Tanks Pt. 1



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Premium Episode 9. This episode begins our two part look at the development of the tank during the war. In these episodes you can expect a lot of talk about development, engineering, design, and evaluation of performance but not a whole lot about what the tanks actually did on the battlefield. This is because that last bit will be covered in the main episodes over the next two years or so. What I wanted to do was dig a bit deeper into the development of the tank due to its amazing place as pretty much the land based military platform for the last century. Looking at current military trends and conflicts happening around the globe this also does not seem to be close to changing. It would all begin during the first world war, and it first appearance would be on the battlefield of the Somme in September 1916. This actually lines up really well with the main episodes, almost like I planned it that way. After its debut in 1916 the tank would have a continually growing and evolving role on the battlefield and by the end of the war the British, French, and Americans would field over 4,000 of the machines. This journey was not easy though, and it required a huge amount of thought, experimentation, and work away from the battlefield as teams of designers and engineers in each country tried to create a military tool almost out of thin air, sort of like what was also happening with airplanes during the war. We will spend almost this entire episode with those designers and engineers only briefly touching on the tanks first appearance on the battlefield. We will continue our story next episode where we will discuss how the physical tank and the way it was used changed over the last two years of the war.

The tank, or what would come to be called the tank after several name changes, was not the first armored fighting vehicles to make their place on the first world war battlefield. There were both armored and unarmored cars used in the fighting from almost the very start of the war. In fact, since the invention of the internal combustion engine there had been at least some members of the militaries around Europe who sought to find a way to use them in warfare. Now, this took some doing for two reasons. The first was simply that military leadership is generally pretty cautious and concerned about change. The motor vehicle was a very new thing, and unlike something like the machine gun it did not have the obvious “like this but better” parallel. The second, and really important, reason was that most military leaders before 1914 thought that the next war would be a war of maneuver not something that would bog down and have gains measured in yards. In these imagined mobile battlefield the slow speed and low endurance of armored vehicles was just not something that would be worth the investment. This did not prevent at least a few vehicles from making their way into military circles before 1914 though. And what would become the first armored fighting car of the war got its start in 1912 when E.L. Mole, who was Australian, submitted a design. This design would feature armor plating on a vehicle, but in 1914 just normal vehicles would make the largest impact. They made their triumphant debut during the Race to the Sea, or I guess before the Race to the Sea started and there was just that giant open area to the north of the armies in the field. Here the British would use vehicles and scouting and intelligence gathering platforms. There were also more utilitarian motor vehicles used behind the front, especially as the war started to settle down. These were closer to farm tractors that anything else and they would haul artillery and other material behind the front. The one area that motor vehicles found it difficult to find their place was on the shell hole and trench filled battlefields after 1914. The search for something that would not be afraid of the battlefield began before the end of 1914 when Lieutenant-Colonel Maurice Hankey wrote what would be called the Boxing Day Memorandum. In this document he set out what he saw as the problems with the current situation at the front and advised the War Council that they should create a committee with the goal of coming up with a mechanical solution to the problems of breaking through the German defenses. This was a big step because at the time there were generally not large committees, especially civilian ones, that would research, develop, test, and produce new weapons systems. The idea of such a committee did not get a lot of support from the War Council when it was first introduced, especially from the Army. Winston Churchill really latched onto the idea of the committee and he would use his position at the Admiralty to really push the idea of the tank forward. He was extremely critical of the army for not taking the lead itself, and would write to Asquith about it on January 2nd, 1915. “I entirely agree with Colonel Hankey’s remarks on the subject of special mechanical devices for taking trenches. It is extraordinary that the Army in the field and the War Office should have allowed nearly three months of trench warfare to progress without addressing their minds to its special problems… The question to be solved is not therefore the long attack over a carefully prepared glacis of former times, but the actual getting across of 100 or 200 yards of open space and wire entanglements. All this was apparent more than two months ago, but no steps have been taken and no preparation made.” Because of this committee, and other efforts aimed at creating better haulers for logistic purposes a few different groups in the British government began sort of just casting about for designs on how armored cars or other vehicles could be improved to be used on the battlefield. This started a cascade of suggestions that would roll around the British government for the rest of the war. This included crazy ideas like cars with wire cutting mowers on the front, or with 20 foot wide rollers designed to mash down wire. All of these were massive, and frankly ridiculous, but it would feed enough the ideas of things that would eventually happen. Throughout all of this it would be the Royal Navy, by the prodding of Churchill, that would be the biggest proponent of trying to create an armored vehicle. Before we move on and never discuss them again, just a bit about what happened to the armored cars. After the war settled down it was found that their armor, generally only about 4mm thick, just was not enough to be useful on the battlefield. This, combined with the other problems that the cars had in moving across the battlefield meant that they were taken off the Western front and moved to other theaters. This included the Eastern Front, the Middle East, and Gallipoli. The first two fronts would prove to be decent environments for their use and they would prove their value, Gallipoli maybe not so much, but it was Gallipoli so nothing really went the way the British had hoped.

