Tanks and total war first combined 100 years ago when Major Arthur Inglis of Prestbury led the first armoured tracked vehicles into battle near the French town of Albert. As a result, 2016 has seen live events, TV documentaries and printed articles commemorating the event as well as number of 4mm scale diorama sets being issued by model manufacturers. In particular, Airfix have offered Western Front and Battle of The Somme, the latter combining British and German aircraft as well as tanks and ground troops, while soon to come are dioramas of gun batteries and First Assault with French and German soldiers engaged in the more fluid battles of August 1914.
However, even before this auspicious centenary, I had noticed that some of the horse drawn gun limbers used by the British Army during the First World War were built by the Gloucester Railway Carriage and Wagon Company Limited. And that one such limber – a wheeled artillery shell box with seats for the gunners on top coupled between the gun itself and the horses – was a part of the Airfix 1/76 scale Royal Horse Artillery set. In fact the Gloucester Railway Carriage and Wagon Company Limited was no stranger to horse drawn military vehicles. It had built many ambulances for the prosecution of the Boer War and the first Great War military road vehicle recorded in the company albums – in official Photograph 4176 of April 1915 – was a Mark IV Ambulance Wagon, completed as part of War Office contract W 1543 (3) and Works order 2292. With a tare weight of 23 cwt, 2 quarters and 6lbs, the Mark IV (pictured here courtesy of Gloucestershire Archives) could carry four lying or 12 sitting casualties under its convertible canvas roof.
Photograph 4197 of September 1915 meanwhile showed Order 2546 for a series of steel limbers for 18 pounder guns destined for armament manufacturer Vickers Limited of Barrow in Furness while Photograph 4220 of January 1916 shows a Royal Engineers Tool Cart Mark II built for the War Office Director of Munitions Contracts under Contract W/2576. The two axle General Service Wagon Mark X meanwhile was the subject of Photograph 4227 in April 1916 as part of Order 2821 for the Army Ordnance Department, Royal Artillery, with the contract number 94/W/102. Also indicative of the role that Gloucester RCW played in the war effort was Photograph 4266 ( reproduced here courtesy of Gloucestershire Archives) of August 1917 showing a “Damaged limber received from France for repair.” Just a few months later however, Photograph 3477 of December 1917 showed brand new camouflaged “BL 60 pounder carriage limbers Mark II” produced as Order 3477 for the Director of Munitions Contracts. Similar vehicles were also outshopped from Bristol Road, Gloucester, in the final year of the Great War with Photograph 4275 also showing a de Havilland DH6 aircraft wing being produced for the Gloucestershire Aircraft Company and most bizarrely Photograph 4280 of May 1918 depicting a hand powered War Office monorail truck!
But rather than just build the Airfix Royal Horse Artillery set and pose it on a battlefield as per the box artwork I thought it would be interesting to explore the 1914-1918 conflict in terms of the logistics and mechanics involved. Even more than in previous conflicts, technologically advanced forces required field workshops to repair broken vehicles and equipment and to prepare new machines. In turn, these forward bases needed to be defended from enemy encroachment but connected by road and rail to the rest of the military supply chain. As well as new personnel, vehicles and weapons moving towards the front alongside fuel, food and ammunition, such forward bases could also receive the wounded prior to evacuation to areas further to the rear as well as captured enemy equipment and intelligence reports. The resulting depot diorama itself was based on the now obsolete lid for another diorama box, sprayed primer grey to begin with before black painted tarmac and brown painted earth elements were added. The grass was my own mixture based on Woodland Scenics material and a big thank you must go out to Des Penduke of Penduke Models who sorted out the red granules to represent poppies. And then gave me a small box for free after I just vaguely mentioned my idea at the 2016 Gloucester Model Railway Show. Des Penduke is a scholar and a gentleman and his website is www.pendukemodels.co.uk
Rather than being purpose built, I placed the field workshop in in a French railway freight yard that featured both a heavily shelled goods depot and standard and narrow gauge tracks. The 009 rolling stock previously featured in the Rhine Crossing diorama box of Goes Like A Rocket while the figures outside of the Airfix Royal Horse Artillery were the same firm’s WW1 Infantry and Bachmann’s Medical Staff and Soldiers set designed for use with the Ambulance Train. The de Havilland DH2 aircraft on the trailer ( with outer wings in the crate on the towing lorry), German A7V and French FT17 tanks were by Ron Brooks who sadly passed away in December 2015. They stand here in tribute to his work and also to his kindness and faith in making me curator of his collection after he retired from exhibition appearances.
