The First Tankies

This entry is brief and only covers a few of the more senior first Tankies and it is thus somewhat invidious.  In writing it I make no attempt to ignore the soldiers who did the hard physical graft and who all too often don’t get a personal mention in history.  In this case a great many of them do get a mention in the very excellent book The First Tank Crews by Stephen Pope.  We strongly recommend it to you, along with Stephen’s website

As already mentioned, the original tankies formed up in Bisley but they moved to Elveden at the start of June 1916.  The Heavy Section HQ was at Bernersfield Farm (which still exists and can be found 2km NNE of Icklingham).  C Company joined the HQ at Bernersfield while D Company set up camp at the nearby Canada Farm.

C Company was commanded by Major Allen Holford-Walker, an Argyll & Sutherland Highlander, who was 26 years old.  D Company were led by Major Frank Summers who was 44 and had seen action in France, Belgium and at Gallipoli during the first 2 years of the Great War.

The officers that would command the sections and the tanks came from all over the UK, as did the soldiers.  The latter included the son of Joseph Rowntree (the chocolate manufacturer).  He originally followed the family’s Quaker tradition and had served as a volunteer in the Friends Ambulance Unit prior to joining the Heavy Section.  There were immigrants, including SQMS Harry Jacobs whose father was Russian and his mother Polish, and LCpl Charles Jung whose father was a Silesian brick maker.

In case you were worried that the officers had to slum it by living at the farms, do not worry.  They set up their mess at Elvedon Hall albeit in the stables rather than the main house.  Soldiers were billeted in a tobacco shed.

Tank Tactics

On 26 June 1916 a conference was held at GHQ in France to discuss how tanks might be used in the forthcoming Battle of the Somme.  The consensus was:

In the attack carried out by Tanks, the Tanks should move forward so as to reach the German front line position at dawn followed up by our infantry which is to start forward from our line as soon as the Tanks reach the first line of the enemy; that in the further operations which will ensue by day light, Tanks should precede the infantry from place to place as quickly as possible; that the ultimate objectives of the tanks during this period should be:

  1. The German artillery positions.
  2. The German second or third lines;

That the German artillery position might be assumed at an approximation to be at a distance of 2,000 to 3,000 yards from the German front line.

Our First Fatality

Pte Robert William Green died in a training accident on 5 June 1916. He was the son of Mrs Green of Southmoor, Berwick-On-Tweed and the late James Green, and he was married to E L Green of Eglingham, Alnwick.


He was killed while practicing his machine gun handling drills because a live round was accidentally mixed in with drill rounds.

Pte Green is buried in Brookwood Military Cemetery.

Mine’s A Guinness

While Bisley met some of the requirements of the Heavy Section, it was neither big enough nor far enough away from prying eyes and so a search was made for s suitable alternative.  The answer lay in Suffolk (not a phrase you hear that often today), at the home of Lord Iveagh, a member of the Guinness dynasty; Elveden estate.

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Elveden was requisitioned in May 1916 and in early June a large detachment of Royal Engineers was sent there to create an exact replica of the German trenches and defensive positions in France.

Security was tight and two Battalions of the Royal Defence Corps reinforced by the Royal Hampshire Regiment (and briefly by Indian cavalry) were employed to keep people out of the are which was cunningly called the Elveden Explosives Area.  A special pass was required to enter and signs warning of a deadly peril, posted around the perimeter, kept the locals out.

The Royal Engineers did an outstanding job creating a replica battlefield that was over one and a half miles wide, and in depth it contained the British support and front lines, no man’s land, and the German first, support, second and third lines.  It included breastworks, wire, wooden barriers (abates), craters, machine gun emplacements, communication trenches.  Massive craters were explosively created and some of the farm buildings were fortified to replicate German redoubts.  In total some 3000 men spent six weeks creating the training area.