One hundred years ago – in September 1916 – land warfare was revolutionised by the arrival of the tank. A tank can be defined as a gun-armed armoured fighting vehicle rolling on continuous tracks. Although first developed in association with William Foster & Co. Ltd of Lincoln, Gloucestershire can also claim many tank connections. The churchyard at Prestbury near Cheltenham, for example, contains the Inglis family grave and within that grave lies the remains of Major Arthur Inglis, the first man in history to lead tanks into action. Born on 4 July 1884, Inglis had been a pupil at Cheltenham College and had joined the Gloucestershire Regiment at the outbreak of hostilities in 1914.
Tanks – so called because they were officially designated as water storage devices bound for the Middle East to confuse spies – had been developed to break the stalemate of trench warfare. Without them, infantry would have no fighting options other than going over the top of their trenches and through barbed wire entanglements in an effort to reach the redoubts of their opponents. Like the use of Zeppelin airships as strategic bombers, the use of armoured fighting vehicles as both mobile artillery and infantry pathfinders had been predicted by science fiction writer Herbert George Wells.
In 1903, The Strand magazine published H.G. Well’s short story “The Land Ironclads” in which a fleet of the eponymous fighting machines manned by “townspeople” defeat the cavalry and entrenched infantry of the more muscular but less technically advanced “country folk”. The theme made an interesting comparison to both the Boer War – which had ended just a year earlier – and to Well’s own 1898 science fiction story “The War of the Worlds”. The Boer War had featured a long guerrilla struggle between the rural Afrikaaner speaking seditionists and regular soldiers from all over the rest of the British Empire while in “The War of the Worlds” the inexorable advance of the Martian’s death ray equipped walking and flying machines had only been halted by exposure to the common cold: a nuisance to humans but deadly to the invaders. Well’s conclusion in “The Land Ironclads” was that military technology would always defeat those who could not match it – or as his war correspondent character says, “Civilization has science, you know, it invented and it made the rifles and guns and things you use.” However, what he failed to mention was that city dwellers would still, for a long time at least, be dependent on the countryside for food and raw materials such as iron, coal and oil. Indeed, looking back at World history over the last 113 years, there have been many wars and campaigns where determined and resourceful local people armed only with the most basic weapons have halted the advanced of much more powerful and technologically advanced invaders. From Stalingrad to Vietnam and Libya, local knowledge and determination not to yield have triumphed over long supply chains and complex vehicles in constant need of skilled maintenance. In these cases too, the invaders have increasingly had to manage the bad news of any defeats to an ever more sceptical home audience while freedom fighters / terrorists can melt into the native population – Kalashnikov in one hand, plough or shop till in the other.
As the British found in South Africa, even keeping the local population in concentration camps is no guarantee of military success while the casual use of weapons of mass destruction can threaten the viability of the contested territory, if not ultimately the entire planet. Another lesson that can be drawn from the “brush fire” wars of the last century however is that supply of weapons and ammunition is everything. If a nation or belligerent group cannot provide its own guns, bombs and bullets it will be reliant on a greater, sponsoring or mercantile power elsewhere, which brings us back to Well’s original conflict between town and country. Also of note was the title H.G. Wells used for his short story: Ironclads being the newly developed steam powered armoured battleships of the time. Although not agile in shallow coastal waters – just as tanks are vulnerable in urban areas – ironclad battleships were able to roam the deep oceans and take on their equivalents in battle. Japan’s naval victory over Russia in 1905 severely weakened the grip of the Romanov dynasty and until the advent of reliable aeroplanes and submarines, ironclads ruled the waves by floating on them. On land however, wheeled vehicles were largely confined to well paved roads.
