Tanks at Flers

The Battle of the Somme commenced with a vast British attack on 1 July 1916. On that first day of battle, the bloodiest in the history of the British Army, there were over 57,000 British casualties.

This day of unprecedented and catastrophic loss of life has for many defined the collective memory of the British experience in the First World War. To them, the eventual victory came at too high a price and the conflict is remembered as one in which the lives of men were squandered of by over-confident, unintelligent, and out of touch generals.

Haig and the Somme

What is often overlooked is that the battle wasn’t launched entirely at the choosing of the British Commander, Douglas Haig. The French had been involved in a wearing and attritional defence of Verdun and this led the French Commander in Chief to put pressure on Haig to launch his planned attack early in order to draw German resource away.

Haig, far from being the reactionary traditionalist some historians have portrayed him to be, was confident in the potential of the tank and was eager to deploy them as soon as possible. For this reason, despite his staff making arguments for tanks to be retained until enough were ready for a mass attack, Haig ordered that those tanks that were ready would be used as soon as possible in a later phase of the Somme offensive.

The First Tank Attack

At dawn on Friday, 15 September 1916 tanks went into action for the very first time. Their use in the last major offensive of the Somme campaign at Flers- Courcelette was both dramatic and symbolic.

The tanks were to be deployed ahead of the infantry in groups of two or three to punch holes in the German defences and destroy the machine gun posts that had caused such huge casualties for the Allied armies that summer.

Forty-nine Mark I tanks were earmarked to take part, but on the day only thirty-two made it to the start line; the others having broken down or ditched. Eighteen eventually went into action, the rest suffered mechanical failure or became trapped in shell holes or trenches.

Progress was painfully slow and the ground, although dry, had been cratered by shellfire so the tanks pitched up and down like ships in a rough sea. However, they could plough through barbed wire and cross most trenches while their unusual appearance and apparent invulnerability to rifle and machine-gun fire caused fear in the German troops they encountered.

After the battle, the British press reported:

“When the German outposts crept out of their dugouts in the mist of the morning of 15 September and stretched to look for the English, their blood was chilled to their veins. Two mysterious monsters were crawling towards them over the craters. Stunned as if an earthquake had burst around them, they all rubbed their eyes, which were fascinated by the fabulous creatures.”

As a result of the day’s action the villages of Flers and Courcelette were captured, but the advance on 15 September was limited to about 2,500 yards (2.3km) on a three-mile front. Although they took place on the same day and in roughly the same area, these tank actions are best seen as a series of individual operations, each with their own story. Significantly, the men of the Heavy Section Machine Gun Corps who crewed the tanks, were young and inexperienced. They were going into action with an untried new weapon of war, many having never been in battle before.

“Our tank commander was 2nd Lt Macpherson, a fine and likeable young fellow, but he like all of us had never been on a battlefield or in action before. Indeed that was the position of practically the whole of the 32 tanks which took part in this first action. The briefing and instructions regarding objectives were quite inadequate and there was little or no co-operation between the infantry and the tanks.”

– Gunner William Taylor Dawson, C Company

The speed at which the tank was conceived and put into action was itself an incredible feat.

Machines were built, men trained and tactics devised on the hoof. This is at odds with the view of blundering, old-fashioned generals repeating their tactical mistakes. Instead, it demonstrates the desire of British commanders to find high-tech and innovative solutions to prevent such catastrophic losses.

Despite the modest impact of the tanks on 15 September, they had demonstrated enough potential to justify their continued use. Haig expressed his faith in the new weapons, stating: “Wherever the tanks advanced, we took our objectives and where they did not advance, we failed to take our objectives. Go back and make as many more tanks as you can.”

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