Based on the text of the book The First Tank Crews by Stephen Pope
In May 1916, the first six tank companies were formed at Siberia Camp near Bisley in Surrey. The majority of the soldiers who fought in the tanks were from the Motor Machine Gun Service (MMGS) and the Machine Gun Corps (MGC). After initial weapon training at Bullhousen Farm, Bisley, which is just north of HMP Coldingley, and tuition on the 6lb gun by the Royal Navy, in May 1916 the companies moved to Elveden in Suffolk where a secret training location had been established. Over the next eight weeks, the crew members learned to drive and “fight” their vehicles on a specially built mock battle area.
From mid August the tanks and their crews of C and D companies were deployed to France and, after final training across old trench lines near Yvrench, went into action on the morning of 15 September 1916. 49 tanks were tasked to support an attack designed to capture German strong points between Courcelette and Combles as part of the Somme offensive that had begun on 1 July.
Three members of the crew of tank C1 “Champagne” were from Surrey: the driver Private Horace Brotherwood, Sergeant Fred Saker and Gunner George Lloyd. C1 was one of three tanks tasked to support the 2nd Canadian Division attack on Courcelette village on 15 September 1916.
The tank lost its steering wheels due to artillery fire whilst moving up to its start point and therefore crossed the start line after the infantry. The tank pressed on and crossed the German front line. At approx 7.00 am, the tank became ditched (at map reference R25a3.9) whilst following a German communications trench.
The crew attempted to dig out C1 for 4 hours, during which time they were the target of enemy artillery fire. The Tank Commander, Lieutenant A J C Wheeler, was just about to order that the tank be abandoned when Private Brotherwood was killed, a fragment of a German shell severing his jugular vein. The remainder of the crew returned safely to their own lines and later recovered his body. He is buried at Pozieres British Cemetery.
Unlike most of the tanks which broke down or became ditched, Champagne was never recovered from the battlefield. Her picture subsequently was taken by Captain Frank Hurley of the Australian Army: Hulk of Tank C1, 1917
Sergeant Frederick John Saker was born on 3 September 1890. He was the youngest son of an agricultural labourer, Henry Saker. Fred later lived in Aldershot whilst working as a grocer’s assistant. In 1915, as he enlisted at Bisley, stating his occupation as shop assistant and address as New Lodge, Claremont Park, Esher. He deployed to France with the C Company advance party on 16 August 1916 and he remained with C Battalion on its formation.
Fred fought at the Battle of Arras as a member of No. 8 Company. On 9 April 1917, he was a member of the crew of tank C26; the male tank ditching before it reached the British front line. Fred was awarded the Military Medal for conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. “During the capture of Monchy-le-Preux, on April 11, 17, this NCO served his gun with the greatest coolness and effect. When his tank broke down under a very severe artillery barrage, he remained with it, using every effort to get it moving again. When the tank had to be abandoned, he showed great courage and resource in consolidating a trench under heavy fire.”
He fought at the battle of Cambrai after which he was granted UK leave and married Lizzie Edwards at Woking Parish Church on 11 December 1917. Returning to his unit, he was admitted to hospital on March 18 1918, suffering from what was to become known as Spanish flu; he therefore missed the “Kaiserslacht” (the major German offensive of Spring 1918), but was sent back to C Battalion on 27 April where he served with B Company. He was not promoted Sergeant again until 24 September when he was appointed Company Quartermaster Sergeant of B Company. He was granted UK leave soon after the Armistice and demobilised in February 1919, settling at his wife’s home at 115 High Street, Old Woking. Their only daughter Myrtle was born 5 May 1920. Fred worked as a buyer for 14 Co-op grocery shops around Woking. He died, aged 88, on 5 November 1978 whilst staying with his daughter near Nottingham (family information provided by Les Crow and Keith Wickham).