Metal monsters – tanks
Today is the 100th birthday of ‘Little Willie’ – the world’s first tank. During the First World War the tank made its operational debut – those first tanks were slow, cumbersome, unreliable and often more dangerous for their crew than for the enemy, however the tank quickly evolved to be one of the most important land based weapons in warfare. This is my take on those early years of the tank; from Little Willie to the end of the First World War.
In among the Flanders fields of autumn 1914 the landscape hadn’t yet succumbed to the merciless pounding of the guns, and farmers still harvested their crops and went about their normal business. It was, among other things, the sight of some of this agricultural machinery that got a few of the clever chaps from the BEF thinking. Wouldn’t it be a great idea if they could have an armoured, motorised gun to support the infantry when things got a bit frantic in the field? It would be even better if the aforementioned armoured mobile gun could be loaded onto caterpillar tracks like some farm equipment, meaning easier movement across a wider variety of terrain.
A formal memorandum on ‘special devices’ was compiled in December 1914 in which such equipment was officially mentioned for the first time. Simultaneously the Royal Navy were working on similar ideas. The naval minister, a certain Winston Churchill, having read the army report as well as being involved in the Navy ideas, put together a Technical Landship Committee (taken from the Navy’s code-name for some of their ideas) in February 1915.
In June that year the committee had formulated their technical want list. They demanded a land speed of 4mph, ‘rapid’ all round manoeuvrability, a range of twelve miles, and some big guns, all bolted to a caterpillar track. On the basis of seeing a wooden mock up in September, Sir Douglas Haig, Commander-in-Chief of the BEF, was impressed enough to order forty and went off dreaming of these new machines ripping through the German defences with ease, scattering the enemy and destroying their positions. Prime Minster Lloyd George approved the project and production started in April 1916.
Imaginatively named after their coded transportation name of ‘water tanks’ the first batch of Mk 1 tanks entered service with the Heavy Section of the Machine Gun Corp, later to become the Tank Corps, in June 1916. British High Command thought the war was as good as won.
The day when the tank was to make its operational debut was pencilled in to be the 15th September, 1916. Tactics and strategy were mulled over for months and months. In the end, Haig, going against the advice of his field officers, decided to mass all 49 serviceable tanks in an attack on a limited objective during the Battle of Flers-Courcelette. The press had a field day with wild reports of masses of Germans soldiers running for their lives at the sight of these metal monsters, of them being squashed by the huge metal tracks (remember the top speed of these beauties) and general mass hysteria in the enemy ranks as the gallant and noble British Tommy, rode atop his iron horse tearing an unstoppable march towards the German lines. Towards victory, and to freedom.
Reality, however, was a little different, and although the sight of the tanks did cause a good deal of confusion in the German lines, only a fraction of the tanks were able to advance any meaningful distance. The fact is there were a few… er, issues. Firstly the crews were not properly trained. Then there is the fact that the tanks themselves were not properly tested as they were rushed into the field. As a consequence, they were mechanically very unreliable in the field, with many breaking down before they got anywhere near the enemy lines. They had practically zero visibility; the crew had to rely on messages tapped on the hull of the tanks by the infantrymen. Then there were the conditions inside. If the crew were not poisoned by the engine fumes, then they were slowly boiled by the insane heat inside the cabin. If they survived that lot, then there was always the possibility of being burnt to a crisp in a fire ball after either being hit by the enemy or just because of a random act of sudden incineration.
Despite all this, the British High Command loved them and ordered more, and to be fair to the manufacturers, the subsequent new versions were much improved. In November 1917 at Cambrai, a massed attack over firm ground proved a stunning success, only spoilt on the second day of the advance by the failure to exploit the initial gains on the first day of the battle. It is this result that seemingly sealed the (positive) fate for the tank in future British offensives.
However, during WW1 at least, partly due to design weaknesses and reliability issues, and partly due to poor tactics, the tank was reduced to being only a bit part player in the Allied victory. Their subsequent reputation as the fire breathing monster that dashed the enemy, evident perhaps more in Britain than anywhere else was largely created by post-war writers and commentary, often with their own agenda.
Text taken from World War One: A Layman’s Guide
Infographic take from The Great War 100 – The First World War in Infographics