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Oakham School Archives

Explore the history of the school through the documents and objects that have been left behind...


Battle of Cambrai (20th November 1917 – 7th December 1917)

The French city of Cambrai had been captured by the Germans. It was a strategic place behind the Hindenburg Line that the Germans had heavily fortified. Their positions were defended by under strength units, recovering from fighting elsewhere on the Western front. Haig’s plan was to encircle and capture Cambrai, in attacking the Hindenburg line along a 10-mile front, 8 miles west of Cambrai.

During the battle of Cambrai, tanks were used en masse for a military offensive for the first time. In August 1917, Brigadier General Hugh Elles was put in command of the Tank Corps. He suggested an attack on the Cambrai sector using tanks. Indeed, the rolling downland and chalf soil in Picardy was favourable for tank movement, unlike the Flanders swamps. Tanks had been used before by the British army but their advanced had been hampered by the muddy ground of the battlefield.

The attack was led by General Julian Byng, the general officer commanding the British 3rd Army. Nine infantry divisions, five cavalry divisions and three tanks brigade, composed of 476 tanks (of which about 376 were fighting tanks and the rest were supply and service vehicles), were assembled at Cambrai. The British force moved into position at night to avoid detection by German aerial reconnaissance craft. At 6.20am on 20th November 1917, a swarm of tanks was released without any preparatory bombardment. The 376 Mark IV fighting tanks were committed to the assault and their goal was to crush the barbed wire defences and protect the infantry’s progress. General Elles led the attack himself from his tank, Hilda. The artillery was to fire a barrage, during the advance. The guns’ targets had been plotted on maps beforehand and the guns had previously been fired behind the lines to confirm their accuracy. The tanks and infantry made great and quick progress on the first day. The tanks had reached the Flesquières ridge before the German gunners began to methodically target and destroy the slow machines. The British captured 7,500 German prisoners, while their casualties count was quite low. The British cavalry was too slow and could not manage to exploit the advantage. By nightfall, the British had gained between 2 and 3 miles and in the next nine days, they still gained more ground. Such an achievement had not been seen since the early stages of the war and church bells were rung in Britain in celebration.

On 27th November 1917, the position of Bourbon Wood was briefly captured by the British. Fresh German reinforcements flooded the area and on 28th November 1917, the German resistance stiffened and the British now occupied a ‘salient’ of exposed positions deep into enemy territory. On 29th November 1917, the British advance was halted after 6 miles. On 30th November 1917, the German 2nd Army, commanded by General Georg von der Marwitz, launched a counter-stroke with 20 divisions against the flanks of the salient created by the British advance. On 30th November 1917, the German launched a counter-attack using innovative infantry tactics. They send ‘stormtroopers’ who infiltrated into British lines, bypassing strong points. The Germans recaptured much of the ground lost and by 5th December 1917, the British had been driven back almost to their original positions.

At Cambrai, the British had developed technological and tactical innovations, in particular the infantry, aircraft, artillery, cavalry and tanks working together in new ways. The original tank and artillery combined attack at Cambrai had altered the modern battlefield. The Allies improved upon the technology and tactics used at Cambrai in the offensive of 1918.

Casualties: on each side, 45,000 men were killed, wounded or missing; almost half of the British tanks were lost.


Old Oakhamians who Fell During the Battle of Cambrai

Claude Cressy Horsley

8th January 1883 – 28th November 1917


Claude was born to Charles and Mary Horsley of Heronshaw, Ightham, Kent.


Life at Oakham School

Claude attended Oakham School between 1898 and 1900. His school achievements are listed below:

  • Half-Mile handicap: 1st place (100 yards) – Spring 1898.
  • Half-Mile handicap: 1st place (50 yards) – Spring 1899.
  • Quarter-Mile handicap: 1st place (20 yards) – Spring 1899.
  • Cross-country steeplechase: 1st place – Spring 1899.
  • Hurdle race (open): 1st place equal with Steer (202/5 sec) – Spring 1899.
  • Cross-country steeplechase: 1st place (10 yards) – Spring 1900.
  • Hurdle race: 1st place – Spring 1900.


  • Wasps XI: Summer 1898; Summer 1899.
  • Cricket 2nd XI: Summer 1899.


