The Cambrai Campaign 1917

The Cambrai Campaign 1917

Andrew Rawson
1 Mushroom Head
In 1917 whilst much of the fighting on the western front was yet more drudgery and slaughter, for a brief time it seemed that the British Army had found the recipe to end the stalemate in an all arms assault on Cambrai. Although it was soon engulfed by the usual problems dooming it to eventual failure, there was much to commend in this battle. Actually achieving surprise, the extremely effective use of artillery bombardment, a rapid advance, a glimpse of a breakthrough, and the vindication of the much vaunted Tank in battle; all of these were achieved, if only momentarily. And so this is a battle which has been written of time and again.

Part of a series produced by Pen and Sword covering the major campaigns of World War 1, this book details the battle solely from the British point of view. IT covers the campaign from its inception, through planning and preparation, the assault phase, bogging down into deadlock, the German counterattacks, to the final return to stalemate close to the old battle lines. Each phase of the battle is sensibly broken down into chapters, with the actions of each major formation (at the Corps / Divisional level mostly), dealt with individually. Significant acts of minor units and the deeds of individuals are interspersed in the narrative. There are many maps and a selection of black and white photos. The work is well researched and logically constructed, and it’s an easy (though repetitive) read.

The author states that his intent is to provide a book that will not only explain the battle, but can also be used as a guide to a reader walking the battlefield; sadly I feel it does neither well. Whilst Rawson’s writing style is engaging, the narrative of the battle is lost in his attempt to cram too much into what is a relatively slim volume (189 pages). In the seemingly endless lists of Divisional activity, the thread of continuity is lost.

One of the major faults is the poor quality of the maps. There are nearly 50 of them and they are a combination of faint black and white period maps, with thick black lines, dots and arrows overlaid – few of which are labelled. I was often unsure which line represented which of the German trench lines in the layered defences of the Hindenburg line and which the British positions. The author states in his introduction: “It is quite easy to estimate a Battalion’s movements by comparing the text and the maps”. I’m sure that’s true if you’ve written the text, otherwise not so much. The relation between maps and narrative is tenuous in most cases; features mentioned in the text would have benefited by annotation as reference points. What should have been an asset to the reader enabling greater comprehension ends up confusing the issue. At a retail price of £25 for this book, the least the publishers could have done was splash out on some colour maps to clarify what was being shown; a picture may paint a thousand words, but not if it’s done in crayon.

Similarly the selection of 16 photo plates was neither well selected nor well captioned. Half of those included were stock photos rather than specific to the battle; there was no inclusion of the major personalities, and many of the captions were bland and generalised.

A glaring omission from this book was the lack of technical content. Cambrai is chiefly of note thanks to innovative tactics (which are covered reasonably well), and use of “new” technology, which is barely mentioned. The author ignores the detail of artillery preparation, the modification of tanks increasing their reliability and any of the advances in air power, in favour of a bland recital of the events unfolding. Even this is poorly executed; much of the detail has been culled from the Official History and the War Diaries of units involved (without a bibliography or references), but is done so in isolation, without explanation. The author notes that: “2Lt Milligan of 1st Lancashire Fusiliers… was killed helping two tanks clear Noyelles”, with no elaboration, and no link to who Milligan was or what he was doing in the wider sense. Without this context all the reader is left with is a catalogue of casualties and awards of the VC, which appears incidental to the narrative rather than part of it.

The aftermath / lessons learnt are dealt with in a Conclusion chapter which goes over the bare bones of reviews carried out at the time, with no real attempt at an original overview of the campaign. And that is in microcosm what is wrong with this book: it tries to do too much, and fails dismally. “The Cambrai Campaign 1917” needs to be twice its present length to contain what the author wants it to include. It tries to cover the whole British Army campaign – from descriptions of small unit actions up to Haig’s interventions – in a small volume, and as a result has become a skeletal record of what happened when, with no insight into how and why, at the same time omitting major factors from the narrative.

Sadly, I learnt nothing from reading “The Cambrai Campaign 1917”, and I don’t count myself as having an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Great War. This is not a book for a serious scholar of the period, nor is it a good precis of the campaign for those less well informed. I find it impossible to say who it would be a good book for.

1/5 Mushrooms.
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