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The Development of the Tank

Written by Gareth Davies  

How to assault an enemy trench system that was protected by barbed wire and machine guns was a challenge that was being thought about at the end of 1914 and a number of ideas were starting to be aired.  In January 1915 Winston Churchill, then the 1st Lord of the Admiralty, wrote to the Prime Minister to say: “The question to be solved is ……the actual getting across 100 or 200 yards of open space and wire entanglements……It would be quite easy in a short time to fit up a number of steam tractors with small armored shelters, in which men and machine-guns could be placed, which would be bullet-proof.…….The caterpillar system would enable trenches to be crossed quite easily, and the weight of the machine would destroy all wire entanglements”.  There then followed 7 months of ideas and experiments until, in August 1915, the first tank was produced.  But sadly the tank, known as the No 1 Lincoln Machine after its place of manufacture, didn’t work.  It’s tracks, taken from an American tractor, weren’t up to the task and so it was back to the drawing board.  British engineering saved the day and a modified version of the vehicle, now christened Little Willie, was put on test in September 1915.

The engineers who solved the track problem knew that while Little Willie could do many of the tasks a tank would need to do, its ability to cross a gap such as a German trench was limited and in parallel they came up with ideas for a larger machine.  It was this second design that was chosen to be the Mk 1 tank.

Why was it called a tank?  As work on the prototype continued in Lincoln there was much discussion at the War Office and in the Admiralty on how this new capability, the Landship, should be developed.  The Chairman of the Landships Committee, Sir Eustace Tennyson D’Eyncourt, was concerned about security and in particular he was worried that the continued use of the term Landship would lead to this new secret weapon being discovered before it could be used in anger.  On 4 November he wrote a memo that, instead of Landships, referred to the prototype vehicles as Water Carriers. And so, briefly, the committee overseeing the development was known as the WC Committee.  An alternative name was clearly required and after discounting Cistern they chose Tank.

By January 1916 the new tank, christened Big Willie, also known as Mother but officially called His Majesty’s Land Ship (HMLS) Centipede, arrived at Hatfield Park for testing.  And the War Office set about recruiting men to serve in these new, and very secret, vehicles.  A new organization, The Heavy Section of the Machine Gun Corps, was formed to help keep the secret and a training base was initially set up at Bisley in Surrey and then moved to the Suffolk estate of Lord Iveagh (of Guinness family fame) in June 1916.  Copies of German trenches were built in order for the new crews to train for their forthcoming entry into the German line and the history books.

At the end of June 1916, GHQ in France discussed the tactics that tanks would use in battle.  Their view was that “Tanks should move forward so as to reach the German front line position at dawn followed up by our infantry which is to start forward from our line as soon as the Tanks reach the first line of the enemy; that in the further operations which will ensue by day light, Tanks should precede the infantry from place to place as quickly as possible; that the ultimate objectives of the tanks during this period should be:

  1. The German artillery positions.
  2. The German second or third lines;

That the German artillery position might be assumed at an approximation to be at a distance of 2,000 to 3,000 yards from the German front line.”

In August 1916, just 7 months after the very first Mk 1 tank had been tested, 48 tanks and 400 men of the Heavy Section deployed to France.  They were about to go into action on the Somme.  The decision was made that 15 September would be their debut.

The momentum of Somme battles had slowed by early September and the offensive, known as the Battles of Flers-Courcelette after 2 villages either side of the Albert-Bapaume Road, was designed as a large-scale renewal of offensive action.  Fourth Army under Rawlinson and the Reserve Army under Gough were involved, a total of 21 Infantry Divisions and 2 Cavalry Divisions, 11 of which were allocated to the initial attack.  With only 48 tanks available this new weapon was going to be spread thinly across the battlefield, generally just 3 or 4 per division.  Of the 48 available tanks, 34 went in to action.  Ten were knocked out and 12 either ditched or broke down.  Most of the infantry divisions broke through the German front line but none of them reached the 4th line of defence.  Eighteen tanks reached German depth positions and the villages of Courcelette, Flers, Martinpuich were taken and held as was High Wood.  Infantry attacks continued until late November but most were not given any tank support and those that were generally received no more than a pair of tanks.

Was the first use of tanks a success?  Not really.  Had their use at an early stage of their development let the cat out of the bag?  Yes, the British had showed their hand to the Germans.  Should they have waited until they had more tanks and better developed tactics?  Yes, more tanks almost certainly would have helped but with competing priorities in the armament factories it would have taken many more months to build up a large mass of tanks.  As for using them with untired tactics, warfare is the best way of developing new tactics and there was always going to be a time which was their first use.  The BEF had made a calculated choice to use just a few tanks relatively early in their development cycle.  It had not been overly successful but the lessons would be absolutely vital for the development of new machines and new tactics that would take place in 1917.

