But the battle was not over. The shock and surprise of the first day was fading and the Germans rushed in counterattack divisions to seal the breach. The British position was strung out and in many cases beyond the protective umbrella of its artillery. Furthermore, the Heavy Branch was exhausted. The Battle of Arras had been a brutal proving ground for men and machines. The crew compartment was atrociously hot in battle and the interior air was thick with carbon monoxide from the poorly ventilated engine. Surviving crewmen were left exhausted by the experience and many required at least thirty-six hours’ rest to recover. In other cases the crew no longer had a functioning tank to operate. The hours of darkness were filled with curses as crewmen tried to repair damaged vehicles or extract their machine from the mud. Few were successful before renewed fighting disrupted their work. Of some five hundred tanks committed to the fighting on 12 April, fewer than two hundred were reported as ready for action on the following day. The number continued to decline as the battle continued. The sound of church bells would prove to be premature.
The Battle of Arras is remembered as a flawed victory. The British renewed their attacks in the days that followed, hurling the remaining tanks into action once more. Local advances were made, but the momentum of that first day could not be recreated. As more and more tanks were disabled the fighting assumed the character of so many other First World War battles: a remorseless, attritional struggle over a muddy landscape swept with artillery. German counterattacks crashed into the British line and clawed back some of the lost ground. Both sides fought themselves to a standstill until the battle ended through mutual exhaustion. Elsewhere, the French offensive on the Chemin des Dames had similarly achieved a notable initial success with its armour, only to have the advance peter out amidst mud and shellfire. French casualties were high but all agreed that they would have been far worse without the advantage gained by the surprise use of tanks.
In the following weeks the Allies licked their wounds and pondered the future. Nowhere was this truer than the Heavy Branch. Its performance in battle had earned it the title of the Royal Tank Corps. Its official motto was ‘Fear Naught’, but it took pride in its unofficial saying of ‘From Mud, Through Blood to the Green Fields Beyond’. The latter slogan proved hugely popular with officers and men. The unofficial motto encapsulated the Tank Corps’ dogged outlook and reaffirmed its determination to smash through the German lines and reach the open country. Although there was disappointment and frustration in the aftermath of the Battle of Arras, there was also a learning process that would ultimately lead to a greater success.
Despite the heavy loss of tanks at Arras, the devastating opening attack had convinced even the most stubborn doubters in the War Office that the vehicles were much more than ironclad novelties. As a result vehicle design and production accelerated exponentially. Long-term champion Winston Churchill – now serving as minister of munitions – was delighted by the performance of the branch and used his authority to increase production of new vehicles. His optimistic message for the Tank Corps was: ‘the resources are available, the knowledge is available, the time is available, the result is certain’ and ‘we are standing by to put new weapons in their hands … let there be no misunderstanding therefore but only confidence and full steam ahead.’ Churchill planned to provide not only replacements for battlefield losses but also entirely new models of tanks.
Combat experience had revealed the strengths and weaknesses of the armoured branch. The lessons of the Battle of Arras would inform design and manufacture of the next generation of tanks. The old MK I and MK II models were found to be vulnerable to German SmK bullets – armour-piercing rounds used against the steel-covered loopholes favoured by snipers – but the more advanced MK IVs were effectively immune to infantry fire. Nevertheless, the numerous injuries suffered as a result of internal ‘splash’ necessitated the issue of chainmail masks and protective goggles for crewmen.
The majority of tanks had been disabled by mechanical breakdown or becoming stuck in shell holes. The necessity for an improved engine and transmission system was obvious. Fortunately, the solution was at hand in the form of a newly designed 150-hp engine that entered large-scale production in early 1917. This was a major improvement on the 105-hp engines used by the first generation of tanks. It would first be used in the MK V tank that began to reach the front in mid-1917. The British had also begun manufacture of a new class of tank – the Medium Mark A, better known as the ‘Whippet’. Smaller and faster than existing British vehicles, the Whippet was designed to exploit the breaches made by its heavier cousins and harry retreating German infantry. Herculean industrial and organisational effort was placed on the production of Allied armour, even at the expense of other war industries. By the latter part of 1917 the new machines were arriving in considerable numbers.
Whilst the Allies were improving their tanks, the Germans were instituting a crash programme of anti-tank weapons. Engineers inspected the wrecked and captured vehicles that had been abandoned at Arras. Fortunately for the Allies, the only intact machines that the Germans were able to capture were some of the older MK I models. Nevertheless, the Germans quickly devised short-term solutions. Provision of armour-piercing SmK bullets was increased and specialist anti-tank artillery units were formed. In parts of the line the trenches were widened to make it impossible for tanks to cross without falling in. The technological race between Allied tank design and German anti-tank measures would continue throughout the summer.
