Cambrai - 1917

The following after action report was written by Robert Dunlop.


My Grandfather fought in the First World War. Unlike many veterans, he talked at length about his experiences. This piqued my interest in wargaming the period. At the time, the 'Lions led by Donkeys' school of thinking was prevalent. It seemed, however, that other factors must have been at play. Wargaming offered a way, perhaps, of understanding why the Somme and other battles were fought out in the way they were.

I came across the Spearhead ruleset in late 2001. The mechanics appealed, especially the focus on command and control. The concepts seemed ideal for the Great War, so it was great when Great War Spearhead was published. It didn't take long after than before I decided to reproduce the Battle of Cambrai. There was the appeal of massed tanks for a start. More importantly, there was the opportunity to understand how this battle unfolded.

It didn't take long to realise the scale of the undertaking. Maps were available for the battle. Taking into account the GWSH ground scale, it was clear that the full battlefield would take 12' x 18' of tables. More than 90 British Mk IV tank stands would be needed, along with over 400 infantry stands. After six years of work, everything was ready. Shawn Taylor (author of the GWSH supplement) and I gave the scenario a run on the 95th anniversary of the battle, November 20th, at Warfare in Reading. This gave a chance to get a feel for such a large game, ironing out some of the bugs. Then it was on to play the game at Bovington, home of the Royal Tank Regiment Museum. What better place to replay the game of the first major tank battle in history.

Before the game, the battle orders were drawn up. Five British infantry divisions were involved. Each division had three brigades, attacking in a series of waves. The objectives were based on the historical war diaries and are illustrated below:

It took a while to set up the table, with its two lines of German trenches associated with belts of barbed wire. In the next photograph, the right side of the table can be seen. Bovington exhibits can be seen in the background

The British creeping barrage can be seen on the first line of trenches.

The left side of the table can be seen in the next photograph. The canal defines the right side of the battlefield. The German line around Vauxelles was only partially completed and this is reflected in the scattered defensive positions.

The trenches are from Timecast.

The town of Havrincourt was a major objective for the first phase of the British 55th Division's attack. The town formed part of the German first line defences. In the next photograph, the British tanks have begun tearing holes in the wire defences. Stunned German defenders are preparing to repel the attack.

Suppression and artillery markers are from Litko.

In the centre of the British attack, No-man's Land was wider. Tanks and infantry had further to travel before reaching the first line of defences. Here too the wire-pulling tanks would force openings in the wire for the infantry to exploit.

Barbed wire stands are home-made, using plastic 'steel wool'.

On the British right, battle was quickly joined in the German front line. There was no time for stunned defenders to recover.

The empty St Quentin Canal can be seen on the right.

The creeping barrage marched forward again, while the British infantry and tanks continued the battle for the front line. This photograph shows the full width of the battlefield from the left side, with a Bovington museum exhibit looming the background.

The trees came from several suppliers, including Timecast.

In the German rear, news of the British attack began to filter through to the corps headquarters in Masnières. Staff officers gathered around the table, hastily set up near the local station.

The station was supplied by Modelbau,the home by GHQ Models.

Orders flowed forward, activating the German reserve battalions. Here they can be seen moving across open ground to occupy the second line. Masnières can be seen top left.

Bunker and trenches supplied by Timecast.

After breaking through the German first line on the left, British forces had to attack across the Grand Ravine. The valley is quite shallow but overlooked by Havrincourt and Flesquières ridges. According to the pre-arranged barrage plan, smoke was laid down along both ridges to cover the British advance.

Smoke screen markers supplied by Litko.

From the British right flank, the breakthrough can be seen. Smoke markers are visible in the distance.

A Russian SU85 can be seen in the background.

Under cover of the smoke screen, advanced elements of the British assault force make their way across the Grand Ravine and up the slope towards Flesquières.

Figures by Irregular Miniatures; tanks from Navwar.

In the centre, the British forces quickly reached the German second line.

Contours created with cork floor tiles using battlemaps.

The next photograph shows the full width of the battlefield again. The British second wave forces can be seen making their way up Havrincourt ridge towards the more distant German second line.

Terrain boards are covered with Woodland Scenics vinyl mats.

The second and third waves can be seen in the next photograph, which is takes in the now captured town of Havrincourt. Disabled tanks can be seen with the black smoke markers.

Disabled markers from Litko.

From the British right flank, the second wave attack can be seen reaching the next line of defences. These were only partially completed by November 1917.

La Vacquerie buildings from Second City.

As the smoke screen cleared, the British forces began assaulting the village of Flesquières. The German defenders had recovered from the creeping barrage. Suppressions have been inflicted on two British companies.

Suppression markers from Litko.

In the British centre, the barrage had wrought heavy casualties on the German defenders. The second wave faced little opposition.

Roads created by removing 'grass' on vinyl mats.

The line of the British second wave can be clearly seen in this view from the British right flank. The third wave of infantry and tanks can be seen setting out from the left of the photograph

Canal bridge in foreground from Timecast.

Defenders in Flesquières were reinforced from the rear. The first assault by British infantry was repulsed. The sugar factory can be seen in the background.

Demolished houses from Second City.

Another view of the waves of infantry and tanks on the British right flank.

Canal created by removing 'grass' on vinyl mats.

As British tanks broke through the German second line on the right, they came under direct fire from field gun batteries. The batteries had been positioned in gun pits

Artillery supplied by Irregular Miniatures.

The battle for the second line can be seen from the British right flank. The first tank stand through the line can be seen with the explosion marker.

Explosion markers from Litko.

As part of the second attack on Flesquières, the British developed a right pincer movement. This made use of the German communication trench running along the Havrincourt ridge.

Communication trench from Timecast.

Meanwhile, on the British right flank the breakthrough continued to be exploited. More tanks were hit by the field guns but the batteries were now coming under increasing small arms fire from advancing infantry.

The breakthrough saw a return to open warfare. Only the field guns stood in the way of the tanks and infantry. The next photograph shows the German view.

Just behind Flesquières ridge, German field artillery batteries waiting the approaching British tanks. These gunners had been specially trained in anti-tank fire. They would take a heavy toll of the tanks, sparking the myth of the lone German gunner.

From the German perspective, however, it was clear that the pressure was building all the time. From Flesquières ridge, more and more assault formations could be seen coming forward from the British lines.

Flesquières Chateau walls from GHQ Models.

After two days of gaming, the battle had to be drawn to a close at this stage. The rain had been heavy and continuous in Southwest England, so we had to set out early to be sure of getting back to London. It was a great two days though, the more so because of the Bovington Tank Museum. Having ironed out the game setups, I am looking forward to running the game until the German reserve division arrives on table. Already it is apparent that Flesquières is a tough nut to crack, just as it was in the real thing. Roll on the next major wargames convention.