Manufactured in Oldbury (near Birmingham), the British Mark IV tank Deborah D51 was 8.5 metres long, 3.5 metres wide and tipped the scales at 26.5 tonnes. She was home to eight crew members in her hard, sparse, iron stomach. With a top speed of 4mph and armed with six Lewis guns, the Mark IV was seen as a significant step forward over its forebears, with strengthened armour, greater reliability and a design that improved the tank’s ability to negotiate the trenches and obstacles of No Man’s Land.
Carried by train towards the front lines, in August 1917, Deborah first saw action in Flanders where she was disabled by a German shell hit to her tracks. Repaired, she was transported – on one of 36 trains alongside her 475 counterparts – forward in readiness for the Battle of Cambrai, a strategic action to break through the mighty Hindenburg Line.
The German forces had occupied Cambrai from 1914, using the railways and warehouses to support their own lines. A hugely strategic location, the French and British commanders had identified the significance of re-capturing the area, whilst recognising the formidable defences of the Hindenburg Line.
So, the tanks and crews were moved forward, under great secrecy, before being concealed in the woods in Havrincourt. It was two days before Deborah and the tanks had to attack. Two days to remain silent whilst the artillery and the planes hid the noise of their movements.
Her goal was the village of Flesquières. Under the overall command of Tank Corps Colonel Hugh Elles, she took her place on the 10km wide line. Surprised and scared by the tanks, the thundering noise of their tracks breaking the dawn silence, the Germans were quickly driven back on that first day. But, as D51 left the shelter of the last houses in the streets of Flesquières, she herself came under fire from a field gun, and was put out of action after receiving five direct hits.
Her commander, Frank Gustave Heap, had stopped the tank to find his bearings. As he was consulting his maps, Deborah was hit in her heart with four of her crew members succumbing to their injuries:
• Gunner Frederick Tipping, age 36
• Lance Corporal George Charles Foot, age 20
• Gunner William Galway, age 25
• Gunner Joseph Cheverton
All four now rest in peace in the British Hill Cemetery in Flesquières.
But Deborah’s story was not yet over, she had a second fate, with her weaponry turned into a shelter after the British buried her in a hole with the help of German prisoners.
After the war, Deborah was forgotten. As the blood trails faded away, the ground washed by rain, the years passed by. Until, remarkably, 81 years later, Deborah emerged from her grave – passionate local historian Philippe Gorczynski making the find after six years of painstaking research and investigation.
In 1998, the tank, buried at a depth of some two and a half metres, was finally discovered in a field near the village. This astonishing relic, now an Historic Monument, is set to become the centrepiece of a new museum – Cambrai Tank 1917 – that tells the story of the Battle of Cambrai, of its crew members and of the men, artists and common soldiers, who fought during the Battle of Cambrai and during WW1.
Deborah is the only surviving tank from the 476 deployed at the Battle of Cambrai. In fact, only seven Mark IVs remain in the world. The only running example is on display at the Tank Museum in Bovington, Dorset; a male tank, that was presented to the Royal Navy's Gunnery School, HMS Excellent, after the war to commemorate their help training Tank Corps gunners; it was temporarily refurbished for Home Guard duties in 1940 during World War II. It is maintained in full running order.
Author Delphine Bartier - Email: firstname.lastname@example.org