WWI Centennial: Surprise Attack At Cambrai

John Warwick Brooke, the Imperial War Museum // Public Domain
John Warwick Brooke, the Imperial War Museum // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 294th installment in the series.

November 20, 1917: Surprise Attack At Cambrai

By fall 1917 the basic pattern of attack on the Western Front was well established, with a huge artillery bombardment, sometimes lasting days or weeks, preceding a mass infantry assault across No Man’s Land—the model employed at Passchendaele. Then on November 20, 1917, at the Battle of Cambrai, the British tried something radically new: scrapping the lengthy artillery bombardment—which also warned the enemy an attack was coming—in favor of a stealthy surprise attack with tanks.

Since their debut at the Somme in 1916, the new wonder weapons had proved a little less wonderful than hoped—prone to frequent breakdowns, “ditching” or getting swamped in mud, and with limited range under the best of circumstances. However, a number of spectacular successes confirmed the temperamental vehicles’ potential in the right circumstances. Could new tactics, with massed tanks and no preparatory bombardment, deliver a breakthrough, ending the stasis of trench warfare?

With the British Expeditionary Force to the north exhausted after Passchendaele, it was left to General Julian Byng’s British Third Army, including Canadian and South African troops, to execute the giant live fire experiment. They would mount a surprise attack spearheaded by almost 400 tanks and two corps of infantry, using “infiltration” tactics similar to stormtroopers’. The attack targeted the town of Cambrai—a key supply hub for German forces holding the Hindenburg Line to the south.


Erik Sass

The initial attack was more successful than the British could have hoped: at 6 a.m. on November 20, 1917, hundreds of tanks began crossing no man’s land with six divisions of British infantry, supported by a simultaneous bombardment by just over 1000 artillery pieces of various sizes. The tanks cleared the way through barbed wire for columns of infantry who followed close behind, overrunning enemy trenches and surrounding strongpoints while the tanks pushed ahead. Meanwhile a smoke screen helped prevent the Germans from directing artillery fire on to the tanks. William Watson, a British tank officer, recalled:

In front of the wire, tanks in a ragged line were surging forward inexorably over the short down grass. Above and around them hung the blue-gray smoke of their exhausts. Each tank was followed by a bunch of Highlanders, some running forward from cover to cover, but most of them tramping steadily behind their tanks … Beyond the enemy trenches, the slopes from which the German gunners might have observed the advancing tanks were already enveloped in thick white smoke. The smoke-shells burst with a sheet of vivid red flame, pouring out blinding, suffocating clouds. It was as if flaring bonfires were burning behind a bank of white fog. Over all, innumerable aeroplanes were flying steadily to and fro. The enemy made little reply.

The sudden appearance of the tanks, emerging from the early morning mist, took many of the German defenders by surprise, surrendering to British infantry advancing close behind. Watson wrote:

Odd bunches of men were making their way across what had been No Man’s Land. A few, ridiculously few, wounded were coming back. Germans in twos and threes … were wandering confusedly towards us without escort, putting up their hand in tragic and amazed resignation, whenever they saw a Highlander. The news was magnificent. Our confidence had been justified. Everywhere we had overrun the first system and were pressing on.

By the end of the day the British attackers had advanced up to five miles in places—a huge win by the standards of the First World War. Watson described scenes in captured German positions well behind the front line:

We walked up the road, which in a few yards widened out. On either side were dug-outs, stores, and cook-houses. Cauldrons of coffee and soup were still on the fire. This regimental headquarters the enemy had defended desperately. The trench-boards were slippery with blood, and fifteen to twenty corpses, all Germans and all bayoneted, lay strewn about the road like drunken men.

However, the success at Cambrai also highlighted, once again, the shortcomings and basic limitations of tanks: as Watson noted, by the end of the first day four out of his 11 tanks were knocked out, three had ditched, and the remainder were short on gas.


