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.

Keep Your Cat Busy With a Board Game That Doubles as a Scratch Pad

Cheerble
Cheerble

No matter how much you love playing with your cat, waving a feather toy in front of its face can get monotonous after a while (for the both of you). To shake up playtime, the Cheerble three-in-one board game looks to provide your feline housemate with hours of hands-free entertainment.

Cheerble's board game, which is currently raising money on Kickstarter, is designed to keep even the most restless cats stimulated. The first component of the game is the electronic Cheerble ball, which rolls on its own when your cat touches it with their paw or nose—no remote control required. And on days when your cat is especially energetic, you can adjust the ball's settings to roll and bounce in a way that matches their stamina.

Cheerable cat toy on Kickstarter.
Cheerble

The Cheerble balls are meant to pair with the Cheerble game board, which consists of a box that has plenty of room for balls to roll around. The board is also covered on one side with a platform that has holes big enough for your cat to fit their paws through, so they can hunt the balls like a game of Whack-a-Mole. And if your cat ever loses interest in chasing the ball, the board also includes a built-in scratch pad and fluffy wand toy to slap around. A simplified version of the board game includes the scratch pad without the wand or hole maze, so you can tailor your purchase for your cat's interests.

Cheerble cat board game.
Cheerble

Since launching its campaign on Kickstarter on April 23, Cheerble has raised over $128,000, already blowing past its initial goal of $6416. You can back the Kickstarter today to claim a Cheerble product, with $32 getting you a ball and $58 getting you the board game. You can make your pledge here, with shipping estimated for July 2020.

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11 Fascinating Facts About the War of the Roses

The Battle of Towton (1461) during the War of the Roses.
The Battle of Towton (1461) during the War of the Roses.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

It's no secret that George R. R. Martin looked to history for inspiration for A Song of Ice and Fire, his epic, still-in-process series of fantasy novels that serves as the basis for HBO's Game of Thrones. (The Black Dinner of 1440 and the Massacre of Glencoe, for example, served as inspiration for the series' infamous Red Wedding.) One of Martin's main influences was the War of the Roses—three decades of bloodshed and animosity between the House of Lancaster and the House of York, two rival branches of the English royal family. Now that the fight for the Iron Throne has ended—at least on TV—let's take a look at its real-life historical counterpart.

1. The War of the Roses started in 1455 and lasted until approximately 1485.

The War of the Roses wasn't one long, continuous conflict; it was a series of minor wars and civil skirmishes interrupted by long periods that were mostly peaceful, if politically tense (which is why it's frequently referred to as the Wars of the Roses, rather than the singular War). After the opening battle—the First Battle of St. Albans—broke out on May 22, 1455, there wasn't another major showdown until the Battle of Blore Heath erupted four years later.

The years between 1471 and 1483 were a time of relative peace in England. Things heated back up in 1483, as the Yorkist ruler Richard III began clashing with Henry Tudor, an exiled Lancaster nobleman. Tudor prevailed over his foe at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 and then took the crown as King Henry VII. Two years later, in 1487, the Battle of Stoke Field essentially ended the Yorkist cause, which some consider to be the true end of the War of the Roses.

2. The War of the Roses was initially known as "The Cousins' War."

The conflicts didn't come to be called the "Wars of the Roses" until long after the actual fighting stopped. Throughout the 15th century, the House of York used white roses as an emblem, and by 1485, the House of Lancaster had become associated with red roses. In the 1560s, a British diplomat discussed "the striving of the two roses." William Shakespeare baked the convenient symbolism into his play, Henry VI, Part I, (which was most likely written in the 1590s). Later, a 1646 pamphlet called the medieval York/Lancaster struggle "The Quarrel of the Warring Roses." Then David Hume's 1762 History of England popularized the term "Wars Between the Two Roses." From labels like these, the now-ubiquitous "War of the Roses" phrase evolved.

3. The War of the Roses was caused by a struggle between a deposed King Henry VI and his cousin Richard, the Duke of York.

King Henry VI of England.
King Henry VI of England.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

After England lost virtually all of its French holdings in 1453, King Henry VI suffered a mental breakdown. The Lancastrian monarch seemingly lost his ability to speak, walk unassisted, or even hold up his own head. (What happened is unclear; some suggest that he was stricken by a depressive stupor or catatonic schizophrenia.)

Henry VI clearly wasn't fit to rule, so his cousin Richard, the Duke of York, was appointed Lord Protector and Defender of England in his stead. York's political muscle unraveled when Henry VI recovered on Christmas Day 1454; his desire to regain power set the stage for the First Battle of St. Albans a few months later.

4. After being killed during one battle in the War of the Roses, a fake crown was placed on the Duke of York’s severed head.

