James qualified as a pilot in April 1916 and shot down his first aircraft in September. By June of 1917 he had been made a captain. That year he was flying the Sopwith Pup Scout with 66 Squadron, before transferring to fly the SE5a Scout with 56 Squadron.
There was one last great battle on the western front in 1917. The battle of Cambrai, launched on 20 November, saw two great British innovations. Hitherto, the guns had not been able to open fire without the need for preliminary registering shots. Now, advances in gunnery allowed them to be moved up in secrecy, after which they lay hidden until the moment came to fire a ‘predicted’ hurricane bombardment onto the Germans.
The second innovation was the massed use of tanks to crush barbed wire and deal with surviving German strongpoints. Some 1,003 guns would be supported by 476 tanks to break through in the Cambrai area. Captain James McCudden watched the results from the air.
About 8.30 we left the ground, and flew along the Bapaume-Cambrai road to 300ft, as the heavy clouds were down at this height. We arrived at Havrincourt Wood and saw smoke and gun flashes everywhere. From 200ft we could see our tanks well past the Hindenburg Line, and they looked very peculiar nosing their way around different clumps of trees, houses, etc. We flew up and down the line for an hour, but no sign of any Hun machines about, although the air was crowded with our own. Very soon the clouds were too low, and there was nothing else to do except go home – so I did.
The tanks and infantry made advances of up to 5 miles, but then the front stagnated. The Germans took the chance to try out their own new attack tactics and launched a full-scale counter-attack on 30 November – a devastating barrage followed by squads of ‘storm troopers’ using infiltration methods to bypass centres of resistance. Caught unprepared, the British were pushed back before the line was stabilised. For all the drama, the battle achieved little. Both sides had premiered their new techniques: but the western front still stood unbroken.
“From 200ft we could see our tanks well past the line. They looked peculiar nosing their way around”