Introduction

mas-armoured-carThe idea of an armoured car for use on the battlefield is nearly as old as the invention of the combustion-engined car itself (Karl F.Benz, 1885). In 1898, a Major Davidson of the United States Army took the first step by mounting a Maxim machine gun on a standard production car (marque unknown) powered with a 3-cylinder engine. Presumably, this was used along the American-Mexican frontier. Logically, such a car would work well in the relatively open and uncluttered landscape of the USA/Mexico border country.

The European nations quickly took up the idea. In 1900 the Simms armoured car was introduced and in 1902 both Britain and France produced models with armour and mounted Maxim machine-guns which were foreseen as mobile machine gun and artillery posts. Not to be outdone, in 1903, the German car firm Daimler demonstrated a purpose built armoured car – rather than an adaptation of an existing model of a car – to the Austro-Hungarian royalty. The concomitant unseating of the Emperor from his horse during the demonstration of the armoured car cut short this initiative. Apparently, neither Emperor Franz Joseph nor his cavalry officers were amused.

Pre-1914, various models were used for policing duties in some out-posts of the various European empires. One model, made by the British Napier Car Company, was widely used by the British. In 1913, the Italians’ use of armoured cars in Cyrenaica, now the Eastern Region of Libya, against the Turkish Army, was another well-documented example of their pre-war deployment.

The genesis of the ‘tank’ is even older. There is a well known drawing by Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519), which is now in the British Museum in London. It dates from around 1485 and takes the form of a flattened cone, propelled on wheels turned by geared hand-operated crankshafts. Guns protrude from portholes. A rather more fanciful model sports scythe-like blades (à la Queen Boudicca) instead of guns.

Contrary to common belief, the first ‘modern’ designs of the ‘landships’ that we now call ‘tanks’ were not inspired by conditions on the Western Front, but as a more general idea for an offensive weapon. In 1854, Cowan, devised a steam driven traction engine covered with armoured plate and mounted with a cannon and scythe blades. The British Army did not buy it in either sense of the word.

This was followed by proposals to the British War Office by the Australian, Lancelot de Mole (1912) and to the Austrian Hungarian and German War Ministries by the Austrian, Gunther Burstyn (1911). However, neither design was taken up, and although the elements to construct a tank existed – armour plate and agricultural tractors - pre-1914, there were no operational armoured vehicles that we would today classify as ‘tanks’.

The armoured car on the Western Front

Initially, what came to be known as armoured cars were introduced onto the Western Front in 1914 by the French, Belgians and British. The Belgians and French already had production models in service on what was to become the Western Front at the outbreak of war in August 1914. These cars had mounted machine-guns or light artillery pieces.

The first vehicles used by the British on the Western Front were modified standard production motor cars. The Royal Naval Air Squadron (RNAS), in co-ordination with the Belgian Army, used Belgian manufactured Minerva sports cars, with mounted Hotchkiss machine-guns, as reconnaissance vehicles in the area around Antwerp.

In October 1914, to reduce the vulnerability of the cars to small-arms fire and shrapnel, steel boilerplate was strategically attached to the outside of 20 of the cars that belonged to the RNAS on the Western Front.

The utility of these vehicles for reconnaissance purposes on the highly fluid battlefield of the Western Front quickly became evident. The British Admiralty ordered, for immediate delivery, 50 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost and Lanchester open topped cars, with appropriate armour and a mounted Vickers machine-gun in a revolving turret.

Unfortunately, by the time these vehicles had arrived on the Western Front, and had been organised into four squadrons, the mobile nature of the war had been transformed into the static state of trench-warfare. The opportunity to use these vehicles to the maximum of their potential as mobile strong points had largely passed, as the massed network of trenches and broken ground generally proved to be unsuitable for this kind of vehicle.

Nevertheless, in early 1915 the Admiralty decided to form an Armoured Car Division. Eventually, 15 Divisions were formed of which seven served on the Western Front.

Apart from two squadrons, the Royal Naval Armoured Car Division was disbanded in mid-1915 and the armoured cars entered service with the British Army. One of the remaining RNAS squadrons went to Russia; the other remained as an experimental unit. Later, this unit participated in the development of the tank.

