Somme100: Birth of the Tanks


On this day a century ago a new type of warfare began: the use of tanks. Tanks had originally been developed by the Navy as ‘Landships’ but the Army had taken over their use and development, and by midway through the Somme campaign they were at last ready for use. The name ‘tank’ was adopted because as they were being developed they had been described as ‘water tanks’ for Mesopotamia. At this stage of the conflict tank units were part of the Heavy Branch Machine Gun Corps, becoming the Tank Corps in July 1917.

On 15th September 1916 British and Commonwealth forces attacked on a wide front on the Somme from Courcelette on the left, to the area close to Combles on the right. More than thirty tanks were employed, with many breaking down even before they could go into action and once on the battlefield, often with mixed results. However, there were some major successes at Courcelette and Flers for example: at Flers the national press proclaimed that a tank had moved down the main street with the whole of the British Army behind, cheering!


Images of the first use of tanks on 15th September 1916 are rare and these come from a small album owned by a New Zealand soldier and are in the possession of my good friend Geoff Bridger, himself a published WW1 historian, who loaned me them for my Walking the Somme book when it first appeared in 1997. They show two different tanks, a Female armed with Vickers Machine-Guns and a Male, armed with 6-pounder guns. The superb First Tank Crews website shows that these tanks were from D Company . The Female tank may be D10 commanded by 2/Lt Harold Darby and the Male tank is either D11 or D12. All these tanks ditched while in action.

Today we remember those first tank crews in the first action of the ‘Boilerplate War’.

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