The Tank Is Dead – Long Live The Tank

18th November 2010

David Fletcher

The Tank Is Dead – Long Live The Tank

Ahead of his evening lecture which examines a previous period in history when it was thought the age of the tank was over, Museum Historian David Fletcher gives his views on the current debate on the future of the tank...

"On the evening of 25 November I shall be giving an illustrated talk with the above title, here at the Tank Museum. I have been asked to see what parallels may be found with the period I am talking about – the years between the two world wars –and the present day as highlighted on our website by Brigadier Simon Levey and David Willey."

I selected the title to make a point, which was that, by the end of the First World War there were many within the British Army, and no doubt others as well, who regarded the First World War itself as an aberration and the tank as a peculiar device devised to overcome that aberration. Since such a war could never occur again, they argued, then it could be consigned to history, and the tank with it.

Well they were wrong. By 1923 the tank had been reborn and has gone from strength to strength ever since, at least until now. But was it reborn, or was some sort of evolutionary process at work?

I would argue not. I have received some very odd looks whenever I have stated my opinion that the tank of the First World War was not a tank at all, in the sense that we understand the term today, but essentially a mechanical reincarnation of the medieval siege machine. The more mobile, turreted tank of 1923 and its successors would seem to have evolved from the armoured car and had little in common with the tanks of the Great War beyond the name and the fact that they ran on caterpillar tracks. Their role on the battlefield was entirely different.

Armoured CarsTake an example; in 1920 Lieutenant General Sir Aylmer Haldane was placed in charge of British forces in Mesopotamia (Iraq) where an insurrection was threatening Western interests in the area. The British had been operating armoured cars in the region since at least 1916, with considerable success against regular forces, but Sir Aylmer did not like armoured cars, he believed that their mobility was restricted and their pneumatic tyres too vulnerable to small-arms fire.

Not that the General was one of those stick-in-the mud types who simply rejected mechanical weapons for the sake of it. He was a firm believer in air power and used it extensively in Iraq; and as the commander of Sixth Corps in France in 1917 was involved to some degree in the Battle of Cambrai. As a result he was also a great believer in tanks. However when Haldane applied for some tanks to bolster his force in 1920 he was turned down. One wonders what he was thinking. Those tanks of 1917, despite some modest success in Palestine, had been designed specifically for conditions on the Western Front and would never have had the mobility, nor the range, for long distance operations in the Middle East.

It is worth noting that, following these operations, largely on the advice of Colonel T. E. Lawrence, who knew what he was talking about, control of events in Iraq was placed largely in the hands of the Royal Air Force and the Royal Tank Corps in their armoured cars until the Royal Air Force raised their own armoured car companies and took over entirely. True, given the nature of the opposition and the financial stringency of the period it was necessary to make the best of what was available and likewise if better tanks had been available in the fullness of time and the opposition been more determined the authorities might have been persuaded to use them, but they would not have been those ponderous machines of 1917.

Tempting as it is one feels that there is no viable parallel to be struck between then and now. The modern tank is an immensely powerful weapon which is probably the ultimate land based weapon of the age. All I would say is that, rather like the tank of World War One it was designed for a different role in a different world. On the other hand, as the Canadians have demonstrated, tanks can exert a tremendous amount of influence on the ground, even in Afghanistan, and that from an Army which, only a few years ago, had declared the tank an outdated luxury which it had every intention of disposing of.


David Fletcher will be speaking at The Tank Museum on Thursday 25th November at 19:30. Tickets are £10. Call 01929 462359 for bookings and more information.

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