Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Monday, November 15, 2021

Post-Cambrai: JFC Fuller's Evolving Tank Tactics

JFC Fuller

Dr. David Payne

John Frederick Charles Fuller (1878–1966), later to be known as "JFC" or "Boney"—due his facial likeness to Napoleon—was a Light Infantryman (Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire) who spent the first two years of the Great War training officers for the British Expeditionary Force (BEF).  In December 1916 he was appointed, somewhat to his amazement, to the post of Chief General Staff Officer of the Machine Gun Corps Heavy Branch that was soon to become the Royal Tank Corps. His amazement was due to his not knowing anything about the new tanks and mechanical devices in general and to his conviction that the "tank concept" wouldn't work on the Western Front.   

Once in post, Fuller soon began to see the potential of the new tank in trench warfare. From the outset he astutely foresaw the need to ensure that the tanks were deployed only where the terrain was suitable for their operation and that they would operate best when closely supported by aircraft. He also saw the infantry as supernumeraries to the tank and not vice versa, as was the consensus in much of the British Army. 

After the challenges and many disappointments for the Tank Corps at the Somme and Passchendaele, it was decided that the next major deployment of the tank in large numbers would be at Cambrai on 20 November 1917. Cambrai was part of the formidable German defense-line called by the British the Hindenburg Line, located in Artois, east of the 1916 Somme battlefields. Here the terrain was chalky and dry, which was considered ideal for the new Mark IV tanks.  

Early German Depiction of Fighting Tanks

Fuller's tank tactics were generally considered to be a success. But even the new Mark IV tanks were still too slow, mechanically unreliable, and overly susceptible to skillful artillery and anti-tank fire. However, there had been big territorial gains: the British infantry swept forward the next day to make a 5 km break in the German line that allowed a penetration of up to 6 km in depth. However, poor coordination between the tanks and the British infantry caused a loss of momentum. The tanks blindly proceeded according to plan—without the benefit of the infantry's "critical eye" on the battlefield—and ran smack bang into the ranks of German 77mm cannons. The Germans waited until tanks crested Flesquières Ridge and fired over open sights into the elevated hulls. In this sector alone, 28 were knocked out by artillery fire, nine by a single German gunner. Many of the other tanks were brought to a premature halt by a design fault in the caterpillar track system. They, too, became easy targets for the German guns. The exposed British infantry were left at the mercy of the ever-alert German machine gunners. 

By 27 November 1917 the British were forced to call off the attack; the town of Cambrai was beyond their reach. But their ordeal was by no means over. On 30 November 1917 the Germans counterattacked with seven divisions and had huge success using their new infiltration tactics of the Sturmtruppen (storm troopers). On 7 December 1917 the British were, in places, back behind the line whence they started. In the latter stages of this retirement, the tanks, further encumbered by snowfall, were only minimally effective. It was back to classic trench warfare and hand-to-hand fighting

The disappointment of Fuller and the entire Tanks Corps at the failure of the tanks at Cambrai to effectively "turn the tide" can only be imagined. Fuller was left with the conundrum of how to realize the potential of this new weapon. On the other hand, the German Army still showed little enthusiasm for it.

Successful Canadians at Amiens, 1918

The New Tactics

Paradoxically, the solution to the more effective deployment of the tank, apart from the obvious one of making it faster and more mechanically reliable, appeared to be to improve the coordination between the RFC ground-support aircraft and the movement of the tanks. Toward this end the RFC introduced armored ground-support aircraft with better camouflage and more sophisticated communication backup.

The new tactics were tried successfully in the Battle of Hamel in July 1918 on the old Somme battlefield, when 60 of the new, improved Mark V tanks were backed by intelligent artillery support of 600 guns and phosgene gas was used extensively.

Next came the Battle of Amiens, which began on 8 August 1918, when even more tanks were deployed than at Cambrai—552—which represented almost the total operational tank force on the Western Front. Included for the first time in numbers was the new, fast British light Whippet tank as well as some armored cars.

