A SINGLE battle changed the nature of World War 1 and saw Yorkshire soldiers make a record-breaking attack. PETER RHODES reports from the bloody slopes of Cambrai.

"Grandad never got as far as Cambrai. The wonder is that he got into the First World War at all. John Willie Smith was a joiner in the Yorkshire Dales village of Lothersdale. A few years before the outbreak of war, he lost part of a finger in a sawmill accident.

Thinking no more about it, he and a friend eagerly volunteered when the Army recruiting band came to the village in December 1914, four months after Britain's declaration of war on the Kaiser's Germany.

In his diary Grandad recalled: 'In the evening there was a recruiting meeting in the church school. I and Joseph Smith fell victim that night. We went to Skipton the next day to pass the doctor. Joseph managed to pass all right but the doctor would not pass me, owing to me having had an accident with my left hand, but he told me to come back the next day, so of course I went. He managed to pass me all right.'

But his damaged hand kept John Willie out of first-line service. He was posted to a second-line battalion, the 2nd/6th Duke of Wellington's Regiment (West Riding). As fitter young men were posted to France, the 2nd/6th spent nearly two years kicking its heels in England, endlessly training and keeping watch for Zeppelins.

It was not until February, 1917, that Private J W Smith and his pals set sail from Southampton for Le Havre, to be loaded on to cattle trucks and sent to the Western Front.

By then Grandad was wearing a single black button on his uniform, signifying the loss of his younger brother, Alvin who, in the space of a few months, had joined up and been killed in the Battle of the Somme serving with a first-line battalion.

The irony was that the second-line battalions, including Grandad's, which made up the 62nd (West Riding) Division fought a first-class war. They were involved in two huge and significant battles, at Cambrai in 1917, where tanks were first used in vast numbers, and in the following year in the second Battle of the Marne, which marked the beginning of the final advance leading to victory.

Nearly 100 years on, on a recent battlefield pilgrimage, I found myself on the road to the French village of Flesquieres where determined German artillery crews finally halted the British tanks.

In popular folklore, Germans fled in panic at the sight of these metal monsters. The reality, after the first few encounters, was that the Kaiser's lads learned how to kill tanks with field guns and stood their ground.

On this windy ridge in northern France you can see why the Germans chose this place to build a defensive line south of the town of Cambrai. For hundreds of yards across the gentle slopes of the chalk downland below, nothing can move without being seen.

In the village nearby a British tank has been recovered from the earth and restored. You can clearly see the damage caused by five direct hits from German shells which shattered the iron-plate sides.

As the British tanks rumbled forward at dawn on November 20, 1917, the 62nd Division, fresh from weeks of special training, went over the top in the push for Cambrai. The regimental history tells how 'the steel monsters inspired the greatest confidence among all ranks.'

Grandad wrote in his diary: 'We caught Jerry napping and he got the wind up good and proper. It was said that 600 tanks (the actual figure was 467) went over that morning. It was a lovely morning for the attack, rather foggy, and Jerry didn't think of anything like this happening. The attack went well and we got all our objectives the first day.'

In fact the 62nd Division had done something truly remarkable. Grandad and his comrades attacked alongside the tanks, bombing, shooting and bayoneting. As the official dispatches recorded: 'The attack of the 62nd West Riding Division constitutes a brilliant achievement in which the troops concerned completed an advance of four-and-a-half miles, overrunning two German systems of defence and gaining possession of three villages.'

By the time the day was over the Yorkshire lads had advanced a record distance for any British infantry division at that stage in the war.

But the Germans later counter-attacked, re-taking much of the land they had lost. Grandad wrote: 'We had many killed and wounded and horses and wagons were lying all over the place.'

Although the Battle of Cambrai ended in disappointment, it was a vital rehearsal for the combined tank-and-infantry battles which ended the stalemate of trench warfare and would bring victory in less than a year.

Having played his part in history, John Willie Smith survived the war, married and had two children, one of whom was my mother. He never got to see Cambrai, never stood on this German-held ridge. So on a sunny Sunday in September, 97 years later, I went instead."