Did Grandad Crew a Landship at Flers Courcellette?

Flers Courcellette was an insignificant backwater in France and played a small part of the battles of the Somme, but what made it momentous was the unveiling of the British Army’s secret weapon, the battle tank. General Haig, the British Commander-in-Chief, was desperate to end the war in the trenches, and perhaps overly enthusiastic about the potential of the first tanks, he insisted that they take part in the offensive at Flers.

So, the full might of the army’s tanks (49) set off on the 11th of September 1916 towards the front. 17 failed to get there and, on the 15th September at zero hour, another 7 failed. So in fact 15 tanks lumbered forward to the astonishment and horror, probably, of both sides. Navigation and visibility in these behmoths was so poor they were known to fire mistakenly on their own side, and since radio communication wasn’t available in tanks at this point, they carried carrier pigeons.

How did these first tanks come into being? There have certainly been armoured vehicles since men first worked out how to put spikes on chariots, but why the tank? It was an invention of the ‘Landships Committee’, which was the brainchild of the then 1st Lord of the Admiralty, one Winston Churchill. He wanted to “investigate a mechanical solution to the stalemate of trench warfare”, and so the idea of the tank was born.

Winston wasn’t too popular with people at that time, but he had thought that spreading the war to another fighting front would be a good idea. He hoped that it would take some of the pressure off the western front and the trenches, and the Turks had seemed to be a weak enemy. Unfortunately this mistaken belief had led to the Gallipolli landings in the Dardannelles, with massive loss of life and ignominious retreat.

Experimentation soon proved that the tank, for all its faults, could be a very effective weapon and, once it was realised that commercially available caterpillar tracks weren’t strong enough, the prototypes were soon bumping along.

The first useable tank prototype was called ‘Little Willie’ after the crown prince of Prussia, and you can see him today (the tank not the prince!) at Bovington Tank Museum.

There were two types of tanks – male and female. The female tanks had lighter armament; two heavy Vickers machine guns, rather than the six pounder adapted naval guns which were mounted in sponsons each side of the male tanks. This was possible as the early tanks didn’t have rotating tops. The big guns were served by each having a gunner and a loader crouched in the cramped interior of the tank. But inside it was very dark and it vibrated so badly that the only way to aim with any exactness was to stop the tank.

To steer it was necessary to vary the speed of its tracks, which was no easy task. Four of the crew were needed to drive. Two drivers – one, the commander, operated the brakes – the other the primary gear box. There were also two gearsmen – one for the secondary gears of each track, in order to control the direction and speed, which was never more than walking pace. The noise was so bad that the driver could only communicate by hand signals, this after hitting the engine block with a spanner to attract the crew’s attention.

{xtypo_quote_left}This article is to the memory of ‘Daredevil’ and her crew, and all the other landship men, then and now.{/xtypo_quote_left}The crew shared their space with the engine which was in the middle of the tank. So the atmosphere was full of carbon monoxide, fuel oil vapours and cordite from the weapons. Added to this the temperatures were known to reach 122oF, so it is not surprising that crews getting back out into the fresh air were known to start vomiting or even faint.

Who were the men who crewed the landships? A few people had experience of motor vehicles but who had taken one to war? The Motor Machine Gun Service came into being, and in the early days of the war armed cars and motor bikes with side cars swept through France. Motor cycle enthusiasts were targeted, and the Coventry offices of the popular magazine ‘Motor Cycle’ were used as a recruiting office. It was from them and their like that the crews for the ‘Heavy Section (tanks)’ were found. It also meant that the town of Coventry itself provided men for the landships.

These men were incredibly proud of what they did and they named their vehicles. C section provided for instance, ‘Champagne’ (male), ‘Cognac’ (female), ‘Chartreuse’ (male), ‘Chablis’ (female), ‘Creme de Menthe’ (male) and ‘Cordon Rouge’ (female). They invented their own protective helmets. These varied in style, but something was necessary to protect a man from hot lead, for instance, flying round within the tank. A helmet might be made of leather with protection over the nose and cheeks, chainmail hanging down over the neck and goggles to protect the eyes. Fire was an ever present threat and one from which the men were unlikely to survive. If a shell hit the engine in the middle, the fuel would explode.

It was necessary to have special salvage companies to remove incinerated crews, and salvage damaged tanks. The men of the salvage companies were forbidden to speak about their work to surviving crews.

However the men from the motor trade and their landships were at the start of something momentous.

The French army was developing a tank as well, the FT17. It was smaller and lighter, but very much like the tanks of today. The German army had few tanks, although mostly used captured British and French ones. The only German tank to see service in WW1 was the A7V which had a crew of 18, and soldiers called it ‘Munster’ (monster). It tended to get stuck and the driver couldn’t see what was happening directly in front of his tank, which has to be a problem in any vehicle.

The Battle of Cambrai (20th November to 7th December 1917) was the very first battle of tanks against tanks, but the honour of being the very first tank to ever go into battle has to go to the British landship D1 (or ‘Daredevil’) which started moving around 5.20am on the morning of September 15th, 1916, at Flers Courcellette.

Her crew were:-

Captain H W Mortimore
Sargeant H Davies
Gunner A Day
Gunner E Dodson
Gunner F C Hobson
Gunner H Leat
Gunner A Smith
Private A S Wateridge

This article is to the memory of ‘Daredevil’ and her crew, and all the other landship men, then and now.

The author and the editors would be most interested to hear if you are related to any of the crew of ‘Daredevil’ or indeed any of the tanks named in this article. Perhaps we could publish your story in a future issue?

Just Barbara

© Just Barbara 2009

Sources and Further Reading

A Popular History of the Great War Vol. 3 – The Allies at Bay: 1916 by Sir J A Hammerton

The Long, Long Trail

Great War Forum


The First Tank Crews

Wikipedia: History of the tank. Half way down the page you can watch a short film of tanks in action in 1918.