The really revolutionary move that led to the tank, and made the entire concept possible, was the concept of using tracks. This was not a completely new concept, in fact it had been used in farming equipment for years before 1914. However it was not initially considered for military vehicles, and would not have been probably if they were not so heavily used by the hauling tractors behind the front. The idea of using them on a fighting vehicle seems to below to Robert Macfie, a Scottish-Canadian engineer. He would begin to advocate for the use of tracks, but this was not the only idea that was floating around. One of the more consistent ones would be the idea of using massive rollers, but they had to be large enough to not get stuck in trenches or shell holes so this then led to some truly massive designs going up on the drawing board. This included an early idea where the vehicle would have 3 of these massive rollers and a 12 inch naval gun mounted on it. It would be powered by banks of submarine diesel engines and would weight a whopping 800 ton. This weight was thought to just be completely preposterous, so the designers of that vehicle went back and really cut it down, to 300 tons with wheels only 40 feet in diameter. It would only be 46 feet high, 100 feet long, and 80 feet wide no big deal! Now, obviously we know today that this machine was completely impossible to build. But these were the heady days of big ideas with no real history of this type of vehicle that would constrain these ideas. Also, the Navy was playing a big role in all of these conversations and while the vehicle I just described was a massive land vehicle it would barely register on the naval scale. So this is where one root of designs came from, really big vehicles, really massive projects. However, the solution would come from another realm entirely, and it would all be rooted in farming tractors.

This path of development started at just trying to retrofit Holt Caterpillar tractors to work on the battlefield and to this end several were purchased and shipped from the United States. As early as February 1915 these machines were being put to the test to evaluate them for their battlefield utility. They were found to be good at some things, like crossing wire obstacles, but was woefully deficient at really important tasks like crossing trenches or getting out of shell holes. This was really expected given the fact that these were farm tractors designed for the farm and their nice flat fields. This meant that one of the biggest problems was simply the size of the tracks which were generally too small to handle the rough terrain and the increased weight that the armored plating added. All of these problems combined to result in the military evaluators being relatively unimpressed with what they saw at the initial trials. This made the army even less interested in continuing development, but Churchill was still game. To continue the development the Landship Committee was created at the Admirality, and it would continue to push the development forward and this is where things started to get serious and in my opinion where the real work of making the tank began. It was also at this point that a sort of clear iterative design process that was required to get something on the battlefield started. There were many men on this committee but it was led by Tennyson d’Eyncourt and Colonel Wilfrid Dumble and Captain Tommy Hetherington were also part of the initial crew. They were soon joined by Colonel Crompton who was seen as an expert on heavy tracked propulsion systems. A few months later they would bring in Lieutenant Walter Wilson and Lieutenant Albert Stern, the last of which would be installed as secretary of the committee to free up the other members from their more administrative duties. Stern would end up being sort of the leader of the committee and reorganizing it to be more efficient. The committee would begin with a simple question of whether they should use wheels or tracks on their designs and they built two models to test this question. They also began to determine exactly how much armor they would need, which would then drive the weight, size, power, and armament discussions. At this point in time large caliber rifles were a big concern for these vehicles and the Germans had found that if they reversed the normal rifle bullet so that the lead filling of the bullet hit the armored plate first, it would allow for greater levels of penetration. I am not positive on how this works but I think it is similar to the current shaped charge system in tank shells where it would create a really hot bit of metal that would punch through the armor. This was a concern for the lightly armored cars and it was important that any tank be able to withstand at least this amount of penetration.

