WWI Battle of Cambrai – Deborah D51 Tank – Flesquieres

Scots Piper in 1917 uniformMany stories have been told of the epic battles occurring during the 1914-18 war but one that is close to the hearts of the British is the Battle of Cambrai. Beginning on the 20th November 1917 close to the Hindenburg Line the 51st (Highland) Division, supported by 476 tanks advanced deep into German held territory. During the battle, the British took the village of Flesquieres but it was subsequently won back by the Germans until being finally regained by the allied forces on the 27th September 1918. Although the sight of over 400 tanks must have been a formidable sight to the Germans It is estimated that 100,000 men from both sides lost their lives in the battle and the tanks were destroyed. However, this is the amazing story of Deborah, a British Mark lV female tank, one of the tanks that took part in the battle, which has been found and renovated.

Philippe Gorcznski, a Frenchman, had always been interested in the area. As a child, his Grandmother gave him the parts enabling him to build a model of a British WWI tank. Deborah - Mk IV British TankYears later Philippe reading a book, telling of the Battle of Cambrai, saw it contained pictures of tanks, the same as his model. He developed an interest in the battle and in 1977 attended the 60th Anniversary of the Battle of Cambrai, meeting some of the veterans. His interest developed further and over the next 6 years collected numerous items and artefacts relating to the war and its tanks. Later, in 1997, Philippe met a villager who told him of how she had seen German soldiers burying a tank in the village of Flesquieres. Curiosity aroused, Philippe set about finding the buried tank. He obtained further books and other reading matter on the battle, acquired the assistance of aerial photography and recognisance, and intensified his research. Finally, on the 23rd November 1998, his years of meticulous research were rewarded, the tank, named Deborah by her crew, was located and so began the long operation of excavation.

Damon - replica tankHaving been buried for so many years the metal parts were badly corroded and had to be treated with extreme care but finally the excavation was completed. The next obstacle was where to store it so the restoration could be carried out. The answer was, after several locations, a barn named ‘Forenville’ in the village of Flesquieres, an area in the heart of where the Battle of Cambrai took place. Finally, after years of dedicated work Deborah, now renovated, has been moved to her final resting place, the purpose built Cambrai Tank 1917, where she has pride of place, located alongside the Flesquieres Hill British Cemetery, the final resting place of 590 personnel from the UK, New Zealand, Canada and Australia who died during the war.

Louveral British CemeteryThere are many British Cemeteries in the area reminding visitors of the conflict that took place. The Cambrai Memorial situated on an elevated position with views across the now quiet French countryside, has recorded the names of over 7,000 British and South African servicemen who died and have no known resting place, there are others, smaller, dotted on the landscape to remind you of the enormity of this battle and the cost to human life.

Sunday 19th November 2017, a cold but sunny morning, one hundred years on from the event saw me join the parade of ‘Following the Tank’ as men in uniform of the time together with a multitude of supporters, historians, enthusiasts and journalists walked behind ‘Damon ll’ a replica tank to the ‘Monument of Nations’ where the flags fluttered in the breeze against a clear blue sky.Cross of Sacrifice Flesqueres British Cemetery A time to bow your head and perhaps shed a tear. I for one consider it an honour and a privilege to have walked with that tank.

This is an area of France that everyone should visit, young and old alike, indeed, every year thousands attend the battlefields, they come from the 4 quarters of the globe, they all have their reasons. Appreciate the enormity of the battles and the final cost of freedom. Millions gave their young lives so we could enjoy the freedom we have today and they should never be forgotten. It’s when you see row after row of white head stones without names but just the inscription ‘Known Unto God’ it hits home.

We Will Remember Them.

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Alan Fairfax

Travel writer & cruise journalist

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