100 Years Ago this Month in World War I
For the City Times
Submitted by Leon Schmidt and Gary Blum
The Battle of Cambrai
In November of 1917, the soldiers from Wisconsin Rapids were still in Camp MacArthur near Waco, Texas. They wouldn’t be leaving for France until January and February of 1918. In November, there were still very few Americans overseas.
In France, British General Haig needed a success to make up for the minimal accomplishment gained in the blood-bath known as the Battle of Paschendaele, which had lasted from July 31 to Nov. 12. Haig decided to attack the German trenches near the town of Cambrai about 60 miles south of the English Channel. this section of the trench line was called the Hindenburg Line.
The idea was to use modern technology and techniques which had been developed during the war to pierce through the Hindenburg line in an area of hard, dry soil. These included infantry infiltration tactics using specialized soldiers to bypass enemy strong points, isolating them for attack by other soldiers bringing heavier weapons. Also, artillery “sound ranging” and “predicted fire” techniques which allowed soldiers to determine precisely where enemy artillery was located so that the first shot from an artillery gun would land on the enemy artillery.
Previously, before an attack, the enemy was bombarded for hours or days. This would blast the soldiers in their trenches tear up the barbed wire, and locate where the artillery shells were landing in proximity to the enemies’ artillery. But it would also make the enemy aware of the coming attack. The plan was to use, for the first time, massive numbers of tanks to rip through the barbed wire (that normally would have been shredded by the advance artillery fire) and charge across the enemy trenches. These new tactics would allow an attack to occur with no preliminary bombardment.
The battle began on Nov. 20. When the bombardment started, the Germans assumed it would continue for a day or so before the British infantry would attack. Instead, German artillery was taken out by each artillery shell and 476 British tanks ripped through the barbed wire followed by the infantry charging forward over the German trenches. The Royal Flying Corps bombed and machine-gunned communication centers, gun puts, and entrenchments.
The British broke though the Hindenburg Line and advanced up to five miles. Church bells were rung in Great Britain, and the success was even celebrated in the U.S. However, by the end of the firs day about half of the tanks had broken down and the Germans had 20 divisions waiting in the Cambrai area. On Nov. 21, the Germans counterattacked. The Germans had new tactics, too. These included effective artillery, trench mortars and stormtroopers. The battle raged back and fourth until Dec. 7.
The section of the Hindenburg Line being fought over was about eight miles long. In the end of the British gained about two miles on the north half of the line and the Germans gained about one mile on the south half of the line. Each side sustained about 40,000 casualties.
On Nov. 6, 1917, the Bolsheviks rose up in St. Petersburg and overthrew the Kerensky interim government which had overthrown the Czarist government in February. Lenin soon made good on his pledge to remove Russia from the alliance with Great Britain and France, thereby freeing up thousands of German troops to transfer to the Western Front in France.
Also in November of 1917, the British government announced its support for the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine which was at the time within the Ottoman Empire. This was the so-called Balfour Declaration. It would eventually lead to the establishment of Israel.
Submitted under the auspices of Post 9 of the American Legion of Wisconsin Rapids.