A New Weapon on the Western Front
Tommies cheer on a tank at the battle of Cambrai
In June, 1917, the name of the Heavy Branch Machine-Gun Corps had been altered to the "Tank Corps," and it was decided to increase the number of battalions from nine to eighteen; and in that month the staff of the brand new corps began to make plans for a new type of battle.
Till that time both sides had conducted their battles on similar lines. Artillery was massed, and blazed away at the enemy's wire and trenches for weeks on end. Then, over the heavily mutilated ground, the unfortunate infantry stumbled forth to the attack. Usually they ran up against large patches of uncut wire, and were mowed down by machine-guns, and even if these obstacles were overcome they soon became exhausted by such terribly difficult going, and could not possibly advance more than 4,000 yards or so.
The shelled area hindered the forward movement of guns also, and the infantry reserves, tramping up over craters and trenches, became too tired out to continue the attack.
Moreover, the element of surprise was entirely missing. In order to collect the great mass of guns and shells required, railway lines had to be extended and roads constructed, the ordinary traffic behind the line was enormously increased, and enemy aeroplanes and spies soon found out what was going on.
The Tank Corps staff now proposed to attack in an entirely different manner. There was to be no previous artillery bombardment to put the enemy on the alert and to churn up the ground. The main element was to be surprise. At dawn a fleet of tanks would set out over no-man's-land, crush its way through the barbed wire, and make straight for the enemy's guns. Meanwhile aeroplanes would be busy bombing the enemy's field guns. Second and third lines of tanks would then follow, spreading panic and demoralisation amongst the enemy, whilst our heavy guns concentrated on knocking out the enemy artillery and shelling villages and the roads by which he would retire.
The whole operation, which was really to be a gigantic raid, was to be over in twenty- four hours. It can be summed up in three words: "Advance, Hit, Retire," and to attain these results it was to rely on surprise, audacity, and rapidity of movement. It aimed at destroying the enemy's guns and killing his troops, not capturing ground or holding trenches.
Having worked out their scheme, the Tank Corps searched for a part of the line where the ground was not swampy or scarred with shell holes. They found it in the country near Cambrai, a region of undulating chalk downs covered by a thin growth of grass and coarse weeds. It was one of the most peaceful parts of the line, a haven of rest for weary and shattered German divisions. In some places no-man's-land was over 1,000 yards across.
So the Tank Corps chiefs, full of eagerness, approached General Headquarters and explained their simple and entirely original plan. G.H.Q. listened, and talked to them condescendingly, like parents to foolish children. "Do you realise that this sector is defended by the famous Hindenburg Line, which is considered to be impregnable? Do you know that there are three lines of trenches, and that in front of the main line there are acres and acres of barbed wire everywhere over fifty yards deep?" they asked.
"We are fully aware of all that," replied the tank staff, "and that is why we chose this sector to show how easy it will be for our tanks to plough their way through the wire. Besides, we calculate that if the artillery have the job of cutting the wire the bombardment will last five weeks and will cost at least twenty million pounds. Ours is a much cheaper and better way."
"That remains to be seen," said G.H.Q. "Perhaps you don't know that in the Hindenburg Line the trenches are in most places from 12 to 18 feet wide, and your tanks can only cross a trench 10 feet wide. Your whole scheme is therefore unworkable."
But the tank chiefs were not to be discouraged. "We have foreseen that," they answered, " and we have devised a means of crossing by using huge fascines."
G.H.Q., however, were not to be persuaded, and went on with their plans for the Third Battle of Ypres. The tank staff, undaunted, set to work to reconnoitre the Cambrai area with great thoroughness. The more they looked at that dry, firm region the more their mouths watered. Their precious tanks were, at that time, being wilfully thrown away in the swamps of Ypres, whilst here a country made for tanks remained untouched and undisturbed.
So, in September, Brigadier-General Elles, the Tank Army commander, visited Sir Julian Byng, the Third Army chief and conferred with him about an attack at Cambrai. He managed to convert him to the tank point of view and General Byng himself approached G.H.Q. ; but the latter still would not sanction any action outside the Ypres area. It was Passchendaele or nothing with them.
