The advent of the machine gun and improvements in the accuracy of firearms greatly increased casualties on the battlefield. With both cavalry and infantry becoming more vulnerable, it was the trench which was found suitable to fight from and within some months of the beginning of World War 1, much of the European theatre became furrowed with trench lines. However, rain and the high subsoil water table soon made trench warfare a very messy ordeal.
The continued stalemate of trench warfare led to increasing efforts to find a weapon that could break this lack of mobility became more intense and most important, cross the trenches, which had made the use of cavalry null and void. Cavalry engagements fought in mud proved very costly and from a military point of view, hopeless. Despite this seemingly obvious fact, senior military commanders were hostile to the use of armoured vehicles, as they would have challenged the use of cavalry in the field.
According to ‘History Learning Site’ the leading light in support of the tank was Lieutenant-Colonel Ernest Swinton. In 1914, he had proposed the development of a new type of fighting vehicle. Contrary to common misconception that no fighting vehicles existed in August 1914, the Germans, British, Austrians, Russians and French all had armoured fighting vehicles that could fight on ‘normal’ terrain, but could not cross trenches. Caterpillar tracked vehicles were already in France as the British used them as heavy gun tractors.
Swinton had received some support from those in authority but many in the army’s General Staff were deeply suspicious. Swinton needed an example of the machine that he believed would alter warfare on the Western Front. By June 9th 1915, agreement was made regarding what the new weapon should be. It should have a top speed of 4 mph on flat land with ability to turn sharply at top speed, climb a 5-feet parapet, cross an eight feet gap, a working radius of 20 miles and a crew of ten men with two machine guns on board and one light artillery gun.
Most of the original designs were based on designs from the Holt tractor company. However, their vehicles were designed to operate on muddy land but not the churned up landscape of the Western Front. The first ‘tank’ to have any form of caterpillar track was a vehicle designed by Lieutenant W Wilson and William Tritton called “Little Willie”. “Little Willie” was never designed to fight but to serve as a template for development. “Little Willie” developed in to “Big Willie” which started to bear a resemblance to the first Mark 1 seen in the photo. “Big Willie” was rhomboid in shape and had guns mounted in “blisters”, or cupolas, on the sides of the hull. It was a veritable ‘metal monster’.
The military failure in Gallipoli had pushed the emphasis of the war back to the Western Front – to the trenches and the lack of movement. Therefore, any new weapon that might seem capable of ending this stalemate was likely to be better received than in the past.
The beginnings of these tanks did not bode well. The first model came off the factory floor on September 8th 1915. On September 10th, its track came off. The same happened on September 19th when government officials were watching. However, these officials were impressed as they knew that any new weapon was bound to have teething problems and they recognised the potential that the new weapon had. Its main weakness was the track system. Tritton and Wilson designed a new and more reliable version and on September 29th a meeting took place in London that recommended the new weapon should have 10-mm frontal armour and 8-mm side armour. There would be acrew of eight and the large guns would be 57-mm naval guns mounted on the sides. The vehicle would have a speed of 4 mph. “Big Willie” ran with these specifications for the first time on January 16th 1916. Churchill had directly contacted Haig to convince him about the usefulness of the new weapon. Haig sent a major, Hugh Elles, to find out more about the machine and he reported favourably to Haig.
On January 29 1916, “Big Willie” went through it first major demonstration under the tightest of secrecy. On February 2, Kitchener, Lloyd George and McKenna, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, attended another demonstration. It was at this meeting that Kitchener described “Big Willie” as a “pretty mechanical toy”. However, those close to Kitchener disclosed that he said this only to provoke the ‘tank team’ into defending their creation. Whatever the case, by February 12, 100 “Big Willies” had been ordered by the Ministry of Munitions.
The development of the tank when compared to other weapons was remarkably swift – a testament to the team surrounding the weapon and the drive of Wilson and Tritton. After February 12, Ernest Swinton went into overdrive to develop a fighting technique for these new weapons. Swinton was very keen that both tanks and infantry worked in co-operation. However, in the early days, it remains clear that even Swinton saw the tank as supporting the infantry in their efforts to break the German front lines as opposed to the tank being a weapon that could do this by itself.
In April, General Douglas Haig informed Swinton that he wanted tanks and crews ready for June 1 – the start date for the Battle of the Somme. This was an impossible request as there were no tanks in production and if there were no tanks, how could crews train on them? Finding crews was also a potential problem as very few people other than the rich, had any experience of mechanised vehicles by 1916. Those who did join the Armoured Car Section of the Motor Machine Gun Service (an attempt to disguise the new weapon), came from the Motor Machine Gun Service or from the motor trade, but while these people had mechanical skills they had no military knowledge.
The abject failure of artillery at Verdun and the Somme meant that General Headquarters ordered the new weapon into use by September 15th 1916. The first tanks arrived in Europe on August 30th but the crews were faced with major problems. One tank commander wrote: “I and my crew did not have a tank of our own the whole time we were in England. Ours went wrong the day it arrived. We had no reconnaissance or map reading…. no practices or lectures on the compass… we had no signaling… and no practice in considering orders. We had no knowledge of where to look for information that would be necessary for us as tank commanders, nor did we know what information we should be likely to require.”
However, for the first time during the little known Battle of Flers Courcelette on 15 September 1916, the battle tanks were used with little success and with even less success in the Battle of Somme, on the same day. On September 15th, 36 tanks made an en masse attack at the Somme. Originally there had been fifty of these machines but these thirty ton machines could not cope with the harsh lunar landscape of the churned up ground and fourteen had broken down or got bogged down. Regardless of this, a new era in warfare had begun.
Lt Col Anil Bhat VSM (Retd) is the
Associate Editor of Salute