FROM THEORY TO PRACTICE
In “The Land Ironclads”, H.G. Wells describes the townsfolk’s 100 feet long war machines having Pedrail wheels: as invented by Londoner Bramah Joseph Diplock and comprising articulated foot pads surrounding a wheel which would allow a vehicle to climb steps. However, Diplock was eventually to abandon the Pedrail concept in favour of a continuous track surrounding the wheels of a vehicle. At the same time, Richard Hornsby and Son of Lincoln did a great deal of early development work on continuous linked track systems and even sold an experimental vehicle – pictured – to the War Office in 1908. But military interest waned and the American patents for linked continuous track were acquired by the Holt Caterpillar Company, which had produced its first steam powered agricultural Caterpillar tractor in 1906.A Major Donoghue had suggested that the Hornsby tractor purchased by the War Office for the Army in 1908 be fitted with a gun and similar ideas were put forward – equally fruitlessly – by inventors in Austria and Australia.
The British Army had been similarly dismissive of Mr F.R. Simm and his War Motor Car of 1902 – the artillery and machine gun armed four wheeler still being limited to hard surfaces despite its 6mm thick armour. However, Italy became the first nation to send an armoured car into battle when it faced the Turks in Libya in 1912 and in 1914 the Belgian Army improvised its own to face the oncoming Germans by mounting Hotchkiss machine guns on unarmoured Minerva touring cars. A century later, 4×4 pick up trucks with machine guns – often known as “technicals” – are still a common sight in World trouble spots but in August 1914 First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill rushed Royal Marines and Royal Naval Air Service squadrons to the aid of Belgium. Impressed by the Belgian’s use of the Minervas, Commander Samson, RNAS, fitted his own Rolls Royce service vehicles with machine guns and then armour made from boiler plates. So successful were the improvised RNAS armoured cars that the Admiralty commissioned Rolls Royce to build dedicated versions in its Derby factory complete with rotating turrets.
As the German Army’s Schlieffen Plan dash for Paris slowly congealed into trench warfare, the RNAS armoured cars were unable to cope with the mud of No Man’s Land and played little further part on the Western Front. Nevertheless, their role had been witnessed by Lieutenant Colonel Ernest Swinton of the Royal Engineers who had, by coincidence, also served at the War Office when the Hornsby vehicle had arrived in 1908. Now a public relations officer with the British Army’s General Headquarters, he put the idea of mounting the armoured cars on tracks to Maurice Hankey, Secretary to the Committee of Imperial Defence. Although dismissed by many military figures – including Lord Kitchener – Winston Churchill was intrigued.
Turning H.G. Well’s “Land Ironclads” into reality began in earnest during February 1915 when Churchill set up a top secret Landships Committee. After rejecting many impractical but ingenious tracked vehicles, the Landships Committee was impressed by the work of William Tritton, Managing Director of William Foster & Co. Ltd of Lincoln, and Lieutenant Walter Wilson RN. Drawing and calculating in a room in the White Hart Hotel in Lincoln, Tritton and Wilson – who had built the four seat Wilson-Pilcher automobile in 1904 – had envisioned engine and crew compartments inside an armoured box between two half-height track units, steered by two wheels projecting from the rear. The mechanical portion was based on that of a Holt Caterpillar tractor, an example of which had been imported from the USA and tested at Shoeburyness, only to get bogged down in the seaside mud. However, Tritton and Wilson’s new vehicle still held more practical promise than Tritton’s earlier bridge laying “Trencher” concept – although this would be the ancestor of many specialist armoured vehicles. Assembled in Lincoln in the autumn of 1915 and known as “Little Willie”, Tritton and Wilson’s new vehicle proved the basic idea of the modern tank. Although capable of climbing a 1 in 2 1/2 gradient and hauling two eight ton trucks up the same slope with its winding gear powered by a 105 bhp Daimler engine, the 2 mph “Little Willie” was itself too short to cross German trenches or climb their parapets.
“HM LANDSHIP CENTIPEDE”
As a result, Tritton and Wilson’s Mark I fighting tank was longer – at 32′ 6″ – rhomboidal in shape with full height tracks – still steered by rear wheels – and weighed nearly 30 tons. Made of armour plate varying in thickness between 6 and 10mm, armament consisted of two Hotchkiss six-pounder guns and two Vickers machine guns in a rear mounted top turret in the “Male” version intended for frontal attacks on enemy trenches. The “Female” version, developed as an infantry support machine, kept the top machine guns and replaced the Hotchkiss artillery in the side sponsons with two further machine guns on each side. Maximum speed with the 105 bhp Daimler engine was 4 mph on firm, level ground or just under 1 mph over a cratered battlefield. After the final trial in February 1916, Minister of Munitions David Lloyd George – at the encouragement of British Commander-in-Chief Field Marshall Douglas Haig – placed an order for 150 Mark I tanks. However, to reach that stage of development, Churchill had advanced Tritton and Wilson the huge sum of £70 000 of public money without informing either the War Office or the Treasury. As he wryly admitted in his later book “The World Crisis”, if the tank programme had failed his political career would have ended in ruins.
