Battle of Flers–Courcelette
|Battle of Flers–Courcelette|
|Part of the Battle of the Somme of World War I|
2nd Battalion, Auckland Regiment, in the Switch Line after the battle
|British Empire||German Empire|
|Commanders and leaders|
| Douglas Haig C-in-C
Henry Rawlinson (Fourth Army)
|Crown Prince Rupprecht|
The Battle of Flers–Courcelette was a battle within the Franco-British Somme Offensive which took place in the summer and autumn of 1916. Launched on 15 September 1916 the battle went on for one week. Flers–Courcelette began with the objective of cutting a hole in the German line by using massed artillery and infantry attacks. This hole would then be exploited with the use of cavalry. It was the third and final general offensive mounted by the British Army during the Battle of the Somme. By its conclusion on 22 September, the strategic objective of a breakthrough had not been achieved; however tactical gains were made in the capture of the villages of Courcelette, Martinpuich and Flers. In some places, the front lines were advanced by over 2,500 yards (2,300 m) by the Allied attacks.
The debut of the tank
The project to develop the 'Land Battleship' had commenced in the summer of 1915 under the initiative of the British Landships Committee with the objective of developing an armoured vehicle that would break the deadlock of trench warfare. Under the highest degrees of secrecy the 'tank', as it later became known, was designed and built with the first prototype of the Mark I rolled out in January 1916.
Just less than six months after its first tests, General Sir Douglas Haig had wanted to launch the first mass tank attack on the opening day of the Battle of the Somme. However, the manufacturers could not have the tanks ready in time for the first attacks on 1 July. Two and a half months later, as Flers–Courcelette was being planned, the tanks were delivered and Haig had General Sir Henry Rawlinson, his subcommander in charge of 4th Army (the troops that would carry out the attack), incorporate them into his battle plans. From the beginning the tanks were challenged by having to traverse the heavily upset terrain of the Somme battlefield while still beset with numerous mechanical failings and manned by crews that had had little training in their operation. Nonetheless, the decision was taken to send the 49 tanks that were available into battle on 15 September. He was warned against this by the engineers who were responsible for the creation of the tank and his subcommanders, such as Ernest Dunlop Swinton (who had been part of the Landships Committee), and the French government, which sent Colonel Jean Baptiste Eugène Estienne and Sub-secretary of State of Inventions Jean-Louis Bréton (who were normally arch-enemies), to London, hoping to persuade the British government to overrule Haig. The primary concern of those who did not want the tank used was that they wanted it kept secret until they could be massed in larger numbers and be more likely to lead to a major breakthrough.
Like the earlier offensives of 1 July (Battle of Albert) and 14 July (Battle of Bazentin Ridge), Haig had hoped to achieve a breakthrough of the German defences, enabling a return to mobile warfare with cavalry units pouring through a hole punched in the line by a successful swift and decisive infantry strike. Though the British, Canadian and New Zealand forces did make significant gains on the first day and in the week that followed, a breakthrough did not develop and the Somme front reverted to an attrition struggle, which, with the onset of wet weather, created dreadful conditions in which the infantry had to live and fight.
The Canadian Corps made its debut on the Somme on left flank, at the north end of the attack. Starting from a line anchored on the ruins of the Pozières windmill, the Canadian 2nd Division advanced in an arc stretching from north to northeast, focused towards the fortified ruins of Courcelette and the fields to the west of the village. The Canadians saw considerable first day success on 15 September, advancing approximately 2 kilometres (1.2 mi) in their initial attacks, capturing their objectives in and around Courcelette village. Noteworthy efforts from the 25th Battalion (the Nova Scotia Rifles) and the French Canadian 22nd Battalion (the "Van Doos") were delivered in the process of clearing the German defenders from the village and holding it in the face of four days of enemy barrage and counter attacks despite being cut off from supplies including food and water.
After having struggling for the preceding two months to take control of it, on the commencement of the battle, the British 47th (1/2nd London) Division succeeded in clearing the last German-held sections of High Wood, sustaining heavy losses in the process. The New Zealand Division fought for and captured a position known as the Switch Line between High Wood and Flers after 30 minutes of fighting. The British had initially set their eyes on the position two months earlier during the Battle of Bazentin Ridge. In the centre of the attack, two villages were captured. Martinpuich, was wrested by the 15th (Scottish) Division, and Flers, was captured by the British 41st Division but these were more than 2,000 yards (1,800 m) short of the lofty final planned objectives of the fortified villages of Gueudecourt and Lesbœufs which lay still further to the east.
To the south, on the right flank of the attack, where Haig had hoped the hole would be opened in the German lines to allow the cavalry penetration and breakthrough, the attacks faltered. In this area, a fortified German position known as the "Quadrilateral" Redoubt sat east of Ginchy, but due to poor weather that prevented flying and poor sight lines, the exact position of the trenches of the redoubt were unknown to the attackers. The artillery preparation and tank support did little to neutralise the defences and left the trenches and wire protecting the position largely intact, which allowed the German garrison to batter the 56th (London) Infantry Division and 6th Division of the XIV Corps attack. The 6th division finally took the Quadrilateral after four days of attacks on 18 September. With the Quadralateral quieted The Guards Division made considerable headway, advancing 2,000 yards (1,800 m) but they were stopped short of their ultimate objective, the village of Lesbœufs. To take the remaining objectives, the British Fourth Army launched the Battle of Morval on 25 September.
