Flanders 1917: Merton’s Tank Men

The British Tank was first used on the 15th September 1916 at Flers-Courcelette during the Battle of the Somme.  A message dropped from an observation aircraft behind the British Lines triggered a newspaper headline that flashed around the world.

“A Tank is walking up the High Street of Flers and with the British Army cheering behind”

Excited reports of “juggernauts” and “mechanical monsters” stoked the public’s fascination for Britain’s new wonder weapon as the feats of the “New British Armoured Motor-Cars” were described in the most lurid terms.  They were supposedly immune to rifle and machine gun fire, could shrug off bombs and shell splinters, “nothing but a direct hit from a fair-sized shell could do them any harm” was one newspaper’s claim.  In the absence of any official photographs, the cartoonist’s imagination was let loose:

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It did not detract from the overall story given to the public: here was a weapon that could smash through German defences on the road to victory.  The reality was rather different.

It was argued then, and ever since, that the Tank had been used too soon, in too small a number and over the wrong terrain.  Developed in a shroud of secrecy by the Landship Committee formed in early 1915, it was originally an initiative that came from the Royal Naval Air Service Armoured Car Squadron, backed by Mr. Churchill.  Operations were taken over by the Army with the involvement of the influential Ernest Swinton and the code word “Tank” was being used by the end of 1915.   In 1916 Swinton was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and given responsibility for training the first tank units.  Within a year of the first protoype, “Little Willie”, being developed during August and September 1915, the Mark I Tank was engaging the enemy on the Western Front.

There was scepticism and even open hostility to the use of Tanks in the upper echelons of the Army.  A few doggedly hung to the belief that it was the Cavalry who should exploit any breakthrough.  After Flers, Tanks were in action again on 26th September when eight were used and later in a number of minor operations between mid-October and 18th November 1916, when the Somme campaign finally ground to a halt. The weather had turned the battlefield into a morass in that final month, exposing the limitations of the use of Tanks in such conditions.

For the eight man crew, conditions inside a Tank had always been appalling.  At nearly thirty tons there was no suspension to absorb the shock as it lurched, pitched and crashed around.  Intense heat for the exposed engine came with deafening noise and intoxicating fumes that could suffocate a crew, rendering them unconscious.  Only the tank’s commander and driver were seated, the rest could only stand or crouch in the belly of the beast.  The endurance of crews during combat was measured in hours.

These early tanks were slow, unreliable and prone to break down, the crews and workshops worked feverishly to keep them running.  In battle they were easily ditched, and rapidly bogged down in bad sodden terrain.

THE BATTLE OF THE SOMME, JULY-NOVEMBER 1916
THE BATTLE OF THE SOMME, JULY-NOVEMBER 1916© IWM (Q 1568)

At Flers , only 32 out of the 49 tanks allocated reached their starting point. Of the 32, 5 soon became ditched and a further 9 broke down.  Nine tanks kept up with infantry, inflicting losses on the enemy.  Nine others, unable to keep up, assisted in “mopping up”.   The statistics speak for themselves.  The bravery of the crews and the dedication of those working behind the scenes was not in doubt, but Tanks faced an uncertain future.

Haig wrote in his Somme Dispatch  printed in the Supplement to the London Gazette of 29th December 1916:

Our new heavily armoured cars, known as “Tanks,” now brought into action for the first time, successfully co-operated with the infantry, and coming as a surprise to the enemy rank and file gave valuable help in breaking down their resistance. The advance met with immediate success on almost the whole of the front attacked

Adding further:

“The part played by the new armoured cars —known as “tanks”—in some of the later fights has been brought to notice by me already in my daily reports. These cars proved of great value on various occasions, and the personnel in charge of them performed many deeds of remarkable valour.”

Despite the naysayers and critics, Haig’s plans for 1917 envisaged a greater role for tanks.  Only around 150 had been produced for 1916, but production was to be ramped up as over 1,000 Tanks were ordered for 1917.  Existing and new factories were to be used to meet the demand, as the accompanying logistics were built up.  The Heavy Section MGC became the Heavy Branch MGC in November 1916, signalling greater autonomy, as a programme of rapid expansion and re-organisation took place.  The original Tank Companies had withdrawn to the Bermicourt in France, while Bovington Camp, near Wool, in Dorset became the new home for the battalions being created in the UK.  Men and officers were allowed to volunteer from other units either in France or at home and came from every conceivable section of the Army, and even the Royal Flying Corps and the Navy.

