Thursday 15 September 2016

Day Seventy Seven on The Somme

A British Mark I Male tank on the Somme - by Ernest Brooks - Imperial War Museum

15th September 1916: From our Correspondent in the Field

Today has been one of those spasms which seem to affect life here at the front. It has been a day of determined attacks across a broad front which I will outline below. Today’s attacks, though, have been very different. In the last few days we had heard rumours of a secret weapon. Well, this weapon is secret no longer, the Germans now know all about it and, one imagines, many wish they were still in ignorance of it.

This weapon is, simply, a huge armoured vehicle. It is over thirty feet long and must weigh in excess of twenty five tons, or so educated guesses have it. It is a rhomboid shape, in other words, a lopsided rectangle and has two boxes (called sponsons I am told) on either side of its body. These carry its armament. On some vehicles it has a naval 6 pounder gun in either “sponson” and in other two machine guns. In an element of whimsy usually lacking in the stern affairs of the military, those with machine guns are known as “females” and those with 6 pounders are “males”. Presumably these metal monsters have, to some eyes, a resemblance to living leviathans. We understand the job of the “males” is to destroy buildings and strongpoints whilst the “females” mow down German infantry and machine gunners.

These leviathans, I have heard them called “land-ships”, are propelled by tracks running round the body. One may see tracks of this type on Holt tractors and they are extremely useful in crawling through mud and over brokes ground where wheeled-vehicles or cavalry could not venture. This, together with their length and weight means they can crush barbed wire for infantry to follow them and cross trenches with ease. The name most commonly in use for them seems to be the strange designation of “tank”. I am told that when they were being crated up and sent over to France, the crates were labelled as water tanks to prevent German spies from cottoning on.

Be that as it may, several dozen of these “tanks” have been employed in today’s attacks. It seems they are prone to breaking down (a facet of their design many owners of automobiles will readily understand), are difficult to steer and can go in the wrong direction because the drivers have only a tiny gap in the armour plate to look through. When they lurch into the enemy, however, they seem to sow panic and despondency wherever they go. At last a method may be at hand which may break the stalemate of this war and finally lead to a break-through.

The left flank of the attack was the action begun last night by 11th Division on Thiepval Ridge which, we understand, succeed in capturing a German stronghold known as the Wonderwork (bottom left in the map above) and a portion of a trench called Hohenzollern Trench.

Another first for today’s attack, besides the “tanks” was the introduction of the Canadian Corps into the battle. The Canadians were given the task of seizing the village of Courcelette. This, with the help of “tanks”, they took in very determined fashion. They seized the ground to the south and had to fight off German counter-attacks from the village itself before seizing that too in the last half hour or so. There will undoubtedly be counter-attacks but if the Canadians can hold the village they have taken they will have begun their campaign in a highly creditable manner.

15th (Scottish) Division attacked the village of Martinpuich. They have seized the village and are now dug-in just to the nort, facing the village of Courcelette.

50th (Northumbrian) Division captured parts of the Starfish Line which runs east from Martinpuich. Unfortunately this line could not be held and the Northumbrians were forced to retire by German artillery.

47th (1st/2nd) London Division had the difficult task of attacking High Wood today, the place which has defied capture for so long. And they achieved their task handsomely! Several hundred prisoners were taken in High Wood and around lunchtime the place was in British hands at last. The troops then moved on. Tonight they are well to the north, dug-in east of Martinpuich and just south of the strongly held Starfish Line which, in this sector, resisted attempts to capture it.

The New Zealand Division attacked with great élan from positions between High Wood and Longueval. They captured their objectives and now occupy ground west and north-west of the village of Flers. 41st Division was to attack the village of Flers itself from the south, beginning from positions north of Delville Wood. This attack included ten “tanks”, the most allotted to any attack today. The village, we understand, has fallen, materially assisted by the “tanks”. 14th Division advanced some way north of Delville Wood.

The Guards Division was given the task of attacking north-west from the north of Ginchy towards Lesboeufs. They were able to make some ground and took a number of prisoners but were unable to take their third objective which lay just south-west of Lesboeufs.

6th Division were given the task of taking the Quadrilateral. In this attack the 8th Battalion, Bedfordshire Regiment was to the fore. At 4.30 this morning the Battalion was in position and went into the attack at 6.20, the attackers being A, C and D Companies whilst B Company bombed down a trench parallel to the attack to prevent flanking fire. It is a matter of extreme regret that the barrage by our guns intended to help the Battalion forward fell so short that it landed on top of them in shell holes south-west of the objective, from which they were preparing to attack. This error on the part of the barrage commander(1) resulted in many of our men being killed. Nevertheless, the survivors gamely went forward, supported by 1st Battalion, The Buffs and later reinforced by 2nd Battalion York & Lancaster Regiment. The Quadrilateral is a well-defended strongpoint, however, and proved impossible to take. The artillery had, once again, failed in its task as all the barbed wire in front of the strongpoint was uncut. “Tanks” were allotted to this attack but failed to turn up. Thus a catalogue of errors over which the Battalion had no influence led to the failure of their attack and the loss, it is feared, of a great number of lives. We understand that thirteen officers have become casualties, six of them dead. We do not yet know the death toll amongst the other ranks.

We understand that one of the “tanks” allotted to the parts of the Division attacking elsewhere fired on our own troops as it went forward. The failure of the 8th Bedfords was part of a greater failure by the division, which failed to get any where near its overall objective, the village of Morval.

On the far right of the attack, near the village of Combles, 56th (London) Division made some progress towards that village and towards Morval but were stopped by uncut barbed wire south of Middle Copse.

Today has seen three villages – Flers, Courcelette and Martinpuich taken by an attack on a wide front. This has been the biggest co-ordinated attack since 1st July and has achieved great things. With the help of the “tanks” the army is hoping for more great things in the days to come.

Source: X550/9/1

(1) XIV Corps Commander, Royal Artillery was Brigadier-General Alexander Ernest Wardrop

No comments:

Post a Comment