How Important Was the Tank for Allied Victory in World War One?

History Hit Podcast with Robin Schaefer

4 mins

07 Nov 2018

This article is an edited transcript of Tank 100: Part Three with Robin Schäefer on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 15 September 2016. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.

The tank was certainly a part of the war-winning solution for the Allied forces. But I wouldn’t say tanks won the First World War; they were not decisive weapons as such. The view of the front-line soldier in regards to British tanks changed.

“Massively overrated”

A German soldier stands next to a knocked-out British tank during the Battle of Cambrai in late 1917.

If you look at the letters and the diaries from May 1917 or Spring, 1917, the German soldiers get more relaxed and calmer. A letter survives written by a German soldier of the 465th Infantry Regiment; he wrote that to his parents as usual on 9 May 1917. From his writing you can see they knew much more about the things they were facing, because he writes:

“From the day they have first feel of them, the English have massively overrated the effect of their tanks. The fighting on the 23, 24, and 25 of April has cleared us from the sense of powerlessness that we used to feel when first facing these beasts. We have discovered their weak spots, and now we know how to cope with them.

The English distinguish between male tanks which are armed with two 5.6-centimetres guns, 4 machine guns and have a 12 man crew, and female tanks which carry machine guns only and are crewed by eight men.

The tank is about six metres long with a height of about 2 metres 50. Seen from the side, it has the shape of a parallelogram with rounded corners.

The most vulnerable spot on every model is the fuel tank. So, we usually target it and the carburettor, both of which are located at the front. It is driven forward by chain belts and by an engine which generates more than 100 horsepower. In open terrain, however, it only reaches the speed of a man walking at slow pace.

British tanks captured by the Germans being transported by rail in 1917.

The tank’s soft underbelly

On good roads, it can move about 10 kilometres per hour. They can easily squash simple stake and barb wire obstacles, but in wide and stronger ones, the wire can block their chain belts. They have difficulty crossing trenches wider than 2.5 metres, and usually, start engaging our positions with their machine guns from a range of about 500 metres.

Our most effective means of countering them are small, easily movable trench cannon which can be operated by the infantry. At Arras, we also effectively disabled them with machine guns firing K ammunition, that is steel core bullets, at close range. Here, again, fuel tank and carburettor on the left side…left and right side of the tanks are the most vulnerable spots.

A single shot can cause a leak in the fuel tank and at the best case can cause an explosion. In that case, the entire crew usually burns to death.

The major prerequisite for success is to stay calm as only then can a well aimed and effective fire be laid down. This is often difficult for our 18-year-olds. Even though they are the ideal material for war of movement, their nerves don’t allow them to act independently when subjected to tanks. In a screw up, it is the infantry that has to suffer most from this problem as the hearts of these young gentlemen sometimes tend to drop into their pants.”

There are plenty of letters like these. The German soldiers liked to write about them, sometimes even if they have never faced them. So many letters sent home are about tanks faced by some comrade or someone they know. They write home about them because they find them so fascinating.

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So how important a role did the tank play in the Allied victory?

By the end of 1918, the British and French were breaking through German lines without many tanks at all. But on the other hand they also managed to win the Battle of Cambrai in 1917, quite effectively by the correct use of tanks. The main difference between the Battle of Cambrai and the later successes of the British Army in 1918 is that in 1917, the German Army was able to strike back.

They had the reserves, they had the manpower, and they could retake the territory the British had taken from them with their tanks. By 1918, they didn’t have that anymore. The German Army was spent.

So I think the eventual Allied victory is a combination of things: it is the use of tanks, the mass use and effective use of tanks, but by 1918, it is also because they are facing an army which was worn and spent on the battlefield.