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Boington 1916 – image courtesy of Bovington Tank Museum

 

It was 22nd and 23rd November 1916 when the British Public finally got what they had thirsted for, pictures of a Tank! The London pictorials, such as the Mirror and Sketch, were joined by the Telegraph and other papers in publishing photographs which had passed censorship and were sourced from the “Canadian Record Office”.

Five weeks later audiences flocked to the new sensation being shown in picture palaces around the country – “THE BATTLE OF THE ANCRE AND ADVANCE OF THE TANKS”. Released on 1 January 1917, the film was the sequel to Malins and McDowell’s hugely popular “The Battle of the Somme”.   It was shown four times a day at Wimbdeon’s King’s Palace from 15th January for one week only.

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Billed as “The War’s Greatest Sensation – The Tanks in Action”, box office takings were even higher in the first three months of release than for its predecessor “The Battle of the Somme”.   It contained several lengthy sequences of the first shots of tanks at the Front which elicited “oohs” and “ahhs” from the film-goers. [Geoffrey Malin wrote extensively about his experiences of seeing his first tank on the Somme in 1916 in the book “How I Filmed the War” published in 1920.]

 

For the vast majority of residents in Merton, Mitcham and Wimbledon the Tank would remain an object of fascination in which they would invest their hopes for a swift victory and their cash, in the form of war savings bonds.  For a select few families the connection with tanks would become far more personal.

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Tank Week, Wimbledon Broadway 1918

 

Only a handful of men from the Merton area can be said to have served in Tanks.  John Glassbrook and Robert Handley are among those few who became Tank men during the Winter of 1916-17.  Both single and of similar ages, the two men were from rather different backgrounds, with the opposite of previous military experience before joining the “Heavy Branch”.  John Glassbrook (Jack to family and friends) was effectively the raw recruit with no experience of the Western Front, a recent transfer from the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.  Robert Handley had already seen plenty of trench warfare.  After volunteering at the beginning of the War, he had been on the Western Front between April and October 1915 with Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry (DCLI) before they were sent to Salonika, arriving in December 1915. Robert Handley had been invalided back to the UK in the second half of 1916 and along with a small group of ex DCLI men, all recovering from wounds or sickness, he had decided the “Heavy Branch” was better than going back to the trenches.   He was officially transferred to “G” Battalion Heavy Branch MGC on 25th February 1917 as 95272 Handley at Freshwater.  Robert Handley would be the first to go to France on 5th May 1917, John Glassbrook wouldn’t follow until 1st July 1917 and would take no part in the first day of Passchendaele.

By 1917, Robert Handley’s civilian life must have seemed a former self which was hard to recognise after more than two years of war.  Born in Camberwell in 1894, Robert Handley had lived near Loughborough Junction until around 1908.  The Handley family had moved to Heaton Road, Mitcham by 1911, into newly built properties on land that had formed part of the Gorringe Park Estate, and before the new St.Barnabas Church was completed in 1914.

Tooting Junction was on their door step with its reliable and relatively cheap Trams, and Tooting Broadway within walking distance.  The Handleys could keep their links to Brixton and not be restricted to local work, while enjoying a less crowded and more open environment.  In 1911, seventeen year old Robert Handley was working as a shop assistance.

 

He had been in the first rush of volunteers in 1914, and with just basic training would be one of the thousands sent to France around April and May 1915 when the B.E.F was holding out against the German onslaught around Ypres.  He joined the 2nd DCLI as a part of a large draft of over 300 men on 9th May after the battalion had suffered heavy losses.  After more weeks of trench holding at Ypres, Robert Handley would move around various sectors of the front before the 2nd DCLI were sent to Salonika, arriving on 5 December.  Months of tedious spadework followed in 1916, as British forces dug in around what became know as the “birdcage”, the defence line around Salonika itself.  There was no real offensive action until October 1916.  Salonika was a very unhealthy place to be, the climate and poor sanitary arrangements made dysentery and various enteric diseases almost endemic amongst the troops in the summer months, malaria was rife and records show more men dying of disease than in combat.  The sufferings of a typical Tommy in Salonika are vividly described in this account of Walter John Cooke’s war  – “My Tommy’s War: Mules and malaria”.