Each tank also required a crew of eight to command, drive and fire the guns. However, to maintain secrecy, technically minded recruits were told that they would be forming a new Motor Machine Gun Corps. Once again, the Navy took a hand with prospective tank gunners going to sea in destroyers to learn how to use artillery on a moving platform. As the first tanks were not fitted with wireless transmitters, communication between them and their rear-area tacticians was initially going to be by wooden semaphore arms on the roof, but as these flimsy structures were easily damaged a more reliable transmitting medium was carrier pigeon. A more pressing issue though was the noise and exhaust gases from the petrol engine which was in the same compartment as the gunners and four steersmen. The prime mover could also easily catch fire and “brew up” the tank with its own shells although going to war in a metal box was still safer than an infantryman going “over the top” with just a rifle and a helmet. Despite this, it was reckoned that three hours of combat duty would require a tank man to require at least two days of recovery time.
However, the first tanks would not be ready for use until September 1916. As a result, the first day of the Battle of the Somme – 1 July 1916 – saw British infantry advancing through barbed wire against fortified German machine gun positions that had still not been destroyed by the heavy artillery bombardment of several previous days. 15 000 British soldiers were to die that day in No Man’s Land and by the end of August 1916, the Battle of the Somme had claimed 196 000 Allied lives.
However, Haig hoped that the similarly high German casualties in the early stages of the Battle of the Somme – coupled with intelligence regarding a deterioration in German morale – might mean a crisis for his enemy by mid September. In fact the unyielding defensive strategy of Haig’s opposite number – General von Falkenhayn – had caused Kaiser Wilhelm II to replace him with Field Marshall von Hindenburg and his Chief of Staff, General Ludendorff. In addition, the Germans were losing ground to the Russians on the Eastern Front, the Italian offensive on the Isonzo had been successful and the Romanians had entered the War on the Allied side.
Haig’s attention moved to the high, drier, ground north of the River Somme valley. His battle plan was to:
“..press the main attack south of the Albert-Baupame road with the object of securing the enemy’s last line of prepared defences between Morval and Le Sars with a view to opening the way for the cavalry.”
It was expected that fifty or sixty tanks would be employed against objectives likely to cause obstacles to the advancing infantry and ” operate as a general rule in groups of three.”
This flew in the face of “Notes on the Employment of Tanks” prepared Colonel Swinton, who had written:
“Since the chance of success of an attack by tanks lies almost entirely in its novelty and in the element of surprise, it is obvious that no repetition of it will have the same opportunity of succeeding as the first unexpected effort. It follows, therefore, that these machines should not be used in driblets (for instance as they may be produced), but the fact of their existence should be kept as secret as possible until the whole are ready to be launched, together with the infantry assault, in one great combined operation.”
