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

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Willie Shelton of tank crew D3 is pictured right.  Willie was awarded the Distinguished Combat Medal for “great coolness and skill in driving his tank in action on 17th October 1918. When his tank was ditched, he worked under heavy fire for three hours and subsequently drove his tank for 6 hours, showing excellent skills in manoeuiring, so that many machine gun nests holding up the infantry were destroyed. This photo was provided by his great grandson Tim Kelly who is a member of the website.

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Darnley McCaig family details updated

Posted by firsttankcrews on August 16, 2017 at 6:30 AM Comments comments (0)

Australia based Talieh Williams, who is Darnley McCaig's great granddaughter, has made contact and let me know about his two children as well as other family information. She has also agreed to see if she can get some photos from her Scottish and New Zealand familes. 

I have updated his record which you can find in the C Coy H-M Crewman page.


Laurie Rowntree's death site confirmed

Posted by firsttankcrews on August 14, 2017 at 11:05 AM Comments comments (0)

Creme de Menthe crewman Laurie Rowtree was commissioned into the Royal Field Artillery in January 1917 and returned to the Western Front in the summer. He was killed on 25 November in the closing stages of the Battle for Passendaele, probably as a result of counter-battery fire.

An exhibition about his life is currently under way at the York Castle Museum.  As you would expect, a lot of research has been undertaken aboiut his life and, as part of this, the place of his death has been identfied.  His battery was operating northeast of Zonnebeke close to the location of Dochy Farm New British Cemetery, which was establised after the war.

Lawrie's body was however taken back to the British Rear Areas, probably on an artillery limber,   He is buried, together with 553 other soldiers of the Royal Field Artillery who lost their lives in the Ypres Salient at Vlamertinge New Military Cemetery,

He is not forgotten

Gnr John McKenzie - We Do Remember Him

Posted by firsttankcrews on August 5, 2017 at 6:15 AM Comments comments (0)

Gnr John McKenzie, from Birkenhead, was killed on 5 August 1917 and his body was buried at Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery.

Born in Carlisle in 1890, John was the eldest son of Railway shunter Francis McKenzie and his wife Mary. By 1901 the family had moved to Tranmere in Birkenhead and were living in Peel Street. .

John probably enlisted at Coventry in early May 16; his home being recorded as Liverpool in Motor Cycle published on 4 May 1916. Posted to D Company, he fought in Dracula on 15 September 1916 at Flers and was also a member of the same D16 crew at the end of the month. He is likely therefore to have been in action at Eaucourt l'Abbaye on 1 October.

He was serving with No 10 Company when he was killed. he is therefore also likely to have been in action on 9 April 1917 at the Harp defensive position near Tilloy.  Sadly his death is not recorded in the D Battalion War Diary so the exact cause is unknown. It was probably as a result of artillery fire, possibly on the tankodrome at Oosthoek Wood. .

His parents published details of his death in the Liverpool Echo on 15 August.  This reveals that John was engaged to be married to Miss H Wood.  He is commemorated on the Birkenhead War Memorial - he is Not Forgotten

(Updated 6 August 2017)

Frank Bull may not have died on 28 Sep 16

Posted by firsttankcrews on July 16, 2017 at 5:40 PM Comments comments (0)

In preparation for our next trip to France, when we will visit graves of the First Tank Crewmen buried on the Somme including Frank Bull, I have been reviewing my notes. Coincidentally I have also been in contact with Greg Lewin who has been researching the War Memorial at Bridgnorth.

When FC Bull joined the MMGS in late March 1916, his home town is recorded as Bridgnorth, The local Bridgnorth records FC Bull as a lance corporal.  The burial record, recently added to the CWGC website, lists Frank as a lance corporal which confirms Greg;s information.  More importantly, the burial records gives Frank's date of  death as 27 September 1916 and not the following day as shown in the CWGC records.

I have sent an email to the CWGC asking them for their help in resolving the matter. 

New information about Gnr James Anderson of D22

Posted by firsttankcrews on July 6, 2017 at 5:35 PM Comments comments (0)

Just discovered that Gnr James Anderson DCM was born on 15 May 1893 at 35 Cambridge Gardens in South Leith,.  

His parents were Margaret Whitson and James Couper Anderson MA who had married in Edinburgh in 1890.  James' father was a school teacher who later became Headmaster of Albion Street School.  