By 15 September the French Sixth Army[Note 1] needed a pause after its recent attacks to relieve worn-out troops and bring forward supplies but the artillery of I Corps supported the British XIV Corps at dawn and its infantry attacked at 3:00 p.m., beginning a bombing fight with the Germans at Bois Douage. Ground was gained north of Le Priez Farm but no progress was made at Rancourt. V Corps to the east, failed to reach the south side of St Pierre Vaast Wood, VII Corps made no progress east of Bouchavesnes and XXXIII Corps straightened its front. On 16 September the Sixth Army conducted counter-battery fire in support of the British with the infantry prepared to follow up if the Germans were forced into an extensive withdrawal. After 16 September V Corps extended its right flank and VI Corps took over the VII Corps front. Preparations were made for a Franco-British attack of 21 September which was postponed to 25 September. Despite the reorganisation, I Corps made two surprise attacks late on 18 September near Combles which gained ground. German artillery fire in the area was heavy and counter-attacks at Cléry during the night of 19/20 September, at Le Priez Farm and Rancourt during the morning and the village of Bouchavesnes was held by the French only after "desperate" fighting. South of Bouchavesnes VI Corps repulsed an attack. The Tenth Army attacked on 15 and 17 September, capturing Berny, Deniécourt and Vermandovillers, despite numerous German counter-attacks but this success was not followed up due to lack of reserves.
(15 September 1916)
|Casualties taken from
Prior & Wilson,
Command on the
Western Front (1992)
The performance of the tanks was patchy. Of the 49 ordered only 32 were able to reach their assigned start positions on the battlefield and of them, seven failed to start, leaving 25 moving forward at the commencement of the attack. In the end, the tanks proved to be largely a psychological asset, emboldening the attackers and intimidating the defenders where they moved forward. Tactically however, they provided little advantage or support to the attackers with most breaking down or becoming immobilized in the terrain of the battlefield and only nine actually reaching and penetrating the German lines. Even where they were successful they were hard pressed to advance across the cratered battlefield faster than a soldier's walking pace.
When Winston Churchill, formerly head of the Landships Committee but now a backbench MP, heard of the tanks use and performance at Flers–Courcelette he responded: "This priceless conception, containing if used in its integrity and on a sufficient scale, the certainty of a great and brilliant victory, was revealed to the Germans for the mere petty purpose of taking a few ruined villages". The flaws that were exposed in the designs of the Mark I at Flers–Courcelette led to design improvements and the development of better tactics, which made the tank a formidable weapon by the war's end.
On the opening day of the battle, Raymond Asquith, son of the British Prime Minister (H. H. Asquith), was killed as was Conservative politician Charles Duncombe, 2nd Earl of Feversham, whilst Harold Macmillan, a future Prime Minister, seriously injured.
Ultimately, the Battle of the Somme would continue for almost two more full months after Flers–Courcelette, but none of the battleplans that followed set the grand objectives that Flers–Courcelette or the July battles of Albert, and Bazentin Ridge had when total breakthrough was the intended outcome of the attacks. Though there was success found in pushing the Germans back at Flers–Courcelette, the failure to decisively cut through the German lines convinced Haig and his Army commanders Rawlinson and Gough to scale back their objectives in further attacks on the Somme to smaller 'bites' of strategically significant territory in limited attacks.
- Serjeant Donald Forrester Brown of the Otago Infantry Regiment.
- Lieutenant Colonel John Vaughan Campbell of the 3rd Battalion Coldstream Guards, Guards Division.
- Lance-Sergeant Frederick McNess of the 1st Battalion Scots Guards.
- John Chipman Kerr of the 49th (Edmonton) Battalion.
- The Canadian actions on the Somme are commemorated at the Courcelette Memorial which sits beside the D929 (Albert-Bapaume) roadway, just south of the village of Courcelette.
- The New Zealand Memorial to the New Zealand Division's actions on the Somme is found on the former site of the Switch Line trench on a lane off the D197 road running north of Longueval (GPS co-ordinates 50.039501 2.801512) and the New Zealand Division's memorial to its Missing in France is located near the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Caterpillar Valley Cemetery, just east of the village of Longueval.
- The 41st Division memorial sits in Flers in commemoration of their liberation of the village. This memorial, topped with a bronze battle dressed soldier, has been made particularly famous in its depiction as the photo on the cover of Rose Coombs' quintessential battlefield tour guide Before Endeavours Fade. The statue by Albert Toft is the same figure used at the Royal London Fusiliers Monument in London and Oldham war memorial.
- A memorial cross to the Guards Division sits beside the C5 road between Ginchy and Lesbœufs.
- A memorial cross to the 47th London Division sits beside the D107 road just inside High Wood between Martinpuich and Longueval.
- All military units after the first one mentioned are French unless specified.
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- Marden 1920, pp. 22–23.
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- Prior & Wilson 1992, p. 243.
- Terraine 1963, p. 219.
- Stewart 1921, p. 399.
- Miles 1938, p. 316.
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- Miles 1938, p. 361.
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- Gliddon 1987, p. 246.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Battle of Flers-Courcelette.|
- Battle of the Somme, Free Information Society
- Flers–Courcelette, Spartacus Educational
- Tanks and World War One, History Learning Site
- The Battle of Flers, History Learning Site
- Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Battle of the Somme: Courcelette
- British Tank Actions of the First World War