The tanks had caught the public imagination and were featured prominently in press stories and propaganda features. Having entered the war in the same month as the Battle of Arras, the United States Army took a special interest in armoured warfare. A US Tank Board was immediately founded and several ‘hell bent’ observers were rushed to the Western Front to gather information. As a result of their observations it was decided that the US would equip its fledgling tank branch with two thousand light French tanks and two hundred heavy British tanks. A thirty-two-year-old cavalry captain with a bright future – George S. Patton – was made head of the American Expeditionary Force’s Light Tank School.
Readying the Hammer
As the American forces mustered, the British and French were preparing their next hammer blow. The Tank Corps repaired its damaged machines, rested its weary crews, and received a steady stream of reinforcements. At headquarters there was very little time to rest. Smith-Dorrien had been sufficiently impressed with the performance of the tanks that he asked the Tank Corps to take a leading role in drafting plans for its next operation.
Much of the planning fell to Major J. F. C. Fuller, an erratic yet brilliant staff officer. Fuller understood that the biggest impediment to the tanks had been the muddy, shell-cratered landscape and offered an innovative solution: the usual pre-battle bombardment would be abandoned and tanks would attack without warning. The armour would smash the barbed-wire screens and allow the infantry to storm the German position. For this daring operation to work, speed, surprise, and good terrain were absolutely essential. Ultimately the plan was too radical even for the open-minded Smith-Dorrien, who approved the basic principles but insisted on incorporating artillery support. Fortunately, the Royal Artillery proposed a solution. The gunners had been perfecting new methods of ‘firing from the map’ which would allow them to call down a storm of accurate fire at a moment’s notice. Artillery support for the Tank Corps did not need to take the form of a preparatory bombardment that gave notice of the impending attack and devastated the landscape, but would instead be a sudden deluge of shells that fell without warning.
Confident in this knowledge, Fuller proposed an armoured assault against St Quentin, which lay in the centre of the Hindenburg Line. The defences here were formidable but the gently rolling slopes and flat valleys made it ideal tank country and a significant breakthrough would rupture the entire Hindenburg position. However, St Quentin marked the borderline between British and French sectors and any operation here would require direct cooperation. Fortunately, it was soon found that the French commander opposite St Quentin, Franchert d’Espery, was enthusiastic about the idea of an Anglo-French tank attack. With cooperation ensured, Fuller planned an armoured assault employing a combination of heavy and light tanks that aimed to shatter the Hindenburg Line in one dramatic blow.
Planning and preparation began immediately. The British were already involved in heavy fighting around Ypres that kept the Germans occupied. The French mounted subsidiary operations at various points along the Western Front to keep the Germans guessing. Great efforts were made to ensure secrecy on the St Quentin front. Allied aircraft flew hundreds of sorties to keep German reconnaissance flights away from concentration areas. Tanks were concealed under specially made camouflage netting and their tell-tale tracks were obscured with brushwood and straw. Artillery inched into position and infantry quietly assembled opposite the front. Certain innovative preparations were made, including the provision of supply tanks to carry fuel and ammunition to the fighting line once battle began, and the deployment of tanks carrying field telephones and wireless to provide battlefield communications. Other novel methods included the use of tank-carried fascines that could be dropped to fill in wide German trenches and allow them to be crossed with ease. Finally, a number of ‘dummy’ tanks, constructed of wood and fabric, were placed near the German front at Cambrai to give the false impression an attack was brewing here. The combination of secrecy and deception meant that the Allies achieved complete surprise when they finally attacked.
After a delay imposed by the wait for greater numbers of the new Whippet and light French Renault RT tanks, the Anglo-French force was ready for action on 30 September 1917.
Smashing the Hindenburg Line
The St Quentin position was truly formidable. The approach to the line was choked with dense barbed-wire belts and covered by numerous hidden machine-gun nests. The St Quentin canal had been incorporated into the defensive works. A handful of bridges were left intact to allow German forces access to the far bank, but each was heavily defended and rigged to be blown if threatened with capture. The centrepiece of the position was the six-thousand-yard-long Bellicourt tunnel, through which the canal ran. The German garrison slept inside the tunnel on specially converted canal boats. In the event of an attack the defenders would rush to their positions on the surface using strategically placed stairwells.
The Bellicourt tunnel was a marvel of engineering – but it was also a weak point in the face of a tank attack. The tunnel provided a natural bridge that a rapid assault could cross. This was important, as tanks were normally unable to cross canal lines until engineers had constructed a bridge. There was also a second weakness in the German position – the very strength of the defences had bred complacency. The position was thinly held by weak reserve divisions only considered capable of garrison duty. Compared to the battle zones at Ypres, Arras, and the Aisne, the sector had been quiet for months. Wild flowers bloomed in no man’s land and the barbed-wire belts were turning brown with rust.
