WEYMOUTH historian Greg Schofield wishes to draw our attention to the Battle of Cambrai and the loss of five Weymouth men in this First World War conflict.

Here, Greg tells us how, as we have just passed the centenary of the end of this battle (December 4), the Weymouth men were among 44,000 fallen British soldiers in a conflict which left both sides almost back where they started.

The use of tanks on the battlefield first occurred towards the end of the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

It was a last desperate throw of the dice to achieve a breakthrough, release the cavalry and roll up the German line. The impact of the tanks stunned the Germans and boosted the morale of the British troops, and created huge gaps in the German lines.

It seemed that at last a breakthrough had been achieved, but there were two problems; firstly, the tanks were mechanically unreliable and those few that got through the lines soon broke down; secondly, the success had been unexpected and the troops to exploit the gaps were too far back, which gave the Germans time to fill the gaps and re-establish the defensive line.

In 1917 during the 3rd Battle of Ypres, tanks were used once again, but proved useless.

Prolonged shelling had destroyed the land-drainage systems and created a sea of mud; the tanks sank into the mud up to their bellies, their tracks spinning uselessly around. Thus disabled, they were easy targets for German artillery.

Officers of the Tank Corps made a determined effort to promote the use of their cumbersome machines, insisting that they could bring about the much hoped for breakthrough by using tanks en masse on dry terrain as opposed to the muddy fields of Flanders.

The Third Battle of Ypres was turning into a tragic failure, and Cambrai was chosen by British command as the scene for the offensive. The town, one of the principal railway intersections and German garrisons of the Western Front, lay on a vast chalky plain which was ideal terrain for the tanks.

Preparations for the attack broke with recent military dogma: there would be no preliminary heavy shelling in order to preserve the element of surprise, hundreds of tanks would be used to open up a route through the defences, and air support would intervene at the German rear to check the arrival of reinforcements.

The attack began on November 2- at 6.20 a.m. along a ten kilometre wide front. The Tank Corps provided 476 tanks (of which 350 were armed) to lead six infantry divisions into the field.

The bombardment which accompanied the attack was carefully timed and took the Germans by surprise. Preceded by a creeping barrage, the tanks made quick progress and soon reached the enemy's trenches. The Hindenburg Line had never before been so deeply penetrated. The surprise and terror provoked by the tanks among the German ranks caused several units to retreat and the British took 8,000 prisoners on the first day of the offensive. Never had an attack advanced so quickly since 1914 and by the evening of 20 November the British vanguard had won nine kilometres of terrain and was closing in on Cambrai.

But once again the problem of capitalizing on the initial breakthrough reared its head. A fundamental problem was the tardy arrival of reinforcements caused by the heavy congestion on the roads: it took fifteen hours for troops to cover the final five kilometres to the front and the opportunity was lost.

The Germans set about assembling 20 divisions and by the morning of November 30 they were poised to launch a counter-attack. Their success was immediate and devastating. Supported by a barrage of poison gas shells, the Germans advanced more than five kilometres in two hours and, put into practice new methods of fighting which consisted of infiltrating the enemy's lines with small groups of highly-skilled and heavily-armed soldiers.

By the time the fighting had come to a close, on December 4, the initial and unexpected success of the British Army had deteriorated into a total failure. All the terrain which had been won in the initial stages of the offensive had to be abandoned and the losses, although similar for both sides, were high. The German casualties amounted to 45,000 and the British had 44,000 killed, wounded and lost in action, amongst whom were the following five Weymouth men:-

• Herbert Frederick BREWER a Private in the 2nd Hampshire Regiment. Shot by a sniper November 21, 1917, aged 21.

• Edward CORNICK a private in 1st Northumberlan Fusiliers. Killed in action November 20, 1917, aged 30. Was a Captain in the ‘Church Army’ and lived at 9, Holly Road, Weymouth

• Lionel Jack HULLETT a Private in the Tank Corps. Died November 23 1917, aged 26

• Bertie Leopold PRINCE a Serjeant in 1st Royal Munster Fusiliers. Killed in action November 20, 1917, aged 27. He had served for 12 years and been wounded three times. His brothers Joseph Ernest and Reginald Luke were also killed in the war. The Prince family of 12A, Governors Lane had six sons serving; three were killed and two discharged as a result of wounds.

• Charles Christopher STRANGE a Rifleman in the 1st/17th London Rifles. Killed in action November 30, 1917, aged 39. He lived at Myrtle Terrace, Westham.

Thanks to Greg for sharing the story of the loss of these Weymouth men.