“Through mud and blood to the green fields beyond”.
Tank Corps motto.
Whilst out recently on an autumnal walk I cut through Weymouth Cemetery towards Abbottsbury Road and laying in the green grass was a fallen, broken First World War headstone. It belonged to Wilfred Da Cunna Brookes – Tank Corps .As I had recently been on a trip to the excellent Bovington Tank Museum and visited their Tank Men: Story of the First Crews Exhibition. I was so inspired by the museum’s tank crew stories that I decided to investigate Wilfred Brookes.
Wilfred Da Cunna Brookes was born in Sale in Cheshire in 1891. He was the fourth child, of a well off family where his father Arthur was the manager in a shipping merchant’s office.Wilfred attended grammar schools at Sale and Manchester before studying at the Manchester School of Technology. He then worked as an assistant manager of a cotton warehouse.When war broke out Wilfred joined the Westinghouse Company as Inspector of Munitions in their artillery shell fuse department. As it was classed as a vital job he was unable to accept a war commission. It was not until 30th April 1916 that Wilfred was able to enlist into the Machine Gun Corps. His training was at the newly established Heavy Section Machine Gun Corps at Elveden which was secretly designing the first tanks. The whole programme was so secret that large screens were placed along the roads so no one could see into the training grounds. The perimeter was guarded day and night by 500 or more reservists fully armed with rifles and ammunition. Locals were warned that they would be shot on sight if they went past a particular point. Even the word ‘tank’ was designed to confuse – people would think of something used for storing water rather than a war machine.
It was not long before it was decided by the powers that be that the tanks, known as Mark 1, were to support a Canadian offensive at Flers-Courcelette on the Somme in France.
Rushed into service, men and machines were far from battle ready. There were some concerns as these early tanks proved notoriously unreliable during testing. Also crews had had no training with the infantry. Plus General Haig had requested 100 tanks, but had only 49 at his disposal.
The movement of tanks from Elveden to France began on 13 August 1916 under the cover of darkness. Twelve divisions were employed. Wilfred was part of D company and he was drafted to France as a Corporal on the 28/09/1916. .He reached Yvrench on 6 September where D company had to wait further orders. The attack was planned for the 15th September.
On the night of the 14th September the tanks were assembled near to Trônes Wood, preparing for attack. As a testament to their unreliability only 32 tanks managed to make it as far as the woods.
Alongside the tanks were 200,000 men. Many waited in shell holes and dugouts – busy in thought, their nerves on edge, emotionally exhausted waiting for their orders to attack. Brookes would have spent time with his tank crew: Lt R Legge, Gnr R Beesley, Gnr F Bardsley, Gnr H Clears ,Gnr G Cook, Gnr J Garner and Pte A/Sgt H Thacker
At 6.00 am on the 15th September, the first shots were fired on the enemy. As men went over the top the tanks roared into action. But 7 of the tanks failed to work. Thus only 22 rolled slowly into No Man’s Land. As the tanks ploughed across towards the enemy the conditions inside the tanks must have been terrifying. Comfort was not taken into consideration. Crammed inside in the pitch black was a crew of 8 men. There was an intense combination of extreme heat, noise and suffocating exhaust fumes from the engine,. The crews had practiced over lovely smooth parkland in England but where now lumbering over uneven conditions making some men sick. It was difficult to communicate within the tank and with other tanks outside. Radio communication was not available until late in the war so hand signals and pigeons were used. Navigation and visibility were poor. Front flaps on the tanks closed to protect them from bullets, so one could only see through a periscope, and the tank officer often had to get out and walk to reconnoiter his path or to work with the infantry. On top of all of this the bullets could penetrate the thin armour of the Mark 1’s.
Through all this Brookes tank lurched forward (his tank number was D6 747 ). It followed the main road to Flers until it reached German Switch Trench, where it passed Sgt Carmichael, of 21 KRRC, who was taking part on the assault. He described the sight of the tank ” lumbering past of my left, belching forth yellow flames from her Vickers gun and making for the gap where the Flers Rd cut through the enemy trench.”
The tank then turned east and north again to move down eastern side of the village Gueudecourt.. D6 747 supported the infantry as they fought their way to their third objective (the Bull’s Rd at the northeast of the village) and went beyond the enemy lines where the crew put several enemy gun emplacements out of action. The role of D6 being recognized by CO of the 26 Royal Fusiliers: “This tank was of the greatest material use and the party in charge of it distinguished themselves considerably.”
But then the tank suffered a direct hit from a high explosive shell. Lt Legge ordered that all his crew abandoned the tank. Wilfred managed to run, dodging bullets and shells. passing through both enemy and British barrages, where he found safety with some New Zealanders who were seeking shelter in a shell hole. The remainder of the crew were not so fortunate. Gnr Bardsley, Gnr Cook and Gnr Garner were all killed. Gnr Clears was captured by the Germans where he remained as a POW for the remainder of the war. A/Sgt Thacker managed to make his own way back to the British line but was suffering severe shock. (Thacker recovered and returned to action where he was killed on 15th April 1917). Lt Legge, badly injured, managed to reach a shell hole where he tried to take shelter but was captured by the Germans and died of his wounds on 16th September 1916.
The tank was left where it was abandoned; it was blown up with explosives after the war during the battlefield clearances.
Wilfred then courageously volunteered to join another tank crew and went back into action on 1 October 1916 at Eaucourt L’Abbaye. His tank was put out of action when the gearing became entangled with barbed wire. Leaving the tank, he attempted to cut the wire whilst under fire from the enemy. After being given the order to abandon by his officer, Cpt George Bown, Wilfred set fire to the tank, but whilst escaping, he was wounded in the right forearm by a grenade sustaining a compound fracture. He was awarded the Military Medal for his distinguished service. Wilfred was evacuated to the Bangour War Hospital, near Edinburgh, where he stayed for more than a year. Although he recovered from his wounds, he was not fit to return to active duty, so was put in charge of the workshops of the hospital’s X-ray Department. Having been promoted Corporal, he was sent to the Tank Corps Depot at Worget Camp, Wareham. There he contracted meningitis and died shortly afterwards at the Weymouth Isolation Hospital on 2 February 1918.