The Battle of Flers-Courcelette marked the first use of tanks. The attack was launched across a 12 km front on the 15 September. Twelve divisions were employed along with all the tanks that the British army possessed, a total of 49.
Sir Douglas Haig, the British Commander-in-Chief, had wanted tanks in readiness for the opening of the Somme Offensive on 1 July. However, they were not ready until September and Haig was determined to proceed with them at Flers-Courcelette despite there being a reduced number as it was argued that the tanks would be of little practical use in such small numbers. Sir Winston Churchill, who had championed the development of the tank, complained “my poor ‘land battleships’ have been let off prematurely on a petty scale”.
These early tanks proved notoriously unreliable during testing and application. Weighing approximately 28 tons, they moved at half mile per hour. They were impervious to small arms fire, and to a lesser extent machine gun fire (metal chips would fly inside the tank, resulting in the issue of chain-mail visors to the operators, uncomfortable and seldom worn). However shell fire could easily destroy a tank.
Navigation and visibility was poor and led on more than one occasion to the tank directing friendly fire from its guns onto its own forces. Radio communication was not available until late in the war.
The attack was preceded by an artillery-bombardment designed to leave unshelled lanes open for the advance of the new mobile weapon. Accordingly, on 11 September the 49 tanks began to move slowly into position in the line. Only 22 made it to the front line proving their unreliability. Of the 22, a further 7 failed to work at zero hour. Thus 15 of the 49 tanks rolled slowly into No Man’s Land at the start of the attack on the 15 September.
Despite this, the tanks produced devastating effect locally on the German morale. However, on a wider front their effectiveness was limited, given their scarcity allied with their inherent unreliability. The German High Command’s initial reaction was that the tank could be defeated rather than imitated.
However, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), together with the Canadian Corps, made gains of 2 km within the first three days. Led by tanks the villages of Martinpuich, Flers and Courcelette fell to the Allies, as did the much sought-after High Wood.
Nevertheless, a combination of poor weather and German reinforcements halted the British and Canadian advance on the 17 September and the Allies had once again suffered heavy casualties which included Raymond Asquith, the son of the British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith. He is buried in Guillemont Road Cemetery. Finally the attack was called off on the 22 September.
The use of tanks had by no means led to any anticipated breakthrough, but they nonetheless impressed Haig, who requested that 1,000 more be constructed.
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