CAMBRAI

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bourlon wood

bourlon wood

bourlon wood

bourlon wood

bourlon wood

inchy

moeuvres

moeuvres

moeuvres

moeuvres

graincourt

canal du nord

Cambrai is a small city in the Nord Department of France sitting on the River Escaut, or Schelde in Flemish, and dates back to at least Roman times when it was known as Camaracum. The city has always been an important economic centre and currently produces, among other items, textiles and processed foods. It is famed for a fine white linen fabric called cambric. The Duke of Wellington took the surrender of the city after the fall of Napoleon and the Germans took it during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870.

During the First World War Cambrai was held by the Germans for most of the War, but it is particularly known for the Battle of Cambrai in November 1917. After the inconclusive struggles at Arras and Passchendale earlier in the year the British army were seeking a clear dramatic breakthrough before the onset of winter. This battle saw the first large scale use of tanks by the British army against the Germans. 474 tanks were assembled for the assault on a relatively narrow frontage ensuring that their strength would have maximum effect. The initial assault was successful and breached a wide section of the German front but unfortunately this success was not consolidated or followed through and by the end of the Battle the Germans had regained much of the lost ground.

The areas covered in this part of the site were involved in the fighting of 1917 and the dramatic fighting in the Allied advance in late 1918. Bourlon Wood, for example, was at the extreme limit of the British advance in 1917, was lost again but rapidly retaken by Canadian troops on September 27th 1918. Unfortunately the advance was not quite swift enough to stop the retreating German army mining and firing the city causing a great deal of damage to the historic city which had survived fairly well despite being within range of allied artillery.

A few miles from Cambrai lies Bourlon Wood which today is a pleasant hilltop deciduous wood. The entrance from Bourlon village, lying on the hillside below, is marked by an avenue of trees commemorating the victories of Napoleon. The landscape of the wood is crossed by many paths and marked by the occasional scar of an old trench or crater of an explosion. While the scarring is typical of the type of traces one frequently finds from the First World War, the visitor must be careful not to ascribe every crater to a shell or other dreadful explosion. Woods of this type commonly feature craters and scars caused by completely natural causes, typically the effects of water causing subsidence. The fact that these are more common than average in the area of the front line does mean that at least some will be remains of battle.

The view of the bridge spanning the Canal du Nord is at Moeuvres, a couple of miles to the southwest of Bourlon. The style is typical of the many bridges along the canal with a narrow road connecting the village to the nearby main road. The almost perfect reflection records the quietness of the water, and the scene in general, late on a hot July evening. Although the village is just out of shot to the left of the bridge the scene was almost totally quiet interrupted only by the occasional shout of a child or the barking of a dog. The devastation of 1917 is now a long way away and the land is now restored to what it is does best, growing food.

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