from 'the War Illustrated', 3th December, 1917
The Triumph of the Tanks
How Sir Julian Byng's Army Broke the Hindenburg Line
by Max Pemberton

Little Pictures of the Great War

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THE Battle of Cambrai it has been called, but I prefer to call it the. Battle of the "Tanks." Some say it is the most glorious victory of the war, while others tell you it is but a splendid presage of victories to come. One thing is quite certain, and it is this — that never was there such secrecy before about anything we have done or have contemplated doing. London had not an idea of it. The "Know-alls" in the clubs seem to have said no word. There were no "red tabs" to whisper, "I could and I would." For all that London knew, we had settled down to a masterly inactivity on the western front, and if there were any awakened interest it concerned Flanders.

Here in a sense was the jest of it. Across the water they bothered about Lenin and the Maximalists, the Piave and the Italian front. In France the north merely knew, that the south was going to do something, and was going to do it as it had never been done before. "Tanks" had been going down to Arras for many days. The mud of Flanders had crippled them in the north, but there were other terrains, and off they crawled, these monstrous whalebacks, with hardly a word to their friends and no scruple at all to say "Good-bye." General the Hon. Sir Julian Byng, indeed, appeared to have an insatiable appetite for these much-criticised instruments of modern warfare. "Tanks," and still more "tanks," south-ward towards Cambrai and the old battlefields of the immortal Somme. They were weeks collecting them, and all that time the Hun over yonder in the Hindenburg line knew not a word of it. Serenely he slept in the vast tunnels which Ludendorff had built for him.

Preparing for the Coup

We had forgotten this old battlefield latterly, and rarely had the despatches mentioned it. Long ago it seems since we were praising the mighty deeds our fellows did at Combles and Thiepval — how they dug the Germans like rats from tine pits of the river ; how they found villages but heaps of powdered dust upon a black and barren plain ; how gallantly they fought and bled and died in that first great push for Cambrai. Now suddenly we hear of it all again, and our pulses are stirred. Not at Combles, indeed, nor Bapaurne ; not at Ruvaulcourt nor in the vicinity of Peronne, but twelve miles away as the crow flies, at the famous Havrinconrt Woods, which lie distant some nine miles from Cambrai. Here is the centre of the great surprise that is to be. For days the tanks and guns have been rolling up upon the main roads from Arras. Troops been gathering — English, Scottish, Irish ; men from the Eastern Counties, English Rifle regiments, Highland Territorials, men of Ulster and men from the West Riding ; Welshmen too ; the fine lads from Lancashire whose metal we know. Unit by unit they came and fell silently into their appointed places. Rarely has so large a force been marshalled with such perfect secrecy; while as for the "tanks," they waddled up by the hundred while the Hun had not an idea of it. For once his aeroplanes had told him nothing.

As luck would have, it, there had been no weather for aeroplanes for many days. Wild winds and low sullen clouds kept Fritz to his hangars. Even on the momentous morning of November 20th the sky was threatening, and it looked every instant as though rain would fall. The night had been unusually quiet upon that vast plain. Hardly a star-shell had burst in the vapour which loomed upon the wilderness of prairie, while as for the artillery, for all that we or the Boche did it might have been non-existent. In our own camps all was at rest, and men slept the tranquil sleep of those who will wield a good blade to-morrow. It is true that there was a ceaseless activity behind the. lines — transport rolling on every road, guns being moved rapidly into, place, ammunition made ready, the thousands, of cavalry horses being diligently tended.


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The Bois de Bourlon

It was the darkest hour before the dawn when, the call came. Away to the, vaunted "line" the "tanks" were already rolling upon their famous journey. The Battle of Cambrai had begun.

Was, there ever a battle like it ? No artillery preparation, mind you. Not a sound during the night, and then at dawn the bugles ringing, the sadden crash of great guns, the shell-backs sidling out. As the light revealed the scene, you saw a vast plain with wan green grass upon it and here and there the red roofs of the stricken villages, woods that were still rich in trees, mounds with thickets for their adornment, the dark waters of canals, and far distant the Bois de Bourlon, which is Nature's own citadel for Cambrai.

Over this desolation of grass and solitude, towards, the monstrous wire of the Hindenburg line, our "tanks" were lurching. Behind them came the infantry, as unconcerned, as undisturbed, and ,is methodical as though it were a parade. Together they swept upon the famous entrenchments and drove the, Boche out headlong. It was upon a front of nearly ten miles and we were to penetrate it that day to a depth of between four and live miles. Yet we did it with such order and method that the soldiers themselves could hardly believe it to be true.

Chance for the Cavalry

Here were fortifications the Hun had been twelve months building. There were tunnels in every direction — one great tunnel as the point d'appui of such a size that it should have been for a railway rather than a refuge. There was barbed-wire so thick that our artillery might have played upon it for a month, and still have left the barrier unbroken. Yet, incredible as it may seem, the "tanks'" drove their noses through it like monstrous fish that butt at a broken net. In they went and out again, their machine-guns rattling, their crews in a frenzy of delight. One fell into the Nord Canal, and its crew must climb through the manhole like sailors from a stricken submarine. Others went up to woods wherein 5-9 in. guns were lurking, and blazed away.

Some were hit and destroyed1 by direct hits, from shells — but these were surprisingly few, while the gallantry of the men who drove them was always superb. Let anything happen, and an officer up and out in a moment. Little he cared for snipers or machine-guns, though, alas there were occasions when his gallantry cost him his life.

The infantry went in after the "tanks," as I have said, and, surprise of surprises, the cavalry after them. On this day there was work for it enough.. How men's hearts were stirred at the, sight of that long line of horsemen spreading on the wide plain ! They were going to the vermin from the villages, deliberately at the trot, pushing in here sabring there, and all with the liberation of a rider in Rotten Row who is wondering what restaurant he will patronise for lunch. Soon we hear that Moeuvres has been taken, and Anneux and Cantaing and Noyelles and Ribecourt which looked so fair from afar indeed but a whited sepulchre. They are all, but still they are ruins of houses.

"It Was a Famous Victory''

We hurried the men into the "cages” and there were eight thousand of them by nightfall. Our own work lay right up in the very shadow of Cambrai. Easy had been our path, but soon it was to become more difficult. The sheltering woods, the villages remote, harboured Huns who fought like very devils. We had taken the first and second line, and in our zeal pushed on even to Fontaine Notre Dame. which we could not held. Yet then and on the morrow men got the defensive lines south-west of Cantaing, and Ulster regiments were into Oeuvres. La Vacquerie had been taken, and the Welsh Ridge ; there were Highlanders in Flesquieres, and English, Scottish, Irish, and Welsh secured the crossings of the canal at Alasnieres and captured Marcoing and Neuf Wood; It remained for men of the West Riding to storm the villages of Graincourt and Anneux, and for Irishmen to carry the whole of the-German line northwards to the Bapaume-Cambrai road.

So ran this famous victory. Become lethargic at home, men at first said little, hardly able to believe the good news. Then came reason to their aid, and perceiving how. great a thing had been done, they called upon the churches, and throughout the land the sweet echoes of the joy- bells were heard.

May we hear them often upon upon as worthy !


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