“When Woot­ton re­gained con­scious­ness, he was be­ing dragged from the burn­ing tank”


in Au­gust 1917 had ended in dis­as­ter, and many were openly ques­tion­ing the tank’s fu­ture, as they were the Bri­tish war ef­fort as a whole after the un­mit­i­gated slaugh­ter at Ypres (bet­ter known as the Bat­tle of Pass­chen­daele). What was re­quired was an of­fen­sive that, in the words of one se­nior staff of­fi­cer, would “re­store Bri­tish pres­tige and strike a the­atri­cal blow against Ger­many be­fore the win­ter”.

The place cho­sen was Cam­brai, a town 25 miles north-east of where the tanks had first gone into ac­tion, and the ob­jec­tive was to smash through the five-mile-deep Ger­man line. With that done, and with Cam­brai in Bri­tish hands, the ad­vance would con­tinue as far north as pos­si­ble. Tanks and in­fantry, as­sisted by a new ar­tillery tac­tic of pre­dicted fire, would make the ini­tial thrust, and then the cavalry would surge through the holes to cap­ture Cam­brai and cross­ings over the river Sen­sée. For the first time, the Tank Corps in its en­tirety would be de­ployed, ten times the num­ber used on the Somme, and over a front of just six miles in what was called a ‘uni­corn for­ma­tion’ – one lead­ing and two slightly be­hind on ei­ther flank. Thirty-two tanks were fit­ted with grap­nels de­signed to rip up the barbed wire and leave paths for the cavalry and in­fantry.

The tank of Ken­neth Woot­ton, com­man­der of ‘Apol­lyon II’, was a fight­ing one, in­structed to en­gage the Ger­man sol­diers un­scathed by the ar­tillery bom­bard­ment. Hav­ing jumped into an en­emy trench to sur­vey its hand­i­work, Woot­ton got back inside the tank and or­dered Fagg to press on, while he opened fire with the ma­chine gun.

“By now the inside of the tank was ter­ri­bly hot, caused by the en­gine chiefly, and the air was heavy and close and caught the back of your throat when you breathed,” he re­called.

Up ahead, Woot­ton spot­ted a Ger­many bat­tery, and or­dered the gun­ner man­ning the six­pounder to open fire. His shell sent the Ger­man crew scur­ry­ing for cover, but that gun was just one of sev­eral. “Soon after, we came al­most face to face with at least four more guns,” said Woot­ton. It was the Ger­mans who fired first. “The shell struck us in front just where I was sit­ting and, burst­ing as it hit, blew a hole in the ar­mour­plat­ing by my left knee.”

When Woot­ton re­gained con­scious­ness, he was be­ing dragged from the burn­ing tank by Fagg, and by an ex­tra­or­di­nary stroke of good for­tune, only he had been wounded. One of the crew flagged down a tank on its way back to Bri­tish lines, and Woot­ton was ten­derly car­ried inside.

“It was about full up,” he re­mem­bered. “This tank was re­turn­ing from the at­tack… and was pick­ing up any other wounded tank peo­ple it could find.”


Woot­ton’s tank was one of 39 from the 1st Tank Brigade de­stroyed on the first day of the Bat­tle of Cam­brai, but their sac­ri­fice – and that of their crews – had not been in vain. The in­fantry had ad­vanced nearly four miles, seiz­ing two for­ti­fied Ger­man trench sys­tems and cap­tur­ing over 4,000 prison­ers in a mat­ter of hours. But the suc­cess was short-lived; the cavalry failed to ex­ploit the ad­vances, the re­serves were in­suf­fi­cient, and the Ger­mans rushed re­in­force­ments to the bat­tle­field and counter-at­tacked. The tanks had done their bit, but over the com­ing days, Cam­brai pe­tered out into an­other bloody and in­con­clu­sive bat­tle.

Nev­er­the­less, they had proved their worth in be­ing de­ployed en masse, and new lessons were drawn from Cam­brai that would fa­cil­i­tate the rapid ex­pan­sion of the tank as a mil­i­tary weapon in the 20th cen­tury. Tanks needed to be lighter and more mo­bile, ca­pa­ble of ful­fill­ing the role once ex­pected of the cavalry, whose ob­so­les­cence was al­most com­plete by 1918 thanks to ad­vances in mil­i­tary tech­nol­ogy. In 1923, the Tank Corps be­came the Royal Tank Corps, com­plete with a new unit badge and its own motto, which, con­sid­er­ing the courage of the early crews, was ap­po­site: ‘Fear Naught’.

A Bri­tish Mark IV tank stuck in the mud at the Bat­tle of Pass­chen­daele in 1917

The Bri­tish took 4,200 prison­ers at Cam­brai, and ad­vanced fur­ther in six hours than in three months at Flan­ders

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