Great War Wednesday: Tanks

Standard didn’t take long looking at the killing fields of the Western Front in 1914-1916 for some commanders at all levels to think, “We have to find a better way.” The whole idea of flesh and blood men jumping out of the scant protection of the trenches to run across the shell cratered and machine gun swept No-Man’s Land was obviously insane and yet, what to do about it?

The idea of men advancing within some propelled or motorized type of vehicle was not a new one. No less a mind than Leonardo da Vinci drew up plans for his Armored Turtle which was basically a wheeled dome with arrow slits cut in the side. While never produced, this machine gave the basic idea for what eventually became the tank.

Any vehicle used in combat in World War I had a few criteria. First, it had to contend with the sucking morass of mud the artillery turned the battlefield into. Second, it had to withstand sustained machine gun fire (no one seriously considered any idea of a vehicle impervious to artillery). Third, it had to be able to cross obstacles such as shell craters and trenches to be of any real effect.

The sticking point, no pun intended, was the mud. Cars and trucks (lorries for my friends in the UK) were a relatively new invention but it didn’t take long to realize their narrow tires would be of little use in the mud and muck of the Western Front. Wheeled vehicles of the era notoriously bogged down on what passed for roads in those early 20th century days; putting something on wheels with armor increasing its weight out on the battlefield would do little more than create a sitting duck.

The breakthrough came with the invention of the caterpillar track. Basically the “tractor” or vehicle had four driven wheels and several rollers over which lay a wide linked, jointed flat piece of metal. The track made a big circle around the four wheels while sprockets in the drive wheels engaged holes in the “track” and pushed it forward so the rollers could roll on it. The wideness of the track, the four driving wheels, and the circular motion combined to produce a machine that essentially laid down its own road as it went forward or backwards. The width of the two tracks enabled the weight of the vehicle to spread out over a much larger surface area than was possible with wheels and tires so the tractor could cover almost any ground.

Tractors were gaining widespread usage in agriculture to replace horse power and some enterprising army officers looked at the agricultural machines with an eye towards armoring them and using them as a weapon. After all, any machine capable of navigating a plowed field successfully should be capable of getting across a shell plowed battlefield.

The British were first to develop a viable machine. Originally called “land battleships” because of their great size and armor, their name during development changed to “tanks” to maintain secrecy. The legend has it that workers thought the new metal behemoths looked like municipal water tanks, thus “tank” stuck.

The first successful tank was the British Mark I. It was a diamond shape which allowed it to cross trenches and shell craters effectively because a good surface of track would be in contact with the ground at all times even if the tank tilted forward. It moved along at a scorching four miles per hour so it was in no danger of outrunning the infantry hiding hopefully behind it.

As for armament, the Mark I as well as later British models were known as “male tanks” or “female tanks” depending on what weapons they carried. Male tanks mounted two six pounder guns in sponsons to the left and right of the tank body. Female tanks carried up to six Hotchkiss machine guns.

The first tanks were used during September 1917 in one of the sections of the Battle of the Somme. They did not give an good initial showing as many broke down. The developers back in Britain, including their champion Winston Churchill, complained the tanks had been rushed into battle too soon before having time to learn how to best use them. Later battles would see greater numbers of tanks massed in lines and moving forward as great steel waves. These tanks were much more effectively used in these later battles.

In all, the tank did what it was designed to do. It crossed No-Man’s land with general impunity and gave the following infantry something to hide behind. Though they didn’t know it, mainly because this was supposed to be the war to end all wars, these early tankers and the infantry that followed them were setting the stage for the “combined arms” tactics of the Second World War which made the blitzkrieg so effective.

Looking back, it’s ironic to note the Germans only made about twenty tanks total in the Great War. They just didn’t see the point in the design, yet it was a young German corporal who faced tanks in battle who decided they were a great asset on the battlefield so Adolf Hitler made sure his army had plenty of tanks in the next war.

Love y’all and keep your feet clean.



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