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

Monday, January 4, 2021

The Day the Tank Became Mythic

On the morning of 15 September 1916, the British Army attacked the German trenches just outside the French village of Flers. Forty-nine tanks were dispersed in small groups with the infantry divisions that made the assault. Even before the attack actually began, machines began to break down. More than a third of the tanks failed to reach their starting positions, and once the attacks started, still more broke, were delayed or became stuck, with the result that only nine achieved their goals. Still, the results, while not overwhelming, were enough to satisfy the British Army commander, Sir Douglas Haig. As the battle raged, the crew of a British aircraft overhead reported, “A tank is walking up the High Street of Flers with the British Army cheering behind.” The reputation of the tank was born.

British Depiction of 15 September 1916 at Flers

A German war correspondent described his first impressions:

My blood froze in my veins.  Crawling along the cratered battlefield were two mysterious monsters.  The monsters approached slowly – limping, staggering, swaying – but no obstacle could stop them.  They moved ever forward with a supernatural force.  Our machine-gun fire and hand grenades simply bounced off them.  They were thus able to easily destroy our crews in the forward shell-holes, then run straight through the German front line and off into the village of Flers, where they stayed for some time.  The British infantry which had followed them took possession of the village, and the machines drove off down the Ligny-Tilloy road.

Sources: Library of Congress and Abroad in the Yard Websites


  1. Mike, Deborah made it to downtown Flers. I believe that's where she was found. Thanks for the great narrative.

    1. If you mean the tank "Deborah" that is now preserved at Flesquieres after being buried and excavated: she was a Mark IV lost during the battle of Cambrai in November 1917, not in this first tank action in September 1916