A British First World War tank that took part in one the most momentous battles in history has risen from the grave. The tank bore the number D51 and the name Deborah. In November 1917 she played a leading role in the first successful massed tank attack at Cambrai. Eighty years later, the tank's rusted remains were rediscovered and excavated, and are now preserved in France as a memorial to the battle and to the men who fought in it.
Tanks were first used on the battlefield during the Battle of the Somme in September 1916, but the Battle of Cambrai was the first time they made a real impact.
Deborah was in No 12 Company, which formed the second wave of attack in charge of the capture of the Hindenburg support line. As the tank rolled through the village of Flesquières in northern France on 20 November 1917 it came under fire from a field gun, and was put out of action. Four members of the tank's crew were killed, but Second Lieutenant Frank Heap managed to get the remaining men back to safety.
Heap was awarded the Military Cross for his brave efforts. His citation reads: "In Cambrai operations near Flesquieres on November 20th 1917, he fought his tank with great gallantry and skill, leading the infantry on to five objectives. He proceeded through the village and engaged a battery of enemy field guns from which his tank received five direct hits, killing four of his crew. Although then behind the German lines he collected the remainder of his crew and conducted them in good order back to our own lines in spite of heavy machine gun and snipers fire".
D51 Deborah was discovered by the Scottish infantry the following day. The four crew who had been killed were buried next to the tank. After the war the four bodies were re-interred in the Flesquieres Hill British Cemetery. The village was retaken by the Germans in March 1918, and recaptured by the British the following September. Deborah was buried nearby during the post-war clearance of the battlefield.
The location of the buried tank was established by historian Philippe Gorczynski after more than six years of research. Studies of original and modern aerial photographs, together with infra-red photos and metal detection tests, showed there was a large metal object buried in a field. Excavation began on 5 November 1998, and Deborah is now preserved in a barn and registered as a National Monument.
The human story behind the forgotten piece of historic scrap metal has led to a book: Deborah And The War Of The Tanks by John A Taylor. The author says the book is "unashamedly a work of micro-history, written in the belief that by studying the individual and the particular, one can come to a more complete understanding of the whole". He said he was "amazed by the extraordinary relic ... a shattered hulk" and wanted to explain who the people inside it really were.
Deborah's commander on her last fateful mission was a 25-year old junior officer called Frank Heap. His family had become wealthy by running restaurants for the hordes of working people who flocked to the seaside resort of Blackpool. Frank joined up in 1914 soon after leaving Cambridge University, typical of the young men from non-military backgrounds who saw the war as a chance for adventure. The Battle of Cambrai was his first time in action with a tank, and he was lucky to survive when Deborah was knocked out by a German field-gun when nearing their objective. He then faced a hazardous journey back to his own lines through the enemy-held village, at one point coming face to face with a party of Germans who he threatened with his revolver. Frank won the Military Cross for this exploit and served with the Tank Corps throughout the war, after which he returned to Blackpool to run the family hotel and catering business. But he never lost his thirst for adventure, and became a keen rock-climber and mountaineer in the nearby Lake District. When he died in 1956 his ashes were scattered on Scafell, one of his beloved local peaks.
Even though he was just 20 years old, Gunner George Foot was one of the most experienced members of Deborah's crew. The son of a musical instrument salesman, he was born in London but brought up in Great Missenden in Buckinghamshire, a pleasant town just outside the capital. He enlisted in the infantry before transferring to the unit that was to use the army's newest and most secret weapon – the tank. George took part in the very first tank attack 100 years ago (on September 15, 1916), though his machine broke down near the start. Soon afterwards he took part in another attack which ended even more disastrously when his commander was severely wounded. George received a gallantry medal for staying with him in no-man's land for three days under heavy fire. But just over a year later he was killed inside Deborah. Second Lieutenant Heap wrote to his parents: "We all feel his loss very deeply, for his cheery spirits and unfailing good nature had endeared him to all. It is impossible that a soul like George's should not go on living. I feel convinced I shall meet him again."
Gunner Joseph Cheverton was a similar age to Foot, and had also served in the infantry before transferring to the tanks after he was gassed on the Somme. He had been brought up in a tiny terraced house in the university town of Cambridge, where his father worked as a mechanical fitter. A battered family photograph shows a cheeky, happy-go-lucky young man, and on the back he has written: "What do you think of it? Bit of knave." Joe was engaged to marry a local girl called Florrie Coote, but sadly it was not to be. He was killed inside Deborah on his 20th birthday, and was described by his comrades as "a splendid fellow, a willing worker, and a cheerful comrade". Florrie later married and had a child, but she always kept the letter breaking the news of his death, and the Tank Corps badge which she had been sent as a keepsake.
Gunner William Galway joined the tanks after surviving the bloodiest day in the history of the British army – July 1, 1916, when the Allied offensive on the Somme was driven back by the Germans with enormous losses. He came from a large working-class family in a suburb of Belfast, and belonged to 36th Ulster Division which was made up of fiercely loyal members of the Protestant community. William was wounded in the attack which left thousands of comrades dead, but his luck did not last and the following year he was killed inside Deborah at the start of another epic battle. Second Lieutenant Heap wrote: "Your son was the life and soul of my crew, doing two men's work and cheering us all up. He kept us in shrieks of laughter right up to the moment of his death, and died with a laugh on his lips".
At the age of 36, Gunner Frederick Tipping was the oldest member of Deborah's crew who can be identified with certainty, and the only one who was married with children. Like most of his family, he worked in the lace-making industry in the Midlands town of Nottingham, before joining up in the Royal Artillery. Nothing is known of his previous service until he joined the Tank Corps, but his experience and maturity would have been valuable assets in the confines of a tank, and we can imagine he would have been something of a father figure for the younger crew members, and perhaps even for their commander. Sadly he was killed when his tank was destroyed in the village of Flesquières, near Cambrai, and now lies alongside the other crewmen in the cemetery there. Like so many other women across Europe, his widow also paid an enduring price as she struggled to bring up his three children alone.
The families of the soldiers who fought in the first tank battles in history gathered in London to remember them nearly a century later. A commemorative service was held at the Honourable Artillery Company in London. Around 50 family members of soldiers in Deborah's battalion attended – many of whom knew very little about their ancestors' war exploits until they were contacted. The service was attended by families of Deborah's commanders and crew, including George Foot's nephew Charles.
The book includes graphic descriptions of a First World War tank and its crew in action during the battles of Passchendaele and Cambrai, plus a detailed account of the discovery, excavation and preservation of the tank decades after it was buried on the battlefield.
It brings to life the pioneering tank crewmen and the battles in which they fought, and reveals how British prisoners gave away vital information that helped the Germans to withstand the first great tank attack.
Historian Dan Snow has described the book as "a great achievement", saying that it does justice to one of the "remarkable treasures of First World War archaeology".