Joy Bells for Cambrai

During the First World War bell ringing had been strictly limited, but the Tank Corps success at the Battle of Cambrai led to a popular call to ring the bells in celebration.

On 11 November 2018 church bells rang out throughout the UK, and other countries worldwide, to commemorate the centenary of the Armistice and the ceasing of Great War hostilities, mirroring the church bell ringing which had taken place on Armistice Day 1918. Yet, the day that the guns fell silent, wasn’t the first time that church bells had been used to commemorate an event during the Great War.

During the First World War the Defence of the Realm Act, had led to a reduction of bell ringing throughout the country. However, in order to mark the Tank Corps `triumphal success’ at the Battle of Cambrai on the 20th November 1917, it was decided that the joy bells would ring on 23rd November.

The Battle of Cambrai saw the first mass tank attack in history. In the first three hours, the British Army advanced further than they had in three months of fighting at Passchendaele. It appeared to be a great victory for the Allies and the tank itself.

“Fine Work by Tanks” was reported, as news of a great victory at Cambrai was hailed in the papers of the day.
Mark IV Tanks with fascines mass at the railhead before the biggest tank attack to date.

The initial decision to ring the bells for the Battle of Cambrai appears to have been taken by the Lord Mayor of London and the Bishop of London. The scale of the event was indicated by Sir William Soulsby, (Private Secretary to the Lord Mayor of London) who informed the Pall Mall Gazette that:

“We are perfecting our arrangements for a celebration worthy of so grand an occasion. As things stand at present, the bells of every church in the City will ring out their happy tidings at noon to-morrow; all our public buildings will be gaily dressed with bunting; and I am sure that at the midday hour not a City man will fail to express his thanksgiving in one form or another.”

Once Lord Derby, Minister of War, had received firm news of the battle’s success, Friday 23rd November was suggested as a suitable date.

Numerous newspaper articles recount how the news spread throughout the country (mainly England) and how different regions reacted, with reports of bells ringing and the national anthem sung patriotically.

The occasion appears to have been seen as one of release for people; a brief moment of respite when people dared to rejoice in hope that the war may have an ending in sight. It’s apparent from the contemporary newspaper reports that three years into the war people were tired and drained by the constant fighting.

Lloyds Weekly News reported the ringing of the joy bells in London on 23rd November.
The Graincourt gun, an important battle relic captured at the Battle of Cambrai by Albert Baker, is on display in the Tank Men exhibition at The Tank Museum.

Outwardly, based on the reports, there appears to have been a lot of public enthusiasm for the ringing of the joy bells. However, there were also dissenting views, voicing the opinion that this was not the appropriate time to ring bells and even a sarcastic query as to whether this event would lead to a Department for Bell Ringing being created.

Ultimately, the German counter-attack at Cambrai in early December, led to criticism of the Joy Bell ringing decision being premature. The criticism even reached the House of Commons, where Andre Bonar Law, Chancellor of the Exchequer, stated just a few weeks later, that the bell ringing had not been taken on the authority of the War Cabinet. A statement later disputed by David Lloyd George in his published memoirs.

To find out more about the Battle of Cambrai, watch The Tank Museum’s documentary “Cambrai: The Tank Corps Story” 

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