WWI Centennial: Rise Of The Tanks

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Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 249th installment in the series.  

September 15, 1916: Rise Of The Tanks

Like the birth of some terrible demigod, tanks roared into the world to the awe of all who saw them amid the bloodbath of the Somme on September 15, 1916. The armored fighting vehicle has played a central role in modern conventional warfare ever since, with tanks and planes working in tandem to dominate the battlefield. But as their uneven debut at the Somme reflected, tanks had their shortcomings right from the start, due partly to short-term teething issues but also to a number of limitations intrinsic to the concept of a mobile fortress.

First conceived in February 1915 as a way to cancel out the defensive power of entrenched enemy machine guns, after 19 months of top-secret research and development in September 1916 the first Mark I tanks, in “male” and “female” versions, were delivered to the British Army. The male version was armed with two cannons and three machine guns, the female version with five machine guns; their armor and weaponry were intended to enable them to cross no-man’s-land in the face of enemy fire, destroy enemy strong points and cross trenches while also providing shelter to advancing British infantry. 

This experimental weapon received a relatively warm welcome thanks in large part to British Expeditionary Force commander Douglas Haig, who recognized its potential early on (the French were also developing a tank of their own). But they remained unproven and were viewed with understandable skepticism by rank and file alike. Moreover the tanks suffered all the inevitable technical glitches of a new machine: just eight years after the introduction of the first Ford Model T, the internal combustion engines that propelled the tanks were more reliable but hardly immune to breakdowns. And despite their special shape and motorized treads the vehicles could also still “ditch” or roll over to become (temporarily) useless. In fact, out of the first batch of 50 tanks sent to join the next big attack on the Somme on September 15, 1916, remembered as the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, only 36 actually arrived on the field of battle, as the rest fell prey to mechanical or navigational woes.

One British soldier, Reginald Grant, described the general reaction to their arrival behind the British lines immediately preceding the next “big push” (following previous Anglo-French efforts including Bazentin Ridge, Pozières, and Ginchy): 

I looked in the direction of the sound and presently there hove in sight a colossal something of behemoth proportions;--something the like of which I had never seen or heard of in all my life, and I was stricken dumb with amazement. A monstrous monstrosity climbed its way without let or hindrance, up, over, along and across every obstacle in its path. Presently it reached the top of Pozieres Ridge; every man who could see had his eyes glued on it…

Another eyewitness present for the tanks’ baptism of fire at the Somme on September 15, the cinematographer Geoffrey Malins, recorded a similar impression: 

For the life of me I could not take my eyes off it. The thing--I really don't know how else to describe it--ambled forward, with slow, jerky, uncertain movements. The sight of it was weird enough in all conscience. At one moment its nose disappeared, then with a slide and an upward glide it climbed to the other side of a deep shell crater which lay in its path. I stood amazed and watched its antics… Big, and ugly, and awkward as it was, clumsy as its movements appeared to be, the thing seemed imbued with life, and possessed of the most uncanny sort of intelligence and understanding. 

Unfortunately the tanks’ experimental nature led British commanders to make some key errors during the attack on Flers-Courcelette on September 15. The biggest mistake was their decision to break up the “creeping barrage” laid down by British artillery in front of the advancing infantry, in order to leave safe corridors for the tanks to travel through. At first glance this appeared to make sense, since nobody knew just how long it would take for the tanks to advance over the pockmarked battlefield – but it also meant that if the tanks failed to reduce the German strongpoints in front of them, the infantry behind them would be left to attack defenders in virtually untouched enemy trenches. 

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Nonetheless the British scored some notable successes at Flers-Courcelette, thanks to the strength of the artillery bombardment (where it was allowed). In the three days leading up to the attack, British artillery pounded the German lines with an incredible 828,000 shells, including counter-artillery fire directed by planes from the Royal Flying Corps. Lieutenant R. Lewis, a Canadian officer from Newfoundland, witnessed the attack on September 15 from the reserve trenches, recalling the moment when the final bombardment opened up at 6:20 a.m.: “Then all of a sudden the artillery with a mighty roar opened up the most terrific fire. It was a wonderful sight. Nothing could be seen all along the horizon in the rear but one mass of flame, where our guns were sending out shell after shell.”

Another observer, R. Derby Holmes, an American volunteer serving in the 22nd London Battalion, Queen’s Royal West Surrey Regiment, left a frank account of his feelings during the final countdown to the tank and infantry attack: 

My ear drums ached, and I thought I should go insane if the racket didn't stop. I was frightfully nervous and scared, but tried not to show it. An officer or a non-com must conceal his nervousness, though he be dying with fright… I looked over the top once or twice and wondered if I, too, would be lying there unburied with the rats and maggots gnawing me into an unrecognizable mass.

At 6:20 a.m. ten British Divisions from the Fourth Army and Reserve Army (including the Canadian Corps and New Zealand Division) plus elements from the French Sixth Army attacked a defensive force of roughly half their strength in the German First Army.  In some areas the tanks were employed in concentrated columns, while in others they were interspersed among the attacking troops – but at this early stage, with the benefit of surprise still on their side, even a lone tank could make a decisive difference. 