The building was the Airfix Ruined European Workshop resin model, initially meant as a tank hideout from 1939-1945. This took primer spray and brushed enamel paint well and was supplied with optional brass window frames. Similarly the wheeled access trolley was in fact from the Airfix Bomber Command Re Supply Set – as assembled by Jet Age Museum’s Ryan Wheatstone – but does not in my opinion look out of place here. The tanks were once again by Ron Brooks, the green machine-gun fitted vehicle nearest the camera being the Emhar model of a Mark IV Heavy Tank fitted with a lengthened “Tadpole” tail and extra mortar armament at the rear. In fact this experimental mortar armed Tadpole Mark IV never left Britain and although Tadpole kits were sent to France to allow existing tanks to be rebuilt to cross wider German trenches they did impair rigidity and lateral stability. The other two tank models were started by Ron Brooks but not completed, being his modifications of the familiar Airfix Mark IV into a Ricardo engined Mark V ( inside the shelled workshop) and the Mark VIII International tank. The Mark VIII was so called as it was to be mass produced in both Britain and the USA to win the war by force in 1919. However, the 11 November 1918 Armistice meant that only three examples of the first tank with a separate engine compartment reached France before the cessation of hostilities. As both models lacked tracks and other components, a workshop seemed the best place for them. The Mark V was finished in the nearest I could get to the buff livery of the Bovington Tank Museum’s example, designed to merge in to the yellow clay mud of the Somme and similar battlefields.
“And that, ladies, is how we captured the Hun tank before you were kind enough to dress our wounds…” Two brave and ingenious Tommies regale their nurses ( and a uniformed war correspondent, just putting his camera away in its pouch) with the story of acquiring one of only 25 of the A7V sturmpanzerwagen produced. On 24 April 1918 one became the first victim of a tank-to-tank kill at Villers Bretonneux, France, when it rolled down a slope after being hit by a British Female (machine gun armed) Mark IV. More captured British tanks were used by the Germans than A7Vs, which dwarfed the French Renault FT17 seen beside it in disruptive camouflage. A similar scheme was applied to the British steering wheel fitted Mark 1 tanks but was discarded when the tanks just became very muddy.
Before the introduction of tanks in 1916, heavy artillery ruled the trenches and no man’s land of the Western Front and even shelled nearby towns. However, many of the millions of shells fired by both sides failed to explode and are still being dug out of French and Belgian farmland today. At the time, too, both Allied and Central Powers needed to keep a constant supply of shells from home factories flowing to the front. As relatively few internal combustion vehicles were available in 1914, large numbers of horses were impressed into military service from farms to serve as cavalry mounts and to pull guns and wagons. However, horses proved highly vulnerable to machine gun fire and a horse shortage by 1918 led to their replacement by tractors between then and 1939 on the farms of Britain. Similarly, steam locomotives proved too visible to the enemy when working on narrow gauge railways at the front and were replaced by stealthier petrol and diesel equivalents. Famously Earl Douglas Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary Force, said “Aeroplanes and tanks are only accessories to the men and the horse. And I feel sure that as time goes on you will find just as much use for the horse – the well-bred horse – as you have ever done in the past.” Although it is easy to dismiss Haig’s ideas as antediluvian in an age of drones and hovercraft, military planners still envisaged artillery being hauled by horses when the Earl died in 1928 and even the Wehrmacht of World War II – despite the best efforts of Nazi propaganda to convince its opponents otherwise – depended heavily on supplies and weapons moved by equine power. Despite this conservatism shared by many senior officers born during the reign of Queen Victoria however, British battlefield tactics were, by 1918, based around both the tank and the machine gun.
Whatever happens, we have got The Maxim gun, and they have not. — Hilaire Belloc, The Modern Traveller (1898) The Maxim Gun was the world first true fully automatic machine gun, designed in 1884 by Hiram Maxim. The variants of the gun were produced by numerous European countries and used to crush native forces in the conquest of Africa. The weapons were, however, also used by Ethiopians, who successfully fought back against colonialism with captured or purchased modern weapons, including Maxims. The various Maxim designs, such as the British Vickers and German Spandau went on to see service in World War I, where they were responsible for millions of deaths in the trenches of the Western Front. Maxim-style weapons saw limited use in WWII, and were phased out entirely by the 1950s. The ammunition for the Vickers gun was supplied in nine yard long belts, hence the expression “The Whole Nine Yards” meaning everything. Among the heavier weapons in the Airfix WW1 Infantry set too was a trench mortar.
Also featured in the Airfix WW1 British Infantry set were two flag signallers who, according to the internet, used blue and white flags to relay semaphore messages. This method of communication was out of favour from 1916 by which time radio and telephones were more readily available. Semaphore had the disadvantage of being seen and interpreted by both friend and foe – although radio could be listened to on the correct frequency and telephone/telegraph wires tapped just as messengers and pigeons could be shot. World War One also accelerated the development of message encryption and decoding. Finally, although the story has been doubted by historians, it was said that DH2 biplanes built at H H Martyn’s in Cheltenham were towed to Brockworth for flight testing on their own wheels, the drivers stopping at a pub in Shurdington to let the bearings cool down while they enjoyed a pint of ale. Ready to drive off on the right hand side of the road too is an Old Bill Bus, developed from the 1910 London Type B double decker and in this case converted by Ron Brooks from a Keil Kraft model. 1/32 scale versions of both these vehicles are available from Airfix.