A few weeks later it was obvious to everybody, even to G.H.Q., that the Third Battle of Ypres was a failure, so reluctantly they approved of the tank battle scheme.
"Let them have a cut at the Boche if they want to. We don't really believe they can do what they promise, but if they like to commit suicide let them carry on. It is their funeral not ours. If it does chance to be a success, so much the better for all of us." Such was the attitude of the higher command.
The original tank plan, however, was altered from a raid to a battle, and was to last forty- eight hours. An attempt was. to be made to seize Cambrai and Bourlon Wood, and the cavalry was to push on towards Valenciennes. To carry out this ambitious project the only infantry provided were six divisions of the Third Army, of whom many were in a very tired condition, having just come from Ypres, where they had suffered heavy casualties. The additional forces supplied were two divisions of cavalry, who were expected to go right through the gaps and accomplish miracles. The artillery was also increased to one thousand guns, and a strong force of French cavalry and infantry was held at our disposal on the left flank.
The attack was authorised on 20th October, and was to take place on 20th November. Thus, after a delay of three months, the Tank Corps proposals were sanctioned.
Only four members of the Tank Corps staff knew about the scheme, and with great joy they set to work to prepare for action. The day had come for which they had so eagerly and patiently waited. At last the tanks wee to be given a fair trial over good ground.
General Elles determined to use every tank in France; the whole of his nine battalions were to be flung into the fight at the hour of attack. It was a question of do or die. If the tanks failed, then the Tank Corps was doomed; but the bold general was confident that there would be no failure, and in those few hurried weeks before the battle he made sure of success.
On 24th October orders were given to the Tank Corps Central Workshops for the construction of no tank sledges, to be used for hauling up supplies, and 400 fascines. These fascines consisted of 75 bundles of brushwood bound together by chains, making one huge cylindrical bundle 11 feet in diameter, 10 feet long, and weighing if tons. The fascine was carried on the nose of the tank; when a wide trench was reached a quick release was pulled inside, and the fascine fell into the trench, thus enabling the tank to cross easily.
To complete these orders the workshops toiled day and night. The sledges required some 3,000 cubic feet of wood, weighing 70 tons, which had all to be sawn out of logs. For the fascines 21,500 ordinary bundles of brushwood, weighing about 400 tons, were procured, as well as 2,000 fathoms of chain to bind them together, and eighteen tanks had been especially fitted up for this task. The steel chains were wound round and round the bundles, and then two tanks pulled the chains in opposite directions, thus binding the bundles tightly together. It is related that some months later an infantryman, looking for firewood, filed through the chain-bound fascine, and the bundle suddenly sprang open with such force that it killed him.
The work was done mainly by the 51st Chinese Labour Company, about a thousand strong, who were attached to the workshops. Each fascine was pushed through the mud to the railway truck by twenty of these Chinese coolies, chanting a weirdly monotonous refrain. The steadiness of their work was fully shown on one occasion when no less than 144 fascines were loaded on to trucks in twenty-four hours.
In addition to sledges and fascines, an order was given for the overhaul and repair of 127 machines, most of them salved from the swamps of Ypres. These tremendous tasks were completed in three weeks, during which time the workshops were working twenty-two-and-a-half hours out of twenty-four.
a tank crossing an enemy trench
The tank battalions at Ypres and Lens were withdrawn immediately from the line to training areas where they could practise co-operation with the infantry. It was vital that the latter should have complete confidence in the tanks. They were therefore asked to construct the biggest and strongest wire entanglements possible. The tanks then quietly waded through the lot, much to the joy and surprise of the infantry. After the demonstration the tanks were fitted with their fascines, and carried out a special form of drill devised by Colonel Fuller, the brilliant chief of tank staff.
As three lines of trenches had to be crossed, and each tank only carried one fascine, which could not be picked up again after once being dropped, the following plan was adopted.
The tanks were to work in sections of threes. The leading tank was to go straight ahead through the enemy's wire, and then turning left, without crossing the trench, was to blaze away to keep the enemy down and protect the two following tanks. These made for the same spot, the second approached the trench, cast its fascine, crossed over on it, then turned left and worked its way down the back of the fire trench. The third tank crossed the fire trench on the fascine already there, made for the support trench, dropped its own fascine, crossed over, turned left, and worked down the back of this trench. Meanwhile the first tank had swung round and, crossing over the fire and support trenches on the fascines already in position, moved forward with its own fascine for the third line.
