7/12/1917 Cambrai: a bloody draw but a German victory on points

The battle of Cambrai is https://ww1live.wordpress.com/tag/douglas-haig/now winding down. The German counter-attack hit the British hard and Haig had to order a withdrawal from most of his men’s gains to prevent a complete collapse. The British still hold a small slice of the territory they captured but the Germans to the south have pushed beyond their original frontline. Both sides have taken around 45,000 casualties in the fighting.

For the British the battle has proved dispiriting. The initial successes (thanks to tanks and well-targeted artillery) could not be sustained and the German counter-attack has shown what the enemy is still capable of on the Western Front. For the Germans meanwhile the second part of the battle has raised their morale, showing that Hutier‘s infiltration tactics are as effective against the British as they were against the Russians and Italians. Ludendorff is looking forward to applying them in his spring offensive next year, which he hopes will bring the war to a victorious end.

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Knocked out British tank & map (Remembrance Trails of Northern France: the Battle of Cambrai)

30/11/1917 Cambrai: the Germans strike back

The British have called a halt to their attacks at Cambrai. While the first day‘s successes were not repeated, the battle so far has done wonders for British morale, showing that the combination of tanks and carefully targeted artillery is able to smash through even the strongest defences.

The British think the battle is over now, but they are wrong. The Germans have reinforced the Cambrai sector and now they launch an unexpected counter-attack, hoping to recover the ground lost in the fighting so far. The Germans do not have tanks to spearhead their assault, but they do have the infiltration tactics developed by Hutier at Riga and then used to great effect at Caporetto.

When German stormtroopers attack after a short but intense bombardment they attack the right flank of the British, ripping through their lines. The Germans are supported by a significant deployment of air power, with large numbers of ground attack aircraft harrying the British. Only the deployment of the few tanks the British still have available prevents their complete collapse.

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German stormtroopers attack (Metropostcard – Belligerents and Participants in World War One: The German Empire  pt1)

27/11/1917 Cambrai: as British attacks halt, the Germans prepare for a counterattack #1917Live

British Mark IV 'Female' (Blarney Castle), Fontaine Notre Dame, November 1917
After a first day of astonishing successes, British progress at Cambrai has slowed as their tanks have broken down or been knocked out by the enemy. Now after a series of failed attempts to take the village of Fontaine the British call a halt to their attacks. The Cambrai offensive has shown what tanks are capable of; the British hope that next year they will be able to apply these lessons on a larger scale.

As far as the British are concerned, the Battle of Cambrai is over. The Germans however see things differently. They brought troops to Cambrai to block the British advance. Now they are preparing for a counter-attack, one that will treat the British to the infiltration tactics that were so successful at Riga and Caporetto. The second phase of the Battle of Cambrai is about to begin.

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German soldier and British tank knocked out during fighting in Fontaine (Flickr, Drakegoodman: tanks)

map (Wikipedia: Battle of Cambrai)

25/11/1917 Negomano: Lettow-Vorbeck smashes the Portuguese #1917Live

Germany’s Lettow-Vorbeck is being pressed hard in East Africa. The Germans had sent a Zeppelin airship to bring much needed supplies to him, but it had to turn back after learning that its intended landing site had been overrun by the British. Today the Zeppelin arrives back in Bulgaria.

Lettow-Vorbeck’s supply situation is increasingly critical, with his army (mostly locally recruited Askaris) running low out of guns and ammunition. Shortage of medicine is also a severe problem, particularly of the quinine that prevents the European officers from succumbing to malaria. But today the Germans achieve a victory that will allow them to fight on.

Pressure from the British and South Africans has forced Lettow-Vorbeck to retreat his force across the border into Portuguese Mozambique. The Portuguese have made some preparations for conflict with Lettow-Vorbeck since their declaration of war on Germany last year. However they appear to have gravely underestimated their opponent. Lettow-Vorbeck attacks the Portuguese today at Negomano, smashing their force there and driving them from the field. In the process he captures a large quantity of arms and ammunition, as well as medical supplies.

South Africa’s Deventer is leading the British pursuit of Lettow-Vorbeck. He had hoped that the campaign was coming to an end, but the Germans’ unexpected victory means that the war in Africa will continue.

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German forces attack across the Rovuma river (Wikipedia: Battle of Ngomano)

Route of the L-59 Zeppelin on its unsuccessful mission (Historic Wings: Das Afrika Schiff)

map (Wikipedia: Battle of Ngomano)

23/11/1917 Cambrai: British progress stalls #1917Live

"English tanks near Cambrai" / „Dieses Vieh überfährt Schützengräben, Bäume und Wälle.”
The British have had trouble exploiting their initial gains at Cambrai. German resistance has stiffened as reinforcements have arrived while the British tank force is being depleted by enemy action and mechanical failure.

