It is one of the ironies of military history that the first operational tank was created under the auspices of the Royal Navy. At the same time, it is consistent with the special role of the Royal Navy as the dominant arm of the British services. This fact made a peculiar mark on the fledgling tank program, which designated these vehicles as “landships” until the nickname “tank” had caught on.
The concept of an armored fighting vehicle goes back at least to Leonardo da Vinci, and in a broader sense hearkens back to the chariots of the second millennium B.C. The invention of the automobile made the concept feasible, and armored cars were in use even before World War I began. Such vehicles had limited usefulness in open country, however, and it was often in such terrain that battles were to be fought; trench warfare reduced their usefulness further.
As was often the case, farsighted inventors presented workable designs before the war, but attracted no interest. British, French and even Austrian designers created plans that would have served well in 1915, but no nation adopted them or even gave them serious consideration. Military science was considered a mature field, and few were eager to try technological novelties before the stagnation of trench warfare demanded them; even then, military planners were slow to see the potential of tanks and to embrace them.
Once the war began, the main impetus to develop an armored fighting vehicle came from the British. The primary challenge was to overcome the defensive dominance of the machine gun. After the initial German successes of 1914, Allied strategy demanded offensive action to unseat the Germans from occupied territories. This entailed a need to counter the advantage that the machine gun gave to defenders in the First World War, even before the front was locked in trenches.
Major E.D. Swinton suggested the development of an armored vehicle to accomplish this task, and the idea captured the imagination of Winston Churchill. As First Lord of the Admiralty, Churchill enjoyed a great deal of power over military development; moreover, he was well known for becoming a strong advocate of notions that took hold in his mind, whether they went well or ill. Although his purview was in naval affairs, Churchill was no stranger to the army, and he saw well the opportunities that such a vehicle would offer. He became the force behind the development of Britain’s tanks.
For several reasons, the project proceeded under naval auspices. The first would be Churchill’s patronage, but his could not be the last word; not even Kitchener had full and independent authority over all developments. Military planners agreed that the Navy was the correct arm to conduct the research because it made greater use of armored cars, and so had greater familiarity with many of the technical difficulties involved, such as balancing armored protection with weight. Development was placed in the hands of a team designated the Landship Committee.
As their name implies, their conception had a decidedly naval aspect, in which armored vessels more reminiscent of warships than of armored cars “sailed” across the land on tractor tracks, carrying naval guns to close range of their targets. At the same time, the designers were already starting to think in terms of the three key characteristics of the tank (firepower, armor protection, and mobility), with the specialized terrain of the trenches as a principal consideration for the vehicle’s mobility.
The first successful effort was little more than an armored box mounted atop a chassis with caterpillar tracks. In the rear was a pair of wheels to aid in steering, which technically made it a half-track vehicle. This test vehicle, known as “Little Willie,” carried a small gun and one or more machine guns, depending on the phase of the testing. It was a good first effort, but still far from production quality. The next prototype, dubbed alternately “Big Willie” and “Mother,” had the desired characteristics.
Where “Little Willie” had a simple box shape, “Mother” was built with a distinctive rhomboid profile, which aided it in crossing trenches. Moreover, the tracks passed over the upper surface of the vehicle, rather than just the lower surface. At 3.7 mph, it was just a bit slower than the target speed, but close enough for development purposes. Armor plating ranged from 10 mm in the front to 6 mm on top, and this was considered adequate for protection from conventional gunfire and artillery bursts.
Armament was to include both artillery guns and machine guns. A turret, such as was used on armored cars, was rejected for the landship because of the height that it would entail. Since this tank was meant to fire into trenches, the guns could not be too high, and it was as important to depress the gun as to elevate it. The committee decided, instead, to build sponsons into the flanks of the vehicle, with a six-pounder naval gun mounted in each. With the addition of four machine guns, “Mother” had a good field of fire, and was well-armed for the infantry support role that was intended. Later, this configuration was dubbed the “Male” pattern, with a “Female” pattern consisting of six machine guns and no artillery.
Adoption of this design came easily. Official demonstrations were made on February 2, 1916 for military officials and on February 8 for King George V. The latter demonstration included a ride for the king. Interestingly, the demonstrations failed to win the support of the powerful Lord Kitchener, while King George was persuaded, and urged the production of these vehicles in substantial numbers. One hundred were ordered, and this design was dubbed Mark I.
For early use, these vehicles were still called landships, but the committee understood that a better name was necessary in the long term. It is said that they were first called “tanks” because the outer hulls of the prototypes were passed off as water tanks in the early phase of the effort, when secrecy was important. Whatever the truth of this assertion, the committee liked the term, both for its simplicity and for the ease with which it might take hold in popular use. This assessment proved quite accurate.
Naturally, it took some time before the tanks were available in any numbers for actual combat. By September, 1916, General Sir Douglas Haig had 49 tanks. Locked in the quagmire of the Somme Offensive, Haig resolved to employ his tanks in a renewed bid for progress. Fatefully, he chose to spread his tanks out, grouping them only in pairs or trios.
They were brought into action early on the morning of September 15 in the area of Flers-Courcelette. Numerous errors dogged the effort. Only 32 tanks participated, and of these, only nine were positioned correctly. The tanks showed some of their technical flaws, such as a tendency to get stuck in trenches, or “ditched” as their crews called it. For that matter, the crews were inadequately trained, and coordination with the infantry was nonexistent. Still, the tanks were unexpected, and the Germans had no adequate countermeasures. In the immediate term, the effort was deceptively successful.
The fateful component to this result lies in the fact that the tanks were not properly used by any standard (and not just from the theoretical perspective of interwar theorists like Fuller and Guderian), but they were still successful, and so the effort served to perpetuate poor use of the weapon. It was not until November 1917, at Cambrai, that Haig permitted a subordinate, Brigadier Hugh Elles, to employ his own tactical arrangement. Elles gathered his tanks together into a single unit, and used them to spearhead a fast attack. The effort was successful, although inadequate consolidation of armored gains limited the quality of the outcome. Here the British tanks most closely foreshadowed the successes of World War II Blitzkrieg.
During their three years of service in the Great War, the landship tanks underwent seven generations of incremental change, from Mark II through Mark VIII. Most changes were subtle, such as the strengthening of armor or the replacement of Hotchkiss machine guns with Lewis guns. The most visible change, the abandonment of the rear steering wheels, was performed with the first generation when it became clear that they were unnecessary. The fundamental concept never changed.
It was a concept that would not long survive the war, however. Subsequent tank design opted for a lower profile and the mounting of the main gun on a central turret. One might say that with the end of the scale of trench warfare, as it was known in World War I, the particular design of the landship also lost its utility. Still, the landship tanks were the first of their kind, and they set many of the strategic and tactical standards of tank use that endured past the Second World War.
Dougherty, Martin J. Tanks: From World War I to the Present Day. Sterling, 2008
Forty, George. Illustrated Guide to Tanks of the World. Bookmart, 2007
Forty, Simon. World War I: A Visual Encyclopedia. PRC Publishing, 2002
Hart, Stephen. Atlas of Tank Warfare: From 1916 to the Present Day. Amber Books, 2012
© 2013. All rights reserved