Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Thursday, September 15, 2016

100 Years Ago: The First Tank Attack

Lt. Bert Chaney, 41st Division
Witnessing the First Successful Tank Attack at Flers

[Dozens of tanks were committed to the 15 September 1916 renewed offensive at the Somme.  The operation bears the name "Battle of Flers–Courcelette" in many sources. Tanks were used at both those fortified villages that day. The attack against Flers is considered the most successful use of tanks in the attack.]

Big metal things they were, with two sets of caterpillar wheels that went right round the body. There was a huge bulge on each side with a door in the bulging part, and machine guns on swivels poked out from either side.

Basic Design of the British Mark Series Tank

I was attached to battalion headquarters and the colonel, adjutant, sergeant-major, and myself with four signalers had come up to the front line. From this position the colonel could see his men leave the assembly trench, move forward with the tanks, jump over us and advance to the enemy trenches. As a new style of attack he thought it would be one of the highlights of the war.

While it was still dark we heard the steady drone of heavy engines, and by the time the sun had risen the tanks were approaching our front line, dead on time. The Germans must have heard them too, and, although they had no idea what to expect, they promptly laid down a heavy curtain of fire on our front line. This had the effect of making us keep our heads down, but every now and again we felt compelled to pop up and look back to see how the tanks were progressing. It was most heartening to watch their advance, we were almost ready to cheer. But there was a surprise in store for us.

The Tanks That Attacked Flers

Instead of going on to the German lines the three tanks assigned to us straddled our front line, stopped and then opened up a murderous machine gun fire, enfilading us left and right. There they sat, squat monstrous things, noses stuck up in the air, crushing the sides of our trench out of shape with their machine guns swiveling around and firing like mad.

Everyone dived for cover, except the colonel. He jumped on top of the parapet, shouting at the top of his voice, "Runner, runner, go tell those tanks to stop firing at once. At once, I say." By now the enemy fire had risen to a crescendo, but, giving no thought to his personal safety as he saw the tanks firing on his own men, he ran forward and furiously rained blows with his cane on the side of one of the tanks in an endeavour to attract their attention.

George Louth of the 41st Division Also Witnessed the Attack against Flers

Although, what with the sounds of the engines and the firing in such an enclosed space, no one in the tank could hear him, they finally realized they were on the wrong trench and moved on, frightening the Jerries out of their wits and making them scuttle like frightened rabbits. 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 crew thought it more prudent to stop, so they told us afterwards, rather than to keep going as they felt they might go out of control and run on until they reached Berlin.

The third tank went on and ran through Flers, flattening everything they thought should be flattened, pushing down walls and thoroughly enjoying themselves, our lads coming up behind them, taking over the village, or what was left of it, and digging in on the line prescribed for them before the attack. This was one of the rare occasions when they had passed through the enemy fire and they were enjoying themselves chasing and rounding up the Jerries, collecting thousands of prisoners and sending them back to our lines escorted only by Pioneers armed with shovels.

The 41st Division Memorial at Flers Is Among
the Most Famous on the Western Front

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."


  1. That is the funniest account of WWI tanks that I've ever read. The cane! the tea!

  2. Too good for words! For another unusual account of tank activity in WW1, here's a poem written by American nurse Mary Borden: