Tanks in the Great War

by David Fletcher, Tank Museum Historian

23rd December 2014

Evidence of vehicles designed for warfare can be traced back thousands of years to the Old Testament:

And the Lord was with Judah;
And he drove out the inhabitants
of the mountain, but he could not
drive out the inhabitants of the
valley; because they had
chariots of iron.  JUDGES i:  V19

So what were they, these Canaanite chariots of iron that Judah was unable to overcome? The truth is we don’t know but there is much we may surmise.

The most obvious use of iron is for PROTECTION, against arrows, spears or slingshot. But that protection comes at a price - weight. It could make the chariot too heavy for horses to pull and it would be likely to sink into soft ground, so mobility would be a low priority. Then think of this. If the horses were killed what might become of the chariot? It is going nowhere. Although the crew are protected they can still use their weapons, arrows, spears or slingshots in return so, up to a point the vehicle also has FIREPOWER. 

Julius Caesar encountered British chariots during his first invasions of Britain in 55-54BC.

‘First of all they drive in all directions and hurl missiles, and so by the mere terror that the teams inspire and by the noise of the wheels they generally throw ranks into confusion. When they have worked their way in between the troops of cavalry, they leap down from the chariots and fight on foot. Meanwhile the charioteers retire gradually from the combat, and dispose of the chariots in such a fashion that, if the warriors are hard pressed by the host of the enemy, they may have a ready means of retirement to their own side. Thus they show in action the mobility of cavalry and the stability of infantry.’

Caesar also tells us that British charioteers manoeuvred their vehicles with great skill and had the ability to turn around at full speed in an instant. He also says that charioteers would run along the poles – presumably between the horses – to launch their missiles. Thus the British might be said to combine MOBILITY with FIREPOWER but lacked PROTECTION; the three key characteristics of the tank. As the First World War broke out two millennia later, the task to build a fighting vehicle that effectively combined all three of these elements would present modern designers with the greatest challenge of their careers.

Trench Warfare

In 1914, the problems of trench warfare and fierce firepower were becoming clearly evident. By early 1915 Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty formed the Landships Committee to design a vehicle that could break that stalemate on the Western Front.

Various concepts and designs were tested but ultimately it came down to one old man, Colonel R E B Crompton, who came up with a series of designs for articulated tracklayers. The trouble was that Crompton was a perfectionist who never knew when to stop designing and start building something. It didn’t help that to begin with Crompton did not really know what a tracklayer was and it took him a while to find out that most of them were made in the USA. It also didn’t help that the Admiralty wanted an armoured troop carrier and when the War Office became involved in the summer of 1915, they demanded a fighting vehicle with guns and turrets.

Things started to move more quickly when a thrusting young banker, turned Naval Officer Albert Stern was put in charge. Stern let Crompton go and abandoned the idea of articulated vehicles. He passed the problem on to William Tritton, manager of Fosters of Lincoln and the inventive engineer W. G. Wilson. Between them they solved the problem and by Christmas 1915 had completed Mother, the first recognisable First World War tank.

Nine months later on 15th September 1916, tanks went into battle for the very first time. They were quite crude machines, with a complicated driving system that took four men to operate and a relatively unreliable and underpowered British Daimler engine. However, they worked and with Tritton’s design of track and Wilson’s idea of the track encircling the entire hull, the two men came up with the design of the ultimate cross-country machine, capable of going anywhere but painfully slowly.

The Tank Corps gradually expanded and the tanks improved although a lot had to do with the improved skills and dogged determination of the men inside them.

‘The many calls on you and your men’s endurance have been answered with the greatest alacrity – their losses have been heavy and their work prodigious, but they have established a record now which none can dispute.’
General Byng to the Commander of the Tank Corps Hugh Elles after the Battle of Cambrai, November 1917.

Not everyone was convinced and many senior officers were dead set against these new-fangled devices and hankered after the old ways of fighting a war. But progress was inevitable. A young engineer named Harry Ricardo designed a powerful new engine while Wilson designed a new gearbox and steering system so that now one man could drive a tank without having to rely on three others. By the summer of 1918, when the tide of war began to favour the Allies, new types of tank, much easier to drive and available in large numbers, were appearing on the scene. The outcome was inevitable and before the year ended the war was over.

In the last few months of the war the British were caught slightly on the wrong foot. They had built longer tanks, expecting to encounter more wide trenches. Instead they moved into a region where open warfare dominated for which shorter, more manoeuvrable tanks were more suitable, but they hung on with a diminishing number of tanks until the Armistice. Colonel Fuller, the Tank Corps’ tactical genius had devised Plan 1919, whereby new, faster tanks were to strike enemy headquarters and command centres. With the return to peace, however, tank production was cut back drastically and this included the new Medium D tank which was to be the essence of Fuller’s Plan.

So, thanks to the tank? Well maybe, although other weapons and techniques played a big part too. The progress achieved in just two years, however, was truly staggering and the tank undoubtedly assisted in final victory for the Allies.