This year whilst driving through France, Jane and I went looking for the WW1 tank D51 "Deborah" that took 5 direct hits from German Artillery at Flesquieres, killing 5 of her crew during the Battle of Cambrai 20 Nov 1917. Deborah had been dug out of the ground in 1998. I was a little unprepared, and aside from some stuff I'd printed off the internet about Deborah and her crew, I had no idea where the tank was. We drove around with a european road map with a scale of 16miles per inch, it was of little use. Fortunately I did have some WW1 maps of the battle of Cambrai, so we headed out towards Havrincourt, because that was where the tanks prepared for the battle and were hidden in the woods. Surely someone there would know where Deborah was. We saw an old lady outside the peculiar looking building that looks like the old shop in Havrincourt, looking almost derelict, with a sign saying 'moderne'. She looked like she was always there, hanging around in the doorway. I don't speak much french, I can sing Le Boudin - The march of the French Foreign Legion perfectly, but I suspected this too would be of little use. I pulled up alongside her and said in my best french, "Tank - Deborah". It seemed that was all the french I needed and after stopping off in the pleasant village square to cook up a brew on the MSR Dragonfly Stove - For Men, we headed off in the correct direction for Flesquieres.
We visited the cemetary at Pozieres to pay our respects to Pte Alfred Muckell of the 6th Connaught Rangers who had died in the German spring offensive of 1918. A relative of my girlfriend Jane, she believes she may be his first relative to have visited panel 77 which bears his name, his body was never recovered. It was a poignant moment, a beautiful memorial, he told Jane "Go on girl, have a fag for me".
Next, and still on the D929 from Baupaume to Pozieres, a tank memorial complete with beautiful bronze miniature tanks around an obelisk, I quote from the plaque "Near this spot the first tanks used in war went into action on 15th Sept 1916."
Having to mostly rely on the WW1 map, gave me a good feel of the battlefield as we drove through it on the country lanes, and sometimes down the actual tracks through fields that were used by tanks on the 20th Nov 1917. My own experience as a tank crewman had me noticing the lay of the land, areas of cover, approach routes, suitable defensive positions, bridges, woods, unavoidable open ground. I had a good feeling of understanding and empathy and really felt connected. I was imagining, the attention and fascination the tanks must have recieved from our troops, and indeed the enemy. They would have been a natural gathering place for troops, the warmth and smell from the Daimler petrol engine, the noise, the technology, it's firepower and it's ability to drive through houses. Having myself spent many nights and cold mornings waking up in the woods with tanks, I know how they become like home. It is always a terrible way to die inside a tank, but once driving along if death came, it would probably come to you where you sat, so you knew where you would be when you died, close to your crew and in your own space which you take with you into the battlefield. A space that carried with it memories, and a sense of place, you, your crew and your tank acting as one. For an infantryman going over the top, i cannot imagine there would be any comfort in knowing where you are going to die, how I feel for those poor men.
Time was getting on, it was late afternoon on a beautiful summers day by the time we arrived in Flesquieres. Driving around the small village I saw no tank, no signs, no museum. A stuttered conversation with a woman led us to the barn where D51 is. No sooner had we got out of the car to go and see if we could see through the door somehow, a car pulled up and a french guy gets out and starts doing the old talking french thing. Gesticulating rules in circumstances like this and before long we were left standing there as he drove away. Minutes later he returned,. with the key. His name is Dominique Lavallee, he lives in Flesquieres, and should you wish to see D51 "Deborah" I would advise that if contacting the official website fails, you contact him. The tank is currently only viewable by appointment, Dominique's e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org
The official website is here www.tank-cambrai.com
Dominique is a nice man, he speaks virtually no english, but he has a kindness about him. He opened the door and as I walked in and saw her there, ripped open and shot at, I was overcome with emotion at the though of the crew's fate on the 20th Nov 1917. For a while I sobbed unashamedly, before reading out some information I had printed. They are buried in the cemetary 100m away. There was a pen on the grass in front of one of the graves obviously dropped in error, I took it back to the car, it never worked. A few weeks later, it was the only pen the right colour I needed to edit Sassy's dog passport after the vet filled it in wrong and we were told at the ferry check-in the dog would be refused, the pen worked. There is a small museum at Deborah's memorial, some interesting artefacts from the great war.
At the top of the hill in Flesquieres there is a monument built in part by members of The Royal Tank Regiment. Jane and I drove down a tank track opposite this obvious gun position at the edge of the village, and found a spot on the battlefield where we lit a fire and camped out for the night. Havrincourt woods was a mile or so away across the field, and the route the tanks would have taken in order to maintain cover was obvious, I imagined them starting up their engines at twenty past six in the morning as a barrage of 1003 artillery guns detonated simultaneously on the german lines. In the first minute alone around 5 thousand shells would have been in the air. The thump and whoosh, ching, seeing the explosions a mile away, and the smell of cordite, the air being sucked up as the cannons let rip, It must have been quite an awesome experience. Jane and I had an emotional but very humbling and enjoyable day.
To all who have died at war, my thoughts are with you, and particularly with my comrades The Tankies, I bid you a happy Cambrai Day.
20th Nov 2010.