W. H. L. Watson, from A
Company of Tanks
tank was developed by the British and first
employed in the battle of Flers-Courcellette,
on the River Somme, in September 1916. Captain
W. H. L. Watson was then commanding a company
of the XI Corps Cyclist Battalion near Bethune
on the Western Front, and he wrote:
To us in our damp and melancholy
retreat came rumours of tanks. . . .
We learned from an officer, who had met
the quartermaster of a battalion that had
been on the Somme, the approximate shape
and appearance of tanks. We pictured them
and wondered what a cyclist battalion could
do against them. Apparently the tanks had
not been a great success on the Somme,
but we imagined potentialities. They were
coloured with the romance that had long
ago departed from the war. An application
was made for volunteers.
Watson applied and was accepted.
Our selection (1920) focuses
on the night of April 5, 1917, when Watson's
tanks were moving into position for their
first battle, and on the battle of Bullecourt
itself, which took place on April 11.
On the night of the 5th, as soon as it was
dusk, my tanks moved forward. One by one
they slid smoothly past me in the darkness,
each like a patient animal, led by an officer,
who flashed directions with an electric lamp.
The stench of petrol in the air, a gentle
cracking as they found their way through
the wire, the sweet purr of the engine changing
to a roar when they climbed easily on to
the road — and then, as they followed
the white tape
>> note 1 into
the night, the noise of their engines died away, and I could hear only the
sinister flap-flap of the tracks, and see only points of light on the hillside.
in the daytime climbing in and out of trenches
like performing elephants may appeal to the
humour of a journalist. Stand with me at
night and listen. There is a little mist,
and the dawn will soon break. Listen carefully,
and you will hear a queer rhythmical noise
and the distant song of an engine. The measured
flap of the tracks grows louder, and, if
you did not know, you would think an aeroplane
was droning overhead. Then in the half-light
comes a tired officer reading a map, and
behind him another, signalling at intervals
to a grey mass gliding smoothly like a snake.
And so they pass, one by one, with the rattle
of tracks and the roar of their exhaust,
each mass crammed with weary men, hot and
filthy and choking with the fumes. Nothing
is more inexorable than the slow glide of
a tank and the rhythm of her tracks. Remember
that nothing on earth has ever caused more
deadly fear at the terrible hour of dawn
than those grey sliding masses crammed with
weary men. . .
Suddenly our bombardment began — it
was more of a bombardment than a barrage — and
the tanks crawled away into the darkness,
followed closely by little bunches of Australians.
>> note 2
On the extreme right Morris and Puttock
of Wyatt's section were met by tremendous
machine-gun fire at the wire of the Hindenburg
>> note 3 They
swung to the right, as they had been ordered,
and glided along in front of the wire,
sweeping the parapet with their fire. They
received as good as they gave. Serious
clutch trouble developed in Puttock's
tank. It was impossible to stop since now
the German guns were following them. A
brave runner carried the news to Wyatt
at the embankment. The tanks continued
their course, though Puttock's tank
was barely moving, and by luck and good
driving they returned to the railway, having
kept the enemy most fully occupied in a
quarter where he might have been uncommonly
Morris passed a line to Skinner and towed
him over the embankment. They both started
for Bullecourt. Puttock pushed on back towards
Noreuil. His clutch was slipping so badly
that the tank would not move, and the shells
were falling ominously near. He withdrew
his crew from the tank into a trench, and
a moment later the tank was hit and hit again.
Of the remaining two tanks in this section
we could hear nothing. Davies and Clarkson
had disappeared. Perhaps they had through
to Hendecourt. Yet the infantry of the right
brigade, according to the reports we had
received, were fighting most desperately
to retain a precarious hold on the trenches
they had entered.
the centre, Field's section of three
tanks were stopped by the determined and
accurate fire of forward field-guns before
they entered the German trenches. The tanks
were silhouetted against the snow, and the
enemy gunners did not miss.
The first tank was hit in the track before
it was well under way. The tank was evacuated,
and in the dawning light it was hit again
before the track could be repaired.
Money's tank reached the German wire.
His men must have 'missed the gears'.
For less than a minute the tank was motionless,
then she burst into flames. A shell had exploded
the petrol tanks, which in the old Mark I.
were placed forward on either side of the
officer's and driver's seats. A sergeant
and two men escaped. Money, best of good
fellows, must have been killed instantaneously
by the shell.
Bernstein's tank was within reach of
the German trenches when a shell hit the
cab, decapitated the driver, and exploded
in the body of the tank. The corporal was
wounded in the arm, and Bernstein was stunned
and temporarily blinded. The tank was filled
with fumes. As the crew were crawling out,
a second shell hit the tank on the roof.
The men under the wounded corporal began
stolidly to salve
>> note 4 the
tank's equipment, while Bernstein,
scarcely knowing where he was, staggered
back to the embankment. He was packed off
to a dressing station, and an orderly was
sent to recall the crew and found them
still working stubbornly under direct fire.
Swears' section of four tanks on the
left were slightly more fortunate.
Birkett went forward at top speed, and,
escaping the shells, entered the German trenches,
where his guns did great execution. The tank
worked down the trenches towards Bullecourt,
followed by the Australians. She was hit
twice, and all the crew were wounded, but
Birkett went on fighting grimly until his
ammunition was exhausted and he himself was
badly wounded in the leg. Then at last he
turned back, followed industriously by the
German gunners. Near the embankment he stopped
the tank to take his bearings. As he was
climbing out, a shell burst against the side
of the tank and wounded him again in the
leg. The tank was evacuated. The crew salved
what they could, and, helping each other,
for they were all wounded, they made their
way back painfully to the embankment. Birkett
was brought back on a stretcher, and wounded
a third time as he lay in the sunken road
outside the dressing station. His tank was
hit again and again. Finally it took fire,
and was burnt out.