Throughout the Spring and Summer of 1915 this committee continued to work on some of the very fundamental problems of designing these new vehicles. A very good portion of this work went into track design. It is somewhat weird to think about the fact today, but designing tracks was one of the hardest and most demanding parts of the entire tank design. It required something that was flexible, strong, but not brittle or easily breakable. And it had to have pretty high tolerances for strain. It would be Wilson and Tritton working the most in this area and it would be Wilson who came up with the idea that would lead to the really iconic look for the British World War 1 tanks. His idea was to run the tracks all the way around the hull of the vehicle, and have the hull steeply angled at the front, this would allow the tank to easily climb obstacles. This this would then make it difficult to mount weapons on top they would instead put the weapons on the sides of the tanks between the upper and lower runs of the tracks. This was a huge deal, and it would be the design that would be used by the British for most of their tanks for the entire war. While Wilson was determining how to put them on the tank Tritton would be developing precisely how to make them. He would come up with the design that involved riveting armor plates as shoes that were then given a lip to prevent them from riding off of the tank. These would then be put on a series of rollers that were all spring loaded which would keep the tracks nice and tight. This would prove to be a very reliable design and would be used throughout the entire war. While all of these engineering discussions were being held the Army was also getting involved. It was a this point, after some of the most fundamental questions were sorted out, that the Army would produce its first set of concrete requirements for what they wanted in a fighting machine. Now, before this, there had been some discussions of having just large armored troop carriers, not really fighting vehicles, strictly transport and this is what is referred to in the following quote. The army would actually go back and forth on this idea several times, constantly conflicted on whether they wanted machines that could fight or strictly big metal boxes that could transport a bunch of men into the enemies lines, where they would then get out and start fighting. Here is a hefty quote from the specification: “SECRET. CATERPILLAR MACHINE GUN DESTROYER. Suggested conditions to be adhered to in design, if possible. These are tentative and subject to modification. Speed: top speed on flat not less than 4mph. Bottom speed for climbing 2mph. Steering: to be capable of being turned through 90 degrees on top speed on the flat… Reversing: to travel backwards or forwards (equally fast?). Climbing: to be capable of crossing backwards or forwards an earth parapet 5ft thick and 5ft high… Bridging: all gaps up to 5ft in width to be bridged directly without dipping into them. All gaps above 5ft in width to be climbed (up to a depth of 5ft with vertical earth sides). Radius of action: to carry petrol and water for 20 miles. Capacity: Crew and armament. To carry 10 men. 2 machine guns. 1 light Q.F. gun. Note by DFW. For each pair of machines: 6 – 2 pounders, 4 – Maxims and 25 men are considered better by G.S. [General Staff].” These requirements would result in a model that would be called Mother. The committee would work with the William Foster & Company of Lincoln to manufacture the new vehicle and by January 7th 1916 they had built the first of the test units. This unit was also the first to have a 2 pound gun which was mounted on both sides. When this gun was fired there was even a 50 pound bet by the designers on whether or not the entire vehicle would collapse. When this did not happen, and in fact did not happen after several consecutive firings, I am sure everybody breathed a sigh of relief, and some money changed hands. This was during the second week of January, and it would be just a few weeks later that the first official test demonstration would be made for members of the military and governmental leadership.

These tests would take place on February 2nd on Lord Salisbury’s private golf course. Yes he had a private golf course, and yes he graciously volunteered it for the trials. This presented the designers with a problem, obviously they were not doing their work on the golf course all the time so they had to transport the tanks by rail. To maintain the required secrecy this meant covering them and then doing everything at night, including loading and unloading. The tanks also had to be disassembled because they were too wide to fit on the railway cars. So after all of this work was done thankfully the tanks were transported without incident., and there were two one the Mother tank which was what to would become the mark one and then Little Willie, which was an older design with the old style of small tracks. Some last minute adjustments were made on January 29th and then the trial started a few days later. The trial went off, unlike in previous tests, without a hitch and it was considered a huge success. Everybody who saw the demonstration was pleased with the ability of the machine to handle the obstacles put in front of it and to deal with large amounts of barbed wire. There were concerns with its ability to handle artillery fire, due to its lack of speed and maneuverability, and these would be concerns about tanks for the rest of the war, but the rewards of having these fighting vehicles at the front was deemed to be too great when compared to the concerns of their weakness.

