Primary Documents - The Battle of Cambrai by Paul von Hindenburg, 19 November 1917

Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff Reproduced below is Paul von Hindenburg's account of the German reaction to the surprised British-led Battle of Cambrai in November 1917.

As German Army Chief of Staff Hindenburg - along with Erich Ludendorff - was responsible for formulating the German response to the massed tank attack overseen by General Julian Byng.

In his account Hindenburg conceded the initial effectiveness of the surprise element of the attack but criticised the British for not following up their early successes with suitable reinforcements.

Click here to read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's account of the battle.

Paul von Hindenburg on the Battle of Cambrai

While we were delivering the final blows against Russia and bringing Italy to the very brink of military collapse, England and France were continuing their attacks on the Western front.  There lay the greatest danger of the whole year's campaign for us.

From the point of view, not of scale, but of the obstinacy which the English displayed and the difficulties of the ground for the defenders, the battles which now raged in Flanders put all our battles on the Somme in 1916 completely in the shade.  The fighting was over the marshes and mud of Flanders instead of the hard chalk of the Artois.

These actions, too, developed into one of the long-drawn-out battles with which we were already so familiar, and in their general character represented an intensification of the sombre scenes peculiar to such battles.  It is obvious that these actions kept us in great and continual anxiety.  In fact, I may say that with such a cloud hanging over our heads we were seldom able to rejoice wholeheartedly over victories in Russia and Italy.

It was with a feeling of absolute longing that we waited for the beginning of the wet season.  As previous experience had taught us, great stretches of the Flemish flats would then become impassable, and even in firmer places the new shell-holes would fill so quickly with ground water that men seeking shelter in them would find themselves faced with the alternative: "Shall we drown or get out of this hole?"

This battle, too, must finally stick in the mud, even though English stubbornness kept it up longer than otherwise.

The flames of battle did not die down until December.  As on the Somme, neither of the two adversaries could raise the shout of victory in Flanders.

As the Flanders battle was drawing to a close, a fierce conflict unexpectedly blazed up at a part of the line which had hitherto been relatively inactive.  On November 10th we were suddenly surprised by the English near Cambrai.  The attack at this point was against a portion of the Siegfried Line which was certainly very strong from the point of view of technical construction, but was held by few troops and those exhausted in previous battles.

With the help of their tanks, the enemy broke through our series of obstacles and positions which had been entirely undamaged.   English cavalry appeared on the outskirts of Cambrai. At the end of the year, therefore, a breach in our line appeared to be a certainty.

At this point a catastrophe was averted by German divisions which had arrived from the East, and were more or less worn out by fighting and the long journey.  Moreover, after a murderous defensive action lasting several days we succeeded in quickly bringing up comparatively fresh troops, taking the enemy's salient in flank by a counter-attack, and almost completely restoring the original situation at very heavy cost to the enemy.

Not only the Army Headquarters Staff on the spot, but the troops themselves and our railways had performed one of the most brilliant feats of the war.

The first considerable attack on our side in the West since the conduct of operations was entrusted to me had come to a victorious conclusion.  Its effect on me personally was as strong and invigorating as on our troops and their leaders.  I felt it as a release from a burden which our defensive strategy on the Western Front had placed upon my shoulders.

For us, however, the success of our counter-attack involved far more than mere satisfaction.  The element of surprise which had led to our success contained a lesson for the future.

With the Battle of Cambrai the English High Command had departed from what I might call the routine methods which hitherto they had always followed.  Higher strategy seemed to have come into its own on this occasion.  The pinning down of our main forces in Flanders and on the French front was to be used to facilitate a great surprise blow at Cambrai.

It must be admitted that the subordinate commanders on the English side had not been equal to the demands and possibilities of the situation.  By neglecting to exploit a brilliant initial success they had let victory be snatched from them, and indeed by troops which were far inferior to their own, both in numbers and quality.

From this point of view our foe at Cambrai deserved his thorough defeat.  Moreover, his High Command seemed to have failed to concentrate the resources required to secure the execution of their plans and their exploitation in case of success.  Strong bodies of cavalry assembled behind the triumphant leading infantry divisions failed, even on this occasion, to overcome the last line of resistance, weak though it was, which barred the way to the flanks and rear of their opponents.

The English cavalry squadrons were not able to conquer the German defence, even with the help of their tanks, and proved unequal to decorating their standards with that victory for which they had striven so honourably and so often.

The English attack at Cambrai for the first time revealed the possibilities of a great surprise attack with tanks.  We had had previous experience of this weapon in the spring offensive, when it had not made any particular impression.  However, the fact that the tanks had now been raised to such a pitch of technical perfection that they could cross our undamaged trenches and obstacles did not fail to have a marked effect on our troops.

The physical effects of fire from machine-guns and light ordnance with which the steel Colossus was provided were far less destructive than the moral effect of its comparative invulnerability.  The infantryman felt that he could do practically nothing against its armoured sides.  As soon as the machine broke through our trench-lines, the defender felt himself threatened in the rear and left his post.

I had no doubt, however, that our men would soon get on level terms even with this new hostile weapon.

Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. V, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923

A 'Toasting Fork' was a bayonet, often used for the named purpose.

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