The first successfully developed tank, Mark I, was ready for use in the summer of 1916. Sir Douglas Haig, Commander-in Chief of the British Army, had doubts about the value of tanks. However, after failing to break through German lines at the Battle of the Somme, Haig gave orders that tanks that had reached the Western Front, should be used at Flers-Coucelette on 15th July, 1916.
Of the 59 tanks in France, only 49 were considered to be in good working order. Of these, 17 broke down on the way to their starting point at Flers. Lance Corporal Arnold Ridley later wrote: "We in the ranks had never heard of tanks. We were told that there was some sort of secret weapon and then we saw this thing go up the right hand corner of Delville Wood. I saw this strange and cumbersome machine emerge from the shattered shrubbery and proceed slowly down the slope towards Flers."
The sight of the tanks created panic and had a profound effect on the morale of the German Army. Colonel John Fuller, chief of staff of the Tank Corps, was convinced that these machines could win the war and persuaded Sir Douglas Haig to ask the government to supply him with another 1,000 tanks.
Aware of the tank's early problems, John Fuller argued that they should only be deployed when the terrain was appropriate. At Amiens he managed to persuade General Henry Rawlinson to use 412 tanks followed by soldiers and supported by over 1,000 aircraft. The strategy worked and the Allies managed to breakthrough the German frontline.
(1) Bert Chaney saw tanks for the first time on 15th September 1916)
We heard strange throbbing noises, and lumbering slowly towards us came three huge mechanical monsters such as we had never seen before. My first impression was that they looked ready to topple on their noses, but their tails and the two-little wheels at the back held them down and kept them level. Big metal things they were, with two sets of caterpillar wheels that went right round the body. There was a bulge on each side with a door in the bulging part, and machine-guns on swivels poked out from either side. The engine, a petrol engine of massive proportions, occupied practically all the inside space. Mounted behind each door was a motor-cycle type of saddle seat and there was just about enough room left for the belts of ammunition and the drivers.
Instead of going on to the German lines the three tanks assigned to us straddled our front line, stopped and then opened up a murderous machine-gun fire, enfilading us left and right. There they sat, squat monstrous things, noses stuck up in the air, crushing the sides of our trench out of shape with their machine-guns swivelling around and firing like mad.
Everyone dived for cover, except the colonel. He jumped on top to the parapet, shouting at the top of his voice, 'Runner, runner, go tell those tanks to stop firing at once. At once, I say.' By now the enemy fire had risen to a crescendo but, giving no thought to his own personal safety as he saw the tanks firing on his own men, he ran forward and furiously rained blows with his cane on the side of one of the tanks in an endeavour to attract their attention.
Although, what with the sounds of the engines and the firing in such an enclosed space, no one in the tank could hear him, they finally realized they were on the wrong trench and moved on, frightening the Jerries out of their wits and making them scuttle like frightened rabbits.
(2) Arnold Ridley , The Train and Other Ghosts (1970c)
We in the ranks had never heard of tanks. We were told that there was some sort of secret weapon and then we saw this thing go up the right hand corner of Delville Wood. I saw this strange and cumbersome machine emerge from the shattered shrubbery and proceed slowly down the slope towards Flers.
(3) Manchester Guardian (18th September 1916)
The British army has struck the enemy another heavy blow north of the Somme. Attacking shortly after dawn yesterday morning on a front of more than six miles north-east from Combles, it now occupies a new strip of reconquered territory including three fortified villages behind the German third line and many local positions of great strength.
Fighting has continued since without intermission, and the initiative remains with our troops, who made further advances beyond Courcelette, Martinpuich, and Flers to-day. After the first shock yesterday morning, when the enemy surrendered freely, showing signs of demoralisation, there has been stubborn resistance, and much of the ground gained afterwards was only wrested from him by the determination and strength of the British battalions pitted against him. The Bavarian and German divisions have fought well, but nevertheless they have been steadily pushed backwards from the line they took up after their first defeats in the Somme campaign.
