The Battle of Flers-Courcelette

By Alex Comber

Far from achieving their objectives, the Battles of the Somme, continuing into August 1916, had accomplished little, at enormous expenditure of lives and resources. The Battle of Flers-Courcelette, which took place September 15 to 22, 1916, was another attempt to achieve a decisive result on the Somme Front. Fighting as part of the British Reserve Army, the Canadian Corps, commanded by Sir Julian Byng, would contribute two of its infantry divisions to the left wing of a wider attack.

This was the first major offensive operation for the Canadians, and their first experience of the devastating human toll of combat in 1916. The battle began by a massive artillery bombardment of enemy positions, similar to the earlier Somme battles. This “creeping barrage” was better timed with the pace of advancing soldiers, and kept just ahead of them. Most enemy units did not have time to recover and prepare their defences before the Canadian infantry battalions were upon them.

An image of a trench map, dated September 1916, showing the planned line of advance for the 27th Battalion near Courcelette, France.

This trench map, part of the War Diary of the 27th Battalion (City of Winnipeg), shows the planned lines of advance of this Battalion’s leading companies, from jumping-off trenches near Pozières (bottom left) toward the “final objective” just to the north of the sugar factory. Trench maps offer a wealth of detail, and this one shows the village of Courcelette at the top, and information about the other units that would advance on either flank of the 27th Battalion. (MIKAN 1883247)

Highlights of the successful advance of Canadian units included the capture of the village of Courcelette by Lt. Col. T.L. Tremblay’s 22nd Battalion (French Canadians) and the 25th Battalion (Nova Scotia Rifles) as well as the capture of the heavily fortified sugar factory east of the village by the 21st Battalion (Eastern Ontario). Elsewhere, the attack stalled, and hopes for a decisive success faded, as the Germans launched strong counterattacks or withdrew to fortified positions. Canadian units suffered approximately 24,000 wounded and killed soldiers during the operation.

A black-and-white photograph of a ruined industrial building in a destroyed landscape.

This Canadian War Records Office official photograph of October 1916 shows the remnants of what was originally a sugar factory before the War following the bombardment and Canadian advance on the fortified German position. (MIKAN 3403776)

The first tanks, called “Land ships” appeared on the battlefields of Flers-Courcelette. They were slow, cumbersome, and mechanically unreliable, and most were put out of action or broke down before they could help the advancing soldiers. However, the few that remained operational destroyed fortified pillboxes and caused chaos in enemy lines. Lt. William Ivor-Castle, an official photographer working for the Canadian War Records Office, filmed tanks advancing to their starting positions, and these caused a sensation when published in England as the first photos of tanks “in combat.”

A black-and-white photograph of a British heavy tank advancing through a shell-cratered landscape.

This Mark 1 tank, named “Crème de Menthe,” was one of the most successful of those supporting the Canadian attack at Courcelette on September 15, 1916. Early tanks were painted with colourful “Solomon-style” camouflage. (MIKAN 3397296)


Alex Comber is a Military Archivist in the Government Archives Division at Library and Archives Canada.

One thought on “The Battle of Flers-Courcelette

  1. My grandfather Sgt. Albert Speechley 19th battalion died that night.
    I have tried to collect his entire military record to produce a short video
    for family distribution

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