This article is contributed by Paul Reed, author of "Walking the Somme" in the "Battleground Europe" series of books published by Pen & Sword Books. The article was originally placed on the site in November, 1998. In this original November article, Paul reserved judgement on the subject of the identity of the "Flesquieres tank."
The November article still appears exactly as it was written but it is now followed by an additional article outlining Paul's further thoughts on the identity of the tank.
The official ceremony dedicating the uncovering of a First World War tank took place at Flesquieres on the afternoon of Friday 20th November 1998, the 81st anniversary of the Battle of Cambrai.
For many years local villagers speculated that a tank was buried in the area and research by Philippe Gorczynski (the author of a French book about the battle) finally pinpointed its location.
Digging began about a week ago, and a hatch was found about a metre below the surface. M. Gorczynski then entered the vehicle finding it complete and almost intact. Proper excavations followed so that by the 20th November the whole tank was completely uncovered and visible.
Located just on the outskirts of Flesquieres village, it is a Mark IV Female. The guns were not in situ and the tank had taken a direct hit below the driver's compartment. Interior damage was minimal, and both sponsons intact. The rear of the tank was in particular good condition with the crew door still partly open. Even the exhaust was still there!
Speculation had at first pointed to this being 'Demon' of 4th Bn Tank Corps. However, further research appears to indicate it could be D41, which was knocked out by shell fire on 20th November 1917, its commander - 2/Lt R.A.Jones - being killed; he is buried in Flesquieres Hill British Cemetery nearby. However, the location where the tank was found is in the sectors covered by both D and E Bns on 20th November, so it may be some time before we conclusively know the identity of the tank.
A great deal of war material was recovered from the site - mainly of German vintage. It appears that the Germans later used the tank wreck as a dug-out, and given the large number of Ersatz steel shell-cases lying around, there must have been gun-sites here at some point - probably in late 1918.
The tank will be raised, and once renovated will be on display in the village of Flesquieres itself.
The Tank at Flesquières - An Update - December 30th, 1998
The Great War tank recently found at Flesquières has attracted a great deal of interest, both in the media and on the Internet. Initially there were several conflicting stories regarding the identity of the tank, and so far no new material has come to light from those responsible for its excavation. Officially it remains D41, commanded by 2/Lt R.A.Jones and knocked out in the battle of Cambrai on 20th November 1917 - Jones, and several crew, being killed.
From further research among my own archives, compiled from the Tank Corps War Diaries at the Public Record Office, Kew, some considerable doubt may now be placed on the initial identification of this tank.
The key to the identity of the Flesquières tank is certainly the location where it was found. By this, we mean the First World War trench map reference. Using a 1917 map, where the tank was unearthed is on the site of a main Hindenberg Line support trench which ran along the walls of Flesquières chateau. This map reference is approximately:
On 20th November 1917 Flesquières was assaulted by troops of the 51st (Highland) Division, supported by tanks of 4th ('D') Bn Tank Corps. Their War Diary at the PRO is especially detailed, listing the fate of each individual tank for that battle. When a tank was knocked out or disabled, the precise trench map location of the vehicle was noted in the unit's records. The diary records nine tanks knocked out on 20th November. They are listed below: in each case the tank's number, name, type (male or female) and fate is tabulated.
D6 Devil May Care (F) Direct hit & burnt out at K.17.d.5.2
D11 Dominie (F) Direct hit & burnt out at K.17.d.6.6
D28 Drakes Drum II (F) Direct hit "nr. Flesquières"
D32 Dop Doctor II (F) Two direct hits at K.23.b.9.9
D41 Devil II (F) Two direct hits at K.17.b.2.4
D45 Destroyer II (F) Direct hit K.23.b.6.8
D47 Demon II (M) Direct hit K.24.a.2.8
D49 Dollar Princess (F) Ditched & direct hit K.24.b.4.6
D51 Deborah (F) Direct hit K.18.d.3.2
It will be noted that none of these tanks are shown as being on the site of the vehicle found at Flesquières - the nearest one to it is D47, and we can immediately exclude that as it was a male tank. D41, the tank associated with that found in November, was in fact knocked out over 1,000 yards away on the other side of the village - which seems to now exclude it. D32 and D45 were the nearest female tanks: about 300 yards away - but given the shell-scarred nature of the battlefield were the Germans likely to pull a tank in good condition into a main trench and bury it? This could be argued for all the other tanks, which were all 400-500 yards distant. D28 is the only tank not given a map reference, but the records of that tank's Brigade show that it was knocked out somewhere in square K.35 - about 3,000 yards due south/south-west of Flesquières.
