This is the first installment of the gripping story of William Taylor Dawson who took part in the first tank attack at Flers Courcelette on 15th September 1916. He served as a gunner in tank C20 with six other crew members and their commander, Lieutenant George Macpherson.
These men formed part of an overall force of 49 Mark 1 tanks that went into action that day with machines they had received only basic training on. This three-part story of William’s war and post-war life is formed from extracts of his account ‘Reminiscences of my Experience in the First Tanks’ and a 2015 interview with his daughters and granddaughter.
William Taylor Dawson came from a Lincolnshire-based family and was the eldest of four children. His father drowned at sea when he was 10 years old and as soon as he left school, William was required to go out to work to support the family.
He soon found employment with a shipbroking company but by 1916, had given this up to join the Army. In February that year, he enlisted in the Machine Gun Corps and transferred to the new, secret tank unit in May.
“It may have been Col Swinton who gave us a very serious talk explaining that the new project was so very very secret that he could give no details but that it was most important.”
William’s memories of his tank training at Elveden, Suffolk are characterised by a feeling of adventure and excitement:
“The secret camp was very large, roughly circular and some three or four miles across. The perimeter was guarded day and night by 500 or more reservists fully armed with rifles and ammunition.
Early one morning just after daylight we were awakened by a rumbling and rattling with sounds of motor engines. In great excitement everybody rushed out of tents, just as they had slept, and there they were, the first of the tanks, passing our tents to the practice driving ground which we had prepared.”
Travelling to France
In 2015, his daughters Audrey Mitchell and Sybil Robilliard provided The Tank Museum with a rare and important photograph of their father’s crew in training in the summer of 1916. The image (above) shows William standing back row, centre behind his commander, Lt G. Macpherson. It has only been possible to identify these two men as part of the crew of tank C20 who left Elveden in August 1916 to depart for the Somme battlefields.
“The personnel travelled to Southampton, thence to Havre on 13 August and our march from Liverpool St station to Waterloo station caused much interest to people in London owing to our unusual uniform with breeches and brown leggings, brown leather belt and revolvers with the brown leather helmet on the belt, as they had not seen any soldiers dressed like that before.”
Find out what happened when Taylor Dawson went into battle in Part Two.
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