  • Rugby 1st XV: a substitute forward – Winter 1898.
  • Rugby 1St XV: a forward – Winter 1899.

Oakham Magazine Reviews

In his sporting career, the Oakhamian Magazine made comments upon his rugby and athletics prowess.

Spring 1899 Sports Day review: ‘Horsley has a splendid style in running. Last year in the half-mile handicap, he showed a great deal of promise, and this year he did still better. He trained diligently, and won the cross-country steeplechase, the two handicaps and ran a dead-heat with Steer in the hurdles. He ought to do exceedingly well in future years.’

Spring 1900 Sports Day review: ‘From his last year’s form, Horsley was expected to have excellent chances of winning some of the bigger events; for his style of running is incomparably better than that of anybody else in the school, but he only came up to the scratch in two events, and these he won.’

Winter 1899 Rugby review: ‘A speedy forward; follows up in exemplary fashion.’


After Oakham and the War

After school, Claude married Katharine Marie of Stockall, Stewkley, Buckhinghamshire. He enlisted as a Lieutenant with the 4th Battalion North Staffordshire Regiment (The Prince of Wales’s), 106 Brigade, 35th Division.

The Staffordshire Regiment badge.

His battalion fought near Ypres. Claude was injured in June 1916. He returned to the front line but he wounded again on 17th November 1917. The war diary of his battalion records that they were west of Cambrai when Claude was injured. He was admitted at a hospital near Boulogne. Claude died of wounds on 28th November 1917. He was 35.

Roll of honour in the Oakhamian Magazine, Easter term 1918, Vol.34, no.1

Claude is buried in grave IV.J.4 at Wimereux Communal Cemetery, near Boulogne. He is remembered in Oakham School chapel.



Basil Stainforth Mann

1896 – 27th November 1917

Basil was born in Wheeton to William H. and Alice J. Mann of Fernbank, Ilkley, West Yorkshire.


Life at Oakham

Basil attended Oakham School between 1910 and 1913. He was in School House. His school achievements are listed below:

  • Easter entertainment: played Julia in “Ici on parle français” – Spring 1912.
  • Debating Society: Spring 1913.
  • Rugby 1st XV: Winter 1913.
  • 100 yards (open): 2nd place – Spring 1913.

Oakham School Magazine Reviews

The Oakhamian Magazine commented on his drama performance:

Spring 1912 Easter entertainment review: ‘Now all the dresses were good, but the best of them all was Julia's. Mann was one of the new-comers, but he was a great success and gained the popular favour in a minute. We could not hope to describe adequately the lady's frock, but it was quite a genuine creation; with his powers of observation Mann had picked up some of the mannerisms peculiar to ladies in shewing off a smart gown. His hat was a trifle too much for him, perhaps; he could not get it through the doorways without a collision, but on the whole Mann contributed a great deal to the evening’s entertainment.’


After Oakham and the War

After school, Basil went to work in the wool trade. Basil came back to school on Prize day 1914 for the Old Oakhamian luncheon. When the war broke out, he enlisted as a Private in the Inns of Court Officer Training Corps. In March 1915 he joined the 2nd/6th Battalion The Duke of Wellington’s West Yorkshire Regiment (The West Riding Regiment) as part of 186 Brigade, 62nd Division as Second Lieutenant.

The West Riding Regiment badge.

In December 1915 he left for the Ypres sector. With his battalion. In May 1917, he went to the Somme area and was promoted to Captain. He fought at the Battle of Cambrai and was killed in action at Bourlon Wood on 27th November 1917. He was 21.

Roll of honour in the Oakhamian Magazine, Easter term 1918, Vol. 34, no.1

Basil is remembered on panel 6/7 of the Cambrai Memorial, in Ilkley Grammar School and in Oakham School chapel.



Cambrai Images

A Mark IV tank ditched in a German trench while supporting the 1st Battalion, Leicestershire Regiment, one mile west of Ribecourt, 20 November 1917.

The 11th Battalion, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, in a captured German communications trench near Havrincourt, 20th November 1917.

British Mark IV Female Tanks being loaded aboard flat-bed railway trucks at Plateau Station in preparation for transportation prior to the opening of the Battle of Cambrai. © IWM Q 46933

Men of the 51st Highland Division in Flesquieres, 23rd November 1917. © IWM Q 6324