Well protected by a creeping barrage, the troops and the tanks made an advance of up to 13 km deep in the enemy defenses. Many of the tanks,  however, again broke down or were knocked out by artillery fire.

The following day—9 August—the Canadians advanced another 6 km, and reaching the limit of their artillery and depleted tank support, they halted. Finally, General Sir Henry Rawlinson's "bite and hold" strategy was being put into effect. 

General Ludendorff declared the 8th of August 1918 to be "Germany's Blackest Day," and the pernicious seeds of pessimism were sown in the higher ranks of the German High Command.

The Mark V Would Have Been the Main Heavy of 1919

JFC Fuller's Plan 1919

While the Hamel and Amiens attacks were going on, Fuller was already  producing a plan for 1919 in which he envisaged a mechanized army with heavy air support using the following principles:

 * The first objective would be to storm and breach the enemy lines with the heavier, but slower, Mark V tanks.

 * Artillery support would be intense and carefully targeted to keep up with the advancing troops.

 * Large numbers of armored ground-attack aircraft would be deployed in a coordinated way to support the advance. (Whether the newly formed and independent RAF would have gone along with this highly dangerous concept is another matter).

 * Once a tenable breach in the enemy's front line had been achieved, the new 20 mph Medium "D" Type tanks would then swarm in and head for the German rear. Their objective was to neutralize the German command structure, rear-area support organization, and general communications in effect roll up the enemy's defenses from behind.

 * The infantry, transported by lorries, would follow through on the tank attack, hold the ground and mop up the remaining enemy defenses.

Because of the Armistice in November 1918, Plan 1919 was never put in action. 

Source:  Winter 2009 Relevance


  1. Amazing how tanks were improved by the start of WW2, just over 20 years. And how the Germans came to embrace the tank after largely neglecting it in WW1. In any case, the ascendance of the tank meant the end of trench warfare

  2. Very good sketch.

    I caught the one mention of phosgene gas. How important was gas warfare in tank battles?

  3. It is true that the success of the Battle of Amiens was largely due to co-ordinating tactics of tanks and ground-support aircraft. But the article implies that the RAF were using armoured aeroplanes. They were not - unarmoured aeroplanes such as the RE8, FK8 and Camel were expected to fly lower. The RAF were testing armoured aircraft at the time, such as the Sopwith Salamander, but they never entered service.

  4. The other reason "Plan 1919" was not implemented is that it wasn't really a plan. It was really a thought piece, which is given away by its actual title, "The Tactics of the Attack as Affected by the Speed and Circuit [Range] of the Medium Tank." This paper was presented to the Inter-Allied Tank Committee (which reported to the Supreme War Council) in May 1918. At that point, however, detailed drawings of this experimental machine hadn't been completed. Given the critical deficiencies in Allied tank production, there was simply no way that such an advanced machine - which was purely experimental in any case - could have been produced in any numbers by mid-1919. Some of the performance parameters dreamed of by Fuller included a 20 mph speed and 200-mile range - basically a quadrupling of extant vehicles' capabilities. Furthermore, he envisioned them operating deep into enemy territory independently, without artillery and infantry support. Lack of such support in actual operations is one of the principal factors in why tank operations often failed, since it left tanks extremely vulnerable to enemy anti-tank measures. As J. P. Harris has written, Fuller's idea "was simply preposterous and it is amazing that anyone has ever taken it seriously." (Harris, Men, Ideas and Tanks: British Military Thought and Armoured Forces, 1903-1939 [Manchester University Press, 1995], pp. 170.) An extremely ambitious but far more comprehensive vision for a mid-1919 Allied armor-heavy offensive was prepared by General Pétain a few weeks later. Even if Pétain wildly overestimated what tank production would accomplish by that time (especially in the United States), his concept at least had a reasonable foundation in combined-arms warfare. (See the French official history, Les armées françaises dans la Grande guerre, Tome VII, Annexes 2, Annex 1036, 356-380.) After World War I, Fuller's reputation was inflated well beyond his actual accomplishments. Primarily by J. F. C. Fuller.