The tranquillity was about to be shattered. The press would subsequently term the British assault force as ‘the thousand tank army’, but in reality there were 850 vehicles ready for action, with a similar number available to the French to the south. The Allies had learned the value of keeping a reserve of tanks and around 250 machines were held back for second-day operations. The attack would be supported by several corps of infantry and a cavalry corps, all covered by the guns of the Royal Artillery. The gunners had secretly ranged their weapons on the Hindenburg Line – a process greatly aided by the fortuitous capture of a complete German map of the position during a trench raid in August – and now awaited the signal to begin.
A cold mist blanketed no man’s land on the morning of the attack. The German defenders were going about their usual daily routine when they were struck by a ‘cyclone of fire’ from the concealed British artillery. A veteran remembered: ‘We had seen bombardments before, but this was something new in its intensity.’ Following close behind the shells was a steel horde of tanks, grinding across the open ground and crashing through the decaying barbed wire. Stunned German outposts barely had time to release their distress flares before they were overrun. Alarm bells rang throughout the Bellicourt tunnel, summoning the defenders to man their positions. Such was the accuracy of British artillery fire that some Germans emerged only to find smouldering craters where their machine-gun nests had once stood. Future panzer commander Heinz Guderian described the events that followed: ‘Suddenly indistinct black forms could be discerned. They were spitting fire and under their weight the strong and deep obstacle line was cracking like matchwood … the troops hastened to their machine guns and tried to put up a defence. It was all in vain! … The tanks appeared not one at a time but in whole lines kilometres in length!’
The British attack came on quickly. The ground was good and the tanks were not impeded by shell craters. An armoured wedge converged on the Bellicourt tunnel, driving upwards, guns thundering as the crews engaged their targets. One veteran remembered being ordered ‘to put all guns into action, to blaze our way forward. The noise was terrific; two 6-pounders going and our machine guns.’ The defenders fought back with armour-piercing bullets and hurled grenade bundles that were capable of tearing open tank hulls. In some places the Germans had dragged field artillery guns up to the front and used them as improvised but effective anti-tank weapons.
The battle for control of the ridge was ferocious, described as ‘like Dante’s Inferno’ by one crewman. But the tanks could not be stopped. Guderian recalled: ‘The German infantrymen were pinned down and unable to withstand the mighty material superiority of the British. The only alternatives were death or surrender … [nobody] could hope to survive under this fire.’ Advancing remorselessly, the tanks crushed German positions under their tracks. Stunned defenders were overrun or else they stumbled back in confused retreat. One German gunner recalled meeting a bloodied, retreating infantry officer who gasped out ‘Sturmwagen! It is terrible; we cannot do anything. The front is broken!’
The Bellicourt tunnel had been overwhelmed by mid-morning and the attackers drove deeper into the German position. The defenders were so surprised that the Allies were able to seize several intact canal bridges. Royal Engineers rushed forward to secure them and build additional crossing points to allow wider exploitation. Fierce fighting continued as the tanks assaulted the German second line. To the south, the French attack had met with similar success.
Pockets of German resistance stubbornly fought on but the momentum of the advance could not be stopped. As the main attack paused for consolidation, Whippet tanks and cavalry pressed forwards, ‘leap-frogging’ through the front line, past columns of prisoners and crowds of cheering British infantry. The assistance of light tanks meant that for the first time in the war ‘the cavalry went through’, causing chaos in the German rear areas and managing to capture an entire train loaded with reinforcements. By the end of the day the Allied victory was clear. The heart of the Hindenburg Line had been smashed in a single day and the linchpin of the German defences on the Western Front was compromised. The attack continued in the subsequent days, using the reserve tanks and widening the breach.
The Germans launched ferocious counterattacks to try and stem the Allied tide, but this had been expected. Tank battalions had been kept in reserve to be used as an armoured counter-punch against German advances. The relatively nimble Whippet tanks proved highly effective in this role, bursting from cover like ‘savage rabbits’ and smashing German infantry spearheads before they could gain ground. The battle see-sawed back and forth throughout October, but in contrast to the Battle of Arras, the Germans could not claw back the ground that they had lost. The best that they could manage was to slow Allied forward progress. However, rather than becoming involved in a fruitless war of attrition for which the tanks were ill-suited, the Allies consolidated their gains in the centre and instead launched fresh tank operations on the flanks, widening the breach in the German position. By the end of the year the Hindenburg Line was well and truly broken and the initiative lay firmly in Allied hands.
The Battle of St Quentin removed a cornerstone of German strategy. The General Staff had previously had complete confidence that the Hindenburg Line was unbreakable. That confidence was now shattered. Even though Russia had been defeated in late 1917, the prospects for 1918 suddenly looked bleak. The Germans could expect to face further tank attacks on the Western Front. The growing strength of Allied war industries meant there would be more vehicles of increasingly effective design. Furthermore they would be supported by the arrival of the American Expeditionary Force with its fresh divisions and newly formed armoured branch.
