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Lest We Forget
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TANK USAGE IN WORLD WAR 1

Naval & Military Press Military History Books

Compiled from various sources

No one individual was responsible for the development of the tank.  Its design can be drawn back to the eighteenth century.

A number of gradual technological developments brought the development of the tank, as we know it today, closer until its eventual form was unveiled out of necessity by the British army, or rather, navy, since its initial deployment in World War One was, perhaps surprisingly, overseen by the Royal Navy.

Richard Edgeworth designed the caterpillar track, upon which the tank travelled, in its crudest form in 1770.  The Crimean War saw a relatively small number of steam-powered tractors developed using the caterpillar track to manoeuvre around the battlefield's muddy terrain.  Thus even in the 1850s the development of the tank seemed tantalisingly close - except that its development dimmed until the turn of the century.

With the 1885 development of the internal combustion engine, by Gottlieb Daimler, the Holt Company constructed a tractor in the U.S. This utilised Edgeworth's caterpillar tracks, again to facilitate movement over muddy terrain.  It was even suggested at the time that Holt's machine be adapted for military purposes, but the suggestion was never acted upon.

In 1899 Frederick Simms designed what he termed a 'motor-war car'.  It contained an engine by Daimler, a bulletproof casing and was armed with two revolving machine guns developed by Hiram Maxim.  Whe it was offered to the British army it was dismissed as of little use.  Lord Kitchener, later Britain's War Minister, regarded it damningly as "a pretty mechanical toy".

Development still continued despite the British War Office's apparent lack of interest in the machine's potential. A company, Hornsby & Sons, produced the Killen-Strait Armoured Tractor.  The caterpillar track this time was comprised exclusively of a chain of steel links meshed together with steel pins.

After the onset of the First World War Army officers first discussed the idea of an armoured tracked vehicle that would provide protection from machines gunfire in 1914. Two of the officers, Colonel Ernest Swinton and Colonel Maurice Hankey, both became convinced that it was possible to develop a fighting vehicle that could play an important role in the war.

On the outbreak of the First World War, Colonel Swinton was sent to the Western Front to write reports on the war. After observing early battles where machine-gunners were able to kill thousands of infantryman advancing towards enemy trenches, Swinton wrote that a "petrol tractors on the caterpillar principle and armoured with hardened steel plates" would be able to counteract the machine-gunner.

General Sir John French and his scientific advisers rejected Swinton’s proposals. Unwilling to accept defeat, Colonel Ernest Swinton contacted Colonel Maurice Hankey who took the idea to Winston Churchill, the navy minister. Churchill was impressed by Swinton's views and in February 1915, he set up a Landships Committee to look in more detail at the proposal to develop a new war machine.

The Landships Committee and the newly formed Inventions Committee agreed with Swinton's proposal and drew up specifications for this new machine. This included:

(1)  a top speed of 4 mph on flat ground;

(2)  the capability of a sharp turn at top speed;

(3)  a reversing capability;

(4)  the ability to climb a 5-foot earth parapet;

(5)  the ability to cross a 8-foot gap;

(6)  a vehicle that could house ten crew, two machine guns and a 2-pound gun.


Eventually Lieutenant W. G. Wilson of the Naval Air Service and William Tritton of William Foster & Co. Ltd. of Lincoln, were given the task of producing a small landship. Constructed in great secrecy, the machine was given the code-name tank by Swinton. The first prototype landship was demonstrated to Ernest Swinton and the Landship Committee on 11th September 1915.

This first tank was given the nickname 'Little Willie' (soon followed by 'Big Willie') and, as with its predecessors, possessed a Daimler engine.  Weighing some 14 tons and bearing 12 feet long track frames, the tank could carry three people in cramped conditions.  In the event its top speed was three miles per hour on level ground, two miles per hour on rough terrain (actual battlefield conditions in fact).

The 'Little Willie' was notably restricted in that it was unable to cross trenches.  Although the performance was disappointing, Ernest Swinton remained convinced that when modified, the tank would enable the Allies to defeat the Central Powers. This handicap was however soon remedied under his energetic enthusiasm.

The tank was in many ways merely an extension of the principle of the armoured car.  Armoured cars were popular on the Western Front at the start of the war, since at that stage it was very much a war of movement.  Their use only dwindled with the onset of static trench warfare, when their utility was questionable.

