Rusting relic rescued from Great War mud

 

HISTORIAN and hotelier Philippe Gorcynski is a man in love with a tank called Dorothy. Not any old tank but a rusting relic from World War One which I first saw one freezing February morning tucked away in an old barn in the village of Flesquières in Le Nord region of France close to Cambrai. And Philippe was desperate to find her a permanent home.

Now, thanks to his persistence in following up a local rumour of a mud sunken tank, she is centrepiece of the Cambrai Tank museum, which opened in 2018.

Moving her involved months of planning and a 130-ton crane to lift the near 30-ton tank into a sunken enclosure some five metres below ground. British and French dignitaries were joined, after considerable research, by relatives of the crew for the opening ceremony.

This marked not only the fulfillment of Philippe’s dreams but a shrine to the sole survivor of the 476 tanks used for the first time by British forces in 1917, appearing out of the November mist to cause confusion and considerable damage among the defending German forces.

Deborah, officially Number D41 and one of only seven Mark IV tanks that survived from a production of over 1,200, was hit by a salvo of five shells, killing four of her eight man crew in the bloody Battle of Cambrai. A fifth,  injured, but killed elsewhere  is buried with his comrades at the nearby British Cemetery

Tank Commander Frank Gustavo Heap, from Blackpool, described by his grand-son as ‘a man who loved his crew’ was standing outside the tank looking for their bearing at the very moment it was hit.

The story would normally have ended there, simply another relic lost in a war most wanted to forget. That was until Philippe, frustrated by an elderly villager’s talk of a seeing  what she thought were Germans ordering prisoners to push a tank into huge hole, did his own bit of digging. Six years later, after research visits to England’s National Archives, the Tank Museum, Bovington, and London’s Imperial Museum, his persistence was rewarded

Studies of original and contemporary aerial photographs, together with infrared photos and powerful metal detection tests, showed there was indeed a large metal object buried in a local field. After one hour of digging on November 5, 1998, the roof hatch was revealed and by November 20, the 81st anniversary of the Battle of Cambria, Deborah was full exposed. By 2009 she had been stored in the barn with a granite- cobble base.

How did Deborah a female version of the Mark I tank become buried in the mud? It now seems that in March 1919, the Salvage Company of the Tank Corps were asked to clean the battlefield in the Flesquières area. This meant filling in shell holes and trenches, defusing and picking up ammunition – and removing tanks wrecks …

With the Germans having already dug a hole in 1917 planned for a blockhaus, English soldiers apparently decided to ‘kill two birds with one stone’ by burying Deborah as the fastest way to refill it. This involved dragging her across the village by two Mark Vs tanks and dropping her rusty remains into her muddy grave..

 

For the record:

Tanks taking part in Great War engagements such as Cambrai had to progress silently in complete darkness. Showing the slightest sign of  a light inside or outside of a tank was strictly forbidden.

The tank commander, usually a young officer was – besides determining the route, watching out for targets and the care of the crew – responsible for working a pair of steering brakes in conjunction with the driver.

If the ground was bad or the route uncertain, he would often get out and walk ahead, testing the ground with a stick – holding a lit cigarette behind his back if it was dark – at the risk of enemy fire and being run down by his own tank. If there was barbed wire, he gave a little tap on the tank to make it stop, thus avoiding being crushed in barbed wire

Even today you can still officers on Royal Tank Regiment parades fitted with a wood stick.

 

DEBORAH SCORES A HIT
In 2018 my nomination of the Tank Museum was runner-up in the Best European Project for 2018 in the British Guild of Travel Writers’  Tourism Awards. The picture shows Phillipe with the certificate and the tourism team from Le  Nord (Photo Nord Tourism)
Courtesy of Nord and Pas-de-Calais tourism boards

Further information: For full details contact www.amazing-cambrai.com/visit-tank-deborah.html; tourist office : +33 (0)3 27 78 36 15 or email to contact@tourisme-cambresis.fr re any Covid 19 restrictions. Normal opening times 2020: June 15 – Sept 14 daily 1.30-5.30 pm (peak season) ; Mar 15-June 14 & Sept 15 to Nov 30 Wed, Sat & Sun 1.30 -5.30pm (low season) Entrance fee: 6€nSee https://youtu.be/hXLqSFC8RgY also https://youtu.be/LmHiV-5sTAc and www.youtube.com/watch?v=QzOQMlyvqWw among some excellent YouTube accounts of the Deborah story.

CAPTIONS: Top right: Deborah’s  final resting place (Copyright F Moreau) ;  top left:  stricken tank is lifted from the battlefield ( Commonwealth War Graves Commission)  and Phillippe with Deborah in the old  barn ( Doug Goodman ) Right: Deborah carefully sets off  for her final  journey (Nord Tourism).  bottom right some of the of  the crew.