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Battle of Cambrai

WW1 and the tanks

For the first time in history, tanks were used massively by the British in November 1917. A few miles from Douai, the Battle of Cambrai is a symbol in WW1 warfare and a moving visit.

A strategic position

From the very beginning of the First World War, the town of Cambrai is occupied by the German army. Cambrai’s railway and road network, once a major trading route of the Holy Roman Empire, now help the German army facilitate the supply of troops and armaments to the nearby frontlines.

The preparation of the battle

In November 1917, the area in front of Cambrai is calm, the intact ground is perfect for the newly arrived allied tanks. English tanks are transported by railway to the Fins, Ytres, Heudicourt and Gouzeaucourt railway stations. And then quietly moved into the woods around Cambrai. They are divided into nine battalions of 42 tanks, each with an objective to reach.


A secret battle

In order not to be spotted by the enemy, the preparations were organised secretly, even the French army was not told in advance about the planned operation. At the same time allied spotting aeroplanes are in action, building precise maps of the enemy artillery positions.

The Battle of Cambrai is to be fought by the British Third Army, comprising seven infantry divisions and the Tank Corps, consisting of 3,500 men and 690 officers.

Opposite, the German Second Army is made up of three divisions at the start of the battle, comprising between 10,000 and 20,000 men.


November 1917

On 20 November 1917, the Battle of Cambrai begins, it will mark a decisive turning point in the First World War and warfare in general. At 6.10 a.m. the British tanks go into action and cross No Man’s Land, the outpost lines, and the main line. The tanks are blocked at the Saint-Quentin canal, a mined bridge having collapsed under the weight of the first tank.


179 tanks out of action

During this offensive, 179 tanks were put out of action either by enemy fire or mechanical problems. 118 officers and 530 crewmen died in battle. It was, however, viewed as a victory, a turning point. For the first and only time in the war, on the orders of the King, all the bells of London will ring out in the honour of General Byng’s British Third Army. Each year the battle is marked with events in and around Cambrai.

The battle will last 13 days. And truthfully there will be neither a winner nor a loser. After the initial successes, strong German counter attacks mean that the front line will hardly move, and the human losses will be similar for both sides: 50,000 Germans and 44,200 Allied dead.

Modern warfare

The Battle of Cambrai has its place in history as it sees the full arrival of ‘modern’ warfare. With tanks and air support at the front of the plans, it is the death knell for the cavalry. The great tactical principles implemented at the time of the battle, conceived by Colonel Fuller, an early theorist for modern armoured warfare, will henceforth become the reference!

Visit the area around Cambrai and its memorial sites, just 30 minutes from Douai. You will be able to see cemeteries and memorials, museums, battlefields, memorial paths…

Discover Cambrai and meet Deborah

Even today, it is possible to learn all about the Battle of Cambrai and meet Deborah, a tank neutralized by a German cannon, at the Cambrai Tank 1917: Interprétation Center of the Battle of Cambrai


Visit Cambrai and its memorial sites, just 30 minutes from Douai by visiting the Cambrésis Tourisme website.