15/9/1916 The Somme: Attack of the Tanks

After several days of bombardment, now the British are launching another major attack at the Somme. Haig hopes that this assault will smash through the German lines. He is convinced that German morale is shaky and that this latest push will tip the enemy over the edge. And he has a surprise for the enemy: his secret weapon, the land battleships, now known as tanks. These armoured vehicles move on caterpillar tracks and so can cross trenches and the cratered terrain of no man’s land. Their armour makes them largely immune to machine guns and small arms. Haig hppes that they will be able to roll over the German lines and bring the infantry with them. So confident is he of success that he has the cavalry waiting to exploit the expected breakthrough.

This is a large-scale assault, with 11 infantry divisions attacking, together with 56 tanks. But the attack does not go as well as expected. Much of this is down to the tanks. The British generals are not too sure what to do with these monsters, so they decide to send them ahead of their infantry. However the tanks are underpowered and move at a slower pace than advancing soldiers. This gives the Germans plenty of time to prepare for the British attack. The British are also afraid of accidentally shelling their own tanks, so they do not use a creeping barrage with this assault, greatly improving the Germans’ ability to resist.

The tanks themselves under-perform. They are prone to mechanical failure, with many breaking down before they have even crossed the British lines. Their lack of ventilation or protection of the crew from the noxious fumes emitted by their engines makes it difficult for the men inside to fight for any great length of time.
So over much of the line the attack is another disaster, with large casualties endured for minimal gains.

But there are some successes. After an unsuccessful tank attack, British troops manage to storm the German strongpoint at High Wood, securing the position after brutal and costly fighting. The left flank of the British forces, many of whom are Canadian, do well by leaving their tanks behind and rushing the German positions, achieving their objectives.

The greatest success is achieved by British and New Zealand forces attacking towards the village of Flers. Here again the infantry go first and overrun their first objectives. Then with the support of the tanks they manage to push on and capture Flers itself. Here at least the presence of the tanks is decisive. The tanks eliminate German strongpoints and strike terror into the hearts of the enemy, before breakdowns and crew exhaustion forces them out of the battle.

But even these successes are limited. At best the British (and their Canadian and New Zealand allies) have overrun the Germans’ first and second lines, but they have not broken through into the open country beyond. The cavalry will not be moving forward today.

image sources:

Tank and soldiers (Wikipedia)

Tanks stuck in mud (Lancashire Infantry Museum)

Tank in Flers (Abroad in the Yard)

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