At Cambrai, on November 20th, 1917, the history of warfare was changed forever. Tanks had been tried before in battle, but they foundered amidst the mud and blasted ground, of the Somme and Passchendaele. They succeeded in breaking through in certain attacks; but always in small numbers. Over three hundred tanks, the very first armoured tracked vehicles capable of traversing rough ground were used in a successful penetration of the Hindenburg Line when the ‘Landships’ rolled, slowly but steadily, across the trenches and the colossal rows of barbed wire. British forces amazingly won five miles of territory, and were within reach of Cambrai itself, breaking the railhead: but a coincidental reinforcement of German divisions taking place at the same time as the battle; complete lack of British planning, badly placed reinforcements, and a complete lack of British-arranged defensive positions led to the eventual reverse to the original battle boundaries. History was made, and, with better planning, far better preparations; further tank battle attacks were successful, and proved the true ‘beginning of the end’ for the German Empire.
Guy Martin, the motorbike champion and tv record-breaker, was determined to make another sort of history, and recreate a WW1 tank to take part in the Centenary Remembrance of Cambrai, in the City where the tank was born, and where many were actually manufactured. He was determined to build a ‘Deborah 2’ tank, and, gaining financial help from JCB, the construction machinery giant as well as Channel Four, decided to proceed. The manufacturing drawings to help create a twenty ton mobile colossus, were, amazingly and perhaps strikingly, obtained through the work of a German modeller, who had produced computer-designed plans for the complete British tank. These drawings were given to JCB, who transferred them through updated software to finalised machine drawings, and the whole main body of the tank was produced in a matter of weeks. Further help was gained from a Lincolnshire machinery company, and the Tank Museum. The engineering excellence, displayed during the documentary, showed the true genius and inventiveness of the originators of the ‘LandShips’, as Churchill had christened them.
He had gained approval from Lincoln’s City council for his tank to drive down the main streets as part of the Remembrance Day ceremony; but, as ever, some small-minded ******* decided to overrule the Council’s decision on, what else, ‘Health and Safety reasons’, and Guy’s tank, then nearly completed; was banned from the November 20th parade.
I watched that documentary, and saw that armoured monster as it moved out along the very track that; exactly one hundred years ago; the first tanks took as they swayed, machine guns spitting death, moving forwards and crossing the death traps of forested barbed wire and trenches as though they did not exist. The tank crew, which included Guy and a Royal Tank Corps officer, stood silently, silhouetted against the cloudless sky, as the Last Post was sounded, with maybe twenty local onlookers as an audience. Somehow, despite the emptiness of that, now long-forgotten battlefield, that ‘Salute to the Fallen’ made more of an impact than maybe the aborted trip to the tank’s birthplace could ever have; partly because, at Cambrai, those heroes, along with the machinery which changed Warfare’s history were REMEMBERED!