With both the military and civilian leadership teams now suitably impressed an onboard the question became how many to make and how to make them. When Haig’s representatives at the demonstration got back to headquarters they decided that they wanted maybe 30 or 40 machines. They settled on this number not just because that is how many they wanted, but because that was really the maximum that could be made without having an effect on other areas of wartime production. However, when Lloyd George and the War Office saw the order for 40 they decided that it was not nearly enough and upped the order to 150. One thing to keep in mind is that the manufacturing resources of the United Kingdom were pretty tapped at this point in producing all of the various items to continue the war. This included a lot of demand for steel, munitions, factories, and skilled workers all of which would be required to make tanks. So, what precisely were they creating. Well, the Mark 1 tanks were 28 tons, 25 feet long, 8 feet high, and 14 feet wide. There were also two versions, a male and a female. The Male version had 2 6 pounder guns along with several machine guns and the female version replaced those 2 6 pounders with 4 extra machine guns. Both would be equipped with between 6mm and 12mm of armor plating. All of this size and weight would be pushed forward by a 105hp engine to somewhere around 3.5 miles per hour. For those who don’t know how much 105 horsepower is, well, that is about what my Toyota Prius has in it, and it certainly weighs far less than 28 tons. Construction problems for these mammoth machines quickly began to develop. The initial hope was that 150 would be ready for deployment by August 1st but by June it was determined that maybe 50 would be ready by then. One decision made early on, even with the concerns about being able to make enough of them, was that the United States would not be used in the manufacturing process. This was because there were concerns that if the United States was used, even just to build parts, information about the machine would find its way into German hands. As the production delays continued it was clear that the tanks would not be ready for the opening attack on the Somme. This did not end up robbing the tanks of their chance because the Somme just kept dragging on and it was decided that they would be used during a renewed push in September. Even though the tanks made it to the front it did not solve all of the production problems though because it was found that when they got to the front there was a serious shortage of spare parts. All of the production capacity was being put into creating more of the tanks and none had been held back for parts. This was a problem that would not be rectified until well into 1917. The hardest hit were the really important parts that were also the limiting agent when trying to meet the required production numbers.

The tanks would make it to the battlefield, if a bit too slowly, but the training for their eventual crews had to begin well before the machines started to arrive at the front. In an effort to keep the tanks secret the men who were asked to volunteer for this new job were not told what precisely they were volunteering for. This made it a challenge to attract enough men, but it was eventually done. Because they did not have any vehicles when their training began they instead focused strictly on gunnery practice. When the tanks did start showing up the crews, many of which were seeing the machines for the first time, were in for quite a surprise. Here is Richard Haig describing his experiences. “We looked around the little chamber with eager curiosity. Our first thought was that seven men and an officer could never do any work in such a confined space. Eight of us were at present jammed in here but we were standing still. When it came to going into action and moving around inside the tank, it would be impossible. There was no room even to pass one another, so we thought. In front are two stiff seats, one for the officer and one for the driver. Two narrow slits serve as portholes through which we looked ahead. In front of the officer is a mapboard and gunmounting. Down the middle of the tank is the powerful petrol engine, part of it covered with a hood, and along each side a narrow passage along which a man can slide from the officer’s and driver’s seat back to the mechanism at the rear. There are four gun turrets, two each side, and also a place for a gun in the rear." Being inside the tank was very uncomfortable, there was no suspension so the men just bounced around everywhere while this was happening they were trying to not touch any of the very hot engine or exhaust surfaces. The danger of this was particularly bad for all of the gunners who were positioned with only inches between their bodies and the hot engines. On top of this, if the exhaust was damaged there was a good chance that the crew would asphyxiate from all of the gas that it would spew into the crew compartment. Inside the tank was also extremely noisy, making any kind of verbal communication impossible. This meant that the entire crew had to communicate almost entirely by hand signals. The final problem with being inside the tank was more of a discomfort. It was really warm in these things. Naturally the men would have liked to have worn less clothing, but this was not possible. Because of the risk of hitting a hot metal surface the men had to wear leather at all times, then when going into battle they had to wear these wicked looking leather helmets with a mask of chain mail. This was due to the fact that when the enemy bullets hit the outside of the tank they had a tendency to cause molten metal bits to fly around inside the tank, without the protection of the masks the men would have been instantly killed by one of these fragments. The saving grace of the tank was that while the crews were uncomfortable they were at least sort of safe. As long as the tank did not catch fire they even had a reasonable chance of surviving a hit that would put the tank out of action. While the men were getting used to all of these problems there was also lengthy discussions back at headquarters about how exactly the tanks should be used. While in the next few years tank tactics would get much more complex in the beginning they were quite simple. The tanks would move forward in pairs or in groups of three. They would pretty much just drive straight through the enemy lines to a maximum range of about 3 miles. During that time these early tanks would go through 2 gallons of diesel and half a gallon of lubricant oil for every mile travelled, so 3 miles was a pretty good distance. The final question, and ironically the one that would go through the most change before September was what these new units should be called. Everybody wanted to be at least a little deceptive and so a whole list of names were used to name the new units. In March it was the Armored Car Section of the Motor Machine Gun Service, this must have been too descriptive because at the end of March it was renamed to Motor Machine Gun Corps S Detachment which was again, apparently, too good of a name. So they finally settled on Heavy Section, Machine Gun Corps, which was about as non-descriptive as you can get. This would be the name that would be used when they went into battle in September, although it would change again in November when it became the Heavy Branch, Machine Gun Corps. Regardless of what it was called, it was going into battle, under the command of Colonel Swinton.