German Federal Archives // CC BY-SA 3.0 DE

Meanwhile the advantage of surprise had been used up and the Germans were rushing fresh troops to the battlefield to reinforce the beleaguered Second Army under General Georg von Marwitz. On November 23, the British continued the attack with an assault on Bourlon Wood, which they had identified as a key position, but already German resistance was stiffening. Watson left this impressionistic description of the British attack at Bourlon Wood on November 23:

At 10:30 a.m. the barrage fell and we could see it climb, like a living thing, through the wood and up the hillside, a rough line of smoke and flame. On the hillside to the left of the wood we could mark the course of the battle—the tanks with tiny flashes darting from their flanks—clumps of infantry following in little rushes—an officer running in front of his men, until suddenly he crumpled up and fell, as though some unseen hammer had struck him on the head—the men wavering in the face of machine-gun fire and then spreading out to surround the gun—the wounded staggering painfully down the hill, and the stretcher-bearers moving backwards and forwards in the wake of the attack—the aeroplanes skimming low along the hillside, and side-slipping to rake the enemy trenches with their guns.


German Federal Archives // CC BY-SA 3.0 DE

Once again, tanks delivered some impressive gains but they remained vulnerable to unexpectedly unfavorable ground conditions, mechanical breakdowns, and fuel shortages. Of course, despite their heavy armor they were hardly immune to enemy fire, and a single lucky shot by field artillery could spell the end of a vehicle and its crew. Watson described one terrible scene:

Flames were coming from the rear of the tank, but its guns continued to fire and the tank continued to move. Suddenly the driver must have realised what was happening. The tank swung towards home. It was too late. Flames burst from the roof and the tank stopped, but the sponson doors never opened and the crew never came out … When I left my post half an hour later the tank was still burning.

By the end of November the British had chalked up major gains that threatened German logistics in northern France and jeopardized the integrity of the Hindenburg Line. But between hundreds of casualties, mechanical issues, and dwindling fuel, the tanks were largely a spent force—and there was no way the Germans were going to leave the British to enjoy their conquests. Even worse, the Third Army’s new positions formed a vulnerable salient, exposed to enemy counterattack on both flanks.

On November 30, 1917 the Germans unleashed their biggest attack (or rather counterattack) on British forces on the Western Front since 1915, with a crushing artillery bombardment followed by infantry advances against all fronts of the salient southwest of Cambrai. The German counterattack displayed their own tactical evolution with stormtroop assaults, employing trench mortars, grenades and machine guns, closely coordinated with artillery to break up barbed wire entanglements and force enemy infantry to take shelter.

Over subsequent German counterattacks from December 1-7, the recently captured salient collapsed under the weight of superior numbers, reflecting the determination of the German general staff, which was determined to contain the threat to the Hindenburg Line. Private William Reginald Dick described outnumbered British defenders preparing for a German counterattack at La Vacquerie, a village south of Cambrai, on December 3, 1917:

Around and above is a turmoil of noise; the mighty roar of dropping shells, the incessant rending crashes of the explosions, the scream and thud of whizz-bangs, and permeating all, the booming thunder of the guns. In this battering inferno of sound, we have to shout to make ourselves heard. The earth quivers continuously under the metallic flail. Across the shattered soil behind our position, a barrage is falling, a vast unbroken curtain of spouting bursts, spraying up earth, smoke and steel in a dark and furious barrier, half veiled by dense black fumes that writhe, heave, and trail upward in a mist of dirty grey … The Lewis-gun team beside me crouch below their deadly charge; it is tilted up ready to heave on the parapet; a drum is fixed for immediate firing.

