On 1 July 1916 the British began a massive offensive against German positions along the Somme. Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig unleashed this offensive prematurely, in large part to respond to a desperate appeal by the French for a diversion to draw off German forces from Verdun. The Battle of the Somme developed into the deadliest engagement of the entire war. In fighting from July to November it claimed some 1.2 million men on both sides.
Despite the horrific casualties of the first day on the Somme, Haig continued the offensive in the belief that his men could indeed break through the German lines and end the war. Desperate for anything that might tip the balance, Haig called on the tanks, even though but few were available. Swinton opposed their deployment before they were available in sufficient numbers and the crews could be properly trained. But he was promptly overruled and replaced, not the last of the tank pioneers to be thus treated.
The men of the new force operated under the cover of the Armored Car Section of the Motor Machine-Gun Service. Many of those who were recruited to operate the new machines had little knowledge of soldiering. Training in driving (first with Little Willie), gunnery, and rudimentary tactics went forward, but one tank commander who took part in the subsequent attack on the Somme later wrote:
I and my crew did not have a tank of our own the whole time we were in England. Ours went wrong the day it arrived. We had no recon naissance or map reading . . . no practices or lectures on the compass . . . we had no signalling . . . and no practice in considering orders. We had no knowledge of where to look for information that would be necessary for us as Tank Commanders, nor did we know what information we should be likely to require.
Some of the men and their machines were then shipped to France. As a consequence of the feverish efforts to prepare for action, many of the crewmen were completely exhausted before they even got into battle. On the night of 13 September, the drivers, guided by white tape on the ground, with the tanks creating considerable amazement for those who watched them, moved into their assembly areas.
Shortly after first light on 15 September 1916, a new chapter in warfare opened when the tanks went into action. Of 150 Mark I tanks, only 59 were in France when Haig made the decision to employ them, and of these only 49 actually reached the front. Plagued by mechanical problems abetted by nervous crewmen, only 35 tanks reached the line of departure; 31 crossed the German trenches, and only nine surmounted all problems and pushed on ahead of the infantry.
The Tanks on the Somme. 15th September 1916.
D Company, 2 section, with NZ Division, XV Corps, 3rd Army
D Company, 2 section intended to get 8 tanks into action on 15th September 1916
2 Section, Capt Nixon G
D8, 720, 2Lt Bown, HGF
D10, 535, 2Lt Darby H
D11, 547, 2Lt Pearsall HG
D12, 719, Capt Nixon G
2 section also had two other tanks which were detached and operated with other units on the 15th September 1916.
2 Section was to support the New Zealand Division
Zero was 06:20. The tanks were to reach Switch Trench five minutes before the infantry and thus enable their advance. En route 535 and 547 were to turn right along Crest trench and help clear it of the enemy; 719 would turn right upon reaching Switch trench and clear the lower half of it of opposition, these three tanks would then rendezvous at the southern end of Fish Alley. Meanwhile 720 was to move right, cross Switch Trench and cover the infantry who would be consolidating in front of it.
The advance was to halt at Switch Trench until 7:20am, partially to allow the tanks to assist with mopping up.
Account of operations
The tanks arrived late and followed the infantry over the German front line, which had already been captured, the infantry making use of the lane left in the barrage to push forward.
The advance resumed, and despite enfilading fire dorm each flank the infantry swiftly capturing their second objective, Fat Trench and the upper part of Fish Alley. A further advance was now halted in front of the heavily wired and well defended Flers Line which lay in between the second and third objectives. 535 continued northwards in an attempt to support this attack but was hit and Knocked out at M36c.2.6.
547 and 720 advanced either side and probably a little to the rear of 535. At 10:30 547 advanced into the centre of the Flers Line and enfiladed the twin trenches with MG fire, the infantry rapidly advanced over the crushed wire and captured the position. 720 meanwhile, may have done much the same on the extreme left of the Division, all the while probably firing on the Germans on the Division left who had not been silenced by the unsuccessful attack of the 47th Division.
719 advanced on the extreme right of the division, catching the infantry up at the second Objective, where Fat Trench abutted Flers trench. At 9:15am, at the request of the infantry, the tank moved into the depression to the south west of Flers and silenced enemy Mgs ensconced in a farmhouse there. The tank then moved towards Flers, its steering was damaged by shell fire and then tank then ditched, at M36d.9.9, whilst attempting to withdraw. More shells hit the tank, it caught fire and was burnt out.
