The Birth of the Armored Tank

By 1917, World War One was a stalemate. Both the Entente and the German armies were bloodied and exhausted. The development of the machine gun and the shrapnel artillery shell had given the defensive side an enormous advantage in warfare. Both sides were locked inside extensive trench networks from which they would send waves of men to storm across No-Man’s-Land to try to take the enemy’s trenches—only to be mowed down by machine guns and artillery. For years, hundreds of thousands of men were cut down in futile attacks that gained only scant yards, which were often then lost in a counter-attack. In desperation, both sides tried every conceivable method to break through the trenches and reach open ground where they could maneuver, and new weapons were introduced at a furious pace—airplanes, hand grenades, trench mortars, poison gas, submachine guns, flamethrowers, aerial bombs. None of them worked. It seemed as if the war would never end.

Then came the tank . . . .


British Mark I Tank, Battle of the Somme

When President Woodrow Wilson joined the Entente alliance in April 1917, the US was a virtual military nonentity. Its army was tiny, and the only recent war experience it had was beating the aged and crumbling Spanish Empire in 1898, and ineffectually chasing Pancho Villa around northern Mexico in 1916. The first American troops to arrive in Europe had to be hurriedly provided with French equipment and weapons, since the US had none of its own.

Nevertheless, the entry of the United States was decisive. The Germans knew that not only would America’s massive industrial capacity soon be flooding the battlefield with brand-new equipment and supplies, but the fresh American troops, once they were trained and equipped, would shore up the wounded Entente forces and overwhelm the outnumbered Germans by sheer weight. If Germany were to have any chance at all of winning the war, it would have to be done quickly, before significant numbers of Americans could be trained and shipped to Europe.

The German Kaiser gambled that an all-out offensive in early 1918 would be enough to defeat Britain and France before the US could effectively intervene. The German attack hit the exhausted British and French like a tidal wave, but it did not break them. The Germans, like the Entente, were unable to overcome the advantages held by the defender in trench warfare. The German offensive broke against British and French machine guns, just as the Entente attacks had always broken against the German. The German troops withdrew to the heavily-fortified Hindenburg Line and awaited the inevitable Allied assault.

Now, however, the British possessed the technical means of breaking the trench stalemate, and by mid-1918, with significant numbers of American troops finally beginning to arrive, the Allies were in a position to use it. This weapon was the armored tank.

At the beginning of the war, most of the armies involved were still using horse-mounted cavalry for reconnaissance. A few of the larger armies, like England and France, had a small number of “armored cars”–these were ordinary trucks that had been fitted with heavy iron plates for protection, and a machine gun mounted in the back. They were slow and vulnerable, however, and could only move on undamaged roads. There had already been suggestions for improvements, using specially-designed armored bodies that would have a large gun fitted as an offensive weapon. In prewar years, three different people had submitted plans for an armored attack vehicle: Gunther Bursztyn to the Austrian Army, Lancelot de Mole for the British, and a Captain named Levavasseur  to the French. Nobody decided to go ahead with the designs.

But when trench warfare in France bogged down into deadlock, the Entente realized that it needed an armored vehicle, fitted with machine guns and light artillery cannon, that could move across the torn-up muddy landscape plowing its way over barbed wire and crossing trenches to attack enemy strongpoints, while providing both protection and firepower for its own troops. In Britain and France, artillery officers Lieutenant-Colonel Ernest Swinton and Colonel Jean Baptiste Estienne proposed that this be based on the tractor-tracked carriage already being used to haul heavy guns. The concept was called the “Land Battleship”. To hide its nature from German spies, it was given the code-name “Special Tank” and disguised as a water storage tank being developed for shipment to Russia, and the name “tank” stuck.

The first workable tank design was called the “Little Willie”. Produced by the British, it was built in 1915 as a prototype to test the concept of using tractor tracks on an armored vehicle. Little Willie was fitted with a two-pounder gun and a machine gun. Like all future tanks, the vehicle was steered by slowing down or speeding up individual tracks to turn the vehicle to one side or the other. The prototype was built using commercial farm tractor tracks from Chicago. During this time, the French were working on a similar design known as the Schneider CA.

By 1916, both the French and the British were testing a series of different configurations and designs. The British eventually settled on a design called “Big Willie”. This was a diamond-shaped tracked chassis with a 105 horsepower engine and a crew of eight. There was no turret–instead there were two six-pounder guns, one in a movable gunport at each side, and three Vickers machine guns. It had some serious problems–there was no suspension system, so the crew got jolted around, and the engine sat right inside the crew compartment, making everyone hot and sick from the fumes. It was also mechanically unreliable, its engine broke down often, and its tracks were vulnerable both to breakdown and to enemy fire. But the British needed the new weapon desperately, and rushed it into production as the Mark I tank. About 250 of them were built.

The Mark I tank first saw action in September 1916 during the Battle of the Somme, when a group of forty-nine tanks were assigned to make an attack on a section of German trenches at Flers Courcelette. Seventeen of the tanks broke down immediately. Of the thirty-two that charged at the Germans, most also broke down or became stuck in the mud in No Man’s Land. The attack was a failure.

But the British saw the enormous potential in the new weapons, and began to make improvements to the design. In November 1917, the tank had its first battlefield success, in the Battle of Cambrai, when a force of 400 British Mark IV tanks broke through the German trenches and pushed them back six miles. By this time the French were producing a tank of their own, the Renault FT light tank, the first modern tank with a rotatable gun turret on top. The British soon developed a light turreted tank called the Mark A Whippet. The Germans, meanwhile, were desperately trying to obtain tanks of their own. Their design for a heavy tank was called theSturmpanzerwagen A7V, but production problems and materials shortages meant that they were only able to produce 20 of these during the war. Most of the tanks used by Germany were captured British Mark IV and Mark V models.

When the US entered the First World War in 1917, it began producing American-made copies of the French Renault FT. Lieutenant-Colonel Dwight Eisenhower was placed in charge of training tank crews at a camp near Gettysburg, PA. In France, Lieutenant-Colonel George Patton was placed in command of the US combat tank units. The US produced almost 1,000 Renault tanks.

By 1918, the Entente tank forces were proving to be a decisive weapon. As increasing numbers of American troops arrived on the battlefield, the Allies were able to launch massive offensives, using coordinated forces of infantry, airplanes, tanks, and artillery, to push the Germans back. By November 1918, the Germans were in retreat virtually everywhere, and asked for an armistice. The First World War ended on November 11, 1918.

Only a handful of World War One tanks still survive. One of these is a French-made Renault FT-17, with a shell-hole in its side, on display at the National World War One Museum in Kansas City, Missouri.


Renault FT light tank in action


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