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Dawn of the Tank … and the Canadian connection

‘Landships’ first battlefield action was 104 years ago

The old Roman road now called the D929 stretches between the French town of Albert and Bapaume for 16 kilometres. The road is straight and flat and cuts through the countryside of the Somme battlefield.

Now peaceful, it’s dotted with Commonwealth cemeteries – reminders of the desperate First World War campaign that was fought here for five months during the summer and autumn of 1916. Along the road just outside of the village of Pozieres is a small memorial with a plaque that reads ‘Near this spot the first tanks used in the war went into action on 15th September 1916.’ For the soldiers who witnessed the use of tanks on this day, including two divisions of Canadians, there was now a glimmer of hope that the stalemate on the Western Front could now be broken.     

By the end of 1914, it was becoming increasingly apparent to the allies fighting against the Germans along the Western Front that a war of attrition was now developing. Both sides dug in creating a line of trenches that would soon stretch 700 kilometers from the Swiss border to the English Channel.

Soon neither side could be dislodged from their trenches and fortified positions. As each month passed it seemed that the war may now last for years. For the allies, they realized that some new tactic or weapon must be devised in order to break the deadlock along the Western Front.

In February 1915, First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill established what was known as the Landship Committee with the intention of developing armoured fighting vehicles for use on the battlefield. By the end of 1915, the first prototype of an armoured vehicle known as “Little Willie” was developed and began undergoing trials.

The vehicle was later referred to as “Tank” for security reasons and then the British Mark 1 Tank. The tank was seen as being the answer to rolling over trenches, crushing barbed wire, and providing close support for advancing troops. In April 1916 an order for 150 tanks was placed with William Foster & Co. in Lincoln England.

After months of preparation, on July 1, 1916, General Douglas Haig, commanding all Commonwealth troops on the Western Front, sent 100,000 soldiers into battle in the Somme river valley in France. The attack was designed to push the Germans back nearly 16 kilometers between Albert and Bapaume in just a few days.

The Germans who had been fortifying their positions for 18 months in nearly every structure and village along the route of attack had no intention of giving up any territory. By the end of the fighting on the first day, 57,000 British soldiers had become casualties, including over 19,000 dead. In most sectors of the 25-km of front, the gains for the day were measured in meters, not kilometers.

Throughout the months of July to early September, the British along with Australian troops battled up the Albert to Bapaume road.

By the end of the first week of September, the Allied forces came to a rest after the Australians captured the fortified German positions on Pozieres ridge, an advance of only four kilometres since the campaign began July 1. The Canadians were now next to be committed to the upcoming battles.

In early September, the Canadian 2nd and 3rd Divisions moved into new positions in a sector assigned to them to capture the fortified village of Courcelette less than two kilometres from their start line near Pozieres.

Two days before the attack began, Canadian troops moving up to the front line caught their first glimpse of the great landships.

Diary entries of some of the soldiers reveal their level of excitement.  One soldier wrote that he and his friends were “chuckling over the surprise that the Germans would get when the attack began.”  On Sept. 11, 49 tanks began to move up to the 10-km wide front line to support Canadian, New Zealand, and British troops.

At 6:20 a.m. on Sept. 15, 1916, the attack began.

Due to mechanical problems, only 15 of the 49 tanks made it across the start line to support the troops.

In the Canadian sector, there were six tanks assigned for the attack on Courcelette.  Of those, three became stuck in the mud, one broke down but two managed to make it 800 metres to support the troops on their attack at Candy and Sugar Trench (a German fortified trench system on the grounds of a destroyed sugar beet plant in front of the village of Courcelette.)

The 28-ton tracked vehicles crawled across the shell cratered terrain at a speed of nearly 5 km/h giving covering support to the troops with their machine guns and 57-mm guns. The sight of the tanks joining the attack was a tremendous boost to the morale of the troops and encouraged them to press on the attack.

Private Edgar Goddard of the 28th battalion later wrote in his diary that “From the start the tanks had been doing great work, walking over machine guns and killing hundreds with their own machinegun fire. The Germans were scared stiff and absolutely demoralized.”

Before the end of the day the Canadians had captured Courcelette but the 2-km advance had cost them 1,283 casualties, including 678 dead. The New Zealanders and British experienced similar losses and success in capturing some of their objectives on the right flank of the Canadians. For General Haig, it was the greatest single-day victory of the campaign since its start July 1.

The tank did not win the day on its debut but it did reveal that it would be of better use when deployed in greater numbers to support the infantry.

Following this attack, British engineers went to work developing new versions of the Mark 1 with better reliability. A year later Nov. 20, 1917, the British launched an offensive against the Germans near Cambrai France, this time going into action with 437 tanks.

The tank would change the nature of warfare for the next century.

Private John Angus of the 38th battalion from North Bay was involved in the fighting on the Somme during the capture of Desire Trench north of Courcelette. He was killed in action Nov. 18, 1916.

Remembering the Battle of the Somme. Read the full story here.

John Hetherington is a retired history teacher and has been developing and leading groups of people to explore the battlefields of Europe for the past 20 years.