Even worse, morale amongst the German infantry was dangerously low. The front-line soldiers were exhausted by the intense fighting and dispirited by the clear evidence of Allied material superiority. By the end of 1917 insubordination, desertion, and localised mutiny had become common. With the Hindenburg defences broken and the army close to mutiny, the grim but realistic prediction of the General Staff was that Germany could only delay the Allied advance for a few months before a total breakthrough occurred. They recommended seeking a way out of the war with honour intact.
On the other side of the front, the Allies were in a bullish mood. Their strength was increasing with greater tank production and American reinforcements, and the front seemed ripe with possibilities for further attacks. A series of armoured hammer blows were planned for spring 1918, with the British organising an attack against Cambrai whilst the French and Americans planned to pinch out the St Mihiel salient. Prime Minister David Lloyd George was confident enough to publicly express belief that victory would occur before the end of the year.
Lloyd George would be proved correct. With the tanks at the forefront, a rain of blows fell on the German lines in early 1918. The Germans defended with desperation and the fighting was intense, but the end result was inevitable. Germany had no answer to the ever-growing numbers of Allied tanks, and, as the Battle of St Quentin had proved, even its strongest positions could be breached.
Epilogue: The Victory Parade, London, 1919
Alongside King George V and Prime Minister Lloyd George, Earl Smith-Dorrien watched with immense pride as the parade passed the viewing podium. Enormous crowds thronged the parade route, cheering every regiment that passed by.
The biggest cheer of the day signalled the arrival of the Royal Tank Corps. The tanks rumbled through, resplendent in fresh paint and a far cry from the battle-scarred beasts that had broken the Hindenburg Line. Hatches were thrown open and commanders proudly saluted their chief as they passed the podium.
Returning the salute, Smith-Dorrien let his mind drift back to the battle nineteen years earlier in South Africa. It had taken bitter experience and the loss of many lives, but the British had finally found a better way of making war in the form of the tank. The wonder weapon had proved its worth.
This story takes its cue from Winston Churchill’s claim in The World Crisis that Britain could have had three thousand tanks in the field in early 1917 and so could have launched a major armoured offensive months before it actually did so at the Battle of Cambrai in November 1917. Given the existing demands on British wartime industry the figure of three thousand tanks is a piece of classic Churchillian bombast. However, there were certainly opportunities for Britain to have accelerated the pace of armoured development.
In this scenario I have given the army a headstart through its early interest in Lancelot de Mole’s advanced proposals (which were sadly ignored in reality) thus placing armoured development several months ahead of its historical pace. However, a great problem for tank development was the novelty of the technology and the lack of a definite War Office champion in the early months of design. Historically, Douglas Haig was one of the greatest supporters of the tank but his position in France limited his influence on design and production. In this story I have made Haig Chief of the Imperial General Staff, placing him in a position where he can drive forward development.
The biggest change to the history is the decision to employ tanks en masse in early 1917. In reality, the decision to deploy a handful of tanks in September 1916 remains the source of much controversy. Contemporaries, including Swinton, Churchill, David Lloyd George, and J. F. C. Fuller, condemned the deployment as premature. The French had asked the British to wait until both sides could attack simultaneously with a mass of tanks, but this request was declined. Critics argue that it alerted the Germans to the existence of the weapon and achieved no great military advantage. By the time the Allies were ready to deploy massed armour in late 1917 the Germans had developed several anti-tank countermeasures. Defenders of the decision to commit the tanks early point out that combat experience was essential to provide a basis for crew training and vehicle design. However, whether these could have been developed with more thorough work at home remains a point of debate.
It is intriguing to consider what a mass of armour may have achieved in early 1917. The novelty of the weapon would have undoubtedly had a shock effect on the Germans, but the inexperience of the tank crews and lack of practice working alongside infantry would have been detrimental. However, an early and reasonably successful commitment of tanks would probably have provided fresh impetus to design and procurement. This is the basis for the latter half of the story, which sees advanced designs that historically debuted in 1918, such as the MK V and the Whippet, introduced much earlier in the war, and an Anglo-French tank attack taking place in late 1917. Historically, Fuller abandoned his plan to attack St Quentin as he could not secure cooperation from the French army, which was recovering from the mutinies of April 1917. In this scenario I have assumed that the surprise use of massed tanks turns the Chemin des Dames offensive into a relative success for the French, thus allowing them to launch renewed attacks in the autumn.
Historically, the tank was a valuable part of the Allied arsenal, particularly in the more mobile conditions of 1918, but it never became the decisive weapon that its champions had hoped. Technical limitations, political wrangling, and production problems delayed its appearance in numbers, whilst the novelty of the tank made devising tactics for it a problem.