James' father died on 27 July 1916 shortly before D Company deployed to France.,  James was recommended for a gallantry award following the capture of High Wood but this was not granted.

James would next see his mother in November 1917 when he returned to Bovington to join a new battalion. He retrained as a driver and returned to France in September 1918.  16th Battalion was in action within two weeks and fought hard for five weeks before they were withdrawn. 

Sadly I cannot find any record of James' mariage or death  If you have any more details, please contact me

B Company tank crews detailed

Posted by firsttankcrews on May 18, 2017 at 7:05 AM Comments comments (0)

On 30 September 1916, five tank crews from the B Company Advance Party were allocated to D Company and sent north to establish a new tankdorome at Acheux.  The names of the crewmen have been found in the D Company Adjutant's correspondance book and these are now available on the B Company element of this site, accessible on the side bar  

If, at first, you don't succeed..(Ernest Alfred White)

Posted by firsttankcrews on April 27, 2017 at 12:35 AM Comments comments (0)

According to D Company's records, 32441 Cpl Ernest Alfred White was the NCO in the D16 crew in early September 1916. However he is not listed amongst Dracula's crew, which fought at Flers on 15 September which is rather odd. Three weeks later, his OC sought to have him reduced to the ranks as being unlikely to become an efficient NCO.

This sort of event would normally be the death knell for most careers, However Ernest must have proved his leadership skills in the next six months as he was sent for officer training at Pirbright and commissioned on 26 June 1917. Ernest was then posted to Bovington for tank commander training and, in January 1918, deployed with 12th Battalion back to France.

He must have also proved his effectiveness as an officer for Ernest was promoted temporary captain in December 1918. Sadly his service record does not exist but a good friend of the First Tank Crews recently discovered a clue to his employment.

Alwyn Killingworth, who has been researching tank crews for many years, recently purchased a bracelet engraved with Ernest's details. The bracelet, made in sterling silver by TBros (probably Turnball Brothers, was assayed in Birmingham in 1917.

These bracelets were not pieces of jewellery but designed to ensure officers could be identified in the event of becoming seriously wounded or killed. That Ernest bought one indicates that he had a field role as a captain, probably as a section commander or perhaps a reconnaissance officer, and was not out of danger despite his promotion.

Ernest survived and returned to civilian employment after the war. He did not however turn his back on military life but remained in the Reserve of Army Officers until 18 April 1933 which was probably his 55th birthday

Sadly that is all we know about Ernest so, if you can add anything to the story, please make contact.     


D7 tank crewman Edwin Morgan identified

Posted by firsttankcrews on March 25, 2017 at 7:00 AM Comments comments (0)


Born 22 Apr 93 in Ludham, Norfolk,Edwin won a county council scholarship and attended King's Lynn Grammar school before settling at Blofield where he worked for his father on their market gardem. He joined the MGC (Motors) at Coventry in early May and was part of the D7 crew at Flers on 15 Sep 16.

Edwin was wounded at Martinpouich on 25 Sep 16, when a bullet hit his left shoulder which smashed the top of his humerus. The bullet fragments were removed and he was evacuated to the War Hospital in Reading. Although he recovered , his shoulder was compromised and he was discharged as no longer fit for war service.

He returned home to Blofield where he lived with his parents and, as far as I can ascertain, never married. He died, aged only 56 in 1949.


Local paper published Robert Hillhouse's picture

Posted by firsttankcrews on March 3, 2017 at 5:50 AM Comments comments (0)

The Falkirk Herald provides more information and a photograph about Sgt Robert Hillhouse.  Robert who served in C Company and was killed on 11 April 1917 at Monchy le Preux during the Battle of Arras.

The paper confirms that Robert was a motor cyclist as a young man and collided with butcher's horse and cart in his home town of Denny on 23 August 1910. The bike was badly damaged and the horse severely cut as a result of the accident. 

Two years later, Robert married Janet Dunn and they had two daughters in 1913 and 1915. 

Robert, who later served with No 8 Company in C Battalion, was originally declared missing in action after the attack on 11 April 1917,  One year later,the War Office formally notified Janet that he must been presumed dead and this information and Robert's photogaph was published shortly afterwards.  Janet was granted a £10 gratuity but no pension.   

