25th Jun, 2022

Commemorative book remembering the fallen marks 100th anniversary of brutal Somme battle

Shaun Reynolds 15th Sep, 2016 Updated: 28th Oct, 2016

A FORMER army officer has marked the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme by compiling a complete history of the first tank crews into a book.

Written by World War I enthusiast Stephen Pope, ‘The First Tank Crews’ tells the story of the Daimler engines that drove Coventry constructed tanks into battle during the infamous Battle of the Somme.

Lasting 18 weeks, the Somme was one of the bloodiest battles in human history – where more than one million men were either wounded or killed.

Released by Solihull-based publishers Helion, the book focuses specifically on Coventry men Walter Atkins, Roland ‘Rol’ Elliott and Ernest Herbert Statham, who served at Martinpuich – and later became known as the ‘Black Cat crew’.

The Hampshire-based writer explained a battlefield tour to France inspired him to write the book – which took him 12 years to produce – as his passion for the subject sparked into life.

He said: “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.

“Producing the book involved unearthing new material that includes official service records, first-hand descriptions of battles and information provided by families of those who served.

“What struck me most during my battlefields tour was that no one knew who the tank gunners or drivers were during parts of the tour which I thought was a mistake.

“I did some research and the details of people who fought in the Somme grew and grew.

“This book tells the previously untold stories of bravery, determination and dedication by a group of unsung heroes.”

Stephen developed a website to help boost his chances of sourcing undiscovered information – and the reaction he received was beyond his wildest imagination.

Among the stories revealed in the book is that of Charles Hoban, a gunner in tank crew D15.

Born in Kenilworth in the autumn of 1887, Charles married Caroline Collins in Coventry in 1912 but sadly their only child, Charles died as an infant in 1915.

Stephen’s book touches on Charles’ remarkable story, mentioning how he was one of the first men to be killed in action during the attack on the French village of Flers.

Hoban’s tank was penetrated by bullets as it crossed no man’s land and he was badly wounded.

The tank was bought to a halt on the German front line – the crew had to abandon the vehicle, Charles later died near the tank and was buried close by.

Since publication The National Tank Museum has followed up on Stephen’s research by opening a new exhibition which features some of the first tank crewmen.

The semi-retired former army officer, whose book features the story of 400 individual war heroes, said: “The Daimler Engine came out of Coventry and the city produced an enormous amount of tanks and parts to go with it ranging from gearboxes to sprockets.

“Coventry was important in the build up to the Somme as the city developed these fighter tanks in short time.

“There was a newspaper named ‘The Motorcycle’ in those days and most tank crew members were recruited through the motorcycle industry in Coventry.

“What I’ve learnt from writing this book is that ordinary blokes can do extraordinary things.

“The average driver of these tanks was a motorcycle enthusiast – the oldest were generally 35 and some were aged under 18.”

“The biggest problem I came across when writing this book was how the whole battle was by enlarge kept as a secret.

“Those who fought didn’t want to upset their family so tracing back all the details has been quite challenging.”

Visit www.firsttankcrews.com for further information and to buy your copy of the book.

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