At the end of 1916 the Heavy Section became the Heavy Branch and it expanded, first to 5 companies and then by December 1916 to 7 Battalions with 2 more planned, each supposedly of 72 tanks although this was later reduced to 36.  To meet this requirement an order for 1000 tanks was placed but factory capacity and the competing demands for shells, guns, aircraft and even lorries meant that output at the start of 1917 was limited to 50 tanks per month, rising to 200 per month by June.

In 1917 tanks were first used on the Western Front in the Battle of Arras.  Sixty Mk I and Mk II tanks went in to action on 9 April.  The opening stage of the battle was much more successful than the opening day of the Somme offensive and the tanks generally performed better than back in September 1916.  GHQ issued a complimentary message on 10 April 1917 in which Field Marshal Haig wrote “My congratulations on the excellent work performed by the Heavy Branch of the Machine Gun Corps during yesterday’s operations.  Please convey to those who took part my appreciation of the gallantry and skill shown by them.”   And on 13 April the commander of VI Corps, which was part of 3rd Army, wrote “This has been my first experience of the cooperation of tanks and I would certainly never again want to be without them when so well commanded and led”.

Tanks were back in action in June 1917 at Messines.   2nd Tank Brigade with 72 of the new Mk IV tanks were in use. Tanks were only used in action on 7 June although three tanks that ditched in the new no man’s land did help repulse a counter attack on the 8 June.  In a few cases the tanks gave valuable support to the infantry helping them to overcome enemy strong-points. Unfortunately, in perhaps an ominous foretaste of what was to come, many of the tanks ditched in the badly shelled ground and thus didn't perform any particularly useful function.  All 3 Corps Commanders wrote positive post operational notes on the performance of the tanks although all suggested that more combined arms training would be beneficial.

The Heavy Branch became the Tank Corps on 28 July 1917 and its commander in France (Elles) was promoted to the rank of Major General. During August and September 1917, on account of the heavy casualties it suffered at the third battle of Ypres, the expansion was cancelled, only to be revived again, on the 6th October.

Their next outing was during the 3rd Battles of Ypres. This was the first time that the British committed a large number of tanks; over 200 were available on the opening day and all 7 Battalions (A – G) were involved at some stage between July and the final tank action on 9 October, just 6 weeks before the Battle of Cambrai.  The BEF’s tactics on 31st July mirrored those used at Arras and Messines.  The artillery was to blast the infantry onto the first objective, some tanks being committed after the first wave of infantry to assist them in mopping up.  More tanks would pass through to help the infantry onto the second and third objectives. The tanks were not to use the roads as it was believed the Germans would have mined them.  Whilst some useful work was done, most of the tanks broke down or ditched on the appalling ground.

On 16 August all of the 16 tanks intended to support the attack ditched before they even reached the British front line. On 19 August it was decided to use the roads and the result was the highly successful Cockcroft action when the tanks used a road to outflank several enemy bunkers and then engage them from the rear.  Three days after the Cockcroft action another attempt was made to commit a large number of tanks but the ground again proved mostly impassable.  Thereafter most of the tanks were withdrawn from the salient and the remainder were only committed in small penny packets.  Some experiments were tried, road fighting tactics were evolved, wireless tanks were successfully used and one tank was even adopted for pioneer duties.  Another innovation was a new system to help the movement of tanks over the battlefield by creating a list of compass bearings from well-defined points to a number of features in the enemy's territory was prepared, thus enabling direction to be picked up easily.

The Third Battle of Ypres wasn’t a great success for the newly formed Tank Corps.  Sir Percy Hobart went as far as to call it ‘a dismal disaster’.  For over two months, packets of tanks, varying in strength from a Tank Brigade to a section of four machines, had been sent ion to action through a sea of mud and shellfire in which it was invariably impossible to close with the enemy.  But the Tank Corps learned from their experience at Ypres.  They knew that tanks would be best used on ground that hadn’t been churned up by artillery and began to plan attacks on this basis.

Tanks would next be in action, en masse, in November 1917 at Cambrai.

The Changing Nature of Warfare  in the Twentieth Century is a key themes in Anglia’s Battlefield Study Tours and our Warfare Through Time tours.

Gareth Davies spent 28 years in the British Army as a tank commander, staff officer, and instructor. He taught at Sandhurst and the Staff College. He has a Masters Degree in Defence Studies from KCL. In addition to guiding for Anglia he runs the website which charts the history of the key events, actions, people and places of tanks in the Great War and is a regular contributor to Military Simulation and Training Magazine. Gareth’s first book, on tanks in 1917, will be published in 2018.