The Battle of Flers–Courcelette and the First Tanks of WWI

The Battle

The battle of Flers-Courcelette, 15-22 September 1916, was the third main phase of the battle of the Somme. It is best known as the first battle in history to feature the use of tanks.

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The battle was the first full scale offensive since the first day of the Somme. It was to involve the British Fourth Army and part of the Reserve Army. The plan was for XV corps to break through the German lines north east of the village of Flers, allowing the cavalry to get into the rear area of the German lines. Most of the troops involved in the battle were given three or four objectives, all of which needed to be captured on the first day of fighting if a breakthrough were to be achieved. After two and a half months of struggle, Haig believed that he was finally close to breaking through the final line of prepared German defences. For the Germans the emergency in Russia caused by the Brusilov Offensive, the entry of Romania into the war and French counter attacks at the Verdun, had put a lot of strain on the German army.

The attack was preceded by a massive artillery bombardment. On 1 July the attack had been supported by one field gun for every 21 yards of front, and one heavy gun for every 57 yards. At Flers-Courcelette those figures increased to one field gun for every 10 yards and one heavy gun for every 29 yards. One problem with the artillery barrage was that the tanks were so slow that they needed to advance ahead of the infantry. This meant that corridors had to be left in the creeping barrage, to allow the tanks to advance. In some places this meant that key German strong points, which naturally had been made the tank’s main objectives, were untouched by the creeping barrage.

The constant British and French artillery bombardments of the area during the Somme offensive had turned the German defences into crater fields. Dugouts were caved in, lines of barbed wire vaporised and trenches obliterated. German infantry took to occupying shell holes in groups of two and three about 20 yd apart. Supporting and reserve units further back used shell holes and any other cover that could be found for shelter. Attempts to link these shell hole positions with trenches were abandoned because they were easily visible from the air and artillery observation crews directed bombardments on them. When attacks commenced in these situations, German infantry usually moved forward from such visible positions and created a forward line of occupied shell-holes but this was often easily overrun during an attack.

Within the first three days of the attack initial gains of some 2 km were made, something of an achievement at the time, and particularly during the Battle of the Somme. Led by tanks the villages of Martinpuich, Flers and Courcelette fell to the Allies, as did the much sought after High Wood. Nevertheless, a combination of poor weather and extensive German reinforcements halted the British and Canadian advance on 17 September. The planned attack was then postponed until 21 September, and then cancelled. When the fighting resumed on the Fourth Army’s front, it would be towards Morval, in the east. By the time the attack had been called off on 22 September the Allies had again suffered heavy casualties through the whole battle, including Raymond Asquith, the son of the British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith.

The Tanks

The Idea for the Tank originated with the need for some kind of armoured vehicle that could cross no-mans land, break through barbed wire and assault German strong points. Already in December 1914 Ernest Swinton , an officer of the royal engineers had suggested the idea of such a vehicle. Armoured trains and cars were not uncommon at this time, and caterpillar tracks were already used in agriculture as early as 1905, which allowed for tractors to cross terrain that would be impassable to wheeled vehicles. With the technology being almost already there, required specifications were made. The vehicle must have a top speed of no less than 4 mph, it must be able to climb a 5 foot parapet and cross an 8 foot gap, it must reverse, and once it crossed no-mans land it should be able to fight.

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The first prototype was built by the Foster Works in late 1915 and was named ‘Little Willie’, and although it proved the concept it still under-performed due to its engine power barely being able to shift its 16 ton weight, and its treads being too narrow to cross the gaps required. Plans were made for the new tank ‘Big Willie’ that would be able to meet demands at 30 tons, with 10mm frontal armour, 8mm side armour and two 57mm guns as well as 4 machine guns. This new vehicle was the first to receive the name ‘tank’ and became known as ‘Mother’. Two variants of Mk.1 Mother were made, the male with the two guns and 4 machine guns, and the female with just 6 machine guns. This tank impressed the skeptics of the idea, but still didn’t prove to be the wonder-weapon that some thought it would be as it was slow and vulnerable to artillery. However, the British high command were impressed and saw its uses as being able to support infantry, so they ordered 150 tanks.

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At this time, commanders were still unsure of how to actually use the tanks in battle. Whether they should be grouped together or spaced out, and either advance ahead of, with or behind infantry. It was decided to spread them out ahead of advancing infantry, and along with a creeping barrage of artillery to cover them. 49 tanks were to be part of the first attack at Flers-Courcelette, but before that some were hit by German artillery, and others broke down. By the start of the advance 36 tanks actually set off, and every one of them stopped working for one reason or another over the course of the battle. Despite them being very unreliable and slow, they did advance several kilometers and played a key role in the capture of most positions. The launch of the tanks also produced devastating effects upon German morale, at least initially. On a wider front their effectiveness was limited, given their scarcity and inherent unreliability. The German High Command’s initial reaction was that the tank could be defeated rather than imitated. It is also said that the creeping barrage tactics employed at this battle had the biggest impact on the German position, and not the Tanks. Also, due to lack of communication between tanks, and between them and infantry, there was difficulty in coordination of movements, meaning that the infantry would often move ahead of the tanks more quickly because the creeping barrage supposedly seemed to be keeping them safer than the tanks.

After the battle many enthusiastic supporters of the new invention of tanks, one such being Winston Churchill, criticized the use of the tanks at this battle, saying they had been used prematurely, reducing the chance of winning a major breakthrough using them. However it is possible to argue that the poor performance of the tanks on the Somme, and over the next few months, lulled the German High Command into a false belief that they were ineffective weapons, delaying their own tank programme. It is also argued that the use of the tanks at Flers-Courcelette taught their designers important lessons, making later tanks more effective. Haig himself was still so impressed with the tanks however that he made an order for 1000 more.


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