Despite the tank battle of November 1917 to the west of the town, and the fact that the heavily defended Hindenburg Line ran through the town centre for most of World War I, Cambrai has kept enough of its character and cobbled streets to make a fleeting visit worthwhile, though it is less attractive than either Douai or Arras. The large, cobbled, main place Aristide-Briand is dominated by the Neoclassical Hôtel de Ville. The imposing building hints at the town’s former wealth, which was based on textiles and agriculture. Cambrai’s chief ecclesiastical treasure is the Church of St-Géry, off rue St-Aubert west of the main square, worth a visit for a celebrated Mise au Tombeau by Rubens.
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At dawn on November 20, 1917, the first full-scale tank battle in history began at Cambrai, when more than four hundred British tanks poured over the Hindenburg Line. In just 24 hours, the Royal Tank Corps and British Third Army made the biggest advance by either side since the trenches were dug in 1914. A fortnight later, however, casualties had reached 50,000, and the armies were back where they’d started.
Although the tanks were ahead of their time, they still relied on cavalry and plodding infantry as backup. The primitive tanks were operated by a crew of eight who endured almost intolerable conditions – with no ventilation, the temperature inside could reach 48°C. The steering alone required three men, each on separate gearboxes, communicating by hand signals through the mechanical din. Maximum speed (6kph) dropped to barely 1kph over rough terrain, and refuelling was necessary every 55km. Of the 179 tanks lost at Cambrai, few were destroyed by the enemy; most broke down and were abandoned by their crews.