The Royal Navy's role in tank development may seem incongruous but was in fact merely an extension of the role they had played thus far in the use of armoured cars.  The navy had deployed squadrons of armoured cars to protect Allied airstrips in Belgium against enemy attack.  It was this experience that Churchill drew upon when offering his department's support for the 'landship'.

The first combat tank was ready by January 1916 and was demonstrated to a high-powered audience.  Convinced, Lloyd George - the Minister of Munitions - ordered production of the heavy Mark I model to begin (the lighter renowned 'Whippets' entered service the following year).

It was not until 1916 that tanks were first introduced into battle, before that armoured cars were being used, which had none of the off-road capabilities of the tanks. Initially the Royal Navy supplied the crews for the tank. On 15th September 1916 the first British tanks were used in battle. History was made on 15 September 1916 when Captain H. W. Mortimore guided a D1 tank into action at the notorious Delville Wood. The initial usage was to ensure that it worked, and also to revitaise the attack at the Somme atit was losing momentum. The tanks were sent out early that morning, with infantry behind, to raid the German trenches. The first attack, one tank was sent out, and an enemy trench gained. The tank was then hit by a shell, and was disabled. Of the main offensive, three of the six tanks got bogged down, one broke down, and the other two continued towards the enemy line slowly, supporting the infantry, although the infantry did move ahead, away from the protection of the tanks.

The first tank offensive had been successful in the fact that they had scared the Germans, and that they had not been disabled immediately. As a trial though some were disappointed. Concerns that were raised included the fact that the view slits were too thin to be able to see much while moving, and they were targets for enemy gunshot; and the exhaust made too much noise and the heat could have set alight the fuel tank. A further issue raised was the amount of mud that found its way into the treads causing them to block up.

Shortly afterwards thirty-six tanks led the way in an attack at Flers.  Although the attack was itself successful, the sudden appearance of the new weapon stunned their German opponents, these early tanks proved notoriously unreliable.

In part this was because the British, under Commander in Chief Sir Douglas Haig, deployed them before they were truly battle ready in an attempt to break the trench stalemate.  They often broke down and became ditched - i.e. stuck in a muddy trench - more often than anticipated.

Conditions for the tank crews were also far from ideal.  The heat generated inside the tank was tremendous and fumes often nearly choked the men inside.  Nevertheless the first tank operators proved their mettle by operating under what amounted to appalling conditions.

The first battle honour awarded to a tank operator went to Private A. Smith, awarded the Military Medal for his actions at Delville Wood on 15 September 1916.

Meanwhile the French, who were aware of British tank experimentation, proceeded with their independent designs, although they remained somewhat sceptical as to its potential; their focus at the time was firmly on the production of ever more battlefield artillery.

Nevertheless the French had their Colonel Swinton, a man named Colonel Estienne.

He managed to persuade the French Commander in Chief, Joseph Joffre, of the battlefield potential of the tank as an aid to the infantry.

Joffre, ever a champion of the 'offensive spirit', agreed with the result that an initial order for 400 French Schneider (their first tank, named after the factory which produced them) and 400 St. Chaumond tanks was placed.

The first French use of tanks was on 16 April 1917, and faired much worse than the English attack. There were more tanks involved, but many of them broke down, and those that did reach the enemy lines had no support resulting in them having to retreat again. The main problems ensountered included the temperature, far too hot for any human to operate safely, as well as the vibrations, guns came out of their holdings. The French tanks did not have the ability to cross trenches as had the British ones. Additionally a problem was discovered in so much as an armour piercing bullet could go through the walls of tanks. As a result of these problems, several improvements were made to the design, modification was amde to the tracks to reduce the collection of mud, and an 'unditching beam' was added, a piece of wood that ran alongside the tracks when necessary to give extra bit grip.

Similarly, at Bullecourt in April/May 1917 the Australians pronounced great dissatisfaction with the tank's performance.

Tanks were even deployed during the notorious, almost swampy, conditions of the Third Battle of Ypres (more commonly known as 'Passchendaele').  They promptly sank in the mire and were entirely without benefit.