The German infantry, led by stormtroopers, advanced boldly into a wall of British fire:

I see the wide waste of the shell-churned soil, the tattered wire, and, well over, a dark and far-flung line of gray-clad stormers; behind them others rising fast, apparently springing from the drab earth in knots and groups, spreading out, surging forward. Simultaneously from our trench bursts a great roar of fire. I fire with fiercely jerking bolt, round after round merged into the immense noise …

As the German infantry approached, firing and throwing grenades, the British defenders were forced to withdraw to another trench in the rear:

Suddenly I hear faintly a medley of confused shouts. I see the men on the fire-step firing fast again, and up the trench they are firing both to front and flank … I see bomb smoke above the parapet to the right, I see men leap back from the fire-step and merge with another little rush of consumed wounded. The platoon sergeant waves his arm urgently, “Down the trench!”

Of course the formidable German stormtrooper units suffered heavy casualties during the German counterattack as well, according to the German novelist Ernst Junger, who described grenade duels with British troops in adjoining trenches at Cambrai in his novel and memoir, Storm of Steel:

The British resisted manfully. Every traverse had to be fought for. The black balls of Mills bombs crossed in the air with our own long-handled grenades. Behind every traverse we captured, we found corpses or bodies still twitching. We killed each other, sight unseen. We too suffered losses. A piece of iron crashed to the ground next to the orderly, which the fellow was unable to avoid; and he collapsed to the ground, while his blood issued on to the clay from many wounds. We hurdled over his body, and charged forward.

Junger described the unique thrill, and terror, of combat with grenades:

One barely glanced at the crumpled body of one’s opponent; he was finished, and a new duel was commencing. The exchange of hand-grenades reminded me of fencing with foils; you needed to jump and stretch, almost as in a ballet. It’s the deadliest of duels, as it invariably ends with one or other of the participants being blown to smithereens. Or both.

During the course of the Battle of Cambrai, the Germans suffered around 45,000 casualties, compared to around 44,200 British. Today the Cambrai Memorial commemorates 7000 British and South African soldiers who died during the battle and were buried in unknown graves.

See the previous installment or all entries.

When Theodore Roosevelt's Antique Gun Was Stolen From Sagamore Hill

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Shortly before hitting the battlefield on July 1, 1898, Theodore Roosevelt had a decision to make. He was about to lead a volunteer cavalry known as the Rough Riders in the Battle of San Juan Heights in Santiago, Cuba, during the Spanish-American War. In protecting both his life and the lives of his men during combat, what sidearm should he choose?

Roosevelt, an avowed arms enthusiast, had an arsenal in his personal collection as well as numerous firearms issued by the U.S. military. The gun he chose to holster on his waist was a Colt Model 1895 .38 caliber double-action revolver with six shots, a blue barrel, and a checkered wood grip. While it may not have been the most formidable weapon at his disposal, it was the most emotionally resonant. The gun, a gift from his brother-in-law, had been retrieved from the wreck of the U.S. battleship Maine, whose sinking had claimed the lives of 266 men and helped usher in the war. He considered the gun a tribute to the sailors and Marines lost in the tragedy.

Now it had become an instrument of that war. In the conflict, Roosevelt aimed his revolver at two opposing soldiers. He missed one. The other was struck—and the wound was fatal. “He doubled up as neatly as a jackrabbit,” Roosevelt later wrote.

Just a few years later, Roosevelt would be president of the United States. The gun remained in his possession until his death in 1919, and eventually came into the care of Sagamore Hill, his onetime home and later a historic site. The Colt occupied a place of honor in the property’s Old Orchard Museum, behind glass and next to the uniform that he wore during the charge.

In April of 1990, a museum employee walked past the display and noticed something unusual. The Colt was gone. The weapon used by the 26th president to kill a man would go missing for 16 years, recovered only under the most unusual of circumstances.

“This poor gun has been through a lot,” Susan Sarna, the museum’s curator, tells Mental Floss. “It was blown up on the Maine, sunk to the bottom, resurrected, goes to San Juan Hill, comes here, then gets stolen—twice.”