Some of the former RNAS armoured car squadrons were dispatched to other theatres of war, wherever their deployment was considered to be both feasible and useful. These squadrons served with particular distinction in the highly suitable environs of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Palestine and East Africa.

The British Army armoured car formations continued throughout the war. Initially, they were formed into the four car strong Armoured Motor [Car] Batteries, with the heavier Rolls-Royce platform, and the eight car Light Armoured [Motor] Car Batteries using standard production cars.

In the later stages of the War, when the Front Line once again became more fluid, the armoured car again came into its own. At Amiens, in August 1918,12 British armoured cars succeeded in getting behind the German lines and caused chaos. All returned safely to their own lines.

The genesis of the tank

As the war ground on, it became evident that the small-wheeled armoured cars could not negotiate the broken terrain of the static Western Front battlefield.

A major influence in the development of tanks by both the Allies and the Central Powers was the Holt Tractor; a vehicle with 'caterpillar' tracks that produced greatly enhanced performance. This machine, American built but based on a British patent, came in two versions; a 75 horse-power model with additional wheels for steering and a 45 hp, fully tracked model. The British Army purchased several of the former to haul heavy artillery. The French already had a number of the smaller ones and were adapting them for cargo carrying. They were also produced under licence in Budapest, so all the combatants had access to them. Although the Holt did not evolve directly into the tank it certainly provided inspiration and the principle on which the tanks of both sides were based.

In September 1914, a suggestion was made by Lt. Col. Ernest D. Swinton of the Royal Engineers that an armoured vehicle should be constructed for use on the Western Front. It would use the existing agricultural and gun tractor technology duly adapted for warfare.

At the same time, both the British and the French army commanders made vague requests for an armoured vehicle able to transport the infantry across the shattered battlefield, in all weathers, protected from all but the very heaviest shell-fire. The commanders also envisaged that this vehicle would offer covering fire by integrally mounted artillery and machine guns.

Positive action followed in Britain when the then Secretary of the British Committee for Imperial Defence (Colonel Maurice Hankey) mentioned, in an official letter, this need for ‘special devices for the Western Front’.

As already mentioned, the Admiralty had an experimental unit for the development of armoured vehicles – ‘land battleships’ - and was already talking about a specific heavy armoured vehicle. When Hankey’s letter passed across the desk of the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston S. Churchill, he immediately saw the connection between the various ideas. Churchill decided to follow it up, and did so with characteristic vigour.

Churchill’s first action was to write an urgent note to the Prime Minister, Herbert H. Asquith, stating … "It would be quite easy in a short time to fit up a number of steam tractors with small armoured shelters, in which men and machines guns could be placed, which would be bullet-proof." He went on to say, "Used at night, they would not be affected by artillery fire to any extent. The caterpillar [track] system would enable the trenches to be crossed quite easily and the weight of the machine would destroy all barbed wire entanglements"… Given that this was written in 1914, its is a surprisingly accurate estimation of what the tank would do in the Great War.

In early 1915,Churchill was approached by officers of the Armoured Car Squadron based at Wormwood Scrubs in London who had been discussing the idea of some kind of vehicle able to overcome barbed wire and cross the trench lines. Their ideas fell into two categories: machines on huge wheels, big enough to ride over obstacles and vehicles mounted on caterpillar tracks.

Churchill was sufficiently impressed to set up the Landship Committee in February of that year. In the initial development stages, Churchill provided moral support, Admiralty funds and the first crews of sailors to man the prototypes.

Experiments with various designs revealed the impracticality of the 'Big Wheel' idea, and it was decided that the way forward lay with the principle of the tracklayer.

By mid-June 1915, the Landships Committee had submitted a detailed specification for the new armoured weapon.

  • Minimum speed, cross-country, 4 miles per hour (6.4kmh).
  • Range 20+ miles (32km)
  • 360 degree manoeuvrability.
  • Able to overcome a five-foot obstacle and cross a five-foot wide trench.
  • Carry a rapid firing gun and two machine-guns.
  • The chassis to be based on a modified agricultural caterpillar tractor.

Under the leadership of the energetic Lieutenant Albert Stern, a distinguished financier with no military experience at all but who had been given a temporary commission in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR), early experiments produced several prototypes. The first practical model was ready for testing in August 1915. It was a metal mock-up called ‘Little Willie’ with side mounted caterpillar tracks and based on an appropriately lengthened American Bullock tractor design. It began its trials on the 29th January 1916.

