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DEBORAH and the War of the Tanks in 1917 by John A Taylor

John A Taylor
On 20th November 1917 the British launched the first massed tank attack in history at Cambrai on the Western Front. Within a few hours they broke through the German front and support trenches and, for a couple of hours, were poised to break out from the mud and the blood to the green fields beyond. The tank that got the furthest was D-51 Deborah. Astonishingly that tank was found buried underground a few hundred metres away from where her advance ended in Flesquieres. She has been dug up, rehoused in a barn and is now becoming a memorial to the battle. This book is the story of that tank and, importantly, her crew.

The tale starts with the earlier use of tanks, with limited success, at Paschendale. The narrative then works through the very close all arms training with 51st Highland Division (demonstrating that the British Army then was perfectly capable of learning from mistakes and solving them, contrary to the Lions led by Donkeys school), followed by the action itself.

It is here the single tank viewpoint works most effectively. Aided by superb maps, conveniently placed and well annotated (a simple feature that all too many books fail to achieve) we see the battle unfold. D-51 was in the reserve company of D Battalion, which was attacking Flesquieres with the Gordon Highlanders of 153 Brigade. The initial success generated an opportunity that was not fully exploited, the delay allowing the Germans to remuster and (somehow) hold on. The impact of the fog of war is made clear, as are the challenges of commanding an all arms action on the offensive, by this stage infantry, artillery, sappers, cavalry and aviation were all in action in conjunction with the new-fangled tanks. The book’s account is objective, seeking to portray what did or did not happen, why and the possible consequences. Rather than seeking scapegoats it effectively describes the environment in which surviving commanders found themselves (on both sides). The author also makes the often overlooked point that had the cavalry attacked without Flesquieres being captured they would have been annihilated. There may have been an opportunity to open up the Western Front at Cambrai, but it was not seized. However the battle demonstrated that the British had, through a combination of technical innovation, tactical development, sound military training and experimentation finally found a way to achieve a break through.

The author never loses sight of the fact that warfare is about men, not machines. He therefore describes the subsequent lives of the individuals mentioned, several of whom also fought in the Second World War. The tale also includes the exploits of Phillipe Gorczynski, a Belgian hotelier fascinated by the battle who found D-51, arranged for her relocation and caused this story to be told.

This book is everything that military history should be. Diligently researched, factual, objective and at times achingly poignant. The prose is engaging, the narrative is clear and it flows well. It is a fitting tribute to the remarkable men who fought in these early tanks. I urge you to read it and have no hesitation whatsoever in awarding it five out of five. I would give it six were that possible.

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