 

According to a 2006 article in Man at Arms magazine by Philip Schreier [PDF], the senior curator at the National Rifle Association’s National Firearms Museum, the Colt has indeed had a hectic life. Manufactured in Hartford, Connecticut, in March 1895, the firearm (serial number 16,334) was delivered from the factory to the U.S. government and wound up on board the USS Maine when the ship was first commissioned in September of that year. The gun was considered ship property and remained on board until February 15, 1898, when the Maine exploded in Havana, Cuba. Many blamed the Spanish for the explosion, and hundreds of men lost their lives.

At the time, Roosevelt’s brother-in-law, William S. Cowles, was heading the U.S. Naval Station. He and his team were sent to the site to inspect the scene. Divers retrieved bodies and other items, including the Colt. Knowing Roosevelt—at the time the Assistant Secretary of the Navy under President William McKinley—was fond of weapons and a genial warmonger, Cowles gave it to him as a gift. While it was perfectly functional, it's clear Cowles intended the Colt to serve to honor the memory of those who had died.

The Colt revolver that once belonged to Theodore Roosevelt is pictured on display at Sagamore Hill
Roosevelt's Colt revolver on display at Sagamore Hill.
Courtesy of Sagamore Hill National Historic Site

Roosevelt later took it into battle, using it to shoot at enemy forces. (He would earn a posthumous Medal of Honor in 2001 for his actions that day.) Shortly after, the weapon was inscribed to represent its participation in two exceptional events. On one side of the handle:

From the sunken battle ship Maine.

On the other:

July 1st 1898, San Juan, Carried and used by Col. Theodore Roosevelt.

Following Roosevelt’s death in 1919, the Sagamore Hill estate in Oyster Bay, New York, was home to his wife, Edith, until her death in 1948. The property was later donated to the National Park Service in 1963 and became Sagamore Hill National Historic Site. The gun went on display along with many of the former president's other personal effects, eventually settling in the Old Orchard near the uniform he wore during the Battle of San Juan Heights.

In 1963, the Colt came up missing for the first time. With no guard or contemporary security system in place, someone nicked it from the building. Fortunately, it was soon found in the woods behind the museum, slightly rusty from being exposed to the elements but otherwise unharmed. The perpetrator may have gotten spooked after taking off with it and decided to abandon the contraband, but no one had a chance to ask—he or she was never caught.

By April of 1990, the gun and uniform were in a display case borrowed from the American Museum of Natural History. While somewhat of a deterrent, it didn't offer much in the way of security. “The case could be lifted and the lock just popped open,” Sarna says.

Sarna had just started at the museum back then. According to her, the case had either been disturbed by a thief or possibly left open by someone cleaning the display, inviting a probing set of hands. Either way, the gun disappeared—but it wasn’t immediately obvious.

“No one was sure what day it had happened,” she says; the best guess was that the theft had occurred between April 5 and 7. “You’d have to walk into the room it was in and look in the case. If you’re just walking by, you’d see the uniform, but not necessarily the gun.”

It was chief ranger and head of visitor services Raymond Bloomer Jr. and ranger John Foster who discovered the theft one morning. The lock had been popped but the glass was not broken. Sarna and the other employees conducted a search of the property, believing that perhaps someone had taken the Colt out for cleaning. When that failed to produce any results, they notified the National Park Service, which is the first line of investigation for theft on government-owned park property. The NPS, in turn, contacted local authorities in Nassau County and Cove Neck, New York. Soon, the FBI was involved.

Predictably, law enforcement looked at museum employees with a critical eye. “There were all different types of people here interviewing us,” Sarna says. “In museums, the majority of thefts are an inside job.”

Theodore Roosevelt is pictured in uniform
Roosevelt in uniform while leading the Rough Riders.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Park ranger and museum staffer Scott Gurney, who was hired in 1993, tells Mental Floss that the suspicion cast over employees—none of whom were ever implicated—remained a sore spot. “I found an old police report about it in a desk and asked a ranger about it,” Gurney says. “He got really mad at me and told me not to bring it up again. It was kind of a black eye for the people working there.”