Haig was aware of this concept, having earlier approved Colonel Swinton’s Notes, but he felt that time was not on his side. The tank was still an untried – and far from perfect – weapon and it would have been difficult to keep larger quantities of armoured fighting vehicles a closely guarded secret – thus giving the Germans time to plan counter measures. Autumn was also fast approaching and, despite the sacrifice of surprise, Haig was determined to use every tank available in what he saw as being his last great effort of 1916 to break the German lines. More specifically, Haig’s subordinate General Rawlinson had planned an attack on 15 September 1916 by XIV and XV Corps on a frontage of nearly six miles. Five cavalry divisions would be on hand to exploit the breakthrough. Preliminary attacks were made on 3 September 1916 when the French town of Guillemont – four miles south west of the Albert-Baupame road – was finally captured. Ginchy, a mile to the north east, was captured on 4 September 1916 but at the cost of heavy casualties. The British objective was now to push three miles further on to the towns of Morval and Geudecourt, driving an enormous wedge into the German defences. Preliminary bombardment began on 12 September 1916 with its climax just before zero hour at 0620 on 15 September 1916 delivering a concentration of artillery fire double that preceding the first day of the Battle of the Somme on 1 July. However, since the Battle of the Somme, British artillery tactics had improved to the point where they could offer a creeping barrage to destroy opposition directly in front of the advancing infantry. Within this creeping barrages, 100 yard wide corridors were left so that the tanks could advance without risk of damage from friendly fire. By this time 48 tanks had arrived from England. 34 of these had been allocated to XIV and XV Corps, the remainder being distributed among III Corps and Gough’s Reserve Army, based closer to the Albert-Baupame road.
However, of the 34 vehicles intended for the main assault, only 23 were serviceable at dusk on 14 September 1916 when the tanks took up their starting positions in Delville Wood behind the British front line. In particular, of the ten tanks allocated to the Guards Division only five made it to their starting positions. At zero hour one of these failed to start and the remaining four got lost in the mist that shrouded the battlefield Indeed, only eleven British tanks managed to cross the German front line and as a result of these mishaps, determined enemy resistance and rain turning the terrain into a quagmire, the anticipated British breakthrough was not realised. Despite this, the towns of Courcelette and Martinpuich – north west and south east of the Albert-Baupame road – were taken and at Flers – between Martinpuich and Morval – tanks scored an impressive victory. Thirty two year old Cheltenham College educated Major Arthur Inglis, of New Barn Lane, Prestbury, commanded tank C5 – nicknamed “Creme de Menthe” – as it and other alcoholically named tanks such as “Curacoa” led the 2nd Canadian Division toward a German held sugar factory on the Somme near Longueval, between Guillemont and the Albert-Baupame road Then, despite being raked with German bullets and losing a wheel from its steering mechanism, “Creme de Menthe” destroyed the German garrison at Flers and its associated machine gun nests. Inglis even managed to capture “a thoroughly disorientated German General” and bring him back to the British lines, for which the Major was later awarded the Distinguished Service Order. The medals awarded to Major Arthur Inglis – including the Distinguished Service Order – were sold by auction by Spinks of London in July 2007.
As Volume 8 of The Great War, edited by H.W. Wilson, described:
” Slowly and surely the new engines of war crawled into the forefront of the battle. Creme de Menthe sparkled with blue fire as German machine gunners whipped her vainly with bullets. Rising in weird, toad-like fashion, she prowled around the sand bagged and concrete redoubt.”
Major Inglis survived until 1919 when he succumbed to wounds sustained in the last year of the Great War from stepping on a mine, and he is also commemorated on Cheltenham Borough War Memorial and on the roll of honour at Cheltenham College. Perhaps almost as lasting though was the effect of his tanks on the ordinary German soldier. As one later recorded:
“When the German outposts crept out of their dug-outs in the mist of the morning and stretched their necks to look for the English, their blood was chilled in their veins. Mysterious monsters were crawling towards them over the craters. Stunned as if an earthquake had burst around them, they all rubbed their eyes, which were fascinated by the fabulous creatures. One stared and stared as if one had lost the power of one’s limbs. The monsters approached slowly, hobbling, rolling and rocking, but they approached. Nothing impeded them: a supernatural force seemed to impel them on. Someone in the trenches said “The Devil is coming” and the word was passed along the line like wildfire.”
Despite the huge psychological and propaganda value of the tank, only 18 of those lined up in Delville Wood on the morning of 15 September 1916 actually fought. Ten were knocked out by enemy action and a further 14 became stuck or broke down. As Winston Churchill wrote:
“My poor land battleships have been let off prematurely and on a petty scale. In that idea resided one real victory.”
