Wednesday, 22 October 2014


Tank meet trench

Is there anything more sexy than the modern battle tank. Sleek, powerful and fast. This beast can project lethal shot, whilst travelling at 35mph, with unerring accuracy. But it was not always so. The tank had humble beginnings which started with a war a 100 years ago, far, far, away........

By 1915 the war on the Western Front had reached stasis. Neither side could breach the trench lines, at least in a way which would end the war. And so the concept of the tank was born. The initial remit was simple. A mobile vehicle was required which could traverse enemy trenches, which could provide some degree of protection to its occupants and which could defend itself with cannon.

Winston Churchill was a fan, and largely due to his influence, the project became reality.

The first British tank was a strange beast indeed. Large, slow and cumbersome, it resembled an over weaned water tank err, hence it's name. Caterpillar tracks encompassed it's rhomboidal frame and side sponsons sprouted gun. The boiler plate armour was just 12mm thick, sufficient to stop bullet, but ineffective against field weaponry.  

The tank made it's debut on 15th September 1916 during the battle of the Somme. This was probably a mistake. Small numbers were available at this time and the British could only sport 50 tanks. Of this meagre few, 15 stalled before the battle due to mechanical malfunction and took no part in the subsequent action. However, when they did work, they produced panic in the German lines. On this day, the tank did not win the battle, however, it did manage to cross enemy trenches and hence hint at things to come.

The British War Ministry was criticised, at the time, for using the tank prematurely, and I think, rightly so. The tank should have been held back for future battles when it could have been introduced to the battlefield in it's 100s. In this way, it could have had a decisive affect. The psychological impact of the enterprise would have been astonishing. But battle politics dictated otherwise. The British were struggling on the Somme in September 1916 and it was thought that the tank, albeit in small numbers, would prove decisive. When used en masse (476 tanks), as at the battle of Cambrai in 1917, it had a profound impact on the initial battle. The Germans reacted with characteristic aggression and managed to win back all the British gains in a matter of days; such are the vissitudes of war.

The Germans had no idea that the British were developing this mechanical monstrosity. When it lumbered onto the battle field in September 1916 it caught them completely off guard. After their initial shock, the Germans took a shrewd measure of the new weapon. The tank was frighteningly vulnerable. Large and ponderous it traveled at a pedestrian pace. The Germans found that simply reversing the bullet in the cartridge was sufficient to pierce the relatively thin armour. Field guns were adapted as 'tank killers'. High explosive from a 75mm shell was sufficient to render any tank a useless wreck.

The tank of 1916 had a crew of 8. This number of men was necessary to propel the vehicle and fire its gunnery. Conditions within were hellish. Hot, smelly, noisy and exhausting. The inside of a tank was a mass of bare machinery and gears had to be changed with the aid of a mallet. Even though conventional bullets did not pierce the armour they did produce spall. Small pieces of metal detached from the inside and spattered around the inside of the tank. 'Tankers' could often be identified by the small black scars which peppered their face. Eventually goggles and chain mail face masks were issued.
Hannibal bites your face

It is reckoned that approximately 30% of all battlefield tanks were lost to mechanical failure prior to, or during, the initial manouvre to reach the start line. Unreliable they may have been but the tank was here to stay and improvements came fast in the white heat of war. The tank became an integral part of British battles following their debut in 1916. The Germans, were slow to acknowledge the value of the tank on the battlefield, and consequently, failed to respond seriously. They did produce their own version, but these machines, just 20 in total, played no major role in German battle tactics. The British eventually produced 2,718 tanks of various Marks. Most of these were eventually destroyed by enemy fire, lost to mechanical failure or captured by the enemy and reused.

The tank of the Great War was not a war winner. But the scene had been set and the years between the first and second wars witnessed great strides in tank development. The greatest gains in technology came during the Second World War itself. The tank which lumbered onto the battlefield in 1916 bore little resemblance to the main battletank which stalked the battlefield of 1945. That said, many of the mechanical and tactical issues of tank warfare were known to the the early tankers and through their pioneering work, they were ultimately responsible, by direct descent, for the modern armoured vehicle.  
Tank meet gun

1 comment:

  1. Just to prove that the old jokes are the best....

    It's a little known fact that during the first world war, both sides ran out of munitions - so in order to keep things going, they reached an agreement. Each side would pretend they had weapons, point at the other and just shout and mimic what they were doing.

    At the first encounter, it seemed it would work. A german came face to face with a Tommy. He pointed at him and shouted 'Stab, stab!" whilst mimicking a bayonet attack, but Tommy didn't fall over. The german, frustrated, pointed his finger like a gun and shouted "Bang, bang" but still Tommy didn't fall over. The german picked up a stone and hurled it at Tommy, shouting "Grenade, grenade!" but still Tommy kept coming...

    "Waz is das?" demanded the german soldier. "You ver supposed to fall over und be dead!"

    "Nein, Fritz" replied the Tommy, waving his arms side to side. "Tank, tank!...."

    Like I said - the old one's are the best!