The battle of Flers-Courcelette, 15-22 September 1916, was the third main phase of the battle of the Somme. It is best known as the first tank battle in history, as it featured forty nine Mk I tanks (although not all of the tanks made it into battle).
The battle was the first full scale offensive since the first day of the Somme. It was to involve the Fourth Army (Rawlinson) and part of the Reserve Army (later Gough’s Fifth Army). The plan was for XV corps to break through the German lines north east of Flers, allowing the cavalry to get into the German rear area. Most of the troops involved were given three or four objectives, all of which needed to be captured on the first day of the battle if a breakthrough were to be achieved. After two and a half months of struggle, Haig believed that he was finally close to breaking through the final line of prepared German defences.
The attack was preceded by a massive artillery bombardment. On 1 July the attack had been supported by one field gun for every 21 yards of front, and one heavy gun for every 57 yards. At Flers-Courcelette those figures increased to one field gun for every 10 yards and one heavy gun for every 29 yards. One problem with the artillery barrage was that the tanks were so slow that they needed to advance ahead of the infantry. This meant that corridors had to be left in the creeping barrage, to allow the tanks to advance. In some places this meant that key German strong points, which naturally had been made the tank’s main objectives, were untouched by the creeping barrage.
On the right of the line XIV Corps did not have a successful day. The 56th Division was to form the right flank of the attack, buts its attack soon bogged down. To their left the 6th Division needed to overcome a strong German position known as the Quadrilateral, north of Leuze Wood, before it could attack its first objective for the day. Despite some bitter fighting, little progress was made. Next in line was the Guards Division. They eventually reached their first objective, but in some chaos. Once there they believed themselves to be at their third objective for the day, and halted.
To the right XV corps was much more successful, but failed to achieve the hoped for breakthrough. Their attack was supported by fourteen tanks (four more were allocated to the corps but were unable to take part in the attack). The 14th Division had to begin the day early, to clear the Germans out of a pocket east of Delville Wood, where they still held on to a forward position. This attack was carried out by two companies from the 6th battalion of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, supported by one tank. The infantry attack went in at 5.30 a.m. and despite the loss of every single one of their officers pinched out the salient and then took part in the main offensive.
All three divisions of the XV corps (14th, 41st and New Zealand Divisions) reached most of their third objectives. In the centre of the corps 41st Division had the job of capturing Flers, and was given the most tanks. The village of Flers was captured early in the day, with one of the tanks playing a big part in the advance, driving up the main street of the village with the infantry following on behind. However, once beyond the village the advance stopped. The fourth objective, and with it the breakthrough was just beyond reach.
Next in line III corps met with mixed success on 15 September. On its left the 15th Division captured the village of Martinpuich, but on the right the 50th and 15th Divisions cleared High Wood but were unable to make any more progress.
Finally, on the extreme left of the British attack was the Canadian Corps of the Reserve Army (Gough). They reached their final objective by 8.25 a.m., and were able to take advantage of this early success by capturing the village of Courcelette.
The attack was renewed on 16 September without any real success. The Guards Division suffered heavily while making an unsupported attack, and had to be relieved that night. In the centre XV corps attacks at 9.25 a.m. The 14th Division was let down by the artillery, and after an ineffective bombardment was unable to make any progress. The 21st Division attack (led by the 64th Brigade under Brigadier General H.R. Headlam) began bogged down passing around Flers. It then fell too far begin the artillery barrage, and its only tank was destroyed by an artillery shell. The Brigade signal headquarters in Flers was also destroyed by shellfire. The New Zealand Division repulsed an early German counterattack, and then made some limited progress before being ordered to halt when news came through of the failure to their right. III corps also made little progress.
On 17 September General Rawlinson issued orders for a general resumption of the offensive on the next day. The planned attack was then postponed until 21 September, and then cancelled. When the fighting resumed on the Fourth Army’s front, it would be towards Morval, in the east.
Over the last seven days of the battle the British engaged in a series of small scale operations designed to consolidate the line, especially in the area around High Wood, where the limited advance on 15 September had left a bulge in the new line. Heavy rain began on 18 September, which made further offensive operations even more difficult.
The battle of Flers-Courcelette was much more successful than the general attack on 1 July had been, but it had failed to achieve its main aim, of punching a hole in the German lines. Although the British had come close to the rear of the original German lines, the Germans still had enough reserves to restore the situation after the early successes.
The use of the tanks at Flers-Courcelette will always be controversial. Although they failed to achieve the great breakthrough, many contemporary accounts record how welcome they had been, and how helpful the surviving tanks were to the advance. The most serious charge laid against Haig is that he revealed his new secret weapon prematurely, reducing the chance of winning a major breakthrough using them. However it is possible to argue that the poor performance of the tanks on the Somme, and over the next few months, lulled the German High Command into a false belief that they were ineffective weapons, delaying their own tank programme. It is also argued that the use of the tanks at Flers-Courcelette taught their designers important lessons, making later tanks more effective.
If the use of the tanks on the Somme did lose them the element of surprise, one would not guess that from the events during the battle of Cambrai, 20 November- 7 December 1917, over a year later. Here the first massed tank attack successfully broke through the German lines. Although this success was not followed up and a German counterattack regained much of the ground lost, the Germans had not put in place successful anti-tank measures in the intervening year. Above all, the arguments against using the tanks on the Somme implied that the attempt to break the German lines was going to fail. Haig still believed that it could success, and so if the tanks were going to be used at all, it had to be on the Somme.