The infantry followed in single file, and were also divided into three groups. The first were "Trench Clearers," who followed immediately behind the tanks and helped to clear up trenches and dug-outs. The leading wave planted red flags at the gaps made in the wire by the tanks. The second were "Trench Stops," who were to block the trenches at various points. The third were "Trench Garrisons," who occupied the captured trenches.
Naturally these exercises with the infantry roused the enthusiasm of the tank crews. After the weariness and futility of Ypres, the men were in a state of deep depression. They knew that the Tank Corps was considered to be useless, and they had crept away from that ill-omened swamp with their tails between their legs. Now they felt that, at last, they were going to be given a fair chance. As yet they were in the dark as to where and when the battle would take place, but their spirits mounted at the thrilling rumours that swept round the camps. They were keen and eager to show their mettle, and were fully determined to stage a "come-back" that would startle both the Germans and the Higher Command.
The next great task was the moving up of the tanks and the arranging of supplies.
As there were not sufficient railway trucks available, a number of old French heavy trucks were used. Movements were made only at night. New ramps and sidings had to be built at the railheads to take this heavy traffic, yet with the exception of a couple of minor accidents everything went like clockwork.
Thirty-six train-loads of tanks were actually carried to the assembly positions by 18th November, two days before the battle.
The light railways of the Third Army accomplished astonishing feats in forming dumps of stores. In just over a fortnight they carried no less than 165,000 gallons of petrol, 55,000 lbs of grease, 5,000,000 rounds of small arms ammunition, and 54,000 rounds of 6- pounder ammunition.
Great precautions were taken to keep everything absolutely secret. All movements were made after dark, and any reference to the battle in telephone conversations was completely forbidden.
It was all quiet on the Cambrai front. The usual number of aeroplanes droned over the sleepy line, the artillery fired the usual number of daily rounds, and the usual infantry held the peaceful front line. The attacking forces were to pass through them, and so those in the line were kept, as far as possible, ignorant of the attack. In fact, an order was circulated asking for the names of all officers and men who knew Italian, the idea being to spread a rumour that the divisions concerned would soon be going to Italy.
The presence of tanks in the neighbourhood was explained as being due to the establishment of a training area, and the Tank Corps Headquarters at Albert was called "The Tank Corps Training Office."
At the 1st Tank Brigade Headquarters at Arras a more subtle method was used. A locked room, containing elaborately faked maps of other sectors and numerous "secret" plans, had the sign "No Admittance" painted in bold letters on the door. It was hoped that enemy agents or over-curious persons would thoroughly search the room and obtain much highly confidential and thoroughly misleading information.
Farther north, a different ruse was employed. Every night six tanks detrained at a siding, and trekked across country to a wood. They then entrained again at another siding, on the far side of the wood, and returned to their tankodrome. This was repeated nightly for a few weeks. Naturally the district swarmed with rumours of a great tank concentration. The agents of the enemy were not long in informing him of this important bit of news, and in due course the wood was heavily shelled, showing that the Boche had been thoroughly hoodwinked.
At Cambrai the tanks themselves were mainly hidden in Havrincourt Wood, and where no woods were available they were camouflaged with canvas, painted to represent bricks and tiles.
The plans of the attack were not told to the section and tank commanders until three days before the battle, and reconnaissance had to be carried out in a very stealthy manner. On the night of the 18th- 19th the Germans raided our trenches and took back some prisoners. It was not known how much these men knew about the forthcoming attack, or if they would give away any information when cross-examined. All that could be done was to wait and see what fate had in store. On the night before the attack the tanks cast aside their camouflage nets and crept slowly forward along routes marked out by a special black-and-white tape which had been laid down at dusk. Their engines were just ticking over, so that they made as little noise as possible.
The Grand Tank Fleet, consisting of 378 righting machines, gathered together from every part of the line, was eagerly waiting for the fateful dawn. Every driver, every gunner, and every tank commander in France, was going over the top.
Besides the fighters, 32 machines had been fitted up with towing gear and grapnels to clear a path through the wire for the cavalry, 54 tanks carried supplies, 2 carried bridging materials, 1 was to carry forward telephone cable, and 9 were fitted with wireless apparatus. The grand total of tanks employed was 476. There were no reserves whatever.
Every man was aware that the fate of the Tank Corps would be decided that day, and every man was determined that if a knock-out blow was to be administered it was not the Tank Corps who would get it, but the unsuspecting Boche.
When the company officers first looked out over that firm chalk land at the acres of barbed wire and cunningly sited trenches, they all had but one opinion.
"If the Boche doesn't tumble to it before the show, it's an absolute gift."
On the evening of the 19th November, Brigadier-General H. J. Elles, the commander of this battle fleet of land ships, issued his famous order:
- SPECIAL ORDER, NO. 6. "1. To-morrow the Tank Corps will have the chance for which it has been waiting for many months, to operate on good going in the van of the battle.
- "2. All that hard work and ingenuity can achieve has been done in the way of preparation.
- "3. It remains for unit commanders and for tank crews to complete the work by judgment and pluck in the battle itself.
- "4. In the light of past experience I leave the good name of the corps with great confidence in your hands.
- "5. I propose leading the attack of the Centre Division.
- "(Signed) HUGH ELLES," B.-G. Commanding Tank Corps.
- "November 19, 1917."
The last paragraph filled everybody with astonishment and pride. The fleet was going into battle led by the commander in person in his flagship, the Hilda. Every crew felt that the eye of the chief would be watching them, and they swore not to betray his trust.
Throughout the whole of the war, on no matter what front, no general in command of any large body of troops ever led his troops into action. A general's place during a modern battle is well in the rear.
General Elles was the one outstanding exception, but then he was a young man under forty, in charge of a young corps engaged in an entirely new form of warfare. His task was not to follow precedents but to create them. He fully realised, too, that his fleet of land ships, designed and brought into being by naval men, should go into action in naval fashion. An admiral always leads his battle squadrons into action, and shares the same dangers as every sailor. General Elles went one better : he ran up the Tank Corps flag on his landship, and proposed to lead the very centre and spearhead of the attack. This flag, which was designed at Cassel in August, 1917, was of three coloursbrown, red and green. Brown represented the earth or mud; red, fire, or the fighting spirit; green, the fields, or "good going." These colours symbolised the ambition of the Tank Corps, which was to fight its way through mud and blood to the green fields and open country beyond.
By flying the flag the general would inevitably attract attention to his tank and be in the very forefront of danger, but when great issues are at stake to take great risks is the prerogative of a great leader, and the brave flapping of that lonely flag was, that day, easily worth another hundred tanks to the enheartened Tank Corps.
At 4.30 a.m. on 20th November, the enemy suddenly came to life, and there was an ominous burst of shelling and trench-mortar fire. Had the Germans discovered our plans? Was everything doomed to failure at the eleventh hour? The tanks, thickly wrapped in mist and darkness, held their breath and waited anxiously. In half an hour the shelling died down and a strained silence took its place.
By 6 a.m. all the tanks were ready in front of our trenches in one long line stretching for six miles. The leading tanks were 150 yards ahead of the rest, and behind, at the gaps in our own wire, the infantry stood silently waiting. There was a thick mist, and it was cold. Rum was served to the tank crews.
Sunrise was at 7.30 a.m. At ten minutes past six the tanks began to move forward in the semi-darkness, the infantry following quietly in single file. Ten minutes later a thousand guns opened out and a fierce barrage of high explosive and smoke shells descended like a hurricane on the German outpost line, 200 yards in front of the advancing tanks. Overhead squadrons of bombers boomed past, dropping their deadly eggs on German Headquarters and gun positions. Above the roaring of their engines and the thunder of the bombardment the tank crews could hear the rending and snapping of the barbed wire as their machines trampled a way through.
