On 15th September 1916, as the Battle of the Somme raged, The British Army sent tanks into action for the first time.
At the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, the new mysterious weapon – the Mark I tank – was unveiled. 49 were earmarked, 32 made it to the start line and, of those, only 18 went into action. For many of the men in the tanks, it was their first experience of war. For some, it was their last: 150,000 men fought at Flers and there were 30,000 casualties, including those of the Heavy Section of the Machine Gun Corps.
The First Tank Man
At 5:15 a.m. on 15th September 1916, Lieutenant Harold Mortimore led his tank Daredevil across No Man’s Land. This was the first tank in history to see action on a battlefield.
Mortimore, known as ‘Morty’, was 23 years old when he commanded his Mark I tank at the Battle of Flers Courcelette. Like other recruits to the new tank unit, he was entering a complete unknown.
‘Looking back on it, I don’t think I was frightened. I’d been very frightened indeed, both before and after the day, but on that particular morning the whole thing seemed unreal, besides which we all had the utmost confidence in our new weapon - the tank.’
Mortimore was tasked to attack enemy strongpoints at Delville Wood and then provide support for the assault on the village of Flers.
‘I managed to get astride one of the German trenches in front of the wood and opened fire. There were some Germans in the dugouts and I shall never forget the looks on their faces when they emerged and saw my tank.’
After this initial success, Daredevil was hit by artillery fire and knocked out. The crew escaped unharmed.
The First Tank Man to be Killed
Cyril William Coles was born at Canford, Dorset in 1893, the son of a corn miller. He attended a Church near Poole Quay.
After conscription was introduced, Cyril enlisted in the army in February 1916 and went on to join the secret organisation that were to take the first tanks to war. He is pictured in the front row of the one of the earliest photographs the Museum holds of the first tank men (see below).
Coles undertook just five months of training before travelling to France in August 1916 where he formed one of the eight-man crews of tank D15. Coles’ tank went into action on 15th September 1916 at the Battle of Flers - the first ever tank attack. D15 was struck and disabled by enemy artillery. The crew bailed out of the burning tank but enemy machine guns were already directed at them.
Coles was shot along with his fellow gunner and both were buried beside the wrecked tank. It is likely that Cyril Coles was one of the very first tank crewman to be killed in action. After the Armistice, Cyril’s remains were relocated to the Bull Road cemetery to the east of Flers. His memory was kept alive by his brother Donald Coles who, in 1925, named his only son after Cyril.
The story behind Cyril Coles’ inclusion in the Museum's Tank Men exhibition is almost as fascinating as the story itself. A photo of Cyril Coles came to light at Skinner Street United Reformed Church in Poole labelled ‘Killed in the first tank attack at Flers Sept 15th 1916’. This led Melissa Lambert, who discovered the photo, to draw the image to the attention of her sister Sarah Lambert, whose serves as Exhibitions Manager at the Tank Museum.
Subsequent research identified Cyril Coles in one of the first group photographs of tank crewman which, together with information from the Census and War Diaries, enabled the Museum team to identify which tank he served in at Flers and what happened to Coles and the crew.
In a way, ‘finding’ Coles was symbolic of many such men - a name on the memorial at the Church that was passed by on many Sundays by the congregation. Only by a bit more delving does the name become a person.
Cyril Coles is pictured in the front row, fourth from the left.
Henriques and Macpherson - A Broken Bond
Born in 1890, Basil Henriques left Oxford University just before war broke out. In 1914-15, he was working as a social worker and had set up his own Jewish youth club in a deprived area of the East End.
Henriques volunteered in May 1915 at the age of 24 and joined the Royal East Kent Regiment, where he met George Macpherson who was five years his junior. Despite their lack of mechanical knowledge or experience with machine guns, the two were transferred to the new tank unit in April 1916.
The Henriques story can’t be told without Macpherson. Basil and George had gone to the same school as young children, joined the same infantry unit and were in the same section in the Tank Corps. They developed a strong bond.
This bond was broken when George was killed in action on the day of the very first tank attack in history: 15th September 1916. There is circumstantial evidence to suggest he committed suicide.
Henriques struggled to cope without his friend and suffered a breakdown: ‘I am awfully lonely out here. George was such a marvellous companion that without him it is blank and empty,’ he wrote.
The Henriques Ring
Basil Henriques took part in that first tank attack, in command of a Mark I tank. As the tank progressed towards enemy positions, it came under heavy artillery fire. One accurate blast smashed the thick glass vision prism that Henriques was looking through to direct his vehicle, embedding shards and splinters in his face.
Henriques was fortunate to escape more serious injury and the glass splinters were removed from his face by medics. One piece was large enough to be mounted as a 'stone' in a gold ring, which he gave to his wife as a memento of his brush with danger.
Basil never commanded a tank again but played a key role as a reconnaissance officer in G Battalion and was awarded an Italian gallantry medal.
Henriques’ constant support was his wife Rose, who he married in 1916, just before leaving for France. Rose and Basil continued their social work after the war; it was for this work that Basil was knighted in 1955. A street in Whitechapel, London, where the couple had established their youth club, is named Henriques Street in their honour.