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

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Not Well Regarded: The Debut of Tanks at the Somme

The Battle of Flers-Courcelette, an attempt to restart the Somme Offensive of 1916, stands out in the broader memory of the First World War due to one principal factor—the debut of the tank. Most historians who write of the action focus on the tanks as its central feature, and most of them are quite critical of their effect on the battle. 

Tanks Envisioned in the 19th Century by French Futurist Albert Robida

For example, the chapter on the 15 September attack in Martin Gilbert's The Battle of the Somme (2006) is titled "The arrival of the tanks: 'We are feeling top dogs.'" Similarly, Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson's The Somme (2005) discusses Flers-Courcelette in a chapter titled "Lumbering Tanks: The Battle of 15 September." Such works are in agreement about two principal conclusions: (1) the attack was not a stirring success (2) but it did showcase the potential for the tank as an offensive weapon. The British official history discusses the many shortcomings of the tank on 15 September but concedes that the battle was a "valuable tryout" for the possibilities of tank assaults. J.F.C. Fuller was similarly unkind about the tanks' initial performance. In his Tanks in the Great War, Fuller wrote that the 15 September attack was "from the point of view of tank operations, not a great success." He, too, argued that the silver lining in the tanks' poor showing at Flers-Courcelette was that the battle served as a field test to hone tank tactics and design for future deployment.

British Mark I Tank, Chimpanzee Valley, Somme

Although at Flers-Courcelette most of the tanks suffered mechanical breakdown or battle damage and failed to influence events, some tanks rendered valuable assistance to the infantry in surmounting German strong points, such as at the village of Flers. In any case, ever after, the tank became a valued weapon of war. 

Source: Canadian Military History, Autumn 2011


  1. Thanks for the post. The tank, while perhaps not a shining success in its initial combat debut, showed potential. Much like other weapons systems in the WW1; aircraft, machine guns, submarines and others, they demonstrated potential and thus provided a preview of the possibility of the applicability of those weapons systems in the future.

  2. The obvious error was revealing the secret of the tank prmaturely.