Canadian soldiers atop a tank
The amazed Germans were completely overwhelmed. As scores of these monsters loomed up out of the mist, with their weird humps on their backs, the defenders of the line fled in panic, throwing away their arms and equipment as they ran. The great fascines were released and cast into the bottom of the trench. The snouts of the tanks stretched out and out over the wide trenches until the point of balance was reached, then dipped down and down until they seemed to be standing on their heads. Then, when they touched the far side, up and up they reared until their tails rested on the fascines, and their tracks being able to get a firm grip, their huge bodies clambered back on to the level again.
Thus was the famous Hindenburg Line, the much boomed bulwark of the German Army, crossed as easily as a boy jumps over a small stream.
In a dug-out in this line was discovered a message which had been rudely interrupted by the arrival of the tanks. It read : " Keep sharp lookout. Issue armour-piercing bullets. Attack expected by ------" Further documents were found which showed that on first being examined, the British prisoners captured in the raid of the 18th had informed the enemy that a raid was soon to take place. In consequence the Germans moved reserve machine guns up to the line. At a later examination at German Headquarters, however, the prisoners had given away much more valuable information, for an urgent wire was sent to the front line. It arrived too late, for this was the message found in the signal dug-out.
The reserve line was soon overrun. Everywhere the enemy was streaming back in complete disorder. General Elles' flagship, Hilda, having reached its objective, the general returned on foot; to his headquarters, where, seated in his office, by aid of telephone and telegraph, he continued to conduct operations in a manner more in accordance with Field Service Regulations.
In some places the tanks ran up against fierce resistance. At Lateau Wood there was a thrilling fight between a 5.9 howitzer and a tank. As the tank came round a corner it sud- denly encountered the gun, which immediately fired at what was point-blank range. The shell struck the right-hand sponson with terrific force, shattering it and blowing most of it away. For a moment the tank paused, reeling under this mighty blow, but luckily the engine was still intact, and the driver, without hesitation, drove straight at the gun. Before the gunners had time to reload the tank was on top of them, and the gun crushed into a shapeless heap.
Other tanks in the meantime had gone over the ridge and were speeding down to Masnieres, where a bridge spanned the canal. It was one of the important routes to the next bridge. The retreating Germans had half destroyed the bridge, but, nevertheless, the leading tank made for it and attempted to cross. Half-way over, the remains of the bridge bent and slowly collapsed, throwing the tank into the canal. The crew escaped through the manhole in the top, the tank commander being the last to leave the sinking machine.
There was only one casualty in this tankthe wig of one of the crew, who had it knocked off when climbing through the manhole. To make up for his enforced baldness, he put in a claim for compensation. Reams of correspondence followed. The authorities were puzzled ; they could not decide under what heading a wig came. Was it "Loss of a Limb," "Field Equipment," "Medical Comfort," "Clothing," "Personal Effects," or "Special Tank Stores" ? In the end, tired of fruitless discussions, they solved the problem by awarding the owner a suitable amount of cash.
At Marcoing the tanks had better luck, but the bridge was only saved in the nick of time. The leading tank reached the main railway bridge just as the demolition party was about to blow it up. An engineer was actually running forward with a wire to connect up the electric batteries to the demolition charges. Realising the urgency of the situation, the tank commander dashed from his tank and ran forward, revolver in hand. He shot the man when he was within a few feet of the bridge. Immediately a party of the enemy made a furious counter-attack, but the tank held the bridge and drove them back again.
It was near this same village that a section commander, Captain R. W. Wain, of A Battalion, performed a wonderful feat. He had gone into action in the tank of one of his lieutenants. When nearing the Hindenburg Support Line he spotted an enemy strong point which was holding up the advance of our infantry, and made straight for it. When almost on top a shell hit the tank and knocked it out completely. After the smoke and fumes had cleared away Captain Wain found that of the whole crew only one other man was alive, and he was in a terrible condition.
Though seriously wounded himself, Captain Wain crawled to the sponson door and looked out. The infantry was still held up.
"I'll get them yet," he murmured to himself, grabbed a Lewis gun, and clambered out. Clenching his teeth, he pulled himself together by a tremendous effort, dashed from behind the tank, and rushed straight at the strong point, firing away as he ran. The sight of this blood-bespattered apparition charging down on them was too much for the garrison; they wavered and broke. The next minute Captain Wain was on top of them, firing furiously. Half of the garrison surrendered, the others fell back, but he had not yet completed his task. Although his strength was fast ebbing, he still had a few minutes to live. He picked up a rifle and fired at the retiring enemy until he himself was hit in the head by a bullet.
