On 15 September 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.
Some men panicked and fled, others opened fire but it seemed that nothing, not even the hallowed machine gun, could penetrate the machine’s armour. They seemed invincible. The tank had arrived.
…a rumour spread through the German trenches on the Somme, “the Devil is coming”
Breaking the stalemate
The Western Front had become a stalemate as early as Autumn 1914 as the devastating and destructive firepower from the combination of artillery and the machine gun had made it almost impossible for either side to make a breakthrough.
The First Battle of Ypres (20 October-22 November 1914) had marked the end of open warfare on the Western Front after both sides were forced to seek cover on the battlefield and dig in for protection – trench warfare took hold. Something new was now needed to break the deadlock.
The concept of a vehicle that could provide troops with both mobile protection and firepower wasn’t new – indeed the tank’s conceptual roots go back to ancient times, when siege engines provided protection for troops moving up against stone walls or fortifications. Leonardo da Vinci is also sometimes credited with the invention of a war machine that resembled a tank.
Nevertheless, the combination of the internal combustion engine, armour plate and continuous caterpillar tracks, along with the stalemate of trench warfare, all helped give rise to the production of what became the tank.
Early incarnations included a steam-powered land ram in 1855, and a series of tractors on which engineer David Roberts from Hornsby & Sons used his patented ‘chain-track’ between 1904-1909. These were tested by the British Army, who wanted to evaluate artillery tractors.
When Major Donohue remarked to David Roberts that he should design a new machine with armour that could carry its own gun, Roberts declined, disheartened by his previous rejected attempts to aid the army.
Other plausible proposals sent to the British War Office came from Lancelot De Mole in South Australia between 1912-1916. His designs even included the climbing face typical of later World War One tanks, but these were overlooked at the time, despite later being recognised as superior to the machines actually developed. (De Mole had been urged by friends to approach the Germans with his design before the war, but had declined to do so for patriotic reasons).
Before World War One, motorised vehicles were still relatively uncommon, and their use on the battlefield was initially limited. Armored cars were not good in challenging terrain and were limited by their wheels, which gave a high ground pressure for the vehicle’s weight. Switching to the use of caterpillar tracks offered a way round this problem.
In October 1914, an officer of the Royal Engineers, Lieutenant Colonel Ernest D. Swinton, made a suggestion to General Headquarters.
To put an end to the Western Front’s stalemate, he suggested 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, the First Lord of the Admiralty, a prototype was quickly developed after Churchill warned Asquith that the Germans might introduce something similar any moment.
Churchill established the Landships Committee in early 1915, where a requirement was formulated for an armoured vehicle capable of a speed of 4mph to match infantry, of climbing a 1.5 metre high parapet, crossing a 2.4 metre wide gap, and armed with machine guns and a light artillery piece.
The military combined with engineers and industrialists including Fosters of Lincoln. Fosters of Lincoln built the 14 ton ‘Little Willie’, then Major Walter Wilson then added a larger track frame to it. A rhomboid shape was chosen to enhance climbing capacity and gap clearance, with guns on the side.
The resulting 30 ton ‘Big Willie’ (later known as ‘Mother’) was trialed in front of Lord Kitchener and Lloyd George, and an order was placed for 100 tanks to be made. (After the war the Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors credited Sir William Tritton, managing director of Fosters, and Major Walter Wilson as the principal inventors of the tank).
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 except that it would be dangerous.
Initially referred to as the landship, (which was later thought too descriptive, risking giving away British intentions), the new machine soon became known as the ‘tank’ – under the guise of water tanks – to ensure secrecy for the new weapon.
The first 50 were delivered to France on 30 August 1916, comprising of varying amounts of guns. The tanks had a crew of 8, half of which focused on steering and the gears.
A learning curve
Just over a year since Lieutenant Colonel Swinton’s memo, the first tanks rolled into action at Flers-Courcelette (part of the Battle of the Somme), ushering in a new era of mechanised warfare.
The effectiveness of the tanks at their first appearance was mixed. Of the 32 tanks ready for action on 15 September 1916, only 9 were able to reach the enemy lines and engage in actual combat. Many broke down as they were mechanically unreliable and were abandoned.
Although lessons could quickly be learned from their first deployment, the French Army felt the British had sacrificed the secrecy of the weapon, and used it in numbers too small to be decisive.
Despite the tank force’s limitations, the tank’s psychological impact on both sides was significant, prompting Douglas Haig to place another order for 1,000 more.
However, the army still lacked officers who understood how best to employ the tanks and they failed to impress during Arras, Messines and Passchendaele. It was not until the Battle of Cambrai in November 1917 that the tanks were really able to show what they could do, proving their effectiveness as crossing barbed wire defences when over 400 tanks penetrated almost 6 miles on a 7-mile wide front.
French, German and American tanks
As production and reliability improved, tanks became more advanced and were used in greater numbers, becoming a common sight on the battlefields as part of an ‘all arms’ approach by summer 1918.
Other countries such as France had also ramped up their tank development, with the French creating the Renault FT light tank – the first to use a fully rotating main armament turret on top and the basis of tank design ever since.
German forces often salvaged British and French tanks to re-use for their own purposes on the battlefield and to obtain information for research. The German General Staff did not have a similar enthusiasm for tanks, but allowed the development of anti-tank weapons.
After the Battle of Cambrai, the Germans developed their own armoured programme, yet despite creating the A7V tank (which weighed 30 tons and had a crew of 18), by the end of the war, only 20 had been built. Although other tank designs had been planned, material shortages limited the German tank corps to the A7Vs.
The Americans too were interested in tank development. General Pershing, Commander in Chief, American Expeditionary Forces requested in September 1917 that 600 heavy and 1,200 light tanks be produced in the United States.
The first American-produced heavy tank was the 43.5-ton Mark VIII. Armed with two 6-pounder cannons and five rifle-caliber machine guns, it was operated by an 11-man crew, and had a maximum speed of 6.5mph and a range of 50 miles. However, production difficulties meant only test vehicles were completed before the end of the war.
Although General Erich Ludendorff of the German High Command praised the Allied tanks after the war as being a principal factor in Germany’s defeat, the effectiveness of the tank as a weapon was not fully realised until the inter-war years and beyond – particularly with the development of the Soviet T-34 tank.