The British first used tanks to rebuff the Germans at the Somme. Canadians and Newfoundlanders were essential in winning the brief Battle of Courcelette.
The Battle of Courcelette was part of the World War I Battle of the Somme in the summer of 1916. The German Army invaded France in August 1914, and the French and British were attempting to regain occupation of the northern region. The British army included volunteer battalions from several other countries, including Australians, New Zealanders and the Ist Newfoundland Regiment. (Newfoundland joined Confederation on March 31, 1949.)
On July 1, 1916, the Battle of the Somme began. The first day of the offensive is recognized as one of the most horrific in British military history with casualties numbering some 58,000 men, according to “Battles – Battle of the Somme, 1916” on First World War. Two months later, the Allies were still mired in fighting without much ground gained for the enormous losses.
Introduction of Tank Warfare
The Canadian Corps moved from the battlefront at Ypres Salient in time to join the offensive at Courcelette. The Canadian troops’ mission was to take two trenches, nicknamed “Sugar” and “Candy,” and to capture the beet-sugar refining factory. Setting the enemy off-guard, British Commander-in-Chief, Lieutenant General Sir Douglas Haig introduced the tank to the battle scene of the Somme near the town of Courcelette.
Lt. General Haig attempted to put all 49 of his available tanks into the theatre, but he was foiled by vehicles not yet readied and many requiring repair; other tanks broke down on the way to the battle. Seven armoured tanks rumbled and roared along the French battlefield.
On the morning of September 15, the Canadians moved “behind a creeping barrage, a technique where an artillery bombardment was coordinated to land just slightly ahead of the advancing troops,” according to “Canada Remembers – the Battle of the Somme” by Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC). “This barrage,” according to “Canada and the First World War” by the Canadian War Museum, “was not meant to destroy the enemy trench systems… but to drive defenders into their protective dugouts.”
2nd Canadian Division Captured Courcelette
Heavy and slow, the British Mark 1 Male Tanks weighed in at 28 tons each and crept along at ½ mile per hour. The newly-developed vehicles were unreliable and broke down easily, and while they repelled small arms fire, they could be damaged or destroyed by shell fire. However, the tanks initially still had the desired effect. “Although the early armour was anything but reliable, many Germans surrendered and the Canadians soon captured their objectives,” noted VAC.
By nightfall of September 15, the Canadians were in Courcelette. Using their rifles, bayonets and hand grenades, the Canadians were involved in grisly close-quarters warfare “in which the town was cleared of the Germans who had fortified themselves in what remained of the buildings.”
The 2nd Canadian Division (Reserve Forces), including the 22nd Battalion of the French Canadian “Van Doos,” regained Courcelette, one of the few successful encounters in the frustrating and bloody Battle of the Somme.
Fighting ended in mid November with the arrival of cold, wet weather that transformed grassy fields into bogs of thick mud. “In four and a half months, the front line had only advanced six miles into German-held territory – and the Allies were still three miles short of their initial goal,” said VAC. The gruesome battles caused about 24,000 Canadian casualties, the Allies suffering approximately 620,000 soldiers wounded and dead. The German army endured over 430,000 casualties, according to the New World Encyclopedia.
Canadians Became the “Storm Troops” in Great Battles
The Battle of Courcelette in the longer Battle of the Somme brought Canadian troops into view as “hard-hitting shock troops,” said Veterans Affairs Canada, the soldiers earning a reputation as storm troops. “For the remainder of the war they were brought along to head the assault in one great battle after another. Whenever the Germans found the Canadian Corps coming into the line they prepared for the worst.”
The courageous effort of the Canadian Corps was recognized with the installation of the Courcelette Memorial near the town of Courcelette. Placed in a soothing, circular-shaped park with trees, paths and grass, the memorial inscription on granite reads: “The Canadian Corps bore a valiant part in forcing back the Germans on these slopes during the Battles of the Somme Sept. 3rd – Nov. 18th, 1916.”
- “Battles – Battle of the Somme, 1916,” First World War – Accessed May 6, 2011
- “Canada and the First World War,” Canadian War Museum – Accessed May 6, 2011
- “Canada Remembers – the Battle of the Somme,” Veterans Affairs Canada – Accessed May 6, 2011
- The Courcelette Memorial, Veterans Affairs Canada – Accessed May 7, 2011
This article first appeared on Suite101 in May 2011. Copyright Susanna McLeod