So, 99 years ago this morning, as the Battle of the Somme (literally) ground on and now in its third phase, the XV Corps of the British Fourth Army had the objective of taking the village of Flers, nine miles north-east of Albert, four miles south of Bapaume. Orders for the day:
- first: the Switch Line;
- second: the Flers Trench, the German trench just short of Flers village;
- third: Bulls Road, at the end of the village;
- beyond the village were the German positions, Flea Trench, Box and Cox;
- finally, and the fourth ultimate objective, were the Gird Lines, which opened the way to Guedecourt village.
The XV Corps were the 14th, 21st, 41st, 55th and New Zealand Divisions: the 14th (Light), the 41st and the New Zealanders were to lead the assault. The 14th (specifically the 6th battalion of the KOYLI) had to take out the Germans in a pocket east of Delville Wood, and were scheduled to advance an hour before the main assault: they would have the support of a single tank.
Overnight, 49 of the new “tanks” had been camped at Green Dump Valley. For personal histories see here.
This solo tank led out from Pilsen Lane, crossed Hop Alley, and was then knocked out (see map above). This would seem to have “straightened the line” and removed the German pocket.
More generally in this operation, by 7 a.m. the advance had captured the Switch Line. The 9th Rifle Brigade with the 42nd suffered badly when they were caught in a machine-gun enfilade before Bulls Road.
Most of the tanks were meant to attack towards Bulls Road. Of the 49 available (the entirety of the British and therefore the world tank force), 32 had reached their intended starting points. Of these nine continued with the infantry, nine were slow to start but were to some extent useful in the cleaning-up, nine broke down, and the remaining five had to be ditched in the midst of the battlefield. Then nine that did operate as intended did succeed in the taking of Flers. Three then reached Guedecourt where they were hit and (in WW2 terms) “brewed up”.
This was also the first operation by the New Zealanders, after Gallipoli: they and the 41st took Flers. There are 120 New Zealander graves in the CWGC cemetery at Bulls Road, Flers.
In the 41st Division was a temporary officer with the 21st Kings Royal Rifle Corps: Captain Anthony Eden. He was retained at the reserve in an assembly trench behind Delville Wood. His CO was Lord Feversham, who was killed with his pet deerhound in the attack on Gird Ridge. Major Gerald Foljambe (later 3rd Earl of Liverpool) took command, and appointed Eden as his Adjutant. Old Etonians stick together, you know.