British patrols have approached Eaucourt l'Abbaye and Geudecourt, and while no definite information is obtainable to-night regarding the exact extent of our gains they are rather more than the territory described in detail in this despatch. The battle is not over. Famous British regiments are lying in the open to-night holding their position with the greatest heroism. All that the enemy can do in the way of artillery reprisals he is doing to-night. But despite the tenacity with which the reinforced German troops are clinging to their positions everything gained has been maintained. Progress may not be at the same speed as in the first assault yesterday morning, but it is thorough and none the less sure.
The story of the capture of Courcelette and Martinpuich, which were wrested from the Bavarians virtually street by street yesterday, will be as dramatic as any narrative told in this war. They are the chief episodes in the first two days of this offensive, but I can only give a bare summary now of the furious conflict which raged for possession of these obscure ruined villages. There are evidences that the unexpected British offensive disorganised the plans of the German higher command for an important counter-attack to recover the ground lost since July 1. Heavy concentrations of infantry were taking place, and the unusually strong resistance on the British left was due to the presence of an abnormal number of troops behind Martinpuich and Courcelette. In spite of this the divisions taking part in yesterday's attack splendidly achieved their purpose.
Armoured cars working with the infantry were the great surprise of this attack. Sinister, formidable, and industrious, these novel machines pushed boldly into "No Man's Land," astonishing our soldiers no less than they frightened the enemy. Presently I shall relate some strange incidents of their first grand tour in Picardy, of Bavarians bolting before them like rabbits and others surrendering in picturesque attitudes of terror, and the delightful story of the Bavarian colonel who was carted about for hours in the belly of one of them like Jonah in the whale, while his captors slew the men of his broken division.
It is too soon yet to advertise their best points to an interested world. The entire army nevertheless is talking about them, and you might imagine that yesterday's operation was altogether a battle of armed chauffeurs if you listened to the stories of some of the spectators. They inspired confidence and laughter. No other incident of the war has created such amusement in the face of death as their debut before the trenches of Martinpuich and Flers. Their quaintness and seeming air of profound intelligence commended them to a critical audience. It was as though one of Mr. Heath Robinson's jokes had been utilised for a deadly purpose, and one laughed even before the dire effect on the enemy was observed.
Flers fell into British hands comparatively easily. The troops sent against it from the north of Delville Wood, astride of the sunken road leading to its southern extremity, reached the place in three easy laps supported by armoured cars. As a preliminary measure one car planted itself at the north-east corner of the wood before dawn and cleared a small enemy party from two connected trenches. It was not a difficult task for the "boches" promptly surrendered. The first halting-place of the Flers-bound troops was a German switch-trench north-east of Ginchy, part of the so-called third line, which they reached at the time appointed. There was a slight obstacle in the form of a redoubt constructed at the angle of the line where it crossed the Ginchy-Lesboeufs road. Machine-gun fire was well directed from this work, but two armoured cars came up and poured a destructive counter-fire into it, and then one of the many watchful aeroplanes swooped down almost within hailing distance and joined in the battle. The dismayed Bavarians promptly yielded to this strange alliance. Armoured cars and aeroplane went their several ways and the infantry carried on. The redoubt sheltered a dressing station where there were a number of German wounded. The second phase of the Flers advance brought the attackers to the trenches at the end of the village. Little resistance was offered. Here, again, the armoured cars came forward. One of them managed to enfilade the trench both ways, killing nearly everyone in it, and then another car started up the main street, or what was the main street in pre-war days, escorted, as one spectator puts it "by the cheering British army."
It was a magnificent progress. You must imagine this unimaginable engine stalking majestically amid the ruins followed by the men in khaki, drawing the dispossessed Bavarians from their holes in the ground like a magnet and bringing them blinking into the sunlight to stare at their captors, who laughed instead of killing them. Picture its passage from one end of the ruins of Flers to the other, leaving infantry swarming through the dug-outs behind, on out of the northern end of the village, past more odds and ends of defensive positions, up the road to Gneudecourt, halting only at the outskirts. Before turning back it silenced a battery and a half of artillery, captured the gunners, and handed them over to the infantry. Finally, it retraced its foot-steps with equal composure to the old British line at the close of a profitable day. The German officers taken in Flers have not yet assimilated the scene of their capture, the crowded "High Street," and the cheering bomb-throwers marching behind the travelling fort, which displayed on one armoured side the startling placard, "Great Hun Defeat. Extra Special!"