History rarely records the thoughts of those on the receiving end of a new ‘wonder weapon’ in battle – such as the first sailors doused with Greek Fire over 1,300 years ago, or those soldiers facing the first crossbow bolts over 2,500 years ago, or showered with arrows from the first fast-moving chariots 4,000 years ago. Unquestionably there would have been panic and confusion when it became clear that a distinctly new weapon, never before experienced, was being used against them. Here are the first of two rare sets of accounts of witnesses to the moment when something about to change warfare forever suddenly and unexpectedly hoves into view…
The morning of 15 September 1916 dawned foggy near the village of Flers in northwestern France. German soldiers of the 28th Reserve Infantry Regiment crawled wearily out of their buried dugouts and huddled in their trenches, expecting the Allied assault that usually followed an artillery bombardment of the intensity they had just endured.
The brief lull between the end of the bombardment and the crescendo of the creeping barrage which paved the way for the Allied advance was broken by the strange roar of engines. As the Germans took up their defensive positions and looked out over no-man’s land towards the British lines, a number of objects appeared in the distance that at first were difficult to discern.
A German war correspondent described his first impressions:
“My blood froze in my veins. Crawling along the cratered battlefield were two mysterious monsters. The monsters approached slowly – limping, staggering, swaying – but no obstacle could stop them. They moved ever forward with a supernatural force. Our machine-gun fire and hand grenades simply bounced off them. They were thus able to easily destroy our crews in the forward shell-holes, then run straight through the German front line and off into the village of Flers, where they stayed for some time. The British infantry which had followed them took possession of the village, and the machines drove off down the Ligny-Tilloy road.”
In the nearby village of Combles, on the eastern flank of the British attack, Oberleutnant Noak and the men of 12 Company 28th RIR were also staring transfixed at the British tank rumbling towards their position. Noak later reported that, after some initial hesitation, he recognised the danger that this “thing” presented to his section. After quickly briefing his troops, his fears were confirmed as the machine began “spitting fire” while driving unimpeded over the shell holes and mine craters in front of them. Noak’s hastily cobbled-together plan was to concentrate his section’s firepower on the British infantry following in the wake of the machine, while throwing hand grenades at the machine itself in the hope of finding its vulnerable point.
This highlights a general truism about the surprise introduction of new weapons in battle, no matter how lethal and terror-evoking. History’s more level-headed commanders and troops quickly adapt to the new threat and improvise protective measures, tactics and weapons for countering it.
Noak’s quick reactions and calmness under fire resulted in the tank catching fire and being abandoned by its crew. The brunt of the fighting then fell on the infantry, with each side sustaining heavy losses, but Combles remained in German hands that day.
The wreckage of another tank hit by a German field gun outside of Flers was carefully examined by German engineers. They reported that the machine was, “protected by armour plating an inch thick, and housed nest-like, rotating turrets. It was controlled an articulated lever which moved up and down, and the vehicle was so robust that a railroad car collapsed under its weight. It was stocked with plenty of ammunition, food and a cage of pigeons.”
British reports of mass numbers of panicking Germans queuing up to surrender in the face of the tanks may have been overstated for propaganda purposes. One British war correspondent described how one section of German infantry, once they had recovered from their initial shock, attacked a tank ‘hand-to-hand’: “Their courage was extraordinary. Despite being under fire from the vehicle’s machine guns, they tried in desperate fury to storm the mobile armoured fort and kill its crew. They lifted each other up, climbed on board, searched its hatches and portholes and fired their weapons into the slots.”
The majority of British troops were as shocked as the Germans to see these new weapons appear on the battlefield. Bert Chaney was a 19 year-old signals officer who saw three tanks move into position before the attack:
“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 huge 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.
I was attached to battalion headquarters and the colonel, adjutant, sergeant-major and myself with four signallers had come up to the front line. From this position the colonel could see his men leave the assembly trench, move forward with the tanks, jump over us and advance to the enemy trenches. As a new style of attack he thought it would be one of the highlights of the war.
While it was still dark we heard the steady drone of heavy engines and by the time the sun had risen the tanks were approaching our front line, dead on time. The Germans must have heard them too and, although they had no idea what to expect, they promptly laid down a heavy curtain of fire on our front line. This had the effect of making us keep our heads down, but every now and again we felt compelled to pop up and look back to see how the tanks were progressing. It was most heartening to watch their advance, we were almost ready to cheer. But there was a surprise in store for us.
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 of 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 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 realised they were on the wrong trench and moved on, frightening the Jerries out of their wits and making them scuttle like frightened rabbits. One of the tanks got caught up on a tree stump and never reached their front line and a second had its rear steering wheels shot off and could not guide itself. The crew thought it more prudent to stop, so they told us afterwards, rather than to keep going as they felt they might go out of control and run on until they reached Berlin.
The third tank went on and ran through Flers, flattening everything they thought should be flattened, pushing down walls and thoroughly enjoying themselves, our lads coming up behind them, taking over the village, or what was left of it, and digging in on the line prescribed for them before the attack. This was one of the rare occasions when they had passed through the enemy fire and they were enjoying themselves chasing and rounding up the Jerries, collecting thousands of prisoners and sending them back to our lines escorted only by Pioneers armed with shovels.
The four men in the tank that had got itself hung up dismounted, all in the heat of the battle, stretching themselves, scratching their heads, then slowly and deliberately walked round their vehicle inspecting it from every angle and appeared to hold a conference among themselves. After standing around for a few minutes, looking somewhat lost, they calmly took out from the inside of the tank a primus stove and, using the side of the tank as a cover from enemy fire, sat down on the ground and made themselves some tea. The battle was over as far as they were concerned.”
While the British undoubtedly had the element of surprise on 15 September 1916, the tank’s unreliability meant that their hoped for breakthrough of the German defences during the Battle of the Somme did not occur. Of a total of 49 tanks ordered into battle, only 32 made it to their starting position. Of these, 7 failed to start, 5 got stuck in the mud, and 9 were destroyed by the Germans.
However, those few tanks that made it through, overcoming the guns, trenches and barbed wire on which millions of infantrymen had bled to death, had opened the door to the future.