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.

War Diaries of the First World War and Image Search

War diaries—records held at Library and Archives (LAC)—are daily accounts of First World War units’ “actions in the field.” They provide the most complete, first-hand record of how and where individual units were deployed and the wartime experiences of their members.

A page from the war diaries of the 22nd Canadian Infantry Battalion

A page from the war diaries of the 22nd Canadian Infantry Battalion (MIKAN 2004664)

Searching War Diaries

To search the war diaries, use Image Search, a great, fast and easy way to view and consult these digitized records. Tips for searching specific diaries are available on our How to Search for War Diaries section; using keywords will also help you narrow down your search. For example, here are the search results for the diaries of the famous “Van Doos,” better known as the 22nd Battalion. We used the search terms war diaries 22nd battalion and selected “Textual material” in the “Type of material” drop-down menu.

Finding Related Materials

After consulting a unit’s diaries, redo the search you just performed, but this time leave out war diaries, and in the “Type of material” drop-down menu, select the default “All.” Here are the search results for the 22nd Battalion. Your results will still include the war diaries, but you will also see photographs, works of art and other documents related to your search term, provided that it appears in the title of these documents.

Enjoy searching and exploring the digitized materials that we have to offer!

War Diaries: Discover what individuals or military units did during the war

Are you curious to discover what battles an individual fought in? Or what a unit did during the First or Second World War? Or maybe what regions a person travelled through with their unit?

In the first post, we suggested Published Histories. If there is no published history, or it is not detailed enough, then War Diaries may help.

War Diaries are the day-to-day log of a unit’s activities. For the Army, the official term is “War Diary.” For the Navy, the official term is “Ship Log” and for the Air Force it is “Operation Record Book.”

The Advantages of War Diaries

  • They provide the most complete first-hand record of how and where the unit was deployed;
  • They provide information that may not have been included in a published history.

To search for War Diaries, please use our Archives Search database.

For more details on War Diaries, visit our Military Heritage website.

Remember

  • War Diaries are not personal diaries. They rarely record information about individual soldiers.

Questions or comments? We would love to hear from you!

Published Histories: Discover what individuals or military units did during the war

Are you curious to discover what battles an individual fought in? Or what a unit did during the First or Second World War? Or maybe what regions a person travelled through with their unit?

If so, you have two main options, Published Histories and War Diaries. This post will focus on Published Histories.

For an easy-to-read overview of the unit’s activities, we recommend starting with Published Histories. These books are often called “regimental histories.” They cover the history and activities of the unit. The level of detail varies for each history. Some books include a variety of information such as pictures, maps, lists of unit members, and quotes from unit members.

The Advantages of Published Histories:

  • easier to read than War Diaries
  • contain a variety of information
  • can usually be sent to your local library via interlibrary loan*

You can search for these on our Library Search database by using the unit’s name.

For other suggestions of books on military units, we recommend our online exhibition, entitled From Colony to Country: A Reader’s Guide to Canadian Military History.

Our next post will discuss your second option: War Diaries.

(*) Update: End of Interlibrary Loan (ILL) Services

ILL services at Library and Archives Canada (LAC) will end in December 2012. Users of LAC‘s current services should note the following dates:

  • November 13, 2012: End of loan requests from international libraries.
  • November 16, 2012: End of renewals. All items loaned after this date will be non-renewable.
  • December 11, 2012: End of loan requests, location searches, and ILL-related photocopying services.

LAC‘s ILL listserv (CANRES-L) and Canadian Library Gateway will also be archived in December 2012.

LAC will continue to facilitate interlibrary loan activities among other institutions through the ILL form in AMICUS, and through ongoing administration of Canadian Library Symbols.

Through our modernized service channels, LAC will emphasize increased digital access to high-demand content. LAC is working with Canada’s ILL user community in order to inform this approach to accessing the institution’s unique holdings.

For more information, please visit “Interlibrary Loan at Library and Archives Canada“.

Questions or comments? We would love to hear from you!