During the May 1455 battle at St. Albans, York met and defeated Henry VI's Royal Army with a superior force of 3000 men. In the aftermath, the king was forced to restore York as England's Lord Protector—but York didn't hold the job for long. After some violent clashes against the supporters of Henry VI's biological son (with whom the Duke was a rival for the throne), York died at the Battle of Wakefield in 1460. As a final insult, his disembodied head was mounted on Micklegate Bar in the city of York—and decorated with a phony crown made of paper (or possibly reeds).

5. Pope Pius II tried—and failed—to ease political tensions during the War of the Roses.

The Pope wanted to enlist King Henry VI as an ally in a potential crusade against the Ottomans. Unfortunately for His Holiness, the War of the Roses was keeping Henry plenty busy at the time. So in 1459, Pius II sent clergyman Francesco Coppini to England with instructions to ask for the king's support—and if possible, negotiate peace between Houses York and Lancaster. Instead, Coppini became a Yorkist sympathizer who vocally denounced the Lancastrian cause.

6. Early guns were used in some battles of the War of the Roses.

Swords and arrows weren't the only weapons deployed during the War of the Roses. At archaeological sites dating back to the 1461 Battle of Towton (a Yorkist victory), broken pieces of early handheld guns have been recovered. It's suspected that the devices would have blown themselves apart when fired, making them dangerous to wield. Regardless, primitive guns also saw use at the 1485 Battle of Bosworth.

7. After defeating Henry VI, King Edward IV was betrayed by a former ally—and his own sibling.

King Edward IV
King Edward IV.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Edward, one of the sons of the slain Duke of York, deposed Henry VI in 1461 to become King Edward IV. One of the men who helped him do so was Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick. But the earl soon had a falling out with the new king and, in 1470, Warwick helped put Henry VI back on the throne after teaming up with Queen Margaret of Anjou and George, the Duke of Clarence (who was also Edward IV's brother). The Yorkist king went into exile, but he returned with a vengeance in 1471.

Despite their rocky past, the two brothers reconciled and worked together to overcome the Warwick-led Lancastrian forces at the Battle of Barnet. This victory, and a later triumph over Queen Margaret's men, enabled King Edward IV to regain the crown. (Sadly, in the end things didn't work out for the Duke of Clarence—he was executed for treason in 1478.)

8. Edward IV's wife, Elizabeth Woodville, took sanctuary in Westminster Abbey twice to escape enemies during the War of the Roses.

One reason why Warwick soured on King Edward IV was because he didn't approve of the young ruler's chosen spouse. In 1464, Edward IV married Elizabeth Woodville, a widowed mother of two who was five years his senior (and whose first marriage had been to a Lancastrian knight). From October 1, 1470 to April 11, 1471, during Edward's exile, Elizabeth and her daughters holed themselves up in Westminster Abbey, where they declared sanctuary. During her stay, she gave birth to a son, Edward V. Elizabeth would return to the Abbey for another prolonged stay that began in 1483. Edward IV had died earlier that year, and by taking sanctuary in the Abbey once again, Elizabeth was now looking to protect herself and her children from a man she deeply mistrusted: The late king's younger brother, Richard, the Duke of Gloucester.

9. Two young princes disappeared during the War of the Roses.

In the wake of King Edward IV's death, the Duke of Gloucester—who'd been a high-ranking Yorkist commander at the Battle of Tewkesbury—was named Protector of England. Then on July 6, 1483, he was crowned as King Richard III. His claim to the throne was not uncontested: Edward IV had two sons, aged 12 and 9, who were staying in the Tower of London at the time. No one knows what happened to the boys; they were last seen alive in the summer of 1483. King Richard III is frequently accused of having the boys murdered, though some suspect that they were killed by another ambitious royal, Henry Tudor. It's also possible that the boys fled.

10. Henry Tudor ended the War of the Roses through marriage.

The York Rose, the Lancaster Rose, and the Tudor Rose.
iStock.com/Rixipix

After his forces defeated Richard III's at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, Henry Tudor was crowned Henry VII—some say at the exact spot where Richard III was killed. After he was officially crowned, Henry VII wed Elizabeth of York, King Edward IV's daughter, in 1486.

This marriage is part of the reason Houses Lancaster and York are synonymous with roses today, though both used many non-floral emblems (loyalists of Queen Margaret of Anjou, wife of King Henry VI, identified themselves by wearing swan badges, for example, and Yorkist Richard III made a white boar his personal logo). After his marriage to Elizabeth of York, Henry VII was able to portray himself as the grand unifier of two enemy houses. To symbolize this, he introduced a new emblem: A white flower with red trim called the “Tudor Rose.”

11. Richard III's body was found under a parking lot in 2012.

 King Richard III.
King Richard III.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Richard III was not destined to rest in peace. In the centuries following the Battle of Bosworth, the dead king's body went missing. In 2012, an archaeological team rediscovered the former king's remains beneath a parking lot in Leicester, England. DNA testing helped confirm the identity. Richard III's well-documented scoliosis was clearly visible in the spinal column, and it was concluded he had died of a blow to the skull. The much-maligned ruler was given a ceremonious reburial at Leicester Cathedral in 2015.