From Lille to Cambrai is just a short trip. Go in time for lunch at Cambrai’s Brasserie Beatus in the Avenue de Paris and you’re in for a real treat. Peter Jones travelled there to discover more about a World War I tank called Deborah. Not any old tank, but the only one that survives from the Battle of Cambrai in October 1917.
And what a story of survival it is.
But back to lunch at Brasserie Beatus. With a starter of succulent sauccison and the sort of bread you can only get in France, I just about had room for a light lunch of chicken cooked with a local pungent Maroilles cheese sauce. I squeezed in Cherry clafoutis and a delicious plate of macarons and miniature waffles to go with the coffee – a terrific way to enjoy typically French deliciousness.
If you are ever in Cambrai, the Brasserie Beatus is well worth seeking out. It’s a traditional French ‘estaminet’ complete with a proper zinc covered bar top, a sight that is getting rarer in France. There’s also a link with the famous Deborah tank as the restaurant is owned by Phillipe Gorczynski, and you’ll have to read on to find out more (that’s him, 3rd from the left above, the Deborah tank behind).
On my way to meet Deborah in the town of Flesquières, I stopped off at the Louverval military Cemetery and Cambrai Memorial in Doignes. Northern France has many war graves and in this one there are 124 soldiers of the British Army laid to rest. The memorial to the 7000 soldiers from the UK and South Africa of whom no trace was ever found after the Battle of Cambrai in 1917, truly focuses the mind.
Flesquieres is just over 10 kilometres south west of Cambrai and there is a simple memorial overlooking the battlefield of the Battle of Cambrai to represent all those soldiers who fell and fought here. My visit was accompanied by the sound of bagpipes being played by a soldier in the uniform of the Gordon Highlanders from 1917, this is because the day, I visited, a brand-new museum containing the tank, was opened.
The Deborah Tank Museum
The battle of Cambrai is famous for the vast number of tanks that took part, a staggering 476 of them, of which Deborah is the sole survivor. Philippe, whose restaurant I ate at earlier, is passionate about the area he lives in. He’s been enthused about its history since childhood. As a youngster, a conversation with an elderly lady in a nearby village about a tank being buried close by, led to him locating the site of the tank’s resting place. In 1998 it was excavated and transferred to a barn in Flesquières where it remained until the summer of 2017.
It now lives just a few yards away in a purpose-built museum, itself in the shape of a World War I tank, and is recognised as a registered Historic Monument. Poignantly, next door is the British Hill Cemetery where the bodies of four members of Deborah’s crew lie in rest.
As well as the tank, the museum will be the home to many artifacts and memorabilia of the Battle of Cambrai. I can recommend John Taylor’s book ‘Deborah and the war of tanks’ – he tells far more than space here will allow me.
While there, I was lucky enough to attend a dinner in honour of the Cambrai Tank association held in the magnificent vaulted Vaucelles Abbey. There were speeches and representations from many of the attendees. It was an emotional evening, especially when an 85-year-old gentleman who got up onto the stage and with a shaking finger pointed to a photo of Deborah in 1917 and to the soldier looking out of the turret. To a silenced room he announced ‘That man is my father’, there was hardly a dry eye in the room.
The abbey is open to the public and is well worth a visit especially when it hosts its famous Christmas market.
My base for the night was the rather grand Chateau de la Motte Fenelon in Cambrai which I can highly recommend.
A region of history
In the nearby village of Havrincourt, though not open to the public, there are tunnels built into the chalk which were used for storage during WWI by the German armies. It seems that everywhere you turn, you’ll discover a hint of the past.
Head to the Brasserie de l’Abbaye in Le Cateau Cambresis for lunch. You’ll find a fully functional and very popular brewery and a deliciously attractive restaurant. It’s the perfect place to enjoy local beer and seasonal dishes.
After years of dashing through Northern France just 90 minutes away from London by Eurostar to Lille, I discovered this part of France is full of history, emotion and so much more than I can cover here, well worth the short trip across the Channel.
There’s plenty to do in the Cambrai area, highly recommended is the Wilfred Owen Memorial at Ors, the fabulous Mademoiselle from Armentieres Cafe, the Matisse Museum in Le Cateau-Cambrésis, where the artist was born.
Discover more to do in the area: www.tourisme-cambresis.fr
A walking trail leaflet is available from the local tourist office in English and can be downloaded on www.remembrancetrails-northernfrance.com
Peter Jones is a photographer and freelance writer