From the records it seems that none of these tanks are a possible candidate. So what is this tank?
One thing no-one seems to have taken into consideration is the fact that there was later fighting at Flesquières. During the 1917 battle the village was threatened in the German counter-attack, and it is possible that a tank was knocked out then. The main possibility, in my mind, is March 1918. The Flesquières Salient was heavily fought over on 21st March, and the Germans attacked using captured British MkIVs taken at Cambrai in 1917. The 8th Bn Tank Corps were also in action at Flesquières on this date, and their records show a number of tanks lost and 'missing'. Who is to say it is not one of them? And then we have the fighting for this part of the Hindenberg Line in September 1918 - although one would have thought MkVs would have been used by then, and this is obviously a MkIV.
It is clear, therefore, that further research is needed on the part of the team who discovered the Flesquières tank, as when it is finally placed on display in the village one would hope it will be correctly identified.
The Tank at Flesquières - A Final Update
Since my article was first posted on Tom Morgan's Hell Fire Corner, I have received more than a hundred emails asking about the now famous tank found at Flesquières. Most of them have asked to be updated about the identification of this tank.
The tank has now been "officially" identified by Phillip Gorcynski as D51, "Deborah". The identification was made possible, I found out at a talk given by the Tank Museum's David Fletcher, by a photograph in their archives donated by the family of Second Lieutenant F.G.Heap - the commander of the tank. This photograph pictured D51 after the Battle of Cambrai, still on the battlefield, and showing shell damage which matched the tank found at Flesquières in 1998. It was therefore presumed that given the damage to the tank in the picture was identical to the tank found, then this tank must be D51.
What happened to D51 at Cambrai? It was a female tank, which according to the 4th Bn Tank Corps War Diary, was knocked out by shell fire at map reference K.18.d.3.2. Commanded by Heap, the shell damage to the tank resulted in several casualties with four of the crew killed. Heap survived unwounded, but was awarded the Military Cross for his bravery that day.
The location of the tank, as I have stated before, is the key to its identity. D51 was knocked out at K.18.d.3.2. Where was this? Referring to the trench map, it places the vehicle on a road going north-east out of the village of Flesquières, in the direction of Cantaing. The tank found in 1998 was located at K.24.a.4.7: some 500 yards on the opposite side of the village. One must therefore ask the following questions:
Why was this tank left on the battlefield after Cambrai? - it is unlikely it was moved to its final position during the war. Tanks were salvaged by both sides in 1917 - and despite the damage to the vehicle both sponsons were intact, as was the engine. Why were these not removed?
How did the tank come to be moved? - these are heavy vehicles and no-one is going to have wasted time and effort in moving it, only to bury the thing in a shell hole or trench on the other side of the village. Why not bury the tank closer to where it was knocked out?
Why was so much German equipment found in and near the tank? - if the tank was not moved until after the war, the original theory that it was later used as a "German bunker" does not seem to apply.
Why would shell damage to a tank seen on a 1917 photograph identify the one found in 1998? - the tank was struck front on, and to one side, by shell fire. This is not untypical damage to a WW1 tank. This surely makes the photograph only circumstantial evidence?
How can we explain the damage to the rear track units? - they are both bent outwards, as if something heavy had struck the tank at high speed. Why not another tank, in action?
This brings us back to an original suggestion made by myself in 1998 - why is it not possible that this was a German tank? So many were captured in 1917 and then re-used on 21st March 1918. This might explain all the German equipment found. The tank was certainly pointing in the right direction for a German attack - with the nose towards what were the British positions on 21st March. And it explains why no British tank knocked out in the Battle of Cambrai "fits" in with this location.
Those who have conducted any historical research will know that the more you look into something, the less clear it appears. I feel we will never really know the true identification of the "Flesquières Tank".
For those who are interested, it is currently stored in a local farm at Flesquières, where it can be seen by appointment. Two funds are currently raising money to restore the tank. It is projected that this will costs several thousand pounds.
Paul Reed MA
For a direct link to the author of this article, email Paul Reed
Copyright © Paul Reed, November, 1998, December, 1998, January, 2000
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