In Defence of the Tank #2: WW1 Part 1 - The Dawn of the Tank.
WW1 – The Dawn of the Tank
The year is 1915 and the Great War enters its second year. After "The Race to The Sea" ended in 1914, the western front has been bogged down in trench warfare.
The infantry and cavalry tactics of past wars have proved ineffective against the machine guns, land mines, and artillery of the early 20th century. Casualties are astronomical, with no end in sight.
Air power was still in its infancy, and it was clear it would not be aircraft that would break the deadlock.
Something else was needed. Something that could cross the quagmire of "No Man's Land," crush barbed wire entanglements, shrug off artillery splinters, and be impervious to the inevitable hail of machine gun fire that would be directed at it.
What was needed was the "landship." The idea of armoured vehicles was not entirely new. Medieval siege towers were used for centuries, armoured surface vessels had been around since the "Iron Clads" of the US Civil War era, and armed and armoured trains had been in use with European nations for a number of years. Lightly armed and armoured cars were also in use. However, none of these could move over rough terrain.
One of the first proponents of armoured vehicles was Sir Winston Churchill, who was then the First Lord of the Admiralty. He, along with the other members of "The Landship Committee," decided that the best solution would be to combine armour, machine guns, and naval cannons, with the caterpillar tracks that had proved successful with recently introduced agricultural tractors.
The first prototype was nicked named "Little Willy." It worked, however tests showed it was too short to cross the width of German trenches. A second, larger prototype, nicked named "Big Willy" or "Mother" was soon created. Tests showed this should be able to cross the German trenches with ease, and the British MK1 Tank was based on this design.
The reason these vehicles were originally going to be called "Landships" is straightforward enough, as they were envisioned as "land battleships," and their main proponent was a Navy man. So why were they called tanks? This is due to a simple act of subterfuge. To prevent German spies from realising what they were doing, the British designated these machines as "mobile water carriers," i.e., a water "tank." Presumably the name stuck, since we have been using it ever since.
The subterfuge worked, as when the MK1 was first used in 1916 at the battle of Flers-Courcelette, the Germans were caught by complete surprise.
Many tanks were lost, mostly due to mechanical failure, since they were woefully unreliable and broke down frequently. Of the thirty-two MK1's committed to the battle, only nine made it across No Man's Land.
Despite this, combat losses were relatively few. Some were destroyed by lucky artillery strikes, whilst a few others were disabled due to near miss artillery rounds, and were subsequently finished off with mortars or flame-throwers. However the Germans at the time did not have any dedicated anti-tank weaponry. As a result, the battle was won and the tank's introduction was a tactical success. General Haig was impressed, and ordered the construction of 1000 tanks.
The age of armoured warfare had arrived.
However the battle did not bring about the strategic success that was hoped for, as the tanks were employed poorly in a number of ways.
Firstly, they were used too early in the war, before the tank design had matured. This is the main reason the MK1's broke down so often.
This premature deployment also meant the number of tanks available was too few, as they had not yet entered mass production. The thirty-two MK1s committed to the battle comprised the bulk of the nascent tank force, leaving little in reserve.
Thirdly, the tanks were spread too thinly, being spread out across the attack front. They also pushed too far behind the German trench lines, which combined with their small numbers and thin distribution, allowed them to become isolated.
Combined armour and infantry technology and tactics were also still in their infancy. For example, the tanks lacked either radios or tank phones, so communicating with other tanks or their supporting infantry was difficult at best. As you would expect, they did not function as a complete unit as well as they perhaps could have done if they had better coms and training.
This false start allowed the Germans to recover, and gave them time to develop the first anti-tank weapons, and the first anti-armour tactics. The arms race between armoured vehicles and anti-armour weapons had started. How this arms race would develop during the remainder of the Great War will be the topic of the next article.