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Battle of Flers-Courcelette: The Birth of the Tank

In the memorable words of Basil Liddell Hart, the Somme was “the glory and the graveyard” of Kitchener’s army... It soon became clear to the Allies that the breakthrough on the Somme, despite some French successes, was impossible and they settled down for a campaign of attrition. The battle ended on 18 November, with an Allied advance of only seven miles, won at a cost of 418,000 British and 195,000 French casualties. The Germans lost 615,000, killed or wounded"

                                                                                  Sergeant-Major Ernest Shepard

 

C' Company Mark I tank (C. 19 "Clan Leslie") Chimpanzee Valley, 15 September 1916.

The Battle of Flers-Courcelette was the third and final general offensive mounted by the British Army troops in the Battle of the Somme. Originally only a subsidiary attack, the Battle of Flers-Courcelette was to have a big impact on the outcome of World War I and would change warfare forever.

Guards Division, Somme, evening 15 September 1916 (click to enlarge image)

The Somme offensive took place during the summer and autumn of 1916, with the Battle of Flers-Courcelette  launched on 15 September. The battle raged for one week.

The main objective was to punch a hole in German defensive line by way of massed artillery and infantry attacks.  The weak spot would then be used by cavalry for further advances.

 

Prelude

By the summer of 1915 it had become clear that victory depended upon breaking the domination of trench warfare over the battlefields of the Western Front. By then the project to develop a ‘Land Battleship’ had begun, in an attempt to combat the trenches, barbed wire and machine guns.

The project was led by the Landships Committee, a small British committee established in February 1915 by First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill.

Its objective: developing an armoured vehicle that would break the deadlock of trench warfare.

By the autumn of 1915, the first prototype was completed – Little Willie.  This was the first completed tank prototype in history. Its place of birth: William Foster & Company of Lincoln.

William Foster & Company of Lincoln during World War I.

The project eventually produced the Mark I, the world's first tank to enter combat. The vehicle was called “a tank” to trick the Germans into thinking they were water carriers for areas where water was scarce. 

The first prototype of the Mark I was deployed in January 1916. Not even six months after the first tests General Sir Douglas Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), and the later Commander in Chief for the Battle of Somme, wanted to launch the first mass tank attack on the opening day of the Battle of the Somme.

Little Willie in William Foster’s work yard, 1915
(click to enlarge image)

Little Willie in its later form, with lengthened tracks and without turret, at Bovington Tank Museum (click to enlarge image)

 

Opposition to this plan was vast, the main reason being the fact that the manufacturers could not meet the deadline so quickly. The other main reason was the idea that were the tank kept a secret, a full-scale attack could be launched when they had amassed a larger number, leading to a greater chance of a major breakthrough.

Two and a half months later the tanks were delivered. Haig instructed General Sir Henry Rawlinson, the sub-commander in charge of the 4th Army, to incorporate these new machines into his battle plans.

The Battle

The battle began on 15 September, 1916, and proved to be quite a shock.

The surprised German troops gave up around 1.8 km of the Front to the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and the Canadian troops.  Nevertheless, the acquisition was not a strategic victory, as the Allied troops faced much difficulty. 

An Mk. I C13 before the first battle at Flers-Courcelette, September 1916.
Commanded by Lt Sir John Dashwood.

The performance of the tanks was inconsistent.  Of the 49 ordered, only 32 were able to reach their assigned start positions on the battlefield and of them 7 failed to start, leaving only 25 moving forward at the commencement of the attack.  

In the end the effect of the tanks was mostly psychological – encouraging the attackers and intimidating the defenders as they moved forward.

Their tactical impact was different. They provided little advantage or support to the attackers, with most tanks either breaking down or becoming immobilized by the terrain of the battlefield. Only 9 actually reached and penetrated German lines.

Sir Haig had been warned against the early use of the tanks. The terrain was rugged and the Allied troops were not well trained in the use of these machines.  A second attack was launched on 17 September, 1916, but harsh weather and huge losses contributed to the decision to call off the battle.

Tanks in action

 

Aftermath

My poor '"land battleships" have been let off prematurely on a petty scale...This priceless conception, containing, if used in its integrity and on a sufficient scale, the certainty of a great and brilliant victory, was revealed to the Germans for the mere petty purpose of taking a few ruined villages" 

                                                             First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill

 

On the opening day of the battle, Raymond Asquith, son of the British Prime Minister (H. H. Asquith), was killed and Harold Macmillan, a future Prime Minister, seriously injured.

In the end, the Battle of the Somme would continue for almost two more full months after Flers–Courcelette, but none of the plans that followed set objectives as grand as that of Flers–Courcelette.

Nevertheless the battle did leave one lasting impact on the world: tanks.  They announced their presence to the world and design improvements were made, learning from the mistakes of Flers-Courcelette. Tactics were rethought and by the end of the war, tanks emerged as a formidable weapon – on both sides. 

The German A7V making its appearance at Roye on 21 March 1918

 

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Sources:

Lewis, John E. (1999) The Mammoth Book of Battles by Jon E. Lewis

Fletcher, David (2004), British Mark I Tank 1916

Public Domain

 

Roll Out, Commanders!

 

 

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