The First Tank : Battle of Flers-Courcelette & Birth Of The Tank

The First Tank : Battle of Flers-Courcelette & Birth Of The Tank

The First Tank : Battle of Flers-Courcelette & Birth Of The Tank “Victory in this war will belong to the belligerent who is the first to put a cannon on a vehicle capable of moving on all kinds of terrain”.

Colonel Jean-Baptiste Estienne, 24 August, 1914

At 0515 hours on the morning of 15 September, 1916 at Flens Courcelette in the Somme battlefield the air was rent by a sound new to the battlefield.

Progress of the Battle of the Somme between 1 July and 18 November.

The engines of 32 & 29 ton British Mark I tanks of the Guards Division powered up to a crescendo. Before beginning their lumbering 3mph/4kph advance towards the German trenches.

Four Mark I tanks filling with petrol, Chimpanzee Valley, 15 September (Q5576)

Seven tanks immediately broke down.

The sight of 25 of these ‘monsters’ suddenly appearing out of the early autumn fog. A fog in which the Somme valley was swathed, led some German troops to panic.

However, as one would expect of the German Army, most did not. Although the British tanks, supported haphazardly by infantry, made some limited, initial gains once the shock had worn off the inevitable German counter-attacks negated much of the early advance.

Mark I series tank

Equally, for all that the attack failed to make the hoped for break-through this day a century ago marks the beginning of a new phase in manoeuvre warfare and the search for the right mix of speed, armour, firepower and effective strategic and tactical application of the tank that continues to this day. Indeed, even a quick glance would confirm the link between the caterpillar-tracked Mark I tank of 1916, and the advanced main battle tank of today.

One irony of the first British tanks was that they had been inspired by naval thinking of the time.

First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill was behind the idea of a ‘landship’. And even to this day ‘tankers’ use nautical terms such as ‘turret’ and ‘hatch’ etc.

Little Willie, prototype of the Mark I tank

Indeed, the only reason they are called ‘tanks’ is that to mask their true purpose the workers at the agricultural machinery manufacturers in Lincoln where the Mark I was being developed. The workers were told they were ‘water tanks’ destined for Mesopotamia.

The problem with the Mark I was reliability. It had been originally intended that 59 tanks would take part in operations on 15 September, but 27 of the tanks were non-operational. This was mainly due to problems with their experimental 105 bhp Foster-Daimler-Knight engines(below).

See the source image

Of the 25 tanks which made it into action. They were divided into ‘male’ tanks, armed with two quick-firing 6 pound Hotchkiss cannons, and ‘female’ tanks armed with four Vickers .303 calibre machine guns.

Although the first use of tanks in action by the British undoubtedly came as a complete surprise to the Germans several countries were developing similar systems at the time.

Canadian soldiers prepared to go over the top at Battle of Flers-Courcelette

Indeed, perhaps the first real tank was developed not by the British but by Austria-Hungary. Although Vienna’s ‘tank’ never made it beyond the prototype stage.

It was not until April 1918 that the first tank-on-tank battle took place at the Second Battle of Villiers-Bretonneux. When three British Mark V tanks encountered three enormous German A7V tanks, each with a crew of 30. In what proved to be perhaps the slowest battle in modern military history. It was eventually the solitary British ‘male’ tank which successfully struck its German enemy and forced the A7Vs to withdraw.

Mephisto A7V in AWM front view.jpg
Sole surviving A7V (Mephisto) on display at the Australian War Memorial

However, it was dawn on 8 August, 1918 at the Battle of Amiens. When the tank began to be used to real effect.

British Mark V tank (B56, 9003) of the 2 Battalion, Tank Corps traversing a ditch at the side of a road at Lamotte-en-Santerre, 8 August 1918.
Amiens 1918 : The Birth of Blitzkrieg

One of the most innovative of British commanders General Sir Henry Rawlinson. Rawlinson commanded the Fourth Army at the Somme and had seen the potential of the tank. On what German commander General Erich Ludendorff called ‘the black day of the German Army”. Rawlinson for the first time used air power, infantry and massed tanks in close order.. So as to punch a hole through the defences of over-extended German forces.

What followed thereafter was a fighting German retreat that would continue to the Armistice in November 1918. The tank had come of age.

It was German commanders such as Guderian and Rommel, and Russian thinkers such as Tukhachevsky, who saw the real potential of the tank during the interbellum and properly exploited Rawlinson’s August 1918 lessons.

The result was the Blitzkrieg tactics that Nazi Germany decided to employ on Poland in 1939. Then, France and the Low Countries in 1940, and on the Soviet Union in 1941.

A row of seven large tanks lined up with their long guns pointing up at an angle, as if saluting.
German Tiger II tanks.

In the inter-war years the British once again retreated behind the wall of the Royal Navy, whilst the French went down the tactical dead-end of that ultimate World War One trench, the Maginot Line.

In conclusion, the idea of static defence-in-depth had by and large been abandoned by the Germans. Moreover, as a concept of warfare as early as 1918 with the destruction of the Hindenburg Line.

German soldiers hitch a ride on an A7V Heavy Tank somewhere on the Western Front, France. July, 1918

Perhaps it is best to leave the last word on the tank action at Flers Courcelette to Winston Churchill.

“My poor ‘land battleships’ have been let off prematurely on a petty scale…This priceless conception, containing, if used in its integrity and on a sufficient scale, the certainty of a great and brilliant victory, was revealed to the Germans for the mere purpose of taking a few ruined villages”.


The First Tank : Battle of Flers-Courcelette Written by Julian Lindley-French 

Analyst, author, commentator and speaker. With ten books to my name, including two for Oxford University Press. And about to publish my third for Oxford “Future War and the Defence of Europe. In addition, my job is to speak truth unto power. Moreover, in an age when the gap between power, people and politics is growing dangerously wide. Furthermore, my focus is the tension between strategy and politics with an emphasis on security and defence policy. In conclusion, my analysis is the product of many years policy and practitioner experience, allied to long and deep research. Moreover, I also support Sheffield United Football Club – the triumph of endless hope over long, hard, and painful experience!

Forthcoming Book
Future War and the Defence of Europe (Oxford University Press English Edition and Kosmos Press German Edition)
Recent Books:
2017: The Geopolitics of Terror – Demons and Dragons (Routledge)
2015: NATO: The Enduring Alliance 2015 (Routledge)
2015: Little Britain: Twenty-First Century Strategy for a Middling European Power ( 2nd and paperback edition) (Amazon)
2014; The Oxford Handbook of War (paperback edition) (Oxford University Press)
2014: Little Britain: Twenty-First Century Strategy for a Middling European Power (Kindle e-book)
2012: The Oxford Handbook of War (Oxford University Press)
2007: A Chronology of European Security and Defence (Oxford University Press)
2007; NATO: The Enduring Alliance 2007 (Routledge)
2003: Terms of Engagement (EUISS)
1998: Coalitions & the Future of Security Policy

The First Tank : Battle of Flers-Courcelette

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