A black and white image of a broken down Mark I tank
First World War

A Brief History of Tanks

Tanks played a central role in the eventual defeat of Germany and its allies in the First World War.

20 November 1917 was the date of the first mass use of tanks in the First World War.

During the Battle of Cambrai in northern France (20 October to 6 December 1917) 378 tanks smashed through the heavily fortified German Hindenburg Line. The plan was for this surprise attack to rupture the enemy defences allowing Allied forces to break through.

However, insufficient numbers of troops meant that the chance to exploit the action was lost. An estimated 12,000 men died on either side. It was a crucial learning experience for the military and a turning point in the war, leading to the eventual defeat of Germany and its Allies.

german fortified battlefield IWM CO3392
German trench and barbed wire defences. © IWM CO 3392.

By early 1915, the First World War was in deadly stalemate, with thousands of Allied soldiers dying daily along the 450 miles of fortified enemy trenches that ran through Belgium and France. The deadlock could only be broken by finding a way to breach the trench systems defended by thickets of barbed wire defences and machine gun posts.

Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, gathered together technical experts and formed the Landships Committee whose brief was to develop armoured fighting vehicles for use on the Western Front.

William Foster and Co. of Lincoln was chosen to test out ideas. The firm, which built powerful agricultural machinery, was led by visionary managing director, William Tritton. He was joined by engineer, Major Walter Wilson, seconded from the Army. On 22 July 1915, they were commissioned to design a machine that could cross a 1.2-metre-wide trench.

There was great secrecy. The tank’s name was derived from ‘water tank’, which in turn came from ‘water carrier for Mesoptamia’, a fictional purpose designed to mislead German spies.

Little Willie courtesy richard pullen
‘Little Willie’, the first prototype tank with tracks. Source: Richard Pullen.

Locking themselves away in a suite in the White Hart Hotel in Lincoln, Tritton and Wilson worked on ideas. Early designs evolved into ‘Little Willie’, a simple armoured box with low caterpillar tracks and two rear wheels for steering and balance. However, when tested over trenches in September 1915 its tracks sagged and became detached.

Also, the challenge had changed: German trenches were now being constructed at 2.4 metres wide.

mother tank on trial burton park jan 1916 courtesy richard pullen
The ‘Mother’ prototype. Source: Richard Pullen.

Tritton and Wilson went back to the drawing board and the ‘Mother’ tank was born, with high tracks going around a lozenge shape. In early 1916, the prototype was taken to Hatfield House, Herefordshire, to be trialled across a mock battlefield, viewed by an audience that included David Lloyd George, Minister of Munitions, and Lord Kitchener, Secretary of State for War. The world’s first fighting tank had arrived.

tank factory c IWM Q_048212
Tank factory. © IWM Q48212.

Lloyd George ordered 150 tanks, developed as the Mark I. Many tanks were built at Fosters, but demand was so great that the vast majority (around 2,600 were produced over the course of the war) were manufactured at factories in Birmingham, Newcastle, and other industrial centres. Innovation always took place at Fosters. By contrast, Germany lagged behind, producing only twenty A7V tanks. Their forces often salvaged British and French tanks for research purposes and use on the battlefield.

Mark I tank that broke down while en route to attack Thiepval, 25 September 1916 during the Battle of the Somme, France. The tail wheels were found to be a hindrance and were abandoned in later models. © IWM Q2486.

The first use of tanks was on 15 September 1916 at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette (Battle of the Somme). Early tanks, with their top speed of 4 miles per hour, proved mechanically unreliable and vulnerable to shellfire. Conditions inside were appalling: heat that could reach 50 degrees centigrade, extreme noise, and toxic exhaust from the engine, as well as violent movement. The 8-man crew would often be severely sick. Communication was difficult, but tanks did alarm the enemy.

Wanted - Smart Men for the Tank Corps
Tank Corps recruiting poster. © IWM PST 3929.

The Tank Corps (later the Royal Tank Regiment) was formed from the Heavy Branch Machine Gun Corps. Volunteers to its ranks included men who had been in the motor and engineering trades in civilian life.

British tank submerged in mud on 12 October 1917 near St Julien, north-east of Ypres, France during the Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele). © IWM Q6327.

Lessons were learnt from the early battles. The British produced a more advanced tank, the Mark IV, and by the summer of 1917, tank numbers had increased. The deployment of 60 at the Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele, 31 July to 1 November 1917) was disastrous. The battleground became a tank graveyard, as machine after machine got stuck in deep mud or sank in shell craters. Morale in the Tank Corps was low, and Army confidence in the tanks was undermined.

mark iv tanks coqutte & hyena c the tank museum
Mark IV tanks ‘Coquette II and ‘Hyena’ near Fontaine, France on 20 November 1917, the first day of the Battle of Cambrai. © The Tank Museum.
byng boys cartoon courtesy of tony allen of picture postcards of the great war 1914-1918
Archive cartoon postcard celebrating the 20 November 1917 assault. Source: Tony Allen.

On 20 November 1917, General Sir Julian Byng’s Third Army launched a tactically radical attack with 378 Mark IV tanks at Cambrai, northern France, an important supply point for the German Army. The action served as a blueprint for the successful ‘Hundred Days’ offensives of 1918: a series of major battles in the final phase of the war, where tanks played a central role in the eventual defeat of Germany and its allies.

The Tank Tour
Publicity poster from 1918 encouraging the public to buy war bonds and war savings certificates. © IWM PST 10247.

Tanks were used by the War Office as travelling billboards.  Displaying their battle scars, they would be showcased in town centres to encourage the public to donate money.

Tanks are rarely depicted on war memorials. Here are some that we know of:

Written by Nicky Hughes

Further reading

2 comments on “A Brief History of Tanks

  1. Reblogged this on keithbracey and commented:
    A history of tanks……for my Nottingham University History degree my dissertation was on ‘Tanks of the Great War’ and I have always had a special interest in tanks and armoured vehicles, visiting The Tank Museum at Bovington Camp in Dorset a number of times to see the history and evolution of the tank, another great British invention, which shortened The Great War.

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