Why do we name weapons?

On 15 September 1916, tanks were used in combat for the first time at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette. These early tanks were slow and unreliable, shown by the fact that only 25 of the 49 tanks deployed actually moved forward at the start of the attack. But more strangely, half of those 25 tanks were male and the other half were female. So why do tanks have genders and why do we name weapons at all?

This is the first ever official photograph taken of a tank going into action. It shows a British Mark I tank at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette on the 15th of September 1916. In another photo taken on the same day we see another tank. Both of these were hot, noisy, slow and very unreliable. But they were both revolutionary for their time, the start of a long line of development that would change the face of warfare forever. But there is one difference between them, this tank is male and this tank is female. Why?

Yeah it’s a bit strange!

That’s Bryn Hammond, head of one the curatorial teams at Imperial War Museums.

You’ll notice these tanks didn’t have a turret on top like tanks from the present day. Instead the armament sat on each side of the tank in these things called ‘sponsons’. Each tank had a six-pounder naval gun and a machine-gun in in each one of them. But before they even went into action, concerns were raised about these vehicles that they might not be able to defend themselves against infantry attacks. So, it was decided that half of the 150 tanks ordered would be equipped only with machine-guns, two in each sponson, and the others would keep their big guns. The two types of vehicles were to work in pairs, one destroyer tank and one man-killing tank. The half armed with the 6-pounder guns, which seemed more phallic, became known as male tanks and their machine-gun
toting partners became female tanks.

Whether ‘male’ or ‘female’, this newest weapon of warfare presented a whole new challenge for both sides. Terrifying to those opposing them, they were also a complex problem for the side using them. The question of how best to use tanks would preoccupy their chief users, the British and the French, for the remaining two and a half years of war. How do you get infantry and tanks to work together? And that
question brings us to Anthropomorphism.

Right so, anthropomorphism when you ascribe human characteristics to a non-human thing. There are plenty of examples in history and mythology of warriors naming their weapons, indeed IWM has plenty of these in our collection.

But why would would you name a weapon? Why do we anthropomorphise things?

Oh loads of reasons, we might anthropomorphize an object because it seems to have a human face or shape or because it evidences illogical behavior. Or it may demonstrate human idiosyncrasies. It may be we want to establish a bond with it that is personal and possessive “it’s mine, I named it”. Or maybe we just want to befriend it. We still see this practice still today. We name our cars and our trucks, we ask our computers 'why wont you work?!' and lets not even get started on Boaty McBoatface!

If we go back to the First World War for example, British tanks crew did this too. The names were very varied - from characters in classic mythology to execrable puns. But there were some rules, Tank names were usually expected to align with the initial letter by which their battalion was identified. 2nd Battalion was ‘B’, 8th Battalion was ‘H’ and so on. These name were actually very useful for accompanying infantry to report the tanks’ progress in action. Because tank soldiers chose the tank names themselves, they didn’t always choose names that aligned with the tank’s ‘gender’.

But these names were more than a bit of fun, they also helped de-mystify these brand new machines. Anthropomorphising tanks helped soldiers understand something wholly new in the history of warfare.

A great example of this is the battle of Amiens in August 1918. It was the most significant Allied combined arms offensive of the war and the Tank Corps was deploying more tanks than ever before. The problem was the infantry, chiefly the Australians, despised tanks. Ever since a disaster at Bullecourt in April 1917 when the attacking Australian infantry got slaughtered, they were deeply suspicious of these mechanically unreliable beasts. Tanks drew German shell fire and that got you killed.

The Tank Corps who, since that disaster, had become far better trained and equipped, knew they needed to win over these Australian doubters if they were to work together effectively. So they embarked on a charm offensive.

Well, alongside the formal training to show what the tanks could do, other more ‘social’ activities were organised. Tank rides and large quantities of alcohol featured but one battalion, the 15th ‘O’, decided they’d also let ‘their’ Australians name a few of the tanks.
Two of those name were ‘Otazell’ and ‘Oodnadatta’. One of them is a bad pun - Hot as hell, and the other is the name a of a small settlement on the edge of the Simpson Desert in South Australia where daytime temperatures in January can easily go above 40°Celsius. What you have here are examples of tough men recognising the tank crew’s lot.

Inside a First World War tank, with the crew sharing the same compartment as the engine, it could indeed be ‘As Hot As Hell’.

Effective co-operation requires mutual understanding and here the tank crews and their Australian infantry partners were finding just that. When they finally went into battle together on the 8th August 1918, the success they achieved, along with Canadian, British and French forces, was so significant it was referred to by an opposing commander as ‘the Black Day of the German Army’.

Going forward, the success at Amiens would make possible the subsequent series of war-winning attacks that led to Germany’s final defeat in November 1918.

Anthropomorphism helps us identity with and understand non-human objects. By naming these tanks, some of these Australian troops were able accept, even welcome tanks and work with them to end the war with Germany. On this occasion a name was far more than a name, it was  a mark of respect and understanding.

More tanks

The first official photograph of a tank going into action at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, 15 September 1916
© IWM (Q 2488)
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Infantry tank Mk I Matilda I (A11)
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The Battle of Flers Courcelette. The Mark I tank (D 17) surrounded by some of the infantry from 122nd Brigade whom it led into eastern part of Flers on 15 September 1916. Photograph taken on 17 September 1916.
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