As Sarna and the others set about installing a security system in the museum, the FBI started casting a wide net to locate the weapon, which was uninsured. “It was basically a shoplifting incident,” Robert Wittman, a retired FBI agent in their art crimes division who worked on the case from the mid-1990s on, tells Mental Floss. “It wasn’t all that unusual. In the 1970s and 1980s, lots of small museums were getting hit.” Worse, one of the museum staff working the front desk within view of the display was, according to Gurney, legally blind. The lack of security, Wittman says, was in part because pieces weren’t initially all that valuable on the collector’s market.

The Colt was unique in that it was so readily identifiable. Thanks to the inscriptions, it would invite questions if the thief attempted to sell the weapon. Any attempt to alter it would destroy its cultural value and defeat the purpose of taking it. The FBI sent notices to gun dealers and monitored gun shows in case it turned up. Nothing seemed promising.

“We heard things constantly,” Sarna says. “Someone said it was seen in Europe. Someone else said it was in private hands, or that a collector had it.” Later, when the museum was able to start receiving emails via the burgeoning world of the internet, more tips—all dead ends—came in. Another rumor had the gun being bought during a gun buyback program in Pennsylvania and subsequently destroyed. This one looked promising, as it bore the same serial number. But it turned out to be a different model.

A reward was offered for information leading to the gun’s retrieval, with the amount eventually climbing to $8100. But that still wasn’t sufficient for the gun to surface. “We really had no lines on it,” Wittman says.

Then, in September 2005, Gurney began receiving a series of calls while working in the visitor’s center. The man had a slight speech impediment, he said, or might have been intoxicated. Either way, he told Gurney he knew where the gun was. “He told me it was in a friend’s house, but that he didn’t want to get the friend in trouble.”

The man continued calling, each time refusing to give his name and ignoring Gurney’s suggestion to simply drop the gun in the mail. The man also spoke to Amy Verone, the museum’s chief of cultural resources. He was certain he had seen Theodore Roosevelt’s gun, wrapped in an old sweatshirt in DeLand, Florida. He described the engravings to Verone, who hung up and immediately called the FBI.

 

After more calls and conversations, including one in which Gurney stressed the historical importance of the weapon, the caller eventually relented and gave his information to the FBI. A mechanical designer by trade, Andy Anderson, then 59, said he had seen the gun the previous summer. It had been shown to him by his girlfriend, who knew Anderson was a history buff. She told Anderson her ex-husband had originally owned the firearm. It had been in a closet wrapped in a sweatshirt before winding up under a seat in the woman’s mini-van, possibly obscured by a dish towel. Presumably, her ex had been the one who had stolen it back while visiting the museum as a New York resident in 1990.

Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Riders uniform is pictured on display at Sagamore Hill
Roosevelt's Rough Riders uniform sits on display at Sagamore Hill next to his Colt.
Courtesy of Sagamore Hill National Historic Site

After Anderson contacted Sagamore Hill, FBI agents were dispatched from the Daytona Beach office to DeLand to question Anderson. He obtained the revolver from his girlfriend and handed it over, though he apparently tried to convince the FBI to let him return the weapon without disclosing the thief’s identity. The FBI didn’t agree to an anonymous handoff, however, and in November 2006 the ex-husband, a 55-year-old postal employee whom we’ll refer to as Anthony T., was charged with a misdemeanor in U.S. District Court in Central Islip, New York.

Wittman remembers that the split between Anthony T. and his wife had been acrimonious and that she had no involvement in the theft. “We were not going to charge her with possession of stolen property,” he says.

Wittman went to Florida to pick up the Colt and brought it back to the Philadelphia FBI offices, where it was secured until prosecutors authorized its return to Sagamore Hill on June 14, 2006. Schreier, the NRA museum’s senior curator, arrived at Sagamore Hill with Wittman, FBI Assistant Director in Charge in New York Mark Mershon, and Robert Goldman, the onetime U.S. assistant attorney and art crime team member who was himself a Roosevelt collector and had doggedly pursued the case for years. When Schreier confirmed its authenticity, the gun was formally turned back over.

