Many books have been written about the invention and development of tanks but there is little published about the men who fought in them for the first time. This website attempts to tell their story before and after they fought at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette.
In May 1916, the first six tank companies were formed at Siberia Camp near Bisley in Surrey. The majority of the soldiers who fought in the tanks were from the Motor Machine Gun Service (MMGS) and the Machine Gun Corps (MGC). Others, who enlisted under the Derby Scheme, commenced training less than 4 months before they deployed. Their officers had little battle experience; a couple were from the Royal Naval Air Service; several had seen action in France and Gallipoli mainly as other ranks. Most of the tank "Skippers" were newly commissioned into the MGC on 14 April 1916 and not one had seen a tank or knew what they were expected to do.
After initial weapon training at Bullhousen Farm near Bisley, and tuition on the 6lb gun by the Royal Navy, the companies moved to Elveden in Suffolk where a secret training location had been established. In June 1916 the first tanks arrived, including the prototype "Mother". That month the tank drivers, all members of the Army Service Corps (ASC), arrived at Elveden. The drivers were mainly from the tractor depot at Avonmouth Docks and some found it difficult to adjust to their new duties and were returned to their unit. In the next eight weeks, the crew members learned to drive and "fight" their vehicles but not every crew was able to work together nor train on the specially built mock battle area
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 Yvrench, went into action on the morning of 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.
The adjutant of D Company, Captain Graham Woods, recorded the surnames of those who went into action in each tank. With the exception of No 1 Section, C Company's records are less detailed; there are at least 25 individuals whose names are not known including most of the ASC drivers. With the help of others, I have identified more than a dozen members of each Company, which are not recorded in published records. So,if you know of some-one who served with the first tank crews, and who is not listed in the section pages, please contact me.