However, so revolutionary was the concept of the tank that the implementation of tactics to maximise its impact on the enemy continued lagging behind actual production of vehicles – even though 1 000 new rhomboidal tanks of an improved design with steering tracks were on order by the end of 1916. In many battles tanks were still used piecemeal rather than en masse but in 1917 tanks were able to dominate a battlefield for the first time – although their deployment at Cambrai was a case of cutting edge military technology being stretched a little too far. Devised again by Field Marshal Earl Haig – with the aim of a quick, decisive tactical victory to get British Prime Minister Lloyd George off his back after defeats at The Somme and Paschendale – this assault was to break the Hindenberg Line. Tanks – sometimes operating in pairs to rip up barbed wire entanglements with trailed anchors – would open up gaps big enough for cavalry and infantry to reach the German held town of Cambrai. Battle tanks would be supported by other tanks carrying fuel and ammunition, and would have the element of surprise as supporting artillery fire could – by that stage of the war – hit targets without preliminary ranging shots. The high, hard, dry ground for the battle – bordered by the Nord and St Quinten Canals – was also in contrast to the mud of previous battles.
On 20 November 1917 381 tanks managed to cross all three highly fortified but lightly manned German lines, punching a hole four miles wide and five miles deep into the sailient. In London, church bells rang after a victorious first day but without adequate troop reserves Haig’s gamble failed. British infantry could not keep up with the tanks and cavalry fell prey to German machine guns. Indeed, the battle of Cambrai also saw the first use of armour piercing machine gun bullets and artillery pieces mounted on lorries – the first anti-tank weapons. In the end German reserves pushed the British back to their starting positions and in so doing captured many broken-down tanks which they were able to repair and use themselves. Despite this, tanks caught the British public imagination and following the Armistice on 11 November 1918 many towns received an example for display.
Cheltenham’s tank – a Mark 5 numbered 285 – was a gift from the local war savings association in recognition of the £ 2 500 000 raised by Cheltonians in war bonds and savings certificates. This arrived at the Great Western Railway’s St James station – now the site of Waitrose – and, once its engine had started, travelled under its own power along Bayshill Road to its resting place near today’s Westal Green roundabout. So slow was its journey that a handing over speech had already been made by the time it arrived, and in 1940 it was scrapped to provide metal for the next global conflict.
However, to bring the naval connection to full circle, 1940 also saw HMS Excellent, the gunnery training school on Whale Island, make its Great War souvenir Mark V tank operational again and, toting a Lewis gun and flying the white ensign, it patrolled the island against possible German invaders.
EXPLOITING THE BREAKTHROUGH
Even before Haig’s gamble at Cambrai, some military experts had started talking about using tanks together with the cavalry for exploitation as early as 1916. This would, however, required a smaller, faster, lighter tank, not least because in consolidation of the battlefield gains of the existing lozenge-shaped heavy tanks there would be less need for enough vehicle length to facilitate trench crossing. In October 1916 Sir William Tritton of William Foster & Co. Ltd. of Lincoln undertook the design and manufacture of a prototype vehicle to meet these requirements. This was also known as “Tritton’s Light Machine” or “Tritton Chaser”, and was completed in early February 1917. The more compact dimensions of “Tritton’s Light Machine” led the knighted designer to place the crew behind the power plant which was, however, in roughly the same relative position in the vehicle as in the heavy tanks, with drive to the rear track sprockets. Nevertheless, the new armoured fighting vehicle was immediately distinguishable from its heavier brethren by the low profile tracks and separate engine and crew compartments – giving an overall shape much more like that of later generations of tank. Separating the prime mover from the personnel was also a practical advantage. In the earlier tanks, carbon monoxide poisoning from engine exhausts had killed more tank crew than enemy action and many drivers, gunners and commanders had to be hospitalised following a day of battle in temperatures of up to 100 degrees Fahrenheit. In order to achieve sufficient power with engines which were available for tank use and at the same time avoid the cumbersome gear change and steering arrangements of the heavies, twin 45 bhp Tylor commercial vehicle engines, complete with their own clutch and gear-box, were used. In fact these Tylor engines were also used by London buses of the period. The two prime mover systems were joined at the cross-shaft from whence final drive to the tracks was by chains to sprockets on either side. For steering the clutches joining the cross-shaft were released and one or the other engine speeded up, the turn being on the side opposite to that of the faster running engine. The steering effect could be increased by use of the brakes on one engine or another. This arrangement had the advantage of being controlled by one man only but it called for a great deal of skill on the part of the driver, because one or both of the engines could be stalled if care was not exercised. To aid performance by decreasing track friction, rollers to carry the top run of the track and a series of chutes along the sides to clear mud were introduced.