The infantry had now come forward, and the stretcher-bearers hastened to his aid. There was no hope for him, his life blood was streaming from his wounds, but he refused to be bound up. His iron will-power kept him at his task, and he continued to assist in clearing the strong point. When his duty was done, and the last German had been killed or had fled, he collapsed and was carried gently away to die.
For this superhuman display of courage and resolution he was awarded the V.C. In the words of the official report, "it was due to this most gallant act by this officer that the infantry was able to advance."
At Flesquieres the tanks seem to have got ahead of the infantry of the 51st Division, which was using an attack formation of its own. As the tanks came up over the crest they were caught at point-blank range by the German artillery, and many were knocked out.
One gun at the west end of the village, which could see every tank outlined against the sky as it topped the ridge, did great damage. It was generously mentioned in Sir Douglas Haig's dispatch: " Many of the hits upon our tanks at Flesquieres were obtained by a German artillery officer who, remaining alone at his battery, served a field-gun single-handed until killed at his gun. The great bravery of this officer aroused the admiration of all ranks."
Some of the tank crews had miraculous escapes. One tank was pierced in the front by a shell which knocked off the driver's head, flung it on the knees of the officer sitting beside him, killed the two gunners in the right-hand sponson, and then went clean through the back without bursting.
Whilst attacking nests of machine-guns near Flesquieres, tank Edward II., commanded by Lieutenant Bion, received a direct hit by a German field howitzer, which put it out of action. The tank commander gave the order to abandon ship. The sponson door, on the side away from the enemy, was jammed tight, and to evacuate by the other door meant being exposed to heavy machine-gun fire. Private Richardson, however, did not hesitate. Seizing his Lewis gun, he courageously jumped out of the door, and, flopping to the ground amid a hailstorm of bullets, got his gun into action whilst the remainder of the crew clambered speedily out and found refuge in a communication trench.
Lieutenant Bion then reopened fire with his Lewis gun from this trench, where his little garrison was, not long after, strengthened by the arrival of ten men of the 5th Gordons. One enemy machine gun, in a hidden position, annoyed him so persistently that Bion crawled out of the trench, with a Lewis gun, climbed up to the top of the tank, and, sheltering behind the huge fascine, blazed away until the nuisance had abated.
Seeing that there was only a handful of men in the trench, the Germans emerged from the village and attacked the position with about 200 men, but Bion's guns, firing in rapid bursts, soon nipped this attempt in the bud. Unfortunately this encounter exhausted all his ammunition, and if another attack took place his tiny garrison would be overwhelmed. But Lieutenant Bion was a man of resource. He searched round in the trench and found a German machine gun with ammunition. He switched this gun round and kept the Boche at bay until, a few hours later, welcome reinforcements arrived in the shape of a company of Seaforth Highlanders.
Whilst discussing the position with Bion, the company commander was shot through the head. Once more Lieutenant Bion stepped into the breach by taking command of the company, and remained in charge until another lieutenant of the Seaforths arrived.
For thus saving the situation at a very critical moment, this combined tank officer, German machine-gunner, and infantry commander received a well-earned D.S.O.
Although the attack was held up at Flesquieres, the tanks on the immediate left went forward like an irresistible tidal wave. The infantry, following them, advanced to a depth of \\ miles, capturing Havrincourt and Graincourt. In the latter village the Germans had their headquarters below the vaults of a church, whence they had built a regular rabbit- warren of underground galleries and chambers which were all heavily mined. The following incident is an extract from a tank officer's letter home :
"Graincourt had been taken by surprise and had changed hands so quickly that we had taken over these very eligible headquarters as a going concern ' ready furnished for immediate occupation.'
"So sudden, indeed, had been the change of tenancy that the two Boche engineers whose job it was to run the electric lighting plant had been captured in their own subterranean engine-room, and were even now stolidly carrying out their old duties, seemingly but little concerned by the fact that they were now ' under entirely new management.'
