John Lennon’s maths teacher, the Scottish chemist Stuart Hastie (who introduced science into the whisky distilling process), the grandson of the social reformer Joseph Rowntree and the champion rose grower Bill Harkness…
These are just four of the brave souls who took the first tanks into action on the Somme battlefield 100 years ago and who are commemorated in an extraordinary new – and inaugural – account: The First Tank Crews. The Lives of the Men Who Fought at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette 15 September 1916.
Released by publishers Helion & Company to coincide with the centenary of the battle, The First Tank Crews has been meticulously researched by former army officer of 40 years, Stephen Pope, who has unearthed new material from official service records, first-hand descriptions of battles and, most importantly, information provided by families of those who served.
“I wrote the book because I was fascinated by the story of ordinary men who took part in a world first: an extraordinary event when near-prototype tanks were used for the first time,” says 62-year-old Stephen, who is now an army reserve officer.
“No-one else had researched their story and, other than through my website, it is wholly unknown. The National Tank Museum has since followed up on my research and have recently opened a new exhibition, which features some of the first tank crewmen.
‘I hope that the readers of the book will enjoy the 400 individual stories of the crewmen and their families before and after the First World War.”
Liverpool school teacher Graeme Nixon would survive the war to later award a young John Lennon detention – predicting he would fail his exams due to persistent absenteeism. He died within weeks of The Beatles’ last live concert in 1966.
Edinburgh chemist Stuart Hastie later commanded sections of tanks at the Battle of Cambrai. Under his orders, the crewmen used their tanks to rip up the German wire entanglements and allow the cavalry to deploy during battle. The son of an ironmonger, Hastie had risen to the rank of chief instructor of the Driving and Maintenance School in France by the end of Great War – receiving the OBE in the June Honours List of 1919. Later in life he would introduce science into the whisky distilling process and be lauded by his industry peers for his money-saving research.
“Sadly, many of the first tank crews died young: some due to injuries or illnesses developed as a result of their wartime service,” he says. “Many of their marriages failed – some as a direct result of the stresses of the battlefield. Many were childless and few lived to see their grandchildren grow up.
‘None of those who fought in the tanks achieved great fame for their actions, and few revealed their wartime secrets to their families; however, many became pillars of their local communities – giving a life of service to those around them. This book tells the previously untold stories of bravery, determination and dedication by a group of unsung heroes.”
Stephen will be at Flers in France on 15 September, together with 40 relatives of the tank crewmen and 25 members of the former Tank Corps, to remember the bravery of those who ventured into battle 100 years to the day. They will be joined by a party of serving Royal Tank Regiment soldiers, dressed in their distinctive black coveralls, to formally commemorate this unique day.
The First Tank Crews. The Lives of the Men Who Fought at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette 15 September 1916 is published by Helion & Company Ltd – one of the world’s largest publishers of military history.