The first tank to engage in battle, the British Mark I tank (pictured in 1916) with the Solomon camouflage scheme.
WWI. Canadian soldiers aboard a Mark I, the tank invented by the British.
The requirement to be able to move readily across open countryside with ample armor protection drove Richard Hornsby & Sons, developer of a track system for oil-engined tractors, to successfully experiment with a militarized version in 1905. Again, the War Office declined to support the venture beyond that point. Still, with the efforts of Daimler and Benz, and the Hornsby experiment, two key components of the tank, a reliable power plant and a track system to replace wheels, had been put in place. The years before 1914 saw various limited developments in the field in France, Germany, Italy and Great Britain with the resulting vehicles being used in local conflicts with varying degrees of success. The intransigent, reactionary war ministries and general staffs of the time stolidly maintained their hostile attitudes, delaying and sabotaging such developments wherever possible. Their inability to learn from and properly interpret their own battlefield experience, coupled with their persistent delusions about future tactics and requirements, left them essentially confused and generally ill-prepared for the Great War that was coming.
It should have been abundantly clear to most military commanders at the beginning of the First World War that neither massed ranks of infantry nor charging cavalry could survive in the face of fire from breech-loading, rifled weapons. Most commanders, though, refused to even consider any alternative to sending their troops “over the top” to cross a pock-marked, denuded wasteland through a withering hail of bullets. “War is good business. Invest your sons,” wrote a wag of the day.
The armored car was the first fighting vehicle to enter wartime service. It was built by the Belgians and by the British Royal Navy, and was tested and put into action on the Western Front in 1914. In the thick and sticky mud of the battlefields, however, these new and promising wheeled vehicles were largely unsuitable. In an irony ahead of that conflict, an Australian engineer named Lancelot de Mole had designed a practical armored tank vehicle that was, in fact, superior to that which the British Army would field on the Somme in 1916. But, when de Mole submitted his clever design to the War Office there was virtually no reaction. So, in 1915, he tried again to interest the decision makers of the War Office and was again rebuffed.
“Caterpillar landships are idiotic and useless. Nobody has asked for them and nobody wants them. Those officers and men are wasting their time and are not pulling their proper weight in the war. If I had my way I would disband the whole lot of them. Anyhow, I am going to do my best to see that it is done and stop all this armored car and caterpillar landship nonsense” declared Royal Navy Commodore Cecil Lambert, Fourth Sea Lord, in 1915. Lambert clearly disapproved of the Royal Navy Armored Car Division, which had been established in October 1914 with the enthusiastic support of the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, to develop a new line of purpose-built armored cars.
From a letter in January 1915 from Winston Churchill to Prime Minister Herbert Asquith: “. . . fit up a small number of steam tractors with small armored shelters, in which men and machine-guns could be placed, which would be bullet-proof . . . The caterpillar system would enable trenches to be crossed quite easily, and the weight of the machine would destroy all wire entanglements . . .”
Urgent diplomatic intercepts: St Petersburg, 29 July 1914, 1 a.m. Czar Nicholas II to Kaiser Wilhelm II: “I FORSEE THAT VERY SOON I SHALL BE OVERWHELMED BY THE PRESSURE FORCED UPON ME AND BE FORCED TO TAKE EXTREME MEASURES WHICH WILL LEAD TO WAR”.—Nicky
Berlin, 30 July 1914, 1:20 a.m. Kaiser Wilhelm II to Czar Nicholas II: “THE WHOLE WEIGHT OF THE DECISION LIES SOLELY ON YOUR SHOULDERS NOW. [YOU] HAVE TO BEAR THE RESPONSIBILITY FOR PEACE OR WAR.”
There’s a little wet home in the trench,
That the rain storms continually drench,
A dead cow close by, With her hooves in the sky,
And she gives off a beautiful stench.
Underneath us, in place of a floor,
Is a mess of cold mud and some straw, And the Jack Johnsons roar as they speed through the air
O’er my little wet home in the trench.
