Europe

Flers–Courcelette

This statue in the heart of the tiny village of Flers in northern France is remarkable for three reasons:

First, it commemorates a foreigner, the British Tommy, or foot-soldier, who fought and died by the thousands in 1916 in the Flers-Courcelette phase of the World War I Somme Offensive. The French don’t erect a lot of statues to foreigners.

Second, in a war notorious for its indifference to the fate of the common soldier, this village forewent the usual memorial to some mustachioed general who’d spent the war comfortably ensconced miles from the front. You don’t see a lot of WW I monuments to the poor sods who bore the brunt of the fighting.

But the third and most surprising reason for wondering about this bronze Tommy is that he stands on the precise spot where the first armored tank in history was offloaded on September 15, 1916, and sent lumbering on its caterpillar tracks to the nearby front. No sign anywhere in the village today of the British invention that, along with the airplane, would define warfare in the twentieth century.

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The British Generals had no real clue about the offensive potential of their weapon and envisioned it as a sort of land battleship for use as infantry support. Forty of the forty-nine top-secret machines broke down before they even reached the front. After the initial surprise, the Germans quickly neutralized the other nine. The battle netted a gain of two kilometers at a cost of 29,376 lives, but as usual on the Western Front, no Generals were cashiered.

In a perverse classification worthy of Freud, the British divided their early tank designs into Male (large and dangerous cannon) and Female (small and irritating machine guns). The earliest Male design was naturally named the Little Willie, but it was the later Mother version and her massively armed descendants that conquered the world.

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