"As it turned out, it was very well for us that we did capture and retain this precious pair, for when they found that they were going to be kept on to run the lighting as before they quite shamelessly said:
Well, if that's the case, there's just one little point we ought to warn you about, and that is, if anyone moves what looks like the main switchas anyone would who didn't know when starting up the plantthe demolition charges would be blown. If you would like these removed in case of accidents, we can show you where to dig for themwe know exactly where to find them, as it was our job to lay them.'
"Even whilst I was there, I saw these ruffians superintending the removal of case after case of high explosive from cunningly concealed chambers behind the timber linings and under floors."*
From this village several tanks went on into Bourlon Wood, which they found practically empty. The infantry was too tired to follow, and the much-expected cavalry failed to appear on the scene, so the tanks withdrew again. A fresh brigade of infantry could easily have occupied this wood, which a few days later was to be the scene of desperate fighting.
When a tank is disabled by a direct hit, the crew are generally forced to leave it to escape being burnt alive. Naturally enough, the Germans whom they have fiercely attacked, are not inclined to mercy, and try their utmost to shoot and bomb them as they clamber out, and also to capture the derelict tank. Knowing this, tank crews put up a desperate fight when surrounded, and neither expect nor give quarter.
An incident of this kind happened to a tank at Havrincourt. It had just captured two strongly held shell craters when it caught fire. At the same moment about a hundred Germans appeared all round it. To escape the flames two of the crew jumped out of a door. They were shot down immediately. The remainder clambered out of the door on the other side into a shell hole, where bombs were thrown at them, one man being killed, the others wounded.
Meanwhile the tank commander, Lieutenant M'Elroy, had remained in the tank, fighting the flames, and had managed to subdue them with the fire extinguishers. Then, in spite of the fumes, he opened fire with his Lewis gun and killed many of the enemy.
He then noticed that they were creeping towards the shell hole where the four wounded survivors lay hidden. They had almost surrounded it when he opened a loop-hole and, firing rapidly with his revolver, shot eight of them dead.
Infuriated, the Germans tried to capture the tank by rushes, but he held them at bay single-handed for over an hour, when our infantry arrived. He gained the D.S.O. for this heroic stand.
Whilst the fighting tanks were driving the enemy back in confused disorder, the supply tanks followed up with supplies, and the wireless signal tanks were busy transmitting messages. One wirelessed back the capture of Marcoing ten minutes after the infantry entered the village. The wire clearers, too,- got to work at once, and by the aid of grapnels cleared three broad tracks for the cavalry, who indeed moved forward, but so hesitatingly that they never appeared where they were wanted.
By 4 p.m. on the 20th November, the battle from the Tank Corps' point of view was won and finished. On a front of 13,000 yards the infantry had been enabled to advance 10,000 yards in ten hours. Eight thousand prisoners and 100 guns were captured, in addition to numerous stores, canteens, field post offices, hospitals, and even cinemas.
The British casualties had not been more than 1,500.
At the Third Battle of Ypres a similar advance took three months, and cost nearly 400,000 casualties.
The Tank Corps, numbering a little over 4,000 men, had that day changed the face of warfare.
The tactics outlined by the far-seeing Colonel Swinton in February, 1916, seven months before the first tank went into action, had at last triumphed. If only the Higher Command had carried out his ideas earlier, what lives would have been saved, what victories would have been gained!
Mr. Winston Churchill, another early champion of tanks, in his book on The World Crisis points the obvious moral: "Accusing as I do without exception all the great Ally offensives of 1915, 1916, and 1917 as needless and wrongly conceived operations of infinite cost, I am bound to reply to the question, 'What else could be done?' And I answer it, pointing to the Battle of Cambrai: 'This could have been done.' This in many variants, this in larger and better forms, ought to have been done, and would have been done if only the generals had not been content to fight machine-gun bullets with the breasts of gallant men and think that was waging war."
The amazing victory roused England to great enthusiasm. Bells were rung in all churches. Little knowing what disasters were ahead, people talked of the end being in sight; they were mistaken, and yet their instinct was right, for that day the eyes of the generals had been suddenly opened, and a weapon placed in their hesitating hands which was destined to cleave the way to victory.
a looming monster
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