THE FIRST TANK CREWS

The life stories of those who crewed the first tanks in September 1916


Welcome to the First Tank Crews website - a resource which will help those researching the men who fought in British tanks in 1916

Contact me at firsttankcrews@outlook.com

Many books have been written about the invention and development of tanks but, until the publication of my book in April 2016, there was little available about the men who fought in them for the first time.  This website provides key details of  individual crewmen and their stories before, and after they fought at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette on  15-16 September 1916.  New details come to light frequently so please check the Blog for the latest discovery.  

The need for an Armoured Fighting Vehicles (AFV) was established early in the Great War.  It was clear to most military leaders that attacking infantry units need assistance in capturing German positions in three ways, firstly to crush the defensive barbed wire, next to counter German machine guns and finally to cross heavily held defensive trenchlines. In 1915, under the auspices of Winston Churchill, commercially available tracked vehicles were trialed but none were suitable.  In September 1915, an AFV was designed by Walter Wilson and William Tritton and this was demonstrated to the War Council in late January 1916.  The following month, 150  "tanks" were ordered with the full support of General Douglas Haig, the British Commander in chief, in order to produce them for the expected British summer offensive. Manufacture was however slow and the first production tanks did not become available until July 1916.  .

The majority of the soldiers who fought in the tanks in September 1916 were from the Motor Machine Gun Service (MMGS) and the Machine Gun Corps (MGC). Few of  the officers had real battle experienc.  Most of the tank "Skippers" were ommissioned into the MGC on 14 April 1916 and not one had seen a tank or knew what they were expected to do.   In May 1916,  six tank companies were formed at Siberia Camp near Bisley in SurreyAfter initial weapon training on the Bisley ranges, and tuition on the 6lb gun provided by the Royal Navy, the companies moved to Elveden in Suffolk where a secret training location had been established.  From 31 May 1916 the first tank arrived - the prototype "Mother". In early June, the tank drivers, all members of the Army Service Corps (ASC), arrived at Elveden and over the next ten weeks,, as production tanks became available, the crew members learned to drive and "fight" their vehicles. 

C and D Companies were the first to be sent into action.  From mid August the tanks and their crews deployed to France and, after final training across old trench lines near Abbeville, deployed to the Somme battlefield. The tanks went into action just after dawn on Friday 15 September 1916.  49 tanks were tasked to support an attack designed to capture German strong points between Courcelette and Combles.  Several of the tanks broke down en route to their starting points and had to be replaced; others were unable to cope with the dreadful ground conditions and became stuck. Many were damaged by enemy artillery fire as they made their way across No Man's Land but a few managed to get beyond the German front line trenches and assist the infantry take their objectives.  Two tanks were hit by direct fire as they fought their way past German positions to the east of Flers and, the next day, all three who went into action were destroyed by artillery fire to the north of the village, again as they supported as attacking infantry. Despite the few tanks which managed to break through the German defenses, the impact was immediate and General Haig ordered a further 1,000 on 17 Setember 1916.  

There is no complete list of  the First Tank Crews and, whilst the adjutant of D Company, Captain Graham Woods, recorded the surnames of those who went into action, there is much less known about A, B and C Companies.  Using available official resources and family records, I identified more than 420 individual crewmen and they are listed on the pages on the left hand column.   If you know of some-one who served with the first tank crews, who is not listed on this website, please contact me so that I can commemorate their lives and tell their story.  

Stephen Pope

Principal Researcher