There was no reasonable defense for Anthony T. In November of that year, he pled guilty to stealing the Colt. While he was eligible for up to 90 days in jail and a $500 fine, Anthony T. received two years of probation along with the financial penalty and 50 hours of community service. According to Wittman, cases of this sort are based in part on the dollar value of the object stolen—the weapon was valued at $250,000 to $500,000—not necessarily its historical value. “The sentencing may not be commensurate with the history,” Wittman says.

From that perspective, the Colt takes on far greater meaning. It was used in a battle that cemented Roosevelt’s reputation as a leader, one credited with helping bolster his national profile. It was used in commission in the death of a human being, giving it a weight and history more than the sum of its metal parts.

“It’s looked at as one of his greatest triumphs,” Sarna says of the Rough Riders and the U.S. victory in the 1898 conflict. “It brought us into a new century and out of isolationism.”

It’s once more on display at Sagamore Hill, this time under far better security and surveillance. (Though the museum is still vulnerable to heists: a reproduction hairbrush was recently swiped.) Sarna, who wasn’t sure if she would ever see the Colt again, is glad to see it where it belongs.

“Thank goodness they got divorced,” she says.

It’s not publicly known why Anthony T. felt compelled to take the Colt. Wittman describes it as a crime of opportunity, not likely one that was planned. After the plea, Anthony T. was let go from his job, and his current whereabouts are unknown. Prosecutors called it a mistake in judgment.

Anderson, the tipster, lamented any of it had to happen. “We’re talking about a mistake he made 16 years ago,” Anderson told the Orlando Sentinel in November 2006. “I have no regrets, but I never meant to cause trouble. I wish Anthony the best.”

If Anthony T. was an admirer of Roosevelt’s, he might find some poetic peace in the fact that he pled guilty to violating the American Antiquities Act of 1906, which was instituted to prevent theft of an object of antiquity on property owned by the government.

That bill was signed into law by Theodore Roosevelt.

The Ingenious Reason Medieval Castle Staircases Were Built Clockwise

Shaiith/iStock via Getty Images
Shaiith/iStock via Getty Images

If you’re a fan of Game of Thrones or medieval programs in general, you’re probably familiar with action-packed battle scenes during which soldiers storm castles, dodge arrows, and dash up spiral staircases. And, while those spiral staircases might not necessarily ascend clockwise in every television show or movie you’ve watched, they usually did in real life.

According to Nerdist, medieval architects built staircases to wrap around in a clockwise direction in order to disadvantage any enemies who might climb them. Since most soldiers wielded swords in their right hands, this meant that their swings would be inhibited by the inner wall, and they’d have to round each curve before striking—fully exposing themselves in the process.

Just as the clockwise spiral hindered attackers, so, too, did it favor the castle’s defenders. As they descended, they could swing their swords in arcs that matched the curve of the outer wall, and use the inner wall as a partial shield. And, because the outer wall runs along the wider edge of the stairs, there was also more room for defenders to swing. So, if you’re planning on storming a medieval castle any time soon, you should try to recruit as many left-handed soldiers as possible. And if you’re defending one, it’s best to station your lefties on crossbow duty and leave the tower-defending to the righties.

On his blog All Things Medieval, Will Kalif explains that the individual stairs themselves provided another useful advantage to protectors of the realm. Because the individual steps weren’t all designed with the same specifications, it made for much more uneven staircases than what we see today. This wouldn’t impede the defenders, having grown accustomed to the inconsistencies of the staircases in their home castle, but it could definitely trip up the attackers. Plus, going down a set of stairs is always less labor-intensive than going up.

Staircase construction and battle tactics are far from the only things that have changed since the Middle Ages. Back then, people even walked differently than we do—find out how (and why) here.

[h/t Nerdist]

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