The dawn of the tank

“It was like hell in a rough sea made of shell holes,” so recorded Lieutenant Basil Henriques of his tank advance at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, the Somme, on 15 September 1916. It was on this day that tanks were used for the first time in an en masse attack.

While it was not the case that no fighting vehicles existed at the outbreak of war in 1914, the need for a new fighting vehicle soon became apparent: the ditches separating the forces in the Western Front proved an insurmountable barrier creating stalemate. The light armoured vehicles in existence could not cope with the terrain of the Western Front. The development of a new fighting vehicle that might cross such terrain, breaching the trenches, was at the instigation of Lieutenant Colonel Ernest Swinton. The inspiration came from farming vehicles using caterpillar tracks and early designs were based around Holt tractors.

Battle of Flers-Courcelette. A Brigadier and his staff outside Tank 17 of D Company, which was used as his Headquarters. Near Flers, 21st September 1916. © IWM (Q 2487)

Battle of Flers-Courcelette. A Brigadier and his staff outside Tank 17 of D Company, which was used as his Headquarters. Near Flers, 21st September 1916. © IWM (Q 2487)

Called Mark 1, the first tanks were built in two types: the “Male” with two Hotchkiss 6-pounder guns and 4 machine guns and the “Female” carrying 5 machine guns. Their best top speed was 4 miles per hour, but this was rarely achieved on the battlefield and infantry often moved faster. The tanks were crewed by an officer, 3 drivers and 4 gunners in internal conditions of heat, noise and exhaust from engine and violent movements of the tank that were appalling. Early models also proved to be mechanically very unreliable and vulnerable to shellfire. Yet despite any shortcomings, the initial appearance of the tank caused alarm to the German forces.

Portrait of Lieutenant Basil Henriques MS 132 AJ 220/2/1 f.1

Portrait of Lieutenant Basil Henriques MS 132 AJ 220/2/1 f.1

Sir Basil Henriques (MS 132) was a 26-year old lieutenant in 1916. Initially gazetted into the Royal East Kent Regiment or the Buffs, Henriques was selected for the new unit of the Heavy Section Machine Gun Corps (renamed the Tank Corps from 1917) and was thus part of the development of the Corps from its inception. During the first part of 1916, Henriques was stationed at Lord Iveagh’s estate in Elvedon, Norfolk, where he trained with and early tank nicknamed “Mother”. He noted that “no mother has ever enjoyed playing with her child as we all did with her. The ‛training’ was one huge game, and we used to look for trees to knock down, and had one or two craters about a hundred yards in width which we would show off to various ‛brass hats’ who came to look at us.” [MS 132 AJ 195/3/9]

On arrival in France the deficiencies of this training soon became apparent. The tank crew had no experience of working with the infantry, with whom they were to fight at the Somme, had never driven the tanks with the flaps closed nor used the periscope and had only driven with a clear view ahead over perfectly even ground. The tank moved fairly well on good ground, but difficulties arose when it needed to turn as it had to halt, making it a target, and gears often jammed in the process.

Although part of a section of three tanks, Basil Henriques and his tank crew were ultimately to proceed on their own to the British front line on 15 September after the other two tanks broke down. Henriques’ tank arrived at the front line ahead of the infantry advance scheduled for 6.20am. After waiting a short time, Henriques, as he recounts, decided to advance forward, encountering a blistering attack from the German lines, wounding himself and his crew:

“As we approached the Germans they let fire at us with might and main. At first no damage was done and we retaliated, killing about 20. Then the smash against my flap in front caused splinters to come in, and the blood to pour down my face. Another minute and my driver got the same. Then our prism glass broke to pieces; then another smash – and I think it must have been a bomb, right in my face. The next one wounded my driver so badly that he had to stop. By this time I could see nothing at all.…” [MS 132 AJ 195/3/9]

While the surprise and, in some cases effect, of the tanks helped the attack at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, they did not prove the decisive factor. They helped break into an enemy position but did not break through the enemy lines. Nevertheless, the potential of the tank as a weapon was recognised and with the action of 15 September 1916 a new era of warfare was begun.

Basil and Rose Henriques on their wedding day MS 132 AJ 220/2/1 f.1

Basil and Rose Henriques on their wedding day MS 132 AJ 220/2/1 f.1

A memento from the battle, one of the glass shards that injured Henriques, and which he then had set in stone in a ring for his wife, will be on show at the Tank Museum in Dorset as part of an exhibition marking the centenary of the tank.

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