, constructed a viable bridge across the canal, and then even seized the heights beyond. It was the kind of gain that, in other times and in other places, might have cost thousands of casualties, but was achieved that morning with relative bloodlessness.
At the Croiselles position, it was the 16th (Irish) who enjoyed similar success, over-running the first two German lines in front of them quickly, killing or capturing nearly a thousand of the enemy in the process, the kind of victory that was almost unheard of in the war. They soon hunkered down and repelled numerous counter-attacks, with the South Irish Horse employed as a diggers of new support trenches in the same area.
There’s was one part of a spectacular success that day, with the British penetrating as deep as four miles in a few hours, at the cost of 4’000 casualties, a marked contrast to the fighting that had occurred further north. While nearly 180 of the tanks had broken down or been destroyed by enemy fire, they had proven to be a devastating weapon when employed in such numbers, breaking through the German lines and allowing infantry behind to advance in relative safety. The artillery did the rest.
But the British were unintentionally undone, by simply not anticipating the scope of their victory on the first day. There weren’t enough reserve units to exploit the stunning gains that had been achieved, and mis-communication led to the cavalry regiments failing to push on as commanders hoped, and widening the gap of an apparent breakthrough. The 5th Irish Hussars were among those who were (wisely) prevented from attacking machine-gun nests, but later in the fighting the Inniskilling Dragoons would suffer terrible casualties attacking a German held factory when their armour support failed to appear.
Church bells tolled in celebration in Britain when the news of Cambrai came out, but subsequent attacks the next day, in a desperate bid to keep the momentum of the offensive going, got nowhere fast, with the 36th prevented from advancing owing to the failure of divisions on their flanks to hit their own assigned objectives in time. The pattern was repeated in the following few days, as the narrow transportation routes into the area cruelly delayed the moving up of vitally needed reinforcements and supplies. By then, the number of working tanks had been reduced to under a hundred and, worse, the Germans were no longer as terrified of them as they had been a few days before. Indeed, some of their artillery companies had become exceedingly proficient at destroying the Mark IV’s. The Irish Guards and their larger division, having been held in reserve in the first few days, were part of efforts directed at Bourlon Wood and its high ground at this time, but their attacks were costly failures, of infantry being unable to overcome the reinforced and prepared German positions. When some of them gained the woods, the Germans withdraw and then mercilessly bombarded the British.
By the end of the month, any British semblance of maintaining the offensive had been worn down, in the face of their own armours deficiencies, rapid deployment of German reinforcements and the threat of looming winter weather: it was already starting to snow. On the 28th, the British were ordered to lay wire and dig-in, now defending a bulbous salient in the sector, that was ripe for a counter-attack.
On the 30th, after two days of artillery bombardment and gas attack, the German Second Army struck, and struck hard. The British salient was perilously exposed, and in the next few days, large parts of the gained ground were lost, to the extent that Germans retook their original positions in some places, and even advanced beyond them in the south of the battlefield. The 36th and Guards Division were in the middle of the oncoming assault, and held their ground as best as they could before being relieved by rushed up reinforcements, avoiding the possibility of another humiliating reversal. By the 5th, the fighting had largely ceased: a strange S-shaped line had emerged, that would see heavy fighting once again in 1918.
What had seemed initially to be one of the greatest Allied success of the war had turned into something resembling a defeat. The British sustained 42’000 casualties to the Germans 45’000, lost a huge number of tanks, and held only a small part of their initial gains by the time the German counter-offensive was stopped. Cambrai itself remained in German hands, and the chance of an exploitable breakthrough had not been taken. Further, the Germans had gained valuable experience in terms of combating tanks, and had captured plenty of them too. The Irish divisions’ experience there would be little remembered, but had been a successful one in the first days fighting, but it mattered little. 1917 had been a rough year for them.
Christmas 1917, the fourth of the war, came and went for the units serving on the western front. For the men in the trenches, Irish units and all, it is unlikely they felt that the conflict would be coming to an end anytime soon. The offensives of 1917 had not produced breakthroughs, and for every gain of measurable ground, the price extracted had been steep. But the signs of the end coming were there, even if not immediately obvious: the Germans, after defending against so many offensives over the last few years, were coming to their last ebb, a situation inflamed by the home front situation, where an Allied naval blockade was causing much hardship, and the oncoming American Expeditionary Forces, vanguards of which were already in France. The “Doughboys” had even had their first taste of proper combat at Cambrai, when an engineering unit assisting in the repair of railroads near the front was ambushed during the German counter-attack (they held their position till relieved). The release of units from the eastern front would give the Germans the chance of one last great gamble, but that was it: for them, 1918 was win or bust.
But before we get to that, we must return to more distant fronts of the war, and the deserts of North Africa and Arabia, where Irish units were marching on Jerusalem.
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