As the limitations of this design became apparent during the trial, a complete redesign was carried out by Lt. Walter Gordon Wilson, RNAS, and William Ashbee Tritton, the manager of a company manufacturing agricultural machines. This became ‘Big Willie’ and later ‘Mother’. It had a rhomboid shaped body of steel plate with caterpillar tracks encircling the metal body. The rhomboid shape became the definitive image of the heavy British tanks of the Great War.

In due course, this model also came to be known by the British troops as: ‘His Majesty’s Landship Centipede’.

To ensure the news of the project did not get to enemy ears, the new device was only mentioned under the code name ‘water tanks’. This code word eventually evolved into the now universal term the tank.

The chosen tank design came in two forms.

  • The Mark (hereafter Mk) I ‘Male’ tank with a 6-pounder Hotchkiss naval guns mounted in a sponson (a projecting housing) on each of the vertical sides of the tank, and three Short Hotchkiss machine guns one in each sponson, and one forward-firing operated by the commander.
  • The Mk I ‘Female’ that had two mounted Vickers machine-guns in each sponson, and one forward-firing Short Hotchkiss machine-gun.

mk1-planThe power source was a 105 horsepower Daimler engine, with three gearboxes transmitting the power to the two independent caterpillar tracks. The early model also trailed two large artillery wheels that were said to add balance and ease of steering. But these were soon dispensed with as impracticable and superfluous.

The tank crew comprised of a junior officer, a NCO and six other gears men and gunners.

The Mk I was required to have the following additional minimum performance criteria:

  • Able to stop a reversed rifle bullet. Reversing the standard rifle bullet in its cartridge was said to improve its armour piercing capabilities. The lead core acting much in the same way as the depleted uranium/tungsten cores of modern anti-tank shells.
  • Able to cross an 8-foot trench.
  • Climb a 5-foot trench parapet with a 1 in 1 gradient.

To take the tanks into battle, the Heavy Section of the Machine Gun Corps (HSMGC) was established in March 1915 at Bisley, England. It later moved to its permanent home at Bovington in Dorset, England.

The Commander of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) General Sir Douglas Haig, was officially informed about the tank production programme at Christmas-time 1915. From the beginning, contrary to his detractors, he was consistently interested in, and supportive of, the programme. In April 1916, he wrote to the War Office indicating that he saw a role for the tank – to produce "surprise and demoralising effect" - in the coming Somme Offensive.

When training began in the new doctrine of armoured vehicle warfare (AVW), it was under the guidance of the same Colonel Swinton of the Royal Engineers, and was based on his rudimentary training manual called ‘Technical Notes’.

The then Munitions Minister, David Lloyd George, authorised production of 150 of the Mk I Heavy Tank in February 1916, and in April of the same year, actual production began at the Foster Company’s factory in England. The first tanks came off the production line in June 1916.

On the 13th August 1916, four companies of the HSMGC embarked for France. Each company had twelve tanks of both the Male and Female Mk I models, with another of each type in reserve. So, in all, 56 tanks, along with their crews and support staff, crossed the Channel in their first deployment on the Western Front.

The Mk II was a 'training tank', insufficiently armoured, but pressed into action. The Mk III was better armoured, and it is suspected that it was also deployed in action but there is no first hand evidence. Fifty of each of the Mk II and the Mk III were produced.

The early deployment of the tank on the Western Front

The BEF was the first belligerent to deploy tanks on the Western Front. Brought by rail to Bray-sur-Somme near the Front Line in great secrecy, the British Mk I tank was seen by many commanders as a useful tool for routine tasks on the battlefield where armoured protection was particularly needed. But, after some debate, the British HQ decided that a planned operation at Flers in the Somme Sector would be the first major deployment of the new tanks.

On the specific order of the BEF commander, General Haig, the commander of the British Fourth Army, General Sir Henry Rawlinson, committed all of the 49 serviceable Mk I's into action at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette (15th – 22nd September 1916). In the event, 32 Mk I’s reached the start line. Nine developed a mechanical failure, five more became bogged down (ditched or bellied), nine managed to keep up with the advancing troops, whilst the other nine were restricted to mopping up operations. In all, ten tanks were hit by shellfire.

