The Canadian attack on the French village of Courcelette, during the Somme offensive of the First World War, resulted in thousands of battlefield casualties. Yet, it also signalled the start of new thinking in military tactics that would eventually solve the riddle of the trenches, and help turn the tide of the war.

Creeping Barrage

Allied commanders were desperate for reinforcements after a summer of futile fighting and the heavy casualties suffered during the 1916 Somme offensive in northern France. As a result, the Canadian Corps (see Canadian Expeditionary Force), then stationed in Belgium, was moved south to help with the fighting in the Somme Valley.

On 15 September, three divisions of the Corps launched an attack on German lines to capture the ruined remains of the defended village of Courcelette. Two innovations helped the troops in their assault. Rather than wait for their army's artillery bombardment to end before charging across no man's land into enemy guns, the Canadians walked behind a "creeping" artillery barrage that steadily advanced across German lines — keeping enemy soldiers in their dugouts — until the Canadians were on top of enemy lines and ready to fight.

Tanks in Battle

The Canadians also went into battle with the latest attempt to break the trench deadlock: the tank. Six “land cruisers,” as they were then called, entered into history's first major tank battle at Courcelette (an additional tank was kept in reserve). Although slow, plodding and difficult to move, the large and imposing tanks were an effective psychological weapon against the Germans. Each tank was run by an officer and seven men. Also assigned to each tank were five infantrymen tasked with the removal of casualties ahead of the vehicle.

Although all but one of the tanks failed to reach their objectives — either due to mechanical failures, becoming stuck or shellfire ­— they struck fear into the enemy and caused some Germans to surrender at the mere sight of them. Courcelette was captured by the Canadian Corps on the first day of the assault, a rare Allied victory on the Somme, at the cost of several thousand Canadians casualties.

Slaughterhouse

The first three divisions of the Corps continued fighting on the Somme in September and October, suffering about 20,000 casualties overall after weeks of continued attacks and counterattacks. The Fourth Division, fighting alongside British infantry, captured Regina Trench, an important German strongpoint. Canadian casualties at the Somme numbered more than 24,000 by the time the campaign was called off.

When heavy rain, mud and snow finally put an end to the Somme campaign in November, an estimated 1.2 million men from the German and Allied forces had been killed, wounded or captured. The campaign produced no significant gains in territory, but the enormous bloodletting did inspire innovations in military thinking that in the coming year would help the Canadian Corps and other Allied units find ways to solve the stalemate of the trenches.