The fighting has now assumed a more positional character. The village of Fontaine is targeted by the British, but evicting the Germans from it proves nigh impossible. The defenders are making the most of the cover the ruined buildings of the village provide. And now the Germans have discovered that the tanks are vulnerable while manoeuvring through Fontaine’s narrow streets. They take to knocking out the land battleships by flinging bundles of grenades underneath them.

The British are still making gains. Today they drive the Germans from Bourlon Wood. However they fail to take the nearby Bourlon village. With fighting at Fontaine stagnated and tank numbers depleted down to 92, the British offensive at Cambrai is clearly running out of steam.

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Knocked out tanks near Fontaine, probably photographed some time after the fighting was over (Drakegoodman: Tanks (a Flickr album of vintage First World War tank photographs))

23/11/1917 Germany’s Zeppelin safari aborted #1917Live

Germany has sent the L-59 Zeppelin on a mission from Bulgaria to German East Africa, to bring desperately needed supplies to Lettow-Vorbeck‘s embattled army. After crossing the Mediterranean the airship has flown south through British occupied Egypt. To avoid interception by British aircraft, it flies at maximum speed and zig zags along the Nile to throw pursuers off course.

The L-59 manages to avoid the British but the Afrika-Schiff cannot evade the elements. The cold desert nights freeze the crewmen but they also cool the hydrogen gas that keeps the L-59 aloft. In turbulent air this morning the Zeppelin nearly crashes but the crew manage to keep her in flight. Then by day the terrible heat of the Sahara wreaks its toil on the crew, making it difficult for them to concentrate or work, in some cases even leading to hallucinations. But the airship flies on, crossing from Egypt proper to the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan.

The L 59 is now more than half way on its journey but then it receives an unexpected message by wireless. The British have captured the intended landing site of the L-59 in German East Africa, forcing Lettow-Vorbeck’s men to retreat into the mountains. A Zeppelin landing there would be impossible. The L 59 is ordered to return to Bulgaria.

The Zeppelin’s volunteer crew beg their commander to continue the mission: they want the L 59 to fly on to crash land in the mountains, so that Lettow-Vorbeck will receive at least some of the supplies. Any of the crew who survive the crash-landing will also be able to join Lettow-Vorbeck’s army. But Captain Ludwig Bockholt is adamant that orders must be obeyed. The L 59 turns about and begins to retrace its steps.

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The L-59 in flight (Historic Wings: “Das Afrika-Schiff”)

20/11/1917 Cambrai: triumph of the tanks #1917Live

The British had high hopes for their tanks when they made their first battlefield appearance at the Somme last year. Unfortunately the land battleships did not prove to be the war winning weapon their supporters had hoped. The behemoths have proven themselves prone to breakdown and have suffered when the ground was too muddy or badly broken up. It has also taken time to work out the best tactical use of the vehicles. The French meanwhile have had trouble with their own tanks, whose underperformance contributed to the disastrous failure of the Nivelle Offensive.

Britain’s tank advocates have been pushing for the tanks to lead a massed attack on ground suitable for the tracked vehicles. Now they attack in strength near Cambrai in France, after a short artillery bombardment. Some 380 tanks spearhead the assault, advancing behind a creeping barrage. The enemy’s defences here are strong but the Germans had not expected an attack of this scale. The result is a triumph for the British, with the Germans unable to resist the armoured monsters. The British advance up to 8 kilometres and capture some 7,500 prisoners.

Tomorrow the British hope to exploit their gains. The going will be harder then. The Germans are rushing reinforcements to the sector and as many as 180 of the tanks have broken down or been put out of action by German guns. Nevertheless, after a year of failure on the Western Front the British take comfort from today’s successes, seeing it as sign that victory against the Germans is possible. Church bells are rung across Britain in celebration of the victory.

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Tanks on train cars, carrying bundles of wood (fascines) for crossing deep ditches (BBC News – The Battle of Cambrai: ‘We had a sense of victory for the first time’)

Tanks on the move; after failing to deploy its fascine, number 4 is stuck (MetroPostcard – Weapons of World War One:
Armored Vehicles)

Cambrai diorama, Bovington Tank Museum (Big Lee’s Miniature Adventures: Tank Men at Bovington)