Friday, 20 February 2015

A Tank Named Deborah

This summer some of us will once again be enjoying a War Poets' Tour guided by the omniscient Vivien Whelpton and the indefatigable Clive Harris, this time to the Cambrai region of France, forever associated in many people's minds with the first major use of tanks in battle during the First World War.

Siegfried Sassoon does not seem to have been a fan of tanks, if his poem "Blighters" is anything to go by.  What he actually seems to have objected to is the response of the non-combatant British public to the success of the new weapon.  His use of the word "Blighters" is a pun on the term "Blighty" to refer to his home country, where these people sit comfortably ensconced in a cinema, watching a propaganda film that was to cause a sensation.

Although I don't particularly love tanks in themselves, I am looking forward to Cambrai for a particular reason.  A couple of years back, while surfing the web in search of further information about Edward Horner (see Philip Guest’s article in Siegfried's Journal vol 21 for details of the man whose equestrian statue adorns the parish church at Mells where Siegfried Sassoon is buried), I came across a snippet that intrigued me.  

A gentleman named Philippe Gorcynski had, it seemed, excavated a tank that had been abandoned during World War I near the village of Flesquieres, and was hoping to make it the centrepiece of a new museum.  Horner himself was killed in the Battle of Cambrai (20-21 November 1917), aged 28. I have heard him referred to as "the real-life 'Downton Abbey' WWI hero", whatever that may mean.

“Deborah” (or, more prosaically, D51), was excavated in 1998 by a team of archaeologists from Arras, and now resides in a barn awaiting promotion to future glory.  There it stands on a base constructed of granite cobbles from the streets of the old town of Cambrai.  The tank itself - or herself, if you like – has been designated a Historical French Monument.  During the battle, Deborah was attached to No. 12 Section of the 12th Company, commanded by Captain G Nixon.  Three months before the battle, the tank had already been damaged during an action in Flanders and subsequently repaired.  

As the troops entered Flesquieres, they were forced back by sniper and machine-gun fire, and Deborah was put out of action by field guns.  2/Lt Frank Heap of the 4th [D] Btn. Tank Corps, leading the tank crew, received the MC for his efforts on that day; five of his eight-man crew were killed.  The following day, when it was discovered by Scottish infantry, four of the men were buried next to the tank, the other some distance away (the bodies were later interred at Flesquieres Hill British Cemetery).

Some time after the battle, Deborah was pulled 900 yards from her resting-place by other British tanks, and was buried in a hole dug by the Germans before the battle.  The tank was then used as a shelter until the Germans re-took the village in March 1918. For more details of the research behind the discovery and restoration of the tank, it is well worth having a look at the website of the museum project: 

My husband has been a great tank enthusiast since his youth, so I felt obliged to appraise him of my findings.  His comment: “How can I fail to go and visit a tank called Deborah?  It combines the two great loves of my life.”

If you would like to join us, you may still be able to get a place on the tour:  Hope to see you there!

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