At some stage Robert Handley was invalided back to the UK, very likely as yet another man suffering badly from dysentery.  It meant spending weeks in hospital, one of Robert Handley’s fellow volunteers, 95270 Pte. William John Gray (formerly 13596 DCLI) was returned to the UK in October 1916 and remained in hospital for 57 days.

But now an entirely new experience lay ahead as the men of “G” Battalion continued to train for forthcoming operations.  From the end May to the first week of July, “G” Battalion HQ was based at Wavran, south of the growing central workshop complex at Erin where tanks were drawn as various groups spent time at the driver training area around Wailly, near Arras, and the gunnery ranges at Merlimont plage on the coast between Le Touquet and Berck.  The tank of 1917 was the improved Mark IV with its unditching beam.

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Queen Mary visits Tank Corps Central Stores and Workshops, at Erin, 7th July 1917. © IWM (Q 3554)

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Mk IV tank with unditching beam, 1917

G battalion consisted of three companies numbered 19 to 21, each with 12 fighting tanks organised into sections with 4 tanks each.  Now the crews had to work out how best to communicate by hand gesture and facial expression over the deafening noise within the Tanks.  They became families of men who would practically eat, drink, sleep and work together, never too far from their Tank.

G Battalion’s Tanks were brought to the Ypres sector over a period of three nights, with the tanks of 21st Company arriving on 8 July 1917, followed by the tanks of 20st and 19th coy.  A “Tankodrome” had been created in Oosthoek Wood about 3 miles to the West of Ypres, an area that covered several acres and would be home to C, D, F and G battalions, plus the necessary workshops.

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2nd Lt. Douglas Browne of 21 Coy. G Battalion described the arrival at Oosthoek Wood:

“Parking tanks (especially Mark IV. ‘s) among timber at night is always a noisy and trying operation, resembling in sound and destructiveness the gambols of a herd of inebriated elephants. The tank-driver, unaided, can see nothing whatever, and has to be guided by the flashings of an electric torch, with which refinements of signalling are difficult and generally misunderstood. The trees, which appeared to be harmless and nicely spaced in the daytime, become embued with a malignant spirit and (apparently) have changed their positions since last seen.  It was as black as a coal-pocket in Oosthoek Wood that night ; and for an hour or so it rang with curses and exhortations and the crash and rending of ill-treated timber as tank after tank tried to swing this way or that and pushed down a young tree or two in the act. However, soon after one o’clock we had them all in, herded together more or less in sections, and the first arrivals were already camouflaged.“ – Tank In Action p. 105.

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Two “C” Battalion Mark IV tanks in Oosthoek Wood near Elverdinghe (Elverdinge), 11th September 1917. © IWM (Q 3547)

Extreme care was taken to obliterate any and all Tank tracks to avoid detection. Shelling had caused the death of six C Battalion men and damaged three tanks on 4 July and it was soon decided to move the men further east to camp at La Lovie close to Lovie Chateau, the GHQ of the 5th Army.  The men would have to walk or hitch a lorry ride back and forth to the tanks parked at Oosthoek Wood.  The woods were shelled every day, and rumours spread of the suspicion that somehow the Germans new about the Tanks.  It was later found a British soldier captured in a raid had told the enemy all he knew, disclosing the presence and approximate number of tanks hidden in the Woods.  Talking of the fear of being observed from the air, 2 Lt. Douglas Browne wrote:

It is movement which betrays. Infantry, moreover, can always take cover rapidly; but it is impossible to camouflage a tank in the open in a few seconds. In consequence it is inadvisable to move tanks during daylight near the front line, if any of the enemy’s aeroplanes are likely to be about. In the Salient they were always about and things had got to this pitch — that although we were hidden in a wood, with clearings close at hand where we could have tested our machines secure from direct observation, during the whole month of July no tank was permitted to move a yard except by night.

