The British Tank at Flesquieres
The attack was a success. The tanks penetrated the German forward positions and broke through the line. This victory elated the British High Command and church-bells were rung, while the press celebrated Cambrai as an antidote to the misery and bloodshed of the previous year’s battles of attrition on the Somme. But the British leaders lacked vision, or perhaps talent; the momentum of the advance was lost, time and effort was wasted on a pointless diversion, and the Germans – always excellent in defence – quickly brought reinforcements forward and pushed the British back.
The village of Flesquieres, however, remained in British hands, forming a small salient. It was bitterly contested, being seen as a strategic asset by both sides. The battlefield was soon littered with British tanks, some destroyed by shellfire, some burnt out and some just stuck in the mud. Both the British and the Germans sent out teams to recover these wrecks, and the Germans were particularly adept in their recovery techniques – so much so that, when the War ended, there were more British tanks in German service than those of their own manufacture.
One of the British tanks, a Mark IV ‘female’ – meaning it was equipped with machine guns rather than six-pounders – was dragged away from the street-corner where it had been hit and buried in a gully at the edge of the village, presumably to deny it to the German recovery parties. Before long ‘Deborah’ was covered in mud and lost to view. Records show that five of her crew were killed by the shell which destroyed her, while three, including her commander, survived.
Ninety years later a Flesquieres resident - a lifelong student of the battle - decided to follow up local rumours of a British tank interred somewhere on the outskirts of the village. Pinpointing the exact position from contemporary maps and war-diaries, he and his fellow-enthusiasts dug down and found ‘ Deborah’ buried deep in the earth. They excavated her, put her on a trailer and installed her in a disused barn in the centre of the village, where they cleaned her up, inside and out, and put her on a specially-built stone platform.
The barn is not a public museum – it has no staff and all the work of restoration and research is done by volunteers. My friends and I rang up and asked if we could visit Deborah while we were exploring the battlefields of 1916 and 1917; an appointment was made and we turned up in Flesquieres on a cold Saturday morning. We were welcomed and ushered into the barn, which is open on one side. There stood ‘Deborah’, a dark mass looming above our heads; we could almost feel the enormous weight of her bulk, and agreed that we would have run a mile if anything so ominous and alien had been rumbling towards us in the trenches. We remembered that one of the tanks’ most effective manoeuvres, rather than shooting at the enemy, was simply to run them over.
‘Deborah’ had sustained numerous wounds from machine-gun fire and explosions. Her right-hand front quarter had been blown outward as if by a detonation inside the tank, and indeed our host explained that this is exactly what had happened: pointing to an entry-hole on the left-hand side of the hull, he told us: ‘This is the shell which killed Deborah’. Like the crews who lived and died inside these primitive machines, he had evidently come to think of the tank as a sentient being; they, and he, groomed their tanks like cherished horses.
Our own feelings in the presence of ‘Deborah’, solitary and sad but magnificent in her cavernous home, were complicated. She is the sole survivor of the carnage at Cambrai. She represents an innovative way of thinking about warfare; her species could – if properly handled – have brought an end to the mindless slaughter of the trenches. This opportunity was missed, and tanks had to wait another twenty years to show their true potential. Yet like the other mechanical weapons which emerged in the First World War – bombers and submarines – tanks were almost as dangerous for their crews as for their victims. The escape-hatches were very small. We left wondering if we would have preferred to be inside ‘Deborah’ or outside, in a trench.