In what many regard as the first truly successful demonstration of the potential of the tank, the entire British Tank Corps (consisting of 474 tanks) saw action at the Battle of Cambrai on 20 November 1917 (although the French can lay claim to its earlier successful use at Malmaison).

In a sweepingly successful start to the battle twelve miles of the German front was breached, with the capture of 10,000 German prisoners, 123 guns and 281 machine guns. This early morning attack caught the Germans by surprise, initially the offensive had started out with what was then standard tactics by first bombardimg the line with shrapnel, gas, etc. Then the tanks began to move forward, crashing through the wire leading the infantry and cavalry through. The tanks used fascines to fill the trenches, and the men behind used these to cross. The attack was succesful until the German Fortified position of Flesquieres was encountered, the tanks could not continue, many ran out of fuel.

Unfortunately for the British this enormous initial success was effectively cancelled out in German counter-attacks because the British did not possess sufficient infantry troops to exploit the breach they had created.

Nevertheless the successful use of tanks at Cambrai restored dwindling faith in tank development.  The U.S. army took note and undertook development of its own tank series.

It also acted as a stimulus to the curiously hesitant German army, who had expressed continuing doubts as to the battlefield value of the tank.

They too began to hasten production of their own models, although they never pretended enthusiasm for their cause.

The U.S. Tank Corps adopted the use of French Renault tanks, light six-ton vehicles designed for close infantry support.  Around 200 of these were used in action at St. Mihiel and again at the Battle of Meuse-Argonne during late September/early October (although losses were high in the latter action).

The first successful display of German tanks came on 24 April 1918, when thirteen German models, chiefly A7V's, engaged British and Australian infantry at Villers Bretonneux.

Successful in driving back the British and Australians this encounter was to become famous as the site of the first tank versus tank engagement.  Three British Mark IVs fought three German A7Vs south of Villers Bretonneux, the British succeeding in driving off the German tanks. 

On 4 July 1918 the tank was used in a manner that helped to fashion the method in which it was deployed in future battles.  General John Monash, commander of the Australian Corps, launched an attack at Le Hamel by unleashing a co-ordinated barrage of tanks, artillery and warplanes, all designed to clear a path for advancing infantry.

Monash saw no point in attempting to gain ground by using infantry to storm enemy machine gun positions.  Rather he believed in using technology to facilitate a relatively uneventful infantry advance, with tanks at their head.

His view vindicated, Monash achieved victory at Le Hamel in just 93 minutes.  Other commanders took note.

Tanks were increasingly used during the Allied advance of summer 1918.

During the French attack at Soissons from 18-26 July no fewer than 336 Schneiders, St Chamonds and Renaults were deployed to support combined French and American infantry.

However tank deployment on the grand scale was reached on 8 August 1918, when 604 Allied tanks assisted an Allied 20 mile advance on the Western Front.

By the time the war drew to a close the British, the first to use them, had produced some 2,636 tanks.  The French produced rather more, 3,870.  The Germans, never convinced of its merits, and despite their record for technological innovation, produced just 20.

With the French tanks proving more serviceable than their British equivalents they continued to be used beyond wartime.

The French Renault F.T. tank continued to grow in popularity as the concept of the tank as a close aid to advancing infantry prospered.

Both the U.S. and Italy produced their own tank designs which were based on the French Renault model, a testament to its design strengths.  The Italians produced the Fiat 3000 and the U.S. the M1917.

Tank design continued to improve beyond the war and the tank, which helped to make trench warfare redundant, restored movement to the battlefield.  Its widespread use continues to the present day.

Tank Production 1916-18

Year

UK

France

Germany

Italy

USA

1916

150

-

-

-

-

1917

1,277

800

-

-

-

1918

1,391

4,000

20

6

84

Tank Terms

Bellied A term used when a tank's underside was caught upon an obstacle so high that its tracks could not grip the earth.
Ditched A tank became ditched when the ground beneath became so soft or waterlogged as to prevent the tracks from gripping.
Gearsman Tank crew member responsible for managing the gears.
Panzer A term used to describe a German tank.
Whippet Term used to describe any light tank.

Related World War 1 Tank links:

The Tank of Flesouieres Official Website

 

World War 1 Tanks

 

Tanks and World War One

 

Wikipedia - Tanks in World War 1


Last updated 12 June, 2009

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