Trench warfare – An Irishman’s Diary on the Battle of Cambrai
One of the Mark IV British tanks, nicknamed Deborah, was unearthed close to the village of Flesquières in northern France
The underground trenches dug by the Germans during the first World War exemplified their methodical defence of the Western Front.
The Germans dug deep into the chalky soil of northern France. Their intention was to hold on to the territory they had captured in 1914 at the beginning of the war until they won on the Eastern Front which occurred in late 1917. Their troops dug in for the long haul.
In late 1915 French troops captured a section of underground trenches in the Somme. They were astonished at what they found. German soldiers had built a veritable underground city with wood panelling, electric light, ventilation, bunk beds and spacious living quarters. It ought to have given the British pause for thought before they embarked on the disastrous Battle of the Somme.
The British and French built temporary trenches reflecting their offensive philosophy. The allies had no intention of allowing the Germans to become comfortable.
After the battles of Verdun and the Somme, the Germans retreated to a shorter, more easily defendable position in northern France, leaving a wasteland behind them. This became known as the Hindenberg Line, which included a 20km section of underground trench due west of the French town of Cambrai. It became known as Tunnel Trench.
This trench system ran 10 metres underground and was wired for demolition in event of being captured. It had wood panelling on the walls, electric light and a modicum of comfort for its occupants.
It was protected by a network of pillboxes above the surface known by suitably martial names – Jove, Mars, Vulcan and Juno. These were concrete reinforced steel pillboxes which could accommodate 50 men and five machine guns each.
The 16th (Irish) Division was tasked in November 1917 with the capture of a 2,000m section of Tunnel Trench near the village of Fontaine les Croiselles. This was the division’s first offensive operation since the disaster at Langemarck during the Battle of Passchendaele in August 1917, which cost the divisions 600 dead.
The attack was a diversion from the main offensive which was the deployment of the greatest number of tanks in history to that date.
The Battle of Cambrai involved some 400 of these lumbering beasts, which had first seen action at the Battle of the Somme in September 1916. They were deployed to break through the German lines, taking advantage of the firm ground.
The task allotted to the 16th was extremely dangerous. Fortunately, the training for the attack was thorough and the preliminary barrage highly effective.
The German lines were targeted with a “hurricane bombardment” lasting just a few minutes.
Every gun on the horizon opened up on a thunderous barrage which stunned the defenders.
Smoke canisters were fired into the German lines to give the impression a gas attack was under way.
The three brigades from the 16th dashed forward and captured the tunnel trenches with little loss.
Above ground, though, the situation was much more problematic.
Jove was retaken by the Germans and they were able to direct machine gun fire on to the advancing infantry.
A ferocious fire fight lasting an hour continued. A contingent from the 6th Connaught Rangers grimly held on “yielding their ground only inch by inch and leaving a trail of dead behind them”, according to one eyewitness report.
Three days later the 7th Leinsters finally captured Jove and found the bodies of dozens of men from the Connaught Rangers, including one who was found wrapped around a German. They had died in a death grip with each other.
More than half of the 240 men from the Connaught Rangers who had been involved in the original assault were killed or injured. Though the attack cost the 16th more than 800 casualties, it was deemed to be a success. The Battle of Cambrai was almost a success too.
At dawn on November 20th, six British divisions went over the top aided by tanks. They captured all their objectives. Hopes were raised that the British had finally found a way of circumventing the formidable German defences.
The British quickly drove a nine kilometre wedge into the German lines.
After the debacle of Passchendaele, this was hailed as an uncontested victory and church bells were ordered to ring in Britain, but the celebrations were premature. Tanks had been modified and greatly improved since their first outing at the Somme, but still they were prone to mechanical failure. The absence of reinforcements and the sheer size of the salient now held by British troops created new problems.
The Germans counterattacked with great precision. By early December all the gains made by the British had been given up. All they had to show for their actions were 44,000 casualties.
Two decades ago, one of the Mark IV British tanks, nicknamed Deborah, was unearthed close to the village of Flesquières in northern France. After being displayed for 17 years in a barn in the village, Deborah has now been moved to her new home as the centrepiece of the “Cambrai Tank Museum 1917”, which is due to be inaugurated on November 26th.