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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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.  

Tank Crew pictures added and details updated

Posted by firsttankcrews on February 13, 2017 at 4:15 PM Comments comments (0)

I have added a photo of Harold Darby and the D10 crew to the Photo Gallery. It was provided by the relatives of Gnr Lionel Britt who became missing in action during the German offensive in Mar 18.   

I have also updated the details of crews in the light of recent research  

More details about Jack Stagg

Posted by firsttankcrews on February 11, 2017 at 1:00 PM Comments comments (2)

Jack was named John Henry Stagg.  

He was born at East Coker near Yeovil in Devon on 13 Jan 1893. He was the son of a bootmaker Henry (Harry) Stagg (born in 1851 in East Coker) and Emma Jane Stagg (born 1852 died 1899).

By 1901 fhe family was living in North Coker and was living in the same village ten years later when Jack worked as a cycle repairer.  He was a member of the local Boy Scout troop.

Like most of the crewmen, Jack was a keen motorcyclist, participating in local motor cycle events in 1920s and organising them in 1930s. In 1927, he married Alice Dorothy Hann and their son Denis was born in 1930 in the Yeovil area. Sadly I can't find any details of  Jack's later life but Denis married in 1955 and Alice death in 1975 was registered in Yeovil.

if you can help me learn more, please contact me


Jack Stagg was a member of D Company

Posted by firsttankcrews on February 10, 2017 at 10:25 AM Comments comments (0)

I have recently been given information about Gnr Jack Stagg who joined D Company in France on 30 September 1916.

Jack enlisted, through the Motor Cycle,  at Coventry in December 1915 and, having undertaken the standard training package at Bisley, deployed to Boulogne on 18 September travelling via Folkstone.  He then spent four days at the MGC Depot at Camiers before being sent to 14th Corps under whose command D Company was operating. He formally joined D Company on 30 September at the same time that a section of B Company provided the five new crews. 

Jack, who was born in North Coker near Yeovil in Somerset, was probably a founding member of D Battalion's Workshop Company which formed in France in early 1917.  As a trained mechanic, Jack would have been very busy trying to keep the Mark I tanks available for training and to make them ready for the Battle of Arras. He would have been equally busy during the Battles of Ypres and Cambrai. Granted home leave just after Christmas 1917, he returned to the Tank Admin Area near St Pol sur Ternoise where tank battalions were based when not on operations.  Whilst on leave, he was posted to the Central Stores at Erin, the Battalions' Workshop Companies having been disbanded and a new depth repair system introduced,  This made for a much more effecient system of keeping the tanks in operation as it grouped men with specialist skills together. Jack served with the Central Stores at Erin until he was demobilsised in January 1919.

If you would like to know more about the way in which the tank repair and salvage organisation developed, have a look at this excellent article published by the Western Front Association in 2008   

A Company crewman Gnr Bert Day MM

Posted by firsttankcrews on February 7, 2017 at 2:25 PM Comments comments (0)

There is little information about A Company crewmen on this site as I can find no extant unit records.  However, I am pleased to say that Jeremy Banning has recently put me in contact with Pauline Gurling whose father Bert Day was a member of A Company. Not only that but his service record survived the Blitz, so we should be able to tell the story of his time with the tanks as well as his home life.  

Bert won a Military Medal (MM) for his actions on the opening day of the Battle of Amiens when his tank and nine others were destroyed by German anti-tank guns near Beaucourt. The MM citation states that, on 8 August 1918, he was first driver of his tank, which received four direct hits from an anti-tank gun and, although machine gun bullets were penetrating the tank he remained in his seat. His coolness and disregard to danger were a fine example to the remainder of his crew.


Gnr James McPartlin was in Daredevil's crew

Posted by firsttankcrews on February 6, 2017 at 1:55 AM Comments comments (0)

James, who was from Galashiels, was born on 6 Feb 1895, He joined the Army in 1915 and was allocated to D Coy. He was a member of D1 crew on 15 Sep 16, acording to the Adjt's notebook, and then his name is struck through so he may not have seen action on that day.  A Vickers machine gunner, James was allocated to C Crew on 25 Sep which supported the Reserve Army,  His diary shows he later served with No 11 Coy, part of D Battalion Tank Corps. From Jan - Oct 1918 James was in two hospitals at Stoke where he had three operations. As a result of his injuries, James was discharged from the Army and awarded the Silver War Badge.on 18 October 1918,

James returned to his home in Galashiels where he married Alice Pringle on 2 Sep 21 at Galashiels Catholic Church. They had a son named Patrick who was probably named after his grandfather.  James was employed as a power loom maintainer and died, aged only 59, on 24 Mar 54, Alice having pre-deceased him.

His 1918 diary is held by his grand-daughter Moira and it was featured on the BBC website in 2014 - see Moira says James was gassed as well as wounded during his service.  

Jack Letts' medals in safe hands

Posted by firsttankcrews on January 19, 2017 at 4:25 AM Comments comments (0)

On Monday, I was fortunate to meet the family of Gnr John Frank "Jack" Letts who was the only one of the First Tank Crews to be awarded the Military Medal on two occasions.   The MM is awarded to those who demonstrated exceptional bravery

Jack was a member of the D2 crew who later served with B Coy of 4th Bn Tank Corps.  He was from Plymouth and, during WW2, was a sergeant in the local police force.  He was awarded the first MM during the German spring advance in 1918 and the second medal (which is represented by a bar on the medal ribbon) for his actions on the first day of the battle of Amiens when he was badly wounded. 

Jack's medals are in the safe hands of the Letts family who also have a large research file with details of his service.  This includes reports which indicate that he served with No 11 Coy of D Bn during the disastrous action at Bullecourt.  Eight of the eleven tanks were destroyed on that day and Jack was probably serving with Lt Puttocks' crew.

I met Andrew, Thule and Lydia Letts at the funeral of Jack's only son who served as a RAF wireless operator during WW2,   They are planning to place Frank's ashes in the Letts family plot at Western Hill in Plymouth.

Jack is not forgotten


Gnr Robert Gibson was known as Roy

Posted by firsttankcrews on January 12, 2017 at 2:55 PM Comments comments (0)

According to his grandson  Chris, C5 crewman Robert Gibson was known as Roy.  He fought with Creme de Menthe on 15 September 1916 at Courcelette and probably at Thiepval eleven days later.  He continued to serve with C Battalion and then on Whippets in 3rd Light Battalion until July 1918 when he returned to England amd started flying training.  Chris also says Roy served as a observer / gunner in a Bristol Fighter. He was discharged in March 1919 and returned to his home in Bootle.