The first tank into action – No. D1 – attacked Delville Wood. The Flers attack, a mile away in a Northeast direction, followed soon after and the village was taken.

Unfortunately, the tanks had been rushed into battle with inexperienced crews and only limited field-testing. This caused their mentor Churchill to comment, "My poor land[battle]ships have been let off prematurely and on a petty scale. In that idea resided the one real hope of victory".

So, the outcome of the first tank attack, at Flers, whilst initially gratifying for the effect it had on the terrified German infantry, was by no means a complete success.

The Mk I's were under-powered and their narrow caterpillar tracks could not support the weight of the tank in the deep churned mud on the battlefield. Once stuck they were almost impossible to extract under their own power, and became easy fixed targets for the German artillery. But the Battle of Flers/Courcelette did give a clear indication that when fully developed the tank could be the tool to end the stalemate of trench warfare.

Accordingly, this setback did little to discourage the major proponents of the tank. And it provided an enormous boost in morale to the Allied troops and their immediate commanders. Both of these cadres saw these tanks as a possible way out of their treadmill existence in the trenches. The higher commanders, in their turn, recognised them as the means to achieve the elusive "Breakthrough into the green fields" which the cavalry and the infantry had been unable to achieve.

The commander of the BEF, General Sir Douglas Haig, urged the production of thousands more of these tanks.

At a more local level, the failure of the tanks to properly support the ANZAC troops inclined them firmly against the future use of the tank in their operations. This view was brutally confirmed by the ANZAC's experiences at Bullecourt, on the Somme battlefield in 1917. This antipathy against tanks was only really changed by the well co-ordinated tank supported success of the ANZACs at Hamel, near Corbie, also on the Somme, on July 4th 1918. It was calculated that each supply and gun-carrier tank did the work of 300 men's manual labour; the role of these support tanks was particularly significant during the Battle of Amiens in August 1918.

Reorganisation of the British tanks

In October 1916, the tank companies were reorganised into battalions each having 75 tanks, and an establishment of 32 officers and 374 other ranks. Then, in early 1917, the tank battalions were consolidated into 800+ strong, two-battalion brigades. The British tank had become a significant force on the Western Front.

In June 1916, by Royal Warrant, the HSMGC was formally renamed the Tank Corps.

The German reaction to the British tank

Meanwhile, the normally trend conscious Germans concentrated their efforts on finding anti-tank measures such as artillery and mines. This attitude was primarily motivated by their preoccupation with their current defensive stance, and supported by a wish not to let a tank production schedule disturb their already stressed munitions and armaments programmes.

The continuing deployment of the new Tank Corps on the Western Front

Such was the demand for tanks that the more lightly armoured training tanks – Mk II's and III's – were also drafted into a combat role (e.g. at Arras in 1917) even though the armour-plate on the Mk II was not bulletproof. But that on the Mk III was, to a certain extent. To the Germans' chagrin the Mk IV's armour was even better than the Mark III's which came as some surprise to the Germans, as they had carefully evaluated the Mk II's armour and this miscalculation compromised their new armour piercing ammunition.*

*N.B.: A significant disabling effect on the British tank crews was the effect caused by the impact of bullets and other projectiles on the non-protected gaps in the armour of the tank. The molten lead from bullets caused a 'splash', which was scattered throughout the interior of the tank. Similarly, part of the inner surface of the armour plate – the so-called 'shale' - would become detached by the striking force of a bullet, or shell splinter. These splashes and shales caused anything from minor flesh wounds to disabling injuries. Less serious, but painful, effects were caused by particles of the paint that covered the inner surfaces of the tank becoming like-wise detached and forming sharp shards. Museum photographs show tank-crew evacuating from tanks with blood streaked faces. Others demonstrate the combination of slotted steel goggles, a leather mask and a chain-mail face-curtain that provided some protection for tank crews against these debilitating projectile ‘splashes/shales/paint splinters’.

The deployment of the superior Mk IV was delayed until 1917, when it played a minor role in the Messines Offensive. Comfort for the tank crew in the Mk IV’s was slightly improved, but by today’s standards, conditions were still horrendous. The persistent problem of ‘ditching’ (getting stuck) in wet or marshy ground meant that most were put out of action before reaching their targets. However, the Mk IV armour was resistant to the new German special rifle – the single shot Mauser 13mm routinely supplied to the infantry and machine gunners.

