“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