The tanks and men of C & D Companies of the Heavy Section Machine Gun Corps went into action on 15 September 1916. They were making history; this was the first ever use of tanks in combat. Their attack, 11 weeks into the battle of the Somme, was part of Fourth Army’s plan to penetrate the German defences between Courcelette and Gueudecourt. The aim was to break through by noon on 15 September 1916 and to then exploit by launching the cavalry towards Bapaume to disrupt the arrival of German reinforcements and to attack German artillery in their depth positions around Le Sars.
Eleven divisions (8 British, 2 Canadian and one from New Zealand) were used in the initial attack which was preceded by a three day artillery bombardment. The infantry were supported by 48 tanks. From north to south the allocation of tanks to Divisions was:
- 2nd Canadian Division – 6 C Coy tanks
- 15th (Scottish), 50th (Northumbrian) and 47th (2nd London) Divisions – 8 D Coy tanks
- New Zealand Division – 4 D Coy tanks
- 41st Division – 10 D Coy tanks
- 14th (Light) Division – 4 D Coy tanks
- Guards Division – 10 C Coy tanks
- 6th and 56th (1st London) Division – 6 C Coy tanks
Most of the divisions broke through the German front line positions on 15 September. Of the 48 tanks available that day only 32 tanks crossed the British front line of which 18 reached German depth positions. Twenty three tanks engaged the enemy. Courcelette, Martinpuich, High Wood and Flers were captured and held although none of the 4th line objectives were reached.
The section from C Company supporting the Canadians at Courcelette, on the left flank of the allied attack, successfully achieved their mission. The remainder of the Coy were on the right flank; these attacks were less successful. D Company’s action on the left of their area helped to capture Martinpuich. In the centre the infantry achieved their objectives around High Wood but the 4 supporting tanks became stuck as they tried to negotiate the wood. The Company greatly assisted in the actions of the Kiwis to the west of Flers, successfully destroying German defensive positions. The Flers action achieved its aim; despite breakdowns and enemy artillery, the tanks assisted the infantry in capturing all three defensive lines and the village.
The action wasn’t without loss. Ten tanks were destroyed, 11 tank crewmen were killed in action and 1 died of wounds later that day:
- Horace Brotherwood (C1) 18 yrs old KIA near Pozieres
- Bertie Giles (C14) 18 yrs old KIA at Bouleaux Woo.
- Gerald Pattinson (C14) 30 yrs old KIA at Bouleaux Wood
- George Macpherson (C20) 20 yrs old DOW at Grove Town CCS
- Edgar Barnsby (D5) 25 yrs old KIA near Flers
- Leslie Gutsell (D5) 20 yrs old KIA near Flers
- Fred Bardsley (D6) 24 yrs old KIA near Gueudecourt
- George Cook (D6) 29 yrs old KIA near Gueudecourt
- John Garner (D6) 25 yrs old KIA near Gueudecourt
- William Debenham (D12) 24 yrs old KIA near Flers
- Cyril Coles (D15) 23 yrs old KIA near Flers
- Charles Hoban (D15) 29 yrs old KIA near Flers
Gunner Thomas Bernard C Coy), Gunner Jacob Glaister (D Coy) , Gunner Albert Smith (D Coy), Pte George Thomas (D Coy), Pte Bertram Young (D Coy), were awarded the MM for his actions on 15 Sep.