I was fortunate to be invited to meet a French man with a passion for the history of World War I, a man who made an extraordinary discover in Flesquières in the Nord countryside in Cambrai.
Philippe Gorczuynski, a local hotel owner (Beatus Hotel Cambrai), historian and author grew up in this area and as a young child used to play with his cousin in the fields hereabouts.
This was the scene for the Battle of Cambrai, November 1917, a bloody battle that was known as the first of the “modern battles” since tanks and air strikes were deployed together for the first time.
As a young boy Philippe often found remnants in the fields, mementos of those terrible days. His findings piqued his curiosity and as he grew older his interest became more serious as he investigated the history and times. Over years of study and research, Phillippe became an expert on the area and he successfully campaigned for a memorial which lies across the road from the battlefield, now peaceful fields of wheat and vegetables.
One aspect of Philippe’s research as a historian involved him interviewing local people who remembered the battle and the times and he met an elderly lady whose family had run a café in the town of Flesquieres. She had been just a child at the time of the war but she told him that she had witnessed a British tank being buried. She could not remember the exact place but close enough and Philippe became fired with a passion to find the buried tank.
For six years he searched, dug, read archive reports, war reports and files. He uncovered 3 tonnes of metal debris during that time, much of it tank detritus, but no buried tank as he had hoped. Philippe remained convinced that he would find the tank, the old lady had seemed so sure.
His story is one of determination and fortitude and he admits that it was an all-consuming passion that drove him on. It wasn’t until he went up in a plane and looked down over the area where he had spent so much time searching that he knew for sure that something was there.
Back on the ground, Philippe and a friend dug with the help of a crane to seek the solid object he’d seen from above. He says he “knew, when the crane hit something hard, 2 metres down, that we had found it”. He stopped all work, called in an archaeological team in and they dug out a Mark IV Deborah tank, buried whole, just as the old lady had recalled.
Philippe bought a barn in the village of Flesquieres when the tank was uncovered – it sits proudly there, surrounded by poppies, wreaths, other vehicles and war paraphernalia and next door a small private museum. Since the discovery Philippe has researched those who would have manned the thank, the five men who were tragically killed in it, the men who survived.
He is a passionate historian who tells the story with expert knowledge and brings the history alive and the sight of the huge old tank, complete with the army hat that he found inside is an astonishing sight.
You have to make an appointment to be able to see the tank and the museum which are private collections – contact details on the website below:
More on WWI battlefield and memorial sites:
Wilfred Owen memorial