Tanks were first deployed at the Battle of Flers on 15 September as part of The Somme offensive. Although they were initially unreliable, slow and of limited number, tanks re-introduced mobility to a stagnated war, taking over the role of cavalry.
The tank was an adaptation of existing armoured vehicles, re-designed to cope with the unique challenges of trench warfare. Below are listed five of the important models and a brief synopsis of their role in the war.
Marks I-V Male
The original tank, the Mark I was a heavy vehicle designed to flatten enemy fortifications. It was developed to be able to cross trenches, resist small-arms fire, travel over difficult terrain, carry supplies, and to capture fortified enemy positions.
In this regard it was broadly successful, although it was prone to mechanical failures. The Male tank was armed with two six pounder naval guns, while the Female version carried two machine guns.
Of subsequent models the Mark IV was the next significant version. It saw mass action at the Battle of Cambrai in November 1917. The Mark V entered service in mid-1918. Overall, while dogged by initial unreliability problems, the Mark series proved an effective weapon, having a potent psychological impact on the enemy as well as supporting several large offensives.
British Medium Mark A “Whippet”
The Whippet was a highly mobile tank, developed in the latter stages of the war to complement the slower British machines. It first saw action in March 1918 and proved very useful in covering Allied forces recoiling from the Spring Offensive.
In one celebrated incident at Cachy, a single Whippet company wiped out two entire German battalions, killing over 400 men. Plans to create 5 tank battalions each containing 36 Whippets were abandoned, but it remained a useful asset throughout in 1918 and was a major force in the breakthrough at the Battle of Amiens.
German A7V Sturmpanzerwagen
The only tank to be used in field operations by the Germans, the A7V was developed in 1918. It had a mixed record in World War One, seeing action at the Third Battle of Aisne and the Second Battle of the Marne.
Its successes were generally limited to supporting actions, and soon after the war other designs were planned. Germany only deployed 20 tanks during the war, while the Allies deployed thousands – this could be seen as a cause of their failure to defeat the Allies in the 1918 Spring offensives, and the subsequent overall defeat.
French Schneider M.16 CA1
Prematurely deployed in April 1917 to support the Nivelle Offensive, the Schneiders were indicted by that offensive’s failure. 76 of 128 were lost, and mechanical failures were a particular concern.
However, they proved more successful in recapturing Chemin-des-Dames, and in subsequent offensives they filled a marginal but helpful role. Like most WW1 tanks they were handicapped by structural frailty and slow speed.
French Light Renault FT17
A light tank, and the first to have a rotating funnel, the FT17 was of revolutionary, influential design. Most tanks today mimic its basic design. They were first deployed in May 1918 and were a runaway success.
As the war became more mobile the FT17 proved increasingly useful. particularly in ‘swarming’ enemy positions. After the war they were exported to many countries, but by World War Two the original model was completely obsolete.