Although the tank first appeared at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette on 15th September 1916, it would not be until over a year later, at the Battle of Cambrai on 20th November 1917, that its value as a war tool was finally recognised. Although there was at first huge enthusiasm at the Allied Headquarters for this wonderful new weapon, rough ground and multiple breakdowns in the early days shook the confidence of war leaders and led the Germans to completely underestimate the threat posed by these clunky-looking machines.
According to Philip Warner’s ‘World War One: a chronological narrative’, the first design for a serviceable tank was actually received by the War Office in 1912 but was filed away and forgotten; in fact, somebody scrawled “this man is mad” across the plans, which only came to light in 1919 when the unlucky inventor applied to the Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors, saying that, had his original design been used, considerable time and trials could have been spared and a working tank developed much earlier on. The Commission decided that this speculation was not worthy of a prize.
Credit for designing the first tank is actually given to two men, Ernest Swinton, a British army colonel and William Hankey, the secretary of the Committee for Imperial Defence. The Royal Naval Air Service was the only organisation in 1914 that had sufficient knowledge to build such machines, so it’s lucky that a young Winston Churchill, at that time First Lord of the Admiralty, liked the idea of an armoured vehicle on tracks that would be able to rip a path through the German defences in the torn up terrain of No Man’s Land. Many of the Generals of the First World War had worked their way up from the Cavalry regiments, and had great faith in the use of horses, feeling that, if dispatched rapidly, they should be able to ride down a machine gun. They disliked any weapon that could threaten the supremacy of the war horse. Churchill, however, lent the project his support, and allowed the presentation and testing of several prototypes to go ahead.
Eventually, the first half-way successful prototype of a tank was built by William Forster & Co in a factory in Lincolnshire on 6 September 1915, dubbed ‘Little Willie’ (it is now on display at The Tank Museum in Bovington, Dorset). Slow, heavy and liable to get stuck, this first model was rejected as inferior to a second prototype already in development, ‘Big Willie’, which was finished by December 1915. This was the first model of what became known as the Mark I Tank (the name “tank” entering the language thanks to a proposal at a Committee of Imperial Defence Meeting on 24th December, that the new weapon be referred to as a “cistern” “reservoir” for the purposes of secrecy; “tank” was pronounced a less clunky alternative). The British Army ordered 100 of them in February 1916.
The Machine Gun Corps (MGC) had been created in October 1915, a group of men with special skills in using the new fast-action weapons. The Corps was later split into three groups, Infantry Machine Gun Companies, Cavalry Machine Gun Squadrons and Motor Machine Gun Batteries, and in March 1916 a Heavy Section was added to the latter; the men of Heavy Section became the first tank drivers. It was hoped that the tanks would be ready in time for the start of the Somme Offensive, on 1st July 1916, but that wasn’t to be. Many lives might have been saved if the tank was ready, since the German machine-gunners likely wouldn’t have stuck around to face down this monstrous-looking new weapon.
Then again, the eventual debut of the tank couldn’t really be classed as a phenomenal success. At Flers-Courcelette, 15th September 1916, the first Mark Is lumbered onto the battlefield. Yes, they looked terrifying, and yes, they had the Germans shaking in their boots. However, ‘World War One: a chronological narrative’ states that of 150 tanks dispatched from Britain, 60 made it to France intact. Of these, 45 were still working by the dawn of the battle, and only 32 made it intact to their battle positions. 9 more broke down in the field, while 5 became bogged down in the mud. Of the 18 remaining vehicles, only 9 managed to keep pace with the infantry and do the job they were built for. It was such a bad performance overall that the Germans decided that the new tanks were useless, and that the design was likely to be quietly abandoned by the British.
Over the next year tanks continued to be used, and continued to disappoint. It was only on November 20th 1917 that the tank finally started to prove its worth; in the meantime, a lot of work had taken place to make the war machine as effective as possible. Despite the ostensibly poor results, the tanks that had worked had done so well enough to convince the War Office that this was the weapon of the future. In October 1916, the four experimental tank Companies already in France were turned into Battalions, and five new Battalions were created in England besides. These Battalions were now grouped under the title of Heavy Branch MGC, and Bovington near Wool in Dorset became the new secret HQ for the tanks- for what that was worth. As outlined in ‘The War History of the Sixth Tank Battalion’, each time the tanks were moved or sent out on exercise, roads were closed, civilian traffic stopped, and local farmers and homeowners told to keep to their back rooms; however, reportedly one farmer, on being instructed to do just that, replied that he had no objection to helping to keep “the secret of the tank”, but that in fact a tank had recently broken down, been towed to his farmyard, and left for two days until it could be repaired!
Secret or not, the training progressed and the men learned tank driving, shooting and mechanics. By December 1916 the Battalions were fully manned, and by May 1917 individual training was complete. The men were now trained in 12 sections, and finally as a Battalion. Officers were brought in from the Somme to share their skills, and training got even harder, with physical tests, compass and map reading expeditions, more shooting practice and classes in tank tactics. On May 12 the men moved out of Bovington for Southampton, and they arrived in France by May 13, where yet more driving and shooting practice commenced. These men, then, were keen, well prepared, and felt a sense of comradery. They knew the eyes of Britain were upon them. On 27th July 1917 the Heavy Branch was finally separated from the MGC by Royal Warrant, and given the official status of Tank Corps, now the Royal Tank Regiment.
On November 20th 1917 the Corps saw its first major action. Field Marshall Douglas Haig, the commander-in-chief of Britain’s Expeditionary Force, really wanted to prove that the tank could be useful if used right. At Cambrai he attacked with 381 tanks and a small number of infantry over a 15 mile front. The attack took place in the area of the Third Army, under Sir Julian Byng, and Haig listened to his advice that there should be no preliminary bombing, as this would just give warning of the impending attack and hinder the tanks’ progress. It was the first time they had been tested on dry, flat ground. The first bank of German defenders was completely taken by surprise by the magnitude of tanks, and put up little defence. The Allies bit deeply into the German’s sturdy Hindenburg Line. However, the tanks were still mechanically unreliable, and 178 were lost or bogged down that first day of fighting. The Cavalry were ordered forward, but made little progress against the machine guns, especially as a key bridge was broken, and communication between tank drivers and cavalry meant any advances made were not properly exploited. The German counter attack on 30th November was fierce, using low-flying aircraft against the infantry, and there were just not enough tanks. The Germans regained the initiative, and by 5th December 47,000 of Byng’s Army had been lost (the Germans had lost slightly less men in fact).
It was a PR disaster back home. Northcliffe Press, which had trumpeted the success of the tanks after the first push to boost public morale, were angry at being ‘misled’, and Haig’s Chief of Intelligence was sacked for producing over-optimistic reports after a War Cabinet investigation. However, more damage had been done to the German morale by the tanks than anybody had guessed. The designs for their own A7V Sturmpanzerwagen tank had only been finished in December 1916, and their first 100 tanks were only produced a year later. Even when they materialised, there were fewer than ordered, and Allied tank design had surged ahead. The Germans found the captured Allied tanks to be much more effective than their own! Mark Adkin’s ‘The Western Front Companion’ carries an extract from a German High Command issue, written October 1918, largely crediting tanks with their now certain defeat:
“Two factors have had a decisive influence on our decision (that the war was unwinnable), namely, tanks and our reserves. The enemy has made use of tanks in unexpectedly large numbers. In cases where they have suddenly emerged from smoke clouds our men were completely unnerved… solely owing to the success of the tanks, we have suffered enormous losses in prisoners….”