British troops pictured with a Mark I Tank two days after the battle.
September 15 1916, Flers–The day for the introduction of the tank, the supposedly war-changing weapon, had finally arrived. It was hoped that 49 tanks, sent in ahead of the infantry, could crush barbed wire, cross and clear enemy trenches with machine guns, destroy fortified strongpoints, and generally terrorize the Germans. Artillery tactics, honed over the course of the Somme, were modified to accommodate the tank, with mixed results. To allow the slow-moving tanks to precede the infantry, and to avoid creating new shell craters that could impede their progress, 100-yard-wide lanes were left in the bombardments for the tanks. An aerial observer described:
We found the whole front seemingly covered with a layer of dirty cotton-wool – the smoking shell-bursts. Across this were dark lanes, drawn as it might be by a child’s stubby finger in the dirty snow. Here no shells were falling. Through these lanes lumbered the tanks.
Outside these lanes, the barrage (where it was targeted correctly) was devastating. One German survivor recalled:
A sea of iron crashed down on all the front…The noise was terrible. Impact after impact. The whole of no man’s land was a seething cauldron. The work of destruction grew and grew. Chaos! It was impossible to imagine that anyone could live through it…It was like a crushing machine, mechanical, without feelings; snuffing out the last resistance with a thousand hammers.
Inside the lanes, however, the German defenders were unscathed. In some places, the tanks worked as intended and these positions were overrun. In others, tanks broke down, became stuck on tree stumps or (in one embarrassing case) to each other, leaving the Germans in the lanes free to fire on the infantry advancing on either side. This caused a complete failure of the right flank of the assault, along with a failure in spotting that left a German position known as the “Quadrilateral” completely untouched by the bombardment. Lt. Raymond Asquith, the PM’s son, was killed while leading an attack in this area.
Elsewhere, where the tanks worked properly or lanes were not left for them, the attacks succeeded, gaining a few thousand yards and the villages of Flers and Courcelette. D-17 was the first tank into Flers; her gunner recalled the difficulties of being one of the first tanks in combat:
Having crossed the front German line I could see the old road down into Flers…We made our way down the remnants of this road with great difficulty. Just as we started off our steering gear was hit and we resorted to steering by putting the brake on each track alternatively…
We were fired on by German machine guns. First of all they were firing on the starboard side and the impact of their bullets was making the inside of the armour plate white hot. And the white hot flakes were coming off and if you happened to be near enough you could have been blinded by them. Fortunately, none of us on the starboard side caught it. But there was a gunner, Gunner Sugden, on the port side who was wounded that way. We went on and Percy Boult was rather upset about this machine gunner and he said, “I can spot him, I think, he is up in the rafters!” He was a pretty good shot and he scored a bull’s eye on the target and brought him down.
Having steered the engine by using the brakes up to this point, the engine was beginning to knock very badly and it looked as if we wouldn’t be fit to carry on very much further. We made our way up the main street, during which time my gunners had several shots at various people who were underneath the eaves or even in the windows of some of the cottages. We went on down through the High Street as far as the first right-angle bend. We turned there and the main road goes for a matter of 200-300 yards and then turns another right angle to the left….But we did not go past that point. At this point we had to make up our minds what to do. The engine was really in such a shocking condition that it was liable to let us down at any moment. So I had a look round, so far as it was possible to do in the middle of a village being shelled at that time by both sides. I could see no signs of the British Army coming up behind me. So I slewed the tank round with great difficult on the brakes.
They found the infantry soon after that, but the engine gave out shortly after getting it off the road. The machine guns, mounted especially for the tank, could not be effectively taken out of the tank and used elsewhere. Note that it had taken quite a lot of damage to put it out of commission, however, which frustrated the Germans considerably. Lt. Braunhoffer, defending the area around Flers, wrote of his troops’ difficulty with another tank:
A tank appeared on the left front of my company position which I immediately attacked with machine-gun and rifle fire and also, as it came closer, with hand grenades. These unfortunately caused no real damage because the tank only turned slightly to the left but otherwise just carried on. He crossed the trenches in the area of the company on my left, caused us heavy losses with his flanking machine gun fire on trenches which had to a large extent been flattened, without my men being able to do anything about it.
Despite the considerable British successes on the day, they still fell short of Haig’s overoptimistic goals, and the troops, having taken nearly 30,000 casualties, were in no condition to push further with anything but sporadic attacks the next day. The tanks had not opened up the way for the cavalry, but now had made their presence known to the Germans.
It was January. Snow was falling; snow had fallen all day. The sky spread like a grey goose’s wing from which feathers were falling all over England. The sky was nothing but a flurry of falling flakes. Lanes were levelled; hollows filled; the snow clogged the streams; obscured windows, and lay wedged against doors. There was a faint murmur in the air, a slight crepitation, as if the air itself were turning to snow; otherwise all was silent, save when a sheep coughed, snow flopped from a branch, or slipped in an avalanche down some roof in London. Now and again a shaft of light spread slowly across the sky as a car drove through the muffled roads. But as the night wore on, snow covered the wheel ruts; softened to nothingness the marks of the traffic, and coated monuments, palaces and statues with a thick vestment of snow.
Virginia Woolf, from The Years (Mariner Books, 1969)