Indeed one famous tank, C-5, better known by its nickname “Crème de Menthe,” singlehandedly cleared a ruined sugar refinery of its German defenders, opening the way for the Canadians to advance into the rearward German trenches, eventually approaching the village of Courcellete. The Canadians managed to hold on to their gains here, fending off a number of fierce German counterattacks – but their success (and the tank’s) were hardly typical for the Allies that morning. 

Further to the east the 50th Northumbrian Division succeeded in taking its first objective despite withering flanking fire from High Wood, the strategic heights that had been the object of so much bloodshed since mid-July. However they were battered back from their second objective, a German support trench, by a blistering enemy bombardment (one of many examples indicating British counter-artillery fire was insufficient). During the initial attack many soldiers sheltered behind the advancing tanks, but discovered this could be very slow going. Holmes, the American volunteer, recalled the progress of the tanks near High Wood: 

The tanks were just ahead of us and lumbered along in an imposing row. They lurched down into deep craters and out again, tipped and reeled and listed, and sometimes seemed as though they must upset; but they came up each time and went on and on. And how slow they did seem to move! Lord, I thought we should never cover that five or six hundred yards. 

Holmes and his comrades also realized that the tanks offered no protection against heavier fire: 

There was a tank just ahead of me. I got behind it. And marched there. Slow! God, how slow! Anyhow, it kept off the machine-gun bullets, but not the shrapnel. It was breaking over us in clouds. I felt the stunning patter of the fragments on my tin hat, cringed under it, and wondered vaguely why it didn't do me in. Men in the front wave were going down like tenpins. Off there diagonally to the right and forward I glimpsed a blinding burst, and as much as a whole platoon went down… I don't suppose that trip across No Man’s Land behind the tanks took over five minutes, but it seemed like an hour.

Towards the center of the British line the New Zealand Division, along with the 14th and 41st Divisions, was assigned the task of capturing Flers, assisted by eighteen tanks, of which a good number naturally broke down before or during the battle. Here the tanks showed up late, but then did a respectable job helping the attackers overcome secondary German defenses to capture Flers (another problem encountered across the Somme battlefield, and especially where there had been no creeping barrage, was the German practice of hiding machine gun nests in craters in front of their trenches in no-man’s-land). 

On the right the British attack by the Guards, 6th, and 56th Divisions turned into a complete debacle, including an unimpressive performance by the tanks, which all got lost on the battlefield or suffered mechanical mishaps. As this was one of the corridors spared the creeping bombardment during the early stages of the battle, the failure of the tanks to even make contact with the enemy in most places meant the infantry faced an impenetrable wall of machine gun and rifle fire. Making things even worse, one tank that did actually make it to the frontlines headed into no-man’s-land early, alerting the enemy to the coming attack before withdrawing under heavy fire.

The overall performance of the tanks across the Somme was therefore mixed, at best. One account by a British soldier, Bert Chaney, encapsulates the wildly differing fortunes of various tanks involved in the attack on September 15, along with some comic details: 

One of the tanks got caught up on a tree stump and never reached their front line and a second had its rear steering wheels shot off and could not guide itself… The third tank went on and ran through Flers, flattening everything they thought should be flattened, pushing down walls and thoroughly enjoying themselves… The four men in the tank that had got itself hung up dismounted, all in the heat of the battle, stretching themselves, scratching their heads, then slowly and deliberately walked round their vehicle inspecting it from every angle and appeared to hold a conference among themselves. After standing around for a few minutes, looking somewhat lost, they calmly took out from the inside of the tank a primus stove and, using the side of the tank as a cover from enemy fire, sat down on the ground and made themselves some tea. The battle was over as far as they were concerned.

Despite the tanks’ many failures on September 15, their isolated successes had proved what armored vehicles were capable of, at least to careful observers. One thoughtful chaplain with the Guards Division, T. Guy Rogers, mused: “Of course their virtues are exaggerated, but they are only in their infancy and did well – really well in some places. I would like to see them with double the horsepower; less impotent when they get sideways, and with some contrivance to reduce the noise.” 

Designers would indeed remedy these shortcomings and others revealed at the Somme, with wireless sets for example eventually enabling communication between commanders and tank crews. At the same time, tanks faced some basic constraints which still limit their use today, including their high fuel consumption (incredibly, many went into battle at the Somme covered with highly flammable fuel cans) and their inability to tackle certain kinds of terrain. 

In the short term, tanks remained secondary: as always, the heavy lifting on the battlefields of the First World War was done by infantry and artillery, with newer weapons like tanks and planes playing a subsidiary, sometimes experimental role. 

For the infantrymen who suffered the brunt of the fighting in the trenches, conditions at the Somme were something close to infernal. Paul Hub, a German officer, recounted a typical trauma in a letter to his wife dated September 20, 1916:

My dear Maria, I had just taken up my position when a heavy mortar hit the wall, burying me and two of my company under the rubble. I can’t describe what it felt like to be buried alive under such a mass of earth without being able to move a muscle… When someone called out asking if there was anyone underneath, we shouted ‘Yes!’ and they started digging us out right away. They thought they would have to free the others before they could reach me, but in the end they pulled me out at the same time. I felt as if my legs had been chopped off… The weight of the earth had pushed my head forward and torn my back muscles. 

See the previous installment or all entries.

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