Ernest Thornton MM - Whippet tank commander

Posted by firsttankcrews on February 19, 2017 at 10:05 AM Comments comments (0)

Ernest Thornton was not one of the First Tank Crewmen as he did not serve in one of the four tank companies sent to France in the Autumn of 1916. He was already in France serving with No 2 Battery MMGS when the call for volunteers was made to increase C Company to C Battalion in November 1916 and was one of the first to join the new unit. Ernest later won the Military Medal (MM) as a tank commander at the Battle of Amiens in August 1918.

Ernest, who was born in 1888 and was a loom tackler from Hebden Bridge, joined the MMGS in May 1915. After training at Bisley, he was sent to France in September. As an experienced mechanic and machine gunner, Ernest was just what the new tank battalion needed and he joined C Battalion on 20 November. just two days after its was formed. After the Battle of Arras, Ernest retrained as a driver /machinist at Wailly and appointed lance corporal.  He then would have fought with No 7 Company during the Third Battle of Ypres which was disastrous for Tanks and then at Cambrai where C Battalion successfully achieved its mission on 20 November on the eastern flank of the advance. Unusually, Ernest was not granted UK leave until 28 December which is much later than most of his comrades. It is therefore possible that he attended the first Whippet course which completed just before Christmas 1917. The unit was redesignated 3rd (Light) Battalion in January 1918 as they converted to operate Whippets which had just arrived in France.

Driving a Whippet was much more difficult than the standard Mark V tank as it had two engines, one driving each track. The tank crews were however to prove themselves highly effective in March 1918 as they delayed the German Army as the British were pushed their back across the Somme battlefields. One of the lessons learned during these battles was that Whippet crews became quickly exhausted due to the heat of the engine, so each tank was allocated two crews of three men; the first crew was commanded by an officer and the second by an NCO.  Ernest was promoted to corporal the following month and it was as tank commander that he went into action next,

According to the citation for his MM, on 8 August near Beaucourt, Ernest commanded his tank Cyprus III with great gallantry and skill rendering the greatest assistance to the infantry and accounting for many of the enemy. Later, when his section commander's tank China II was hit by shell fire, Ernest screened the tank whilst the crew evacuated it, regardless of the danger to his own tank from enemy shells, which.were falling all round. 

The citation also records that this was not the first time had demonstrated his bravery; Ernest had previously been recommended on three earlier occasions. As there were never enough medals, the Tank Corps presented certificate of honour to those who did not received medals and a lanyard, or whistle cord, made of brown red and green silk, worn on the left shoulder.

Ernest served with C Battalion as they pushed the Germans back during the 100 day advance.  Ernest was promoted sergeant on 17 October 1918 as they started to convert to operate Mark V tanks in preparation for the Spring Offensive. They ceased training when the Germans Army staff admitted they could not stop their defeat and the German Government sought an Armistice.    

When he was demobilised in early 1919, Ernest went home to Hebden Bridge and, like most crewmen, returned to his previous work  as a loom tackler/overlooker.  One of his friends, Bill Duff, who had joined the Regular Army, tried to persuade Ernest to serve with him but Ernest decided not to. In May 1920, Ernest married Mary Robertshaw who he had been courting since just before the outbreak of war. After a short while, they became landlord and landlady of the Robin Hood public house in Pecket Well where their eldest son Peter was born. Just before the birth of their second son, they moved to nearby Mytholmroyd as Mary did not think a pub was a suitable place in which to bring up a family. Ernest worked at a local mill owned by a company called Shacketons and when the company relocated to Rochdale in 1936, he moved to the new factory.

At the outbreak of WW2,  Ernest who was now 51 years old, seriously contemplated joining up. However his two sons were so upset, crying and pleading with him not to volunteer, that he remained at home. He sadly died in 1963, just a few months after his second grandchild Jennifer was born. Both his sons married and Ernest currently has three grandchildren, five great grandchildren and one great grandchild.


I am grateful to Jennifer Holding, Ernest's grand-daughter, for telling me about Ernest and for his photograph in whic you can see the MM medal ribbon, a lanyard which was awarded for his bravery and the green flash on his shoulder, the colours of C Company which were later worn by men in C Battalion and 3rd (Light) Battalion. Like all of those who fought in the tanks,in the Great War, he is not forgotten.