On the morning of Sept. 15, 1916, soldiers of the German 1st Army rushed to their defensive positions between Flers and Courcelette, on the Western Front. The lifting of the Allied artillery barrage typically presaged an infantry charge, and the defenders made their machine guns ready to cut down advancing British and French troops. But this time, instead of onrushing infantry, from the smoke and mist emerged grinding mechanical contraptions, spewing bullets and shells. The Germans poured machine-gun fire onto the strange, new vehicles lumbering across the ragged mud and wire of no man's land, but the bullets had little effect. The day of the tank — a concept that would go on to define land warfare in the 20th century — had arrived.
The Battle of Flers-Courcelette was part of the ongoing Battle of the Somme in France and the first time that modern armored fighting vehicles were deployed in combat. Yet despite triumphant claims in the British press of a new weapon that would turn the tide of war by breaking the impermeable German lines, the tank's initial deployment was largely inauspicious. Those first tanks were rushed into service and woefully underpowered for the terrain they would encounter while saddled with the weight of armor. Riddled with developmental problems and manned by crews with almost no training, of the 49 original Mark I tanks deployed to France 100 years ago, 36 set off from the British line of departure Sept. 15. Only 27 made it as far as German forward positions, and a meager six trundled as far as the secondary and tertiary objectives. Mechanical failure plagued the new invention, but the concept had been proved, and successive generations of tanks and tank tactics would turn a "mobile pillbox" into a battle-winning asset.
The concept of a mobile, protected engine of war has been around for millennia. A means of collectively defending assault troops from projectile weaponry — with the potential inclusion of offensive capability — has fascinated the greatest minds of every era.
Greek hoplites employed bronze armor to good effect in phalanx formation — shield, helmet and greaves protecting a fighting man from the front and effectively nullifying the Persian advantage of massed archers. A good example of early armored tactics is the testudo (tortoise) formation employed by the Roman legions, specifically to protect against light projectiles as soldiers advanced. By interlocking full-length shields forward and overhead, legionnaires could easily deflect harrying fire. Though useful for closing on a fixed enemy position or defending from swarms of arrows, the formation was slow and limited the infantry's ability to fight in close quarters.
The Romans also pioneered protective siege engines. These were designed to deliver troops to the enemy's doorstep in one piece and were less dependent on individuals managing to maintain formation. Towers, galleries and other mobile fortifications protected assault troops from an enemy's ranged weapons. In medieval warfare, mantlets and pavises, portable shelters or shields intended to protect clusters of troops from arrow fire, were common. A mantlet bore wheels for mobility, while the freestanding pavis was borne by one soldier.
In 1487, Leonardo da Vinci conceptualized an armored fighting vehicle, although his design was impractical because of the technology of the age. War engines or battlewagons pulled by horses were employed throughout history, but not until the industrial age did the armored fighting vehicle really come into its own. It needed the power of the internal combustion engine, mass-produced sheet metal and the technical sophistication to produce advanced running gear and automatic weaponry to make the true armored fighting vehicle feasible. The inspiration for the British tank was a mobile platform impervious to machine guns that could trample basic defenses, operating alongside infantry to breach and exploit enemy positions.
In June 1900, a young captain from the Corps of Royal Engineers had something of an epiphany, envisioning a possible solution to what he saw as the pressing military issue of the time: how to counter the withering, destructive capacity of the machine gun. He pursued his vision with vigor, becoming a respected tactician, innovator and staff officer. Maj. Gen. Ernest Swinton was a driving force when it came to the adoption and use of the armored fighting vehicle. He even coined the term "tank," which became synonymous with the new invention. Swinton was not alone in his aspirations, but he did consider how tactics would need to evolve to make the armored fighting vehicle useful on the battlefield, informing subsequent tacticians such as British compatriot Col. J.F.C. Fuller and German Gen. Heinz Guderian.
The Evolution of the Tank
The appalling conditions of static trench warfare in World War I made life miserable for the fighting troops, and the incessant mud and rain also presented severe logistical problems. Moving large amounts of men and materiel by sea and rail was efficient. But getting ammunition, supplies or replacement troops from the railhead or port to the front lines was not. The constant passage of foot traffic and light vehicles made the largely unpaved roads and dirt tracks impassable. The wheeled vehicles of the time were inadequate for the conditions. Engines lacked the power to cope with broken terrain, and wheels simply sank into the muck. As a result, most armies continued to use horses and horse-drawn artillery for the duration of the war.
Innovators of the industrial age prided themselves on finding mechanical solutions to man's problems, and the answer to moving heavy supplies to the front lines was continuous track technology — already prevalent in agriculture. That innovation was initially ignored by the British military establishment, but worsening battlefield conditions eventually resulted in trials of vehicles such as the Holt Caterpillar tractor, which was deemed suitable for hauling heavy artillery — but little else.
In a conflict known for its technological innovation and rapid prototyping, it is somewhat ironic that the inception of the tank was such a fraught and painful process. Early designs for armored fighting vehicles failed to capture the interest of the British or French hierarchy, and it fell to the Royal Navy to nurture the imaginatively titled "landships" project. At the insistence of Winston Churchill, then first lord of the admiralty, the Landships Committee sought to develop an armored fighting vehicle prototype. The aptly named "Little Willie" was tested Dec. 3, 1915, but was found insufficient for the breaching and crossing tasks envisaged. This led to the development of the now-classic rhomboidal tank design, which serves to this day as the insignia of the British Royal Tank Regiment. Following a successful demonstration during which the fledgling Mark I (christened "Mother") defeated a number of typical Western Front obstacles, including low wire entanglements, cratered ground, trench systems and parapets, an initial order of 100 vehicles was made.
The development of the vehicles was shrouded in secrecy, and the terminology associated with them is attributed to Swinton, then a lieutenant colonel and heavily involved with the clandestine project. Some of the steel originally used on the Mark I design was repurposed from water boilers, and the original factory paperwork referred to the new inventions as "water carriers," nomenclature adopted by workers who said they were manufacturing water tanks. Swinton made the "tank" code name official, then went on to give the two main types of Mark I vehicles their designations. "Male" tanks had a pair of Hotchkiss 57 mm Quick Firer naval guns in side-mounted sponsons, plus a brace of machine guns. "Female" tanks carried all machine guns and were, in effect, man-killers.Tactical AnalysisThe tank was originally conceived as an infantry support platform and moved at walking pace. Able to traverse trenches and breach wire obstacles, tanks relied on intimate support from ground troops. The steel armor offered some degree of protection from small arms, and the tanks' weapons were effective in knocking out German gun positions. Successive generations of tanks, most notably the Mark V, sought to rectify the mechanical problems that plagued the early designs. Even so, tanks remained prone to mechanical failure throughout World War I. Crew comfort was an afterthought, and conditions inside the first tanks were infamously bad. It was not uncommon for a tank to stop midattack because its crew had passed out from internal fumes.
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"The Dawn of the Armored Fighting Vehicle is republished with permission of Stratfor."
Baibin Nighthawk writes spy fiction, thrillers and science fiction. She is the co-author of the Mark Savannah espionage series and of the Dhungwana Chronicles. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Economics and a Certificate in Art (Martenot Arts Plastiques, Paris).