September 15 1916, a rumour spread through the German trenches on the Somme “the Devil is coming”. The ground around them shook as the strange machines lumbering across no-mans land gradually came into view; metal monsters on caterpillar tracks, impervious to the barbed wire lining the ground ahead of them.
…a rumour spread through the German trenches on the Somme, “the Devil is coming”
Breaking the stalemate
The Western Front had been at stalemate since 1914. The combination of artillery and the machine gun made it almost impossible for either side to make a break through. June 1915 an officer of the Royal Engineers, Lieutenant Colonel Ernest D. Swinton, made a suggestion to General Headquarters.
To put an end to this stalemate, the army required Armoured Machine Gun Destroyers; petrol driven machines, mounted on caterpillar tracks to deal with the barbed wire and uneven terrain, sporting hardened steel plates to protect the crew from enemy fire and mounting Maxim machine guns and a 2-pounder.
After receiving the backing of Winston Churchill at the Admiralty, a prototype was quickly developed. Initially referred to as the landship, the new machine soon became known as the tank, for the purposes of secrecy.
An order was placed for 100 and in February 1916 recruitment began for men to crew these new weapons. Secrecy was paramount and the new recruits to the so-called Heavy Section of the Machine Gun Corps had no clue what they were letting themselves in for. All they were told was that it would be dangerous.
A learning curve
Just six months later and just over a year since Swinton’s memo, the first tanks rolled into action at Flers-Courcelette. The effectiveness of the tanks at their first appearance was mixed. Of the 32 tanks ready for action on the 15th only nine were able to reach the enemy lines and engage in actual combat. Many broke down and were abandoned.
Nevertheless their psychological impact on both sides was massive and Douglas Haig placed another order for 1000. But the army still lacked officers who understood how best to employ them and they failed to impress during Arras, Messines and Passchendeale. It was not until the Battle of Cambrai in November 1917 that the tanks were really able to show what they could do.