This dramatic watercolour drawing by the commissioned war artist Sir William Orpen conveys the shock that could be felt by German defenders facing attacking British tanks. Whilst the tanks of the First World War were slow and cumbersome, they were also new, large and imposing. Armed with small field guns or machine guns and largely immune to small arms fire, they could be a daunting prospect to an opposing soldier.
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The concept of a vehicle to provide troops with both mobile protection and firepower was not a new one. But in the First World War, the increasing availability of the internal combustion engine, armour plate and the continuous track, as well as the problem of trench warfare, combined to facilitate the production of the tank.
During the First World War, Britain began the serious development of the tank. Ironically, the Royal Navy led the way with the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, establishing the Landships Committee in early 1915. The military combined with engineers and industrialists and by early 1916 a prototype was adopted as the design of future tanks. The name 'tank' came from British attempts to ensure the secrecy of the new weapons under the guise of water tanks.
Britain used tanks in combat for the first time in the Battle of Flers-Courcelette on 15 September 1916. As production increased and reliability improved, they were used in greater numbers. By the summer of 1918 they were a common element of British fighting methods, with around 2,600 tanks manufactured.
France began development in late 1915, eventually creating the Renault FT light tank. This was the first to use a fully rotating turret that contained the tank’s main armament – the basis of tank design ever since. Over 3,000 of these machines were made by late 1918.
By contrast, Germany lagged behind. German forces often salvaged British and French tanks, both for research purposes and to use on the battlefield. Germany developed the A7V tank, but only 20 were produced.
The first official photograph taken of a tank going into action, at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette on 15 September 1916. The tank is a Mark I, with a steering tail at the rear of the vehicle that disappeared in many later models. The early tanks were slow and unreliable, shown by the fact that of the 49 tanks deployed for the battle, only 25 actually moved forward at the start of the attack.
The increased use of tanks in the British armed forces during the First World War required further specialisation. Initially, their use fell under the Heavy Branch of the Machine Gun Corps. But in mid-1917 the Tank Corps was formed. As the Tank Corps expanded, it required more officers and men. This recruitment poster appeals to technically minded men with an interest in engineering, a useful attribute when working with tanks susceptible to mechanical failure.
During the First World War, Britain also developed the Whippet tank, a slightly smaller and lighter tank designed for quicker exploitation. Whilst they were faster than the heavy tanks, Whippets could still only travel at about 8mph, as shown in this 1918 film. But their added mobility and armament of four machine guns proved useful in the more open fighting of 1918.
Ernie Hayward was amongst the first soldiers to serve in tanks during the First World War. He served as a tank gunner with Heavy Branch, Machine Gun Corps before the creation of the Tank Corps. In this interview he describes his experiences as a tank gunner, from his training to his service in tanks on the Western Front, where he was wounded in 1917.
The tanks of the First World War represented high technology of the time, and expectations of their effectiveness on the battlefield were high. This 1917 film proudly shows the capabilities of the new machines, which it was hoped would help to solve the problem of trench warfare. Whilst they were not quite the 'wonder weapon' of the title, they did become a useful element of British fighting methods.
The increased use of British tanks on the battlefield was as a result of the mobilisation of industry at home. Around 2,600 British tanks were manufactured during the war. This poster aimed to motivate the workforce of tank-building factories by highlighting the usefulness of tanks on the Western Front.
This model is of a German A7V Tank nicknamed 'Schnuck', which had been captured by British forces at Bapaume on 30 August 1918. The German A7V Tank was an armour-plated box on overhung tracks, and was 26 ft long and 10 ft wide, with a crew of 18. It first saw combat on 24 April 1918, and was armed with one small artillery gun and six machine guns. Only 20 were manufactured during the war.
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An interior shot of a German workshop used to repair salvaged British tanks for use by German forces. Whilst Germany did develop its own A7V tank, the vast majority of the tanks it used in battle were salvaged and repaired British and French models. The Allies' earlier development of tank designs and their greater industrial output helped them stay ahead in tank development in the First World War.
Australian soldiers carry a dummy tank near Le Catelet in France in September 1918. During the period of the war on the Western Front known as the Hundred Days – from August to November 1918 – tanks were a common element of British and Allied attacks. Dummy tanks such as this one were created to attempt to confuse German intelligence as to the actual whereabouts of the next attack. This reflected how the British planning of battles became increasingly sophisticated.