Oosthoek Wood, the work place of Robert Handley and hundreds of other Tank Men trudging around in mud and oil slicks, was an unloved place, smelly and unhealthy after rainfall.  But everyone was focused on preparing for zero hour.  The arrival of additional tanks increased company strength from 12 to 16 by 21st July.  Following orders, the carefully choreographed movement of tanks at night to more forward positions started on night of 24 July.  A feat which required skill and patience in the dead of night, moving in lowest gear with tank commanders walking ahead as guides.  News of another postponement reached them on 25th July, zero hour had been delayed by another three days and was now fixed for 31st July.  G Battalion were to support the assault on Pilkem Ridge, the 12 fighting tanks of 19 Company with 39th Division and 21st Company’s 12 tanks with 51st and 39th Divisions.

The final move was to cross the Ypres Canal at the dead of night via the “Marengo Causeway”, Joseph Charles Allnatt, writing in 1958 described his experiences as the driver of Tank G10, named the “Gravedigger”:

On the night of July 29/30 we moved up again to a place called Frascati which is on the site of a brick kiln. On our way we had to cross the Yser canal by means of a specially constructed causeway … There was to be no halting on the causeway in case a tank should get stuck and cause an obstruction. Having got over the canal we swung right handed and reached our final rallying point. Frascati was a place which had long been used for gun pits and ammunition dumps but nevertheless was pitted with shell holes and battle debris of all kinds. Here we took great care of our camouflage because we were now within sight of the enemy who were only about 1¾ miles away. The day of July 30/31 – the eve of the battle – was spent as before in more maintenance work and the receiving of additional equipment and supplies. Each tank was given a bag of assorted bombs – Mills, incendiary and smoke – two pigeons in a crate and a large case of 303 ammunition to give to the Infantry preferably at an advanced point … ”

2nd Lt. Douglas Browne, commander of Tank G46, “Gina”, describes a near disaster when en route to cross the Ypres canal:

I wished to maintain my position in the column. We were off again, in fact, very shortly after.  But at this stage every one was becoming anxious and irritable, and the stoppage brought exalted personages raving about G 46, clamouring for it to proceed. As it happened, haste would have helped nobody, for about this time serious disaster overtook the section in front. Our route left Rum Road a quarter of a mile from the canal, and took thence a narrow track leading direct to Marengo Causeway. This track was bounded by a dense hedge, with trees, on one hand, and by a deep ditch on the other : its surface was greasy after the rain, and the two leading tanks of 19 Company slid off into the ditch. They still blocked the track, and until they were got out no one could advance. I soon caught up this paralysed advance-guard, where crews were labouring with booms and shovels, and officers were peering at their watches and whispering anxiously.  Henriques, the Reconnaissance Officer of 19 Company, came to me muttering that “things were very serious.” As indeed they were, for the nights at the end of July are short: it was already nearly one o’clock; and it was essential for us all to reach the shelter of the trees at Frascati before morning. If dawn found any tanks in the open east of the canal, all sorts of calamities would have ensued. The whole offensive would have been jeopardised, as our presence so far forward must have advertised its immediate on fall to the enemy, to say nothing of the consequences to ourselves.”

2nd Lt. Browne leading his tank on foot through an area bombarded with gas shells, finally reached the lying up point at Frascati for the tanks of the 21st Company, “We were only just in time. Dawn was breaking as the last tank drew in; and we had taken nearly seven hours to cover 5000 yards.

 

For Robert Handley and the tanks crews of G Battalion. Those final days before zero hour had stretched nerves and increased the apprehension of what might lie ahead. As 2 Lt. Browne wrote: “The probable conditions awaiting us were known to all; but none of our conjectures equalled the reality.”

J.C.Allnatt wrote of Ypres, “It was a filthy place, the ground being flooded in spite of our efforts to drain it, the trees were shattered and the mud in places was nearly knee deep … Every member of the Tank Corps, even those of the lowest rank, knew that they should not be there …. Any kind of attack in that place was just plain foolish”.

Robert Handley’s story continues on 2nd August.  Coming Next –  zero hour

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