The New Zealanders, possibly with the assistance of 547 and two other tanks, were able to capture Grove Trench, and two field guns therein. The trench could not be held due to the failure of the attacks on either flank and the infantry withdrew and consolidated on the Blue Line, 547 ignored the general order for all tanks to withdraw and remained behind to cover the consolidation, eventually withdrawing into Flers after dark.
At start: 4
Failed to Start: 0
Engaged enemy: 4
Ditched / Broke Down: 0
Hit and Knocked out: 2
Penetrated by AP bullets: 0
C Company, 1 section, with 2nd Canadian Division, Canadian Corps, 3rd Army
C Company, 1 section, intended to get 6 tanks into action on 15th September 1916
C Company, 1 section, Capt Inglis AM
C1, 709, “Champagne”, Lt Wheeler AGC
C2, 522, “Cognac”, Lt Bluemel FW
C3, 701, “Chartreuse”, 2Lt Clark SDH
C4, 503, “Chablis”, 2Lt Campbell GOL
C5, 721, “Creme de menthe”, Capt Inlis AM
C6, 504, “Cordon Rouge”, 2Lt Allan J
Trevor Pidgeon gives C1 the number 721, this must be a Typo. Inglis’ report (in the Canadian Divisions War Diary) states it was number 709.
Northern Group, 709, 522, 504, were to cross the Canadian front line about R35a.0.3. and then follow sugar trench to R30c.5.3, immediately north of the factory. They were to help cover the left flank of the advancing infantry, assist in mopping up and, once at the Sugar factory, deal with any MGs therein or in Courcelette
Southern group 721, 701, 503, to start from near Pozieres Windmill, advance down the road to the sugar factory, one tank on the road and one 30 yards either side of it. The tanks were to proceed to R36a.5.5 where, at z + 43 mins a male tank was to detach itself and assit the infantry in capturing the ruins. The other two tanks, a male and a female, were meanwhile to continue down the road to Candy trench at R36a.8.7 then follow the trench down towards Martinpuich. Once the infantry had gained their final objectives the tanks were to return and rally.
Account of operations
522 and 709 both started on time, at Zero, and advanced along routes close to one another. 522 was faster and ditched at R35a.3.9 ten minutes before 709 ditched at roughly the same location. 522 was unditched but ditched again permanently at R29b.5.1. Both crews attempted to unditch their machines whilst under fire, 709’s crew gave up after four fruitless hours and abandoned the tank, the driver being killed in the unditching attempt. 522’s crew worked all day but were also unable to save the tank which was abandoned.
504 meanwhile entered no mans land and, under heavy fire, advanced along Sugar trench silencing several Mgs therein thus enabling the infantries advance. The tank reached R30c.5.3, north of the Sugar factory and joined in the latter part of the attack on the factory blocking the Germans escape route.
701 ditched and 503 threw a track, both thus failed to reach the start point.
721 reached the start point at 2am and started forward at Zero, having been joined by 2Lt Campbell but having lost one of its tail wheels to an enemy shell.
The tank was possibly photographed and filmed whilst advancing: IWM FLM 2044, X1.p129
The infantry advanced well ahead, the tank eventually catching them up in the Sugar Factory where it helped subdue the defenders with 6pdr and MG fire. The Germans in the factory surrendered, 721 and 504 returned down the Albert Road, 721 laying 400 yds of cable en route, both tanks rallied.
The infantry launched a further attack in the afternoon and captured Courcelette village.
At start: 4
Failed to Start: 0
Engaged enemy: 2
Ditched / Broke Down: 2
Hit and Knocked out: 0
Penetrated by AP bullets: 0
The tanks were thus far from impressive in their debut, mostly because they were too widely dispersed and not used according to any plan. Their crews were also not well trained, and there was the spate of breakdowns. Regardless, the few tanks that did get into action had a profound impact on Haig; five days after the attack he urgently requested 1,000 more. Haig also demanded the establishment of a new central office charged with improving their fighting ability. Even before the end of the Battle of the Somme, Haig had created the Tank Corps Headquarters.