Tag Archives: Battle of Flers-Courcelette

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.

Reflections on war and warfare: Week 29 (15 – 21 September 2014)

As of March 2014, we are posting weekly extracts of writings on war and warfare drawn from our manuscript and printed collections. Ranging from items on the Maratha wars to the Second World War, the extracts will reflect opinions both from the battle front and from those at home.

15 September 1939 Business as usual the University College, Southampton
As this special meeting of the Council shows, at this early stage, the war had not yet had a big impact on academic life in the University – previous Council and Senate minutes do indicate that the institution had accepted refugee scholars. As the war progressed, however, Army and Senior Training Corps were based at Southampton; both staff and students enlisted and, as the port of Southampton became a target for German bombs, the College looked at alternative student accommodation and the possibility of evacuating whole the institution.

The Council considered the recommendation of the General Purposes Committee and Senate with regard to the policy to be adopted by the College in the view of the outbreak of war.  It was pointed out that at the present stage it was impossible to say to what extent the number of available staff and students would be reduced. The Principal explained that the Government had left it to the College Authorities to decide whether or not the work of the College should proceed at Southampton. After careful consideration of all the circumstances involved, it was resolved:

“(a) That Council approve that the work of the College should continue as usual, and that the Autumn term should begin on 2nd October.

(b) That the position be revised from time to time in the light of subsequent events, and that the Principal be authorised in the meantime to negotiate with other university institutions  as to the possibility of their accommodating students of this College should circumstances arise to make this necessary.”

MS 1/MBK1/8 Council minute book: University College of Southampton 1938-51, p.34

16 September 1939 The invasions on Poland

On 1 September 1939 German troops invaded Poland, on the pretext of protecting Germany from a Polish invasion. On 17 September Russia invaded from the east, having signed a secret pact with Germany.

“Russia is an enigma. The poor Poles are bearing the brunt of this barbaric attack on civilisation. I went into England’s garden to inspect progression of their dug-out – a living grave!’’

MS 168 AJ 217/35 Journal of Samuel Rich, 16 September 1939

18 September 1916 Battle of Flers-Courcelette

The Battle of Flers-Courcelette marked the third phase of the Somme offensive and signified the first use of the tank in warfare. Built in secrecy, the armoured vehicle was developed with the objective of breaking the gridlock of armed conflict. The first prototype was produced in January 1916. Despite mechanical failings and the trouble the tanks had with the terrain of the Somme, Sir Douglas Haig wished to use them to support the 41st Division in the attack on Flers-Courcelette. Whilst only 32 of 43 available tanks managed to reach the starting line for attack, the Allies advanced two kilometres and gained control of the villages of Fler, Courcelette, Martinpuich and High Wood.

“We’re training like the Devil! Up at 4.30am when a narrow little band on the horizon proclaims the coming of dawn, and with a break for brekker, it’s parade work until the weather gets too hot at 11am and from 3.30pm until dusk. It makes a long day for all, but we seem to be standing the strain well.”

MS 116/8 AJ 14 Volume of typescript ‘excerpts’ from letters from H.D. Myer, 18 September 1916

September 1852 Waterkloof is taken

Waterkloof, which has been the stronghold of the Xhosa leader Maqoma, was finally taken by the British in September 1852.

“On the 15th the Waterkloof was assailed for the third time and the operations have been so far quite successful, about 100 Kafirs are reported to have been killed, 200 women and children (miserable starved objects) taken prisoners.”

MS 63 A904/3/ Letter from Captain Edward Wellesley to his brother Richard, 20 September 1852

21 September 1812 Attitudes of French prisoners
The diary of John Holt Beaver charts his travels in Portugal and Spain in the aftermath of the Battle of Salamanca, from August to November 1812. In the below passage he notes the attitudes of French soldiers taken prisoner during the battle.

“There are 5 convents converted into hospital for the British, and 2 for the Portuguese and a college is made an hospital for the wounded French prisoners…Many of them were taken at the Battle of Salamanca and are terribly cut about the head by our cavalry, some have lost their noses or ears and even eyes. The British sergeant who has charge of the prison said some of them were glad to have become our prisoners and others thought their Emperor the greatest hero in the world…”

MS 362 Diary of John Holt Beaver, 21 September 1812