By John A. Taylor
Many visitors on their way to La Boisselle will have stopped to examine the austere obelisk of the Tank Corps memorial, crowning the ridge at Pozières beside the busy main road from Albert to Bapaume.
The site of this memorial, flanked by its miniature bronze tanks, was chosen because it overlooks the scene of the first-ever tank attack, launched against the villages of Flers and Gueudecourt on September 15, 1916.
The two dozen machines which took part made limited gains before becoming bogged down in broken ground, or falling victim to mechanical failures or artillery fire. Despite this, the attack represented the start of a revolution in warfare whose echoes are felt to this day.
Because of its symbolic importance, the attack on Flers has been studied in minute detail, and the crewmen who staked their lives on this unknown weapon are celebrated as befits true pioneers. But anyone who examines the memorial will notice that the plaque listing major tank battles contains twice as many names in 1918 as it does in 1916 and 1917 combined – and so, sadly, does the casualty list of tank crewmen. Some of these later battles took place in the Somme region, yet they remain largely unknown and forgotten, even by many Great War tank enthusiasts.
I must admit making my own small contribution to this imbalance, as my book Deborah and the War of Tanks (Pen & Sword, 2016) focuses on the battles of Passchendaele and Cambrai in 1917, tracing the fortunes of a single tank crew whose machine Deborah D51 was buried on the battlefield after the war, and discovered and excavated in 1998.
As we approach the centenary of the Battle of Cambrai in November, Deborah is being prepared for her final journey into a specially built museum in the village of Flesquières. Attention will focus once again on a pivotal battle which proved that tanks could be an effective weapon of war –providing they were used to lead an infantry attack over unbroken ground, instead of struggling to cross a battlefield churned up by long artillery bombardment.
When the celebrations fade away and Deborah settles into her new home, it will be all too easy to forget that the battles of 1917 paved the way for even greater triumphs in 1918, as tanks went on to play a crucial role in the campaign which led to the defeat of Germany a year later.
The Tank Corps that took part in these later battles was a vastly expanded force equipped with the latest technology, including more powerful Mark V tanks and light Whippets capable of high-speed, long-range penetration behind enemy lines. Around 430 of these machines spearheaded the great British offensive which began south of the Somme on August 8, 1918, famously dubbed “the black day of the German Army” by Ludendorff.
The Battle of Amiens was to prove a turning-point in the war, and as the Germans were driven back across the territory they had seized in March 1918, tanks went into action again and again, supporting the Allied armies as they rolled relentlessly forward along the western Front.
By August 22 the British advance in this sector was nearing the southern approaches to Albert, and an assault to recapture the village of Méaulte was led by 4th Tank Battalion – including some men who had taken part in the first-ever tank attack in 1916, when their unit was known as D Company of the Machine Gun Corps (Heavy Branch).
This time fortune favoured them, as these same crews had been withdrawn to the camp at Méaulte to recover and regroup following the Battle of Cambrai. Their historian commented that “as preliminary reconnaissance had not been possible, it was fortunate that the Battalion had encamped at Méaulte the previous Xmas, so that nearly all had a good knowledge of the ground.”
Despite this, there were signs that the Germans were becoming more reluctant to take on the tanks: “During this attack many enemy machine gunners did not fire at all although the Tanks were 10 or 20 yards away. When asked why, the men replied – “Oh! it would not have been any good”. This was entirely contrary to all experience in previous actions, where machine gunners had nearly always made the bravest resistance and fired their guns until put out of action or run over by the Tanks. The attack was successful, but there were inevitable losses. Méaulte Military Cemetery contains the graves of two men whose tank was hit by a shell while bringing up supplies for the infantry. One of them was 20-year old Lieutenant Follett Holt, described by his commander as “one of my most promising and gallant subalterns… He was a charming companion in the mess. We could ill afford to lose him.”
It appeared the enemy were planning to withdraw, but for now they still held the high ground east of Albert. On August 23, remembered as “a day of great heat”, tanks were back in action, helping to recapture the Tara and Usna Hills within sight of La Boisselle. Six machines from 1st Tank Battalion took part, and the Official History noted that they “arrived a few minutes late, but did very good work without any loss.”
The attackers pressed forward, and the next day it was the turn of La Boisselle itself. The assault on August 24,1918, was a systematic and well-planned operation which could not have been more different from the disaster of 1916. In the words of 38th (Welsh) Division headquarters:
“Attack started successfully and all Brigades were on objectives by 4 p.m. The enemy strongly resisted attack at Ovillers and Thiepval but was overcome after heavy fighting.”
The only hold-up came at “the notorious La Boisselle crater, which at 8 p.m., in spite of bitter and incessant fighting still held out.” This was in the sector allocated to 18th (eastern) Division, and it fell to 8th Battalion of the Royal Berkshire Regiment to overcome this last formidable obstacle without any tank support. Their War Diary noted:
“About dusk, under cover of a Stokes Mortar bombardment, an attack was launched on the La Boisselle craters… This was eminently successful and was carried out in the most expeditious manner, consolidation of the position gained being complete by 9 p.m. This fact alone speaks for itself and shows the tenacity of purpose of the troops engaged and of the vigorous and forceful manner in which the attack was pressed to its goal.” Around 200 prisoners were taken, and the War Diary praised “the fine leadership and steadfastness of purpose exhibited by the officers.” Among them was Second Lieutenant Norman Blackburn: “First he and his platoon bombed an enemy machine-gun team that was cleverly placed in the big crater; then he put a second team out of action with his revolver; altogether twelve German machine-gun posts were dealt with.”
Earlier that day he had survived “a queer serio-comic adventure” in which he and his batman came across a trench occupied by Germans and ordered them to surrender. “But Blackburn’s only weapon was his revolver, and his servant was the only other person with him; and at last the Germans in their turn began to shout, ‘You surrender!’” This led to “a cursing match carried on with spirit in both languages”, until the British fled dodging volleys of rifle-fire.
Second Lieutenant Blackburn was awarded the Military Cross but never received his medal; he was killed two months later aged 25 and is buried at Le Cateau.
Such tales of heroism may not have captured our imagination in the same way as the sacrifice of the Tyneside Scottish two years before, but they do not deserve to be forgotten. As with the great tank actions of 1918, we are in danger of ignoring the final, most decisive and bloodiest year of the war. Now, with the centenary approaching, we should take the opportunity to remember once again.
Sources The attack on Méaulte is described in the History of 4th Tank Battalion (in their War Diary, in the National Archives WO 95/110). Lieutenant Holt was recalled by Major William Watson in A Company of Tanks (Blackwood, 1920). The comment about German machine-gunners is from a report in the Tank Museum (E19184.108.40.206). The Official History referred to is Military Operations France and Belgium 1918 Volume IV. The 38th Division quote comes from their HQ War Diary (WO 95/2540).
The comment about the “notorious La Boisselle crater” and the account of Second Lieutenant Blackburn are from The 18th Division in the Great War by Captain George Nichols (Blackwood, 1922).
The War Diary of 8th Bn Royal Berkshire Regiment is in the National Archives (WO 95/2037/2).
The map was drawn by John Taylor based on originals in the War Diary of 18th Division HQ (WO 95/2017/3).
About the author
John A Taylor is the author of Deborah and the War of the Tanks 1917 (Pen & Sword, 2016). He has also helped maintain Lochnagar Crater at the May Bank Holiday weekend with the Friends of Lochnagar.