After the German defeat in the Battle of the Marne, a few Royal Navy units were sent from England to protect the air base at Dunkirk. They were also ordered to assume the rescue of pilots who had been shot down in the area. To that end, the Admiralty Air Department stepped in and provided some armored cars. They bought 100 of the vehicles from Rolls-Royce and shipped some of them directly to France where they were fitted with a box-like arrangement of armor covering the main unit and rear wheels, and other small, raised armored boxes to cover the front wheels and the driver’s head. The rest of the Rolls-Royce cars were modified in England where they remained until put into action in the autumn of 1914 where they performed relatively effectively, but also demonstrated that their crews were inadequately protected from overhead sniper fire. That led to development of a new version which incorporated a top-mounted machine-gun turret and overhead armor. The early examples of the new vehicle reached France in December 1914 and were immediately seen to be a great improvement over their predecessors. But, they had come into service at a point in the war when all significant movement on the battlefields had stopped. The armies of the two enemies were dug in behind wire barriers and fortifications and, while the new armored cars were promising, they were incapable of crossing the trenches or the wire.
Winston Churchill formed the Naval Landships Committee in February 1915 to design and build a new armored tracked vehicle based on a 1914 idea of Lieutenant Colonel Ernest Swinton, Royal Engineers. Swinton believed that a caterpillar-tracked armored vehicle could be created to destroy machine-gun positions and barbed wire barriers and, most importantly, to cross the great trenches and other obstacles on the battlefield with relative ease. The initial trials of the “Machine-Gun Destroyer” as it was referred to, were hugely disappointing, but Churchill and the committee were determined to continue the effort. They purchased two Bullock Creeping Grip tractors and imported them from the United States, and from them developed a new vehicle they called the Lincoln Number One Machine. They then redesigned the track and suspension units and modified the resulting vehicle which was soon delivering the kind of performance sought by the committee. They named the new vehicle Little Willie.
This time, the interest of the British Army was aroused by the possibilities it foresaw for such a machine. What they required, however, was a machine with about twice the capability of Little Willie. It had to be able to cross a trench eight feet wide as well as climb a parapet four and a half feet high. And then, two of the committee members, William Tritton and Lieutenant W.G. Wilson joined forces to come up with a new design, a combination of the best qualities and characteristics of both the Lincoln Machine and Little Willie, an entirely new fighting vehicle with tracks that ran around the perimeter of its rhomboid sides. Its overall height was kept to a minimum through the use of sponsons on either side of the vehicle, each mounting a six-pounder naval gun, rather than a a top-mounted turret. It had fixed front and rear turrets, with the front turret accommodating the commander and the driver sitting side by side. The rear turret housed a machine-gun. The vehicle contained four Hotchkiss machine-guns and there were four doors behind the sponsons as well as a man-hole hatch in the top of the hull. To the rear of the hull was attached a two-wheel towed steering tail. This new design was known as Big Willie, but more commonly referred to as Mother. It was eight feet in height and twenty-six feet five inches long, not counting the added steering tail. With a weight of twenty-eight tons, Mother was powered by a 105-hp Daimler sleeve-valve engine.
In February 1916, a trial of Mother was held at the Hatfield Park, Hertfordshire estate of the Marquess of Salisbury. The audience included Minister of Munitions Lloyd George, Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, the Minister of Defence, and some other representatives of the Army and the Admiralty. During the trial, Mother was put through her paces over a specially-prepared obstacle course containing a variety of craters, ditches, streams, wire entanglements and wide trenches, and she acquitted herself well according to the Landship Committee members present. Although Kitchener himself was not especially enthusiastic about what he witnessed that day, the Army representatives were quite impressed and by the end of the event, a production order for twenty-five of the vehicles was awarded to Foster’s and one for seventy-five of the machines went to the Metropolitan Carriage, Wagon and Finance Company. Fifty Mothers were to be built with the same armament as the prototype. Strangely, they would thereafter be referred to as “males,” with the balance of the vehicles armed with six machine-guns, four of them mounted in smaller side sponsons. These units were called “females.” Their role in combat was to protect the males from being swamped by enemy infantry. After the Hatfield Park trial, the King was given a ride in the prototype and emerged saying that a large number of the vehicles would be a considerable asset to the Army.
In the secrecy of the Foster’s workshops the workers and executives referred to the unusual new vehicles they were building as “tanks,” an odd reference to the new weapons system destined to entirely reform land warfare. They were trying to conceal what they were working on. Swinton and Lt. Col. W. Dalby Jones discussed the matter and they considered calling the thing “container” or “cistern” before finally agreeing on “tank,” which, they thought, implied some sort of agricultural machine . . . something the company might be expected to produce normally. Foster’s personnel even hinted broadly that the new products were to be shipped to Russia. And so the word “tank” entered into common usage and was soon generic for the war machine.
