“The Devil Is Coming”: What Impact Did the Tank Have on the German Soldiers in 1916?

History Hit Podcast with Robin Schaefer

5 mins

08 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 had a terrific impact. It had a terrific impact in as such that it caused huge chaos in the German Army. Its appearance alone caused a terrific chaos because no one knew exactly what they were facing.

Only a few select units of the German army faced the English tanks in battle in September 1916. So, rumours spread very quickly throughout the German Army.

Myths developed on the appearance of the tanks, what they were, what powered them, how they were armoured, and that created a huge amount of chaos which took a very long time to sort.

Tank legend David Fletcher MBE, historian of armoured warfare, and David Willey, curator of the Tank Museum, Bovington, discuss the First World War development of the tank. Why and how was the tank designed? How did it evolve over the course of the war? And what attributes were required of a Tank Man?Watch Now

What was the reaction of front line German soldiers on September 15, 1916?

Only a very small amount of German soldiers actually faced the tanks in the battle at Flers-Courcelette. One of the major reasons being that only very few of them made it through the lines to actually attack the German positions.

So, there’s not a lot of written material by German soldiers talking about first meeting tanks in battle. One of the things that is quite clear is that all German letters written about that battle give a totally different picture of what actually happened.

There must have been utter chaos and confusion caused by these tanks. And that is mirrored in the descriptions given by German soldiers of the tanks which differ enormously.

Some describe them in the way they actually look like, others say that they encountered armoured-fighting vehicles powered forward by shovels and that they are X shaped. Some say they are square shaped. Some say they hold up to 40 infantrymen. Some say they’re firing mines. Some say they are firing shells.

There’s a total confusion. No one knows exactly what is happening and what they were actually facing.

The descriptions given by German soldiers of the Mark I tanks used at Flers-Courcelette differ enormously.

‘An armoured automobile… curiously X shaped’

There’s a letter written by a soldier serving in Field Artillery Regiment number 13, which was one of the German Wurttemberg artillery units that fought at Flers-Courcelette. And he wrote a letter to his parents shortly after the battle and in just a small extract, he said that:

“Terrible hours lie behind me. I want to tell you some words about them. On the 15th of September, we have stalled an English attack. And amidst the most severe enemy fire, my two guns fire 1,200 shells into the attacking English columns. Firing over open sites, we inflicted terrible casualties on them. We also destroyed an armoured automobile…”

That’s what he calls it:

“armed with two quick-firing guns. It was curiously X shaped and powered by two enormous shovels which duck into the ground pulling the vehicle forward.”

He must have been quite a distance away from it. But these rumours spread. And the description, for example, of an X shaped tank continues to linger in German reports, and German evaluation reports, and combat reports up until early 1917.

So, that was one of the major problems the German Army had. They did not know what they were facing. And as they did not know what they were facing, they couldn’t plan how to defend themselves against it.

Over time more written material emerges by German soldiers about British tanks. They 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 over someone they know. They write home about them because they find them so fascinating.

Four British Mark I tanks filling with petrol on 15 September 1916.

Combating the tank

Something that the German army noticed very, very quickly was that it was quite easy to destroy these slow-moving vehicles. When hand grenades were tied together with string and used against the tank’s tracks, this made quite an effect. And they learned pretty quickly how to defend themselves against tanks.

It’s visible by the fact that as early as 21 October 1916, Army Group Crown Prince Rupprecht issued the first, “How to Combat Enemy Tanks” report to the troops. And this says, for example, that rifle and machine gun fire are mostly useless as are the use of single hand grenades.

It says that bundle charges, so hand grenades bundled together, are effective but they can only be handled properly by experienced men. And that the most effective means to combat enemy tanks is 7.7-centimetre field guns behind the second trench line in direct fire.

So, the German Army started pretty quickly to try to come up with effective means to combat tanks, but the major problem, I can’t repeat that often enough, was that they did not know anything about them because the tanks they destroyed or immobilised at Flers-Courcelette, they were not able to evaluate them.

They were not able to get out of the trench to look at them and to see how thick the armour was, how they were armed, how they were crewed. They didn’t know. So, for a very long time, everything the German Army developed in the means of fighting tanks and facing them was based on theory, rumour, and myth, and that made it very difficult for them.

Allied troops stand next to a Mark I tank during the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, September 1916.

Were the German front line troops frightened of these tanks?

Yes. That fear continued throughout the war. But it’s quite obvious if you look at accounts and reports that this mainly was a problem of second line or inexperienced troops.

Experienced German front line troops very soon learned that they were able to destroy these vehicles or to immobilise them by a number of means. And when they had these means, they usually stood to their positions.

When they didn’t have the means, if they were ill equipped, not armed in the correct manner, were lacking the right kinds of ammunition or artillery support, they intended to run.

Tank legend David Fletcher MBE, historian of armoured warfare, and David Willey, curator of the Tank Museum, Bovington, discuss the First World War development of the tank. Why and how was the tank designed? How did it evolve over the course of the war? And what attributes were required of a Tank Man?Watch Now

That is mirrored in the German casualty numbers in all engagements against British tanks: you will notice that the numbers of Germans taken prisoner during these engagements is much higher than that encountered in engagements without armour.

So, they spread a massive amount of fear and terror which the Germans called ‘the tank fear’. And they soon learned that the best means to defend or to destroy an enemy tank was to counter that fear.

In the first proper hand-out guide-lining combat against tanks, “The Decree of Defensive Tactics Against Tanks,” issued on 29 September 1918, the first point in that decree is the sentence,

“The fight against tanks is first and foremost a matter of maintaining steady nerves.”

So, that was the most important thing and remained the most important thing when they faced tanks in battle.