Similar operational problems arose in the muddy battlefield of the Third Battle of Ypres (31st March – 10th November 1917). But on the somewhat firmer and more open ground at Cambrai (20th November – 10th December 1917) the largest tank onslaught to-date (378 combat tanks, plus over 100 support tanks including five wireless [radio] tanks), led to an outstanding first day success. In celebration, church bells were rung in Britain on the 23rd November 1917.

The long known vulnerability of the tank to artillery fire was exemplified at Flesquiéres, near Cambrai, on the 20th November 1917, by the loss of thirty-nine British tanks to artillery fire in one sector alone; seven of these to one lone German gunner.

Also, at Cambrai, the novel use of the old siege war tool, a 10 tonne fascine, (a bundle of brushwood carried on the front of each tank, to be dropped into wide trenches) helped to reduce the ditching and trench-crossing problem. But, as so often happened in the past, the British HQ commanders failed to organise an effective follow-up of the attack, and the hard-earned early success was lost. Within two weeks the fierce German counterattack had recovered all of the lost ground.

However, the practical role of the tank on the battlefield was slowly becoming formulated in the crucible of the battlefield.

A British light tank enters the fray

renault-tankCoincidental with the introduction of a French light tank (the Renault FT), a British medium-light version appeared on the Western Front in late 1917. Nicknamed the ‘Whippet’, the Medium Mk ‘A’ weighed 14 tonnes, against the 27 tonnes of the heavy Mk IV. It had 14mm (maximum) of armour, carried three crew (but could be, and was, in extremis, operated single-handed) and carried four machine-guns. It had a maximum speed of 8mph (13kpm).

Total wartime production of the Whippet was 200 as compared with the 1,015 Mk IV's, 400 Mk V's and 642 Mark V*'s.

Though both the German and the French tanks had sprung suspensions, none of the British models were so equipped. Hence the inevitable detrimental effect on the British tank crews when their tanks performed the more extreme manoeuvres of which they were capable.

The British tank in the battles of 1918

In May 1918, in the retreat which followed the German Spring Offensive, or Kaiserschlacht, on the Western Front, the British Mk IV tanks proved to be more of a liability than an asset. (The Mk's I-III had been withdrawn by this time). They were too slow, breakdown prone and highly susceptible to the refined anti-tank tactics of the German gunners in their tank forts. These forts used anti-tank artillery and rifles to halt the tanks and machine gun fire to annihilate the accompanying infantry. Nearly half of 370 British tanks had to be abandoned and burnt as the Kaiserschlacht swept across northern France.

As the German Offensive waned, on the 4th July 1918, the Australian Corps under General Sir John Monash, as mentioned earlier, used the new and better Mk V tanks in a co-ordinated attack on Hamel on the Somme, gaining a total victory after only 93 minutes.

This set the paradigm for when the Allies launched the Amiens counter offensive on the 8th August 1918. All of the 456 serviceable Mk V's, Mk V's and Whippets and 118 supply tanks were massed on a front of 20 miles (32km). The new Mk V had a better steering and control system, and the heavy fascine was replaced by a much lighter wooden frame called a 'crib'. The Mark V was also faster and had an armoured fuel tank and, perhaps, most importantly, it was more mechanically reliable; like the Mk IV it could traverse a 10 feet wide trench without the need for fascines. One stretched version of the Mark V* could traverse even 13-14 feet gaps.

Provision was also made in the Mk V* to transport up to 25 troops, but the environmental conditions inside the tanks when in action made it generally unfeasible to do this as many soldiers became physically ill.

Earlier Mk IV's, with their armament removed, were also used with some success as a supply vehicle for both the tank and infantry companies, carrying men and material safely across the battlefield.

The initial breakthrough and gains of the first day of the Amiens Offensive in August 1918 were a huge tactical success, but cost the British over 200 of these tanks. Only 145 were available for the follow-up operations. The number of serviceable tanks dwindled as the days passed, and their participation and importance declined accordingly.

Specialised tanks

The British continued to put enormous effort into their tank production and many special purpose tanks were produced, e.g. Bridge Crossing; Self-Propelled Artillery; Personnel Carriers; Radio Communications and Engineering. They were designed to perform tasks such as bridge laying and served as radio linked command centres; although some applications never saw operations or proved to be less efficacious than was hoped. However, as was the mentioned earlier, the 48 Gun Carrier variations were highly effective and, once again, with each said to replace 300 men's labour when used to carry supplies.

Tanks of the Allies on the Western Front

France: Following the British example, the French produced a series of tanks, or chars - from the French char d’assaut ( = assault chariot). They had developed an interest in the concept of the armoured trench-crossing vehicles quite independently, and, as in Britain, ideas were being investigated before the outbreak of the Great War. The massive French casualties in the first few months of the war gave added urgency to the project.

A team led by Colonel Estienne, an artillery officer who went on to become Field Commander of Tanks in the French Army, oversaw the production of a design based on the 45hp American Baby Holt Agricultural Caterpillar Tractor. The track was lengthened and an armoured body fixed on top, It carried a short version of the French 75mm field gun in the front and two machine guns; with a crew of six it weighed 15 tons. An order for 400 was placed with the French Schneider-Creusot Company.

Estienne had taken his idea direct to the French C-in-C, General Joffre, which did not please the Army Transport Service when they found out. They indignantly took the same Baby Holt and, without telling Estienne or Joffre, designed their own tank around it, and ordered 400. It was named the St. Chamond, after the town where it was manufactured. This vehicle carried a long 75mm gun in the nose and four machine guns (front, rear, left and right). Its weight was 25 tons, and the crew was nine strong.

In the Spring of 1917, both models of the French tanks were used for the first time in the Neville Offensive, when 128 tanks were deployed. But they did not perform as well as expected, due to inherent practical design problems, principally inadequate cross-country performance in the case of the St. Chamond, and poor trench-crossing ability and susceptibility to catching fire in the case of the Schneider.

Future French tank production was switched to the Renault FT (char léger = light tank) and battalions of 75 tanks were formed for use in massed support of the infantry. The heavier tanks were retained and operated in groups of four. The Renaults were widely used by the French Army in the later campaigns, but with, perhaps, not quite the same reliability or efficacy in the field as the British Whippets. However, French production of the tank rose to 3,500 units. Of the 3,117 Renault FT17 tanks delivered to the French Army, approximately 1,000 were armed with the Model 1914 Hotchkiss machine gun and 1,800 with a 37mm gun. Only slightly more than half of the tanks produced were actually made by Renault, the rest were contracted out to Berliet, SOMUA and Delauney Belville; two hundred of the tanks were modified as Radio Tanks.

The first real French success with tanks (80) was at Fort de la Malmaison in October 1917, in the Chemin des Dames Sector.

The residual Schneider and St.Chamond tanks were grouped in companies of four and used wherever it was thought useful and productive. Neither was considered by some observers to be quite as effective as the light British Whippet tank. Though they were useful on better ground in the more open actions between August 1918 and the Armistice. Generally they are credited with making a very important contribution to the war effort of the Allies.

United States of America: The Americans did not produce a tank design of their own in time for it to participate in the Great War, although several models were in the production pipeline at the time of the Armistice. When the Americans entered the war, a lot of the equipment that they acquired was of French origin and it included French tanks.

A factory was built in France for the production of a joint Anglo-American design, the Mk VIII, but none was completed before the War ended the anticipated joint Allied tank requirements of 1919.

The American Tank Corps principal tank actions were at St. Mihiel and the Argonne Forest campaigns in September 1918 using French Renault tanks. Some units were also issued with the British Mk V*, a lengthened version of the rhomboid Mk V.

Enemy tanks on the Western Front

The eventual German entry into the tank war was the A7V Sturmpanzerwagen. This was a relatively huge tank of 32 tonnes with:

  • a maximum speed of 8mpg (13kph); heavy 30mm armour;
  • 16 crew;
  • one 5.7cm Maxim-Nordenfelt gun and six machine-guns.

The stressed state of the German arms industry delayed the entry of the tank into the war until September 1917, when 15 were commissioned. The first tank trial had only taken place in May 1917.The German Army operated nine tank units: three units each of five A7V tanks supported by six units furnished with captured, reconditioned and re-badged British tanks. The huge German tanks were difficult to handle and highly vulnerable to artillery fire. They played no significant part in the German battlefield tactics, although the first ever tank-versus-tank battle took place at Villers-Bretonneux on the 24th April 1918. Despite this story having been written up to an extraordinary degree with equally extraordinary variations, basically what appears to have happened was this. Three British Mk IVs encountered three German A7V tanks. Two British Female (6 machine guns) Mk IV tanks were knocked out of action by the German tanks. One of the German A7V tanks (1x 5.7cm gun and 6 machine guns) was then knocked out by a British Mk IV Male tank (2 x 6 pounders and 4 machine guns) and the other two A7Vs fled. The 1943 tank battle of Kursk (600 Russian and 250 German tanks) it was not. But it was definitely the first tank-to-tank battle ever, and it coincided with the end of the German advance in the Michael Offensive.

The 5.7cm Maxim-Nordenfelt (as used in the A7V tank) and mounted on a lorry chassis, accounted for many Allied tanks, as indeed did the wheel mounted 7.7cm Feldkanone in cut down and standard forms.

The Germans eventually produced machine gun bullets capable of piercing the heaviest Allied armour, but none of the planned 6,000 machine guns reached the units in the field before the Armistice in November 1918.

Later modifications of the A7V were the A7V-U (=Umlaufendeketten or All Round Tracks) and the Gelandewagen ( = Cargo Version).

An even larger German tank weighing 148 tons – the K-wagen - was under construction at the end of the war.

Germany also had plans for a light tank not unlike the Whippet, using standard motor car chassis, but the Armistice aborted plans for its mass production.

The Italian Fiat Company also produced two examples of a tank only marginally smaller than the German A7V, but again, the end of the War saw the project abandoned.

Finally, Russia carried out experiments with some extraordinary ideas. They actually built a 'Big Wheel' tank, some 30-feet high, but it was abandoned after trials. Russia's biggest problem was that her undeveloped industrial base was not capable of serious tank production. And from October 1917, she had other things to cope with.

Conclusions

Even in the Allies’ triumphant last six months of the War, the tank did not entirely live up to its proclaimed potential. There were too many problems with reliability, stability, manoeuvrability and susceptibility to shellfire, but its potential in the formerly intractable trench warfare had been proved.

In effect, static trench warfare became to be seen as largely redundant when large numbers of tanks, highly precise heavy artillery, and aircraft became involved.

The men who operated the tanks worked in an extremely uncomfortable, stressful and highly dangerous environment; but many still thought they were better off than the infantry. There was never a shortage of candidates for tank crews.

After the War, for their own purposes, the commanders of the combattant nations chose to build up the reputation of the tank in the minds of the general public as a formidable war winner. In this they were encouraged and abetted by the military and civilian critics of the lack-lustre role played by much of the cavalry on the Western Front in 1914-18.

The full potential of the tank as a weapon of total war was finally exemplified in the German Blitzkreig in continental Europe in 1940.

Postscriptum

Readers of the first version of this article will appreciate that there are considerable changes in this revision. This has been largely made possible by the intervention of Mr James H. Reeve who has provided corrections, comments and much new and relevant material from his encyclopaedic knowledge of the subject and his critical interpretation of the available records. Accordingly, he is shown as joint author of this revised version.

References

Obviously, many documents have been consulted in the preparation of this article but many are out of print, located in military archives or expensive to purchase. However, the following excellent books on the subject should be available: at most public libraries; can be obtained in good bookshops at a reasonable price; ordered on the Internet (e.g. Amazon books, UK), or can be requested through the Inter Library Loans (ILL) scheme.

They are:

  • Armoured fighting vehicles of the World, Vol. 1.(1998) Cannon Books of Redford. ISBN 1-899 695 02 8.
  • The Devils Chariots. (2001) John Glanfield. Zenith Press. ISBN 0-750 941 92 5.
  • A New Excalibur: History of the Tank, 1909-39. (1987) A.J. Smithers. Leo Cooper. ISBN 0-436 475 20 7.

By Dr. David Payne and Mr James H. Reeve

James H. Reeve is a former copywriter with connections to the broadcasting industry. As an amateur historian he has a special interest in the development and use of armoured cars and military transport before 1918. His knowledge of these subjects and his familiarity with the whole range of military archives and the primary and secondary literature is wide and profound, providing an interesting and informative insight into this highly complex, and often debated, area of study.

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