Armoured Cars and Tanks on the Western Front

The idea of an armoured car for use on the battlefield is nearly as old as the invention of the combustion-engined car itself (Karl F.Benz, 1885). In 1898, a Major Davidson of the United States Army took the first step by mounting a Maxim machine gun on a standard production car (marque unknown) powered with a 3-cylinder engine. Presumably, this was used along the American-Mexican frontier. Logically, such a car would work well in the relatively open and uncluttered landscape of the American-Mexico border country.

The European nations quickly took up the idea. In 1900 the Simms armoured car was introduced and in 1902 both Britain and France produced models with armour and mounted Maxim machine-guns which were foreseen as mobile machine gun and artillery posts. Not to be outdone, in 1903, the German car firm Daimler demonstrated a purpose built armoured car – rather than an adaptation of an existing model of a car – to the Austro-Hungarian royalty. The concomitant unseating of the Emperor from his horse during the demonstration of the armoured car cut short this initiative. Neither Emperor Franz Joseph nor his cavalry were amused.

Pre-1914, various models were used for policing duties in some out-posts of the various European empires. One model, made by the British Napier Car Company, was widely used by the British. In 1913, the Italians’ use of armoured cars in Cyrenaica, now the Eastern Region of Libya, against the Turkish Army, was another well-documented example of their pre-war deployment.

The genesis of the ‘tank’ is even older. There is a well known drawing by Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519), which is now in the British Museum in London. It dates from around 1485 and takes the form of a flattened cone, propelled on wheels turned by geared hand-operated crankshafts. Guns protrude from portholes. A rather more fanciful model sports scythe-like blades (à la Queen Boudicca) instead of guns.

Contrary to common belief, the first ‘modern’ designs of the ‘landships’ that we now call ‘tanks’ were not inspired by conditions on the Western Front, but as a more general idea for an offensive weapon. In 1854, Cowan, devised a steam driven traction engine covered with armoured plate and mounted with a cannon and scythe blades. The British Army was not impressed.

This was followed by proposals to the British War Office by the Austrian, Gunther Burstyn (1911) and the Australian, Lancelot de Mole (1912). However, neither design was taken up, and although the elements to construct a tank existed – armour plate and agricultural tractors – pre-1914 there were no operational armoured vehicles that we would today classify as ‘tanks’.

The armoured car on the Western Front
Initially, what came to be known as armoured cars were introduced onto the Western Front in 1914 by the French, Belgians and British. The Belgians and French already had production models in service on what was to become the Western Front at the outbreak of war in August 1914. These cars had mounted both machine-guns or light artillery pieces.

The first vehicles used by the British on the Western Front were standard production motor cars. The Royal Naval Air Squadron (RNAS) used these Belgian manufactured Minerva sports cars with mounted Hotchkiss machine-guns, in co-ordination with the Belgian Army, as reconnaissance vehicles in the area around Antwerp.

In October 1914, to reduce the vulnerability of the cars to small-arms fire and shrapnel, steel boilerplate was strategically attached to the outside of 20 of the cars that belonged to the RNAS on the Western Front.

The utility of these vehicles for reconnaissance purposes on the highly fluid battlefield of the Western Front quickly became evident. The British Admiralty ordered for immediate delivery, 50 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost and Lanchester open topped cars, with appropriate armour and a mounted Vickers machine-gun in a revolving turret.

Unfortunately, by the time these vehicles had arrived on the Western Front, and had been organised into four squadrons, the mobile nature of the war had been transformed into the static state of trench-warfare. The opportunity to use these vehicles to the maximum of their potential as mobile strong points had largely passed. The massed network of trenches and broken ground generally proved to be unsuitable for this kind of vehicle.

Nevertheless, in early 1915 the Admiralty decided to form an Armoured Car Division. Eventually, 15 Armoured Car Divisions were formed of which seven served on the Western Front.

Apart from two squadrons, the Royal Naval Armoured Car Division was disbanded in mid-1915 and the armoured cars entered service with the British Army. One of the remaining RNAS squadrons went to Russia; the other remained as an experimental unit. Later, this unit participated in the development of the tank.

The British armoured car formations continued throughout the war. Initially, they were formed into the four car strong Armoured Motor [Car] Batteries, with the heavier Rolls-Royce platform, and the eight car Light Armoured [Motor] Car Batteries using standard production cars.

In the later stages of the war, when the Front Line again became more fluid, the armoured car once again came into its own. At Amiens, in August 1918,12 British armoured cars succeeded in getting behind the German lines and caused chaos. All returned safely to their own lines.

Some of the former RNAS armoured car squadrons were dispatched to other theatres of war, wherever their deployment was considered to be both feasible and useful. Squadrons served with particular distinction in the highly suitable environs of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Palestine and East Africa.

The genesis of the tank
As the war ground on, it became evident that the small wheeled armoured cars could not negotiate the broken terrain of the static Western Front battlefield. Thoughts then turned to other versions of traction including the continuous tracked tractor that was already used to move heavy artillery pieces. It was propelled by what we would call today ‘caterpillar tracks’.

In September 1914, a suggestion was made Lt. Col. Edward. D. Swinton of the Royal Engineers that an armoured vehicle should be constructed for use on the Western Front. It would use the existing agricultural and gun tractor technology duly adapted for warfare.

At the same time, both the British and the French commanders made vague requests for an armoured vehicle able to transport the infantry across the shattered battlefield, in all weathers, protected from all but the very heaviest shell-fire. The commanders also envisaged that this vehicle would offer covering fire by integrally mounted artillery and machine guns.

Positive action followed in Britain when the then Secretary of the British Committee for Imperial Defence (Colonel Maurice Hankey) mentioned, in an official letter, this need for ‘special devices for the Western Front’.

As already mentioned, the Admiralty had an experimental unit for the development of armoured vehicles – ‘land battleships’ – and was already talking about a specific heavy armoured vehicle. When Hankey’s letter passed across the desk of the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston S. Churchill, he immediately saw the connection between the various ideas. Churchill decided to follow it up, and did so with characteristic vigour.

Churchill’s first action was