The pressure on the manufacturers to get the Mark I into production inevitably resulted in a vehicle something less than perfect. The makers took this first production tank from drawing board to assembly in just twelve months and, among its many drawbacks was a gravity-fed fuel system which could starve the engine when the vehicle was maneuvering with its front end in a steep, climbing or descending attitude. The fuel tank was positioned inside the vehicle and greatly increased the fire risk. And, in a particularly bizarre design solution, the vehicle required the teamwork of four crew members to steer it, even with the aid of the wheeled steering tail. David Fletcher, Librarian of the Tank Museum, Bovington, England, a leading authority on tanks and author of The British Tanks 1915-19: “Four of the crew served the guns; a gunner and loader on each side. The others were all required to operate the controls. The driver, sitting to the right of the commander, was effectively there to make the tank go. Apart from the steering wheel that was almost useless, he had no control whatever over turning, or swinging the tank, to use the contemporary term. He controlled the primary gearbox, clutch and footbrake which acted on the transmission shaft, along with the ignition and throttle controls. The commander operated the steering brakes and either man could work the differential lock which was above, between and behind them. The two extra men worked the secondary gearboxes at the back, on instruction from the driver, who had to work the clutch at the same time.
“It was, according to the instruction book, possible to steer the tank by selecting a different ratio in each of the secondary gearboxes, although experience soon proved that this would result in twisted gear shafts. Thus, except for slight deviations when the steering brakes were used, the standard procedure for steering was to halt the tank, lock the differential and take one track out of gear. First was then selected in the primary box and the other secondary box, the brake was then applied to the free track and the tank would swing in that direction.”
By February 1917, the Marks II and III had gone to war incorporating only minor improvements over the Mk I, but, by April the substantially improved Mark IV had entered service, protected by much better armor. It also featured a vacuum-feed fuel system, a new cooling and ventilation system, an exhaust silencer and a rear-mounted external fuel tank. While the males had the same armament as the prototype, the females were armed with six machine-guns (five Vickers and one Hotchkiss). A total of 420 male and 595 female tanks were produced before the arrival in May 1918 of the Mark V, by far the best and most dramatically advanced version of this pioneering fighting vehicle. The Mk V incorporated an entirely new epicyclic steering system designed by the former Lieutenant, now Major, W.G. Wilson, as well as an extended hull to increase its trench-crossing capability. With enhanced power from a 150 hp Ricardo engine, the Mk V was capable of 4.6 mph maximum speed, compared to the 3.7 mph top speed of the earlier marks. Mark V production totalled 400 male and 632 female tanks.
The armored strike force of the British Army was forming in 1916 and the Army wisely decided to establish it as a new branch under the overall command of Ernest Swinton. Lt. Col. Hugh Elles, a Royal Engineer officer, was appointed field commander in France. Elles had been GHQ representative for tank development and policy. The new organization was called the Tank Detachment until June 1917 when it was redesignated the Tank Corps and, in 1923, it became the Royal Tank Corps, the award coming from King George V. In 1939, the Royal Tank Corps was renamed the Royal Tank Regiment and became part of the Royal Armored Corps, along with other units, mainly former cavalry regiments.
Elles put together a small staff of officers in 1916 who brought considerable intelligence, enthusiasm and foresight to the war front in France. Realizing the enormous potential of the tank weapon, Elles’s key staff, including Captain G. Martel and Major J.F.C. Fuller, predicted the coming battles between opposing tank forces and other advanced tank tactics that were destined to change land warfare forever. It was Fuller who, in 1917, wrote of the tank, “It is in fact an armored mechanical horse.”
At dawn the ridge emerges massed and dun, In the wild purple of the glow’ring sun, Smouldering through spouts of drifting smoke that shroud The menacing scarred slope, and, one by one, Tanks creep and topple forward to the wire.
—from Attack by Siegfried Sassoon
Well, how are things in heaven? I wish you’d say Because I’d like to know that you’re all right. Tell me, have you found everlasting day, Or been sucked in by everlasting night? For when I shut my eyes your face shows plain; I hear you make some cheery old remark—I can rebuild you in my brain, Though you’ve gone out patrolling in the dark.
—from To Any Dead Officer by Siegfried Sassoon
Flers-Courcelette 15 Sept 1916