I don’t know if I have ever seen a single historian who thinks that the tanks should have been used in the September attack on the Somme. If anybody has one, please let me know. This was because they were just not going to be available in the numbers that were required to make a huge impact. In fact, due to the mechanical unreliability of the new platform there would be just 18 of them that would see action, even though 49 were assigned to the attack. Over 32 even made it to the starting line. For the attack the plan was to spread them out along the front and have the groups of tanks work forward to hit German strong points. Part of this was because coordination between tanks was very difficult, so trying to get and stay in larger groups would have been a serious challenge. And so the tanks were sent forward during the night with a vast amount of stuff inside to keep the crew supplied for the upcoming attack. 30 tins of food, 16 loaves of bread, cheese, tea, sugar, and milk and then large amounts of engine and lubricant oil for the tank, and finally 33,000 rounds of ammunition. That much stuff was not really a problem, I just thought it was interesting. During the night before the attack when the tanks went forward there were bouts of artillery fire and planes flying overhead to mask the noise of the engine. When the time came the first tank to go forward was D1 under the command of Captain Mortimore, in his sights was a German pocket in front of Delville Wood. This would be the first instance of a tank going into battle, and it was a momentous occasion. William Divall was near the front when D1 and then the later tanks went forward “As the tanks travel over the front trench, the troops rub their eyes in wonder at their strange, cube-impressionist coats of many colours. The deck of the tank rolls and pitches like a torpedo boat in a storm.” On the German side the sight was a bit more concerning. They had never seen such a vehicle, and you can only imagine how confused and scared they were when it started rumbling toward them. There was just simply no counter measures or tactics developed at this point and while it was rare for the Germans to break completely, they quickly began to lose ground. The greatest results of the attack was the tanks that assaulted the village of Flers. Here they were able to move forward almost a mile and by 9AM they were right up to the village. While the results all along the line, or at least where the tanks made it forward, were okay, it was very difficult to capitalize on them. And this is where the concerns from historians and even many contemporary observers comes in. If the British would have waited for the tanks to be in larger numbers, and maybe to be better performing, they really could have made a huge impact. As it was the tanks were too weak both in number and reliability to produce a huge victory like what the British really needed. However, it would have been many months, if not another year before the tanks could have been put to the front in enough numbers to really facilitate a huge victory and the experiences gained in the September 1916 attack would go a long way to pushing tank advances further faster and in a better direction than probably would have been done otherwise. That is where we will take up the story next episode by looking at the reactions to the first use of the tank and what would change as they continued to try and improve them.