The armament – as originally envisaged – consisted of one Lewis machine-gun – then temporarily in favour for tanks – mounted in a revolving turret of the pattern used in Austin armoured cars. The turret was offset on the left-hand side of the hull (the driver’s cab was lower and on the right) and had all-round traverse and a commanding field of fire. The gun mounting was approximately 9 ft above ground level. A production order was given for 200 vehicles based on “Tritton’s Light Machine” and designated Tanks, Medium Mark A. Several changes were made in the 20′ long production machines, the most prominent being the replacement of the revolving turret by a fixed structure with four ball mountings for .303″ Hotchkiss machine-guns. This change was made to simplify production The armour thickness was increased from the 9 mm. maximum of Tritton’s prototype to the 14 mm. standard of the heavy tanks. The 70 gallon petrol tank, which was unarmoured in the original model, was moved from between the rear horns to the front, where it was enclosed in an armoured box. There were also other minor adjustments at other points including the exhaust system and elimination of the rear mud chutes on each side, which were replaced by round inspection plates. All these changes increased the weight of the Medium Mark A to 14 tons, compared with approximately 12 tons for the “Tritton Chaser”, although performance – including an 80 mile road range – does not appear to have been greatly affected The first Medium Mark As – popularly known as “Whippets” – were built in October 1917 and they were being delivered in quantity to the Tank Corps in the field by March 1918. An order for a further 185 Medium Mark As was subsequently commuted to one for Mark Bs, which promised to be a better design. Experimental modifications by the Tank Corps Central Workshops in France to a Mark A included the addition of leaf springs to the suspension and later the substitution of a Rolls-Royce 360-h.p. aero engine for the Tylor engines. These changes increased the speed of the 8′ 6″ wide tank from about 8 m.p.h. to no less than 30 m.p.hWhippets were first used in action near Herbetune in northern France on 26 March 1918 to help stem the German offensive when twelve “Whippets” near Colincamps surprised and put to flight two German infantry battalions. But the Mk As really came to the fore in August 1918 when some 96 Whippets of the 3rd Tank Brigade were used during the Battle for Amiens. Although cavalry horses were still faster and better able to cope with rough, muddy terrain, Whippets proved more of a match for serious opposition.
One such Whippet, “Musical Box”, belonging to B Coy, 6th Battalion, commanded by Lieutenant C.B. Arnold, took part in the big attack on 8 August 1918, overtook the slow Mk V:s, routed a German Artillery Battery and on its own penetrated to the rear of the German lines. Essentially the lonely Whippet, with its bold crew of only three men, carried on a war of its own. It shot down retiring infantry, attacked horse and motor transport – even ramming a German lorry into a stream -and regularly terrorised the bewildered “Boche”. This went on for eleven hours, and then the tank was first immobilised, surrounded and then destroyed by fire from field artillery. Arnold and one of his crew survived, and were taken prisoners.
On 5 November 1918 eight Whippets of the 6th Battalion took part in the last tank action of the Great War although the British Army retained a number of Whippets for post War use in Ireland.
During World War 1 the German Army also captured a number of Whippets ( designated Beute Panzerwagen A), but they were never used in combat by the Kaiser’s forces. (Their opinion of it was pretty high, however: some believed it was the only Allied tank that was worth directly copying.) At least one captured Whippet was also used by the far right Freikorps, during the unrest in Germany after the war.
17 Whippets were also used in the Russian Civil War, first by the Whites ( under General Denikin ) and after spring 1920, when captured, by the Red Army. Whippets were assimilated into existing RKKA armoured units and only replaced by Soviet built tanks in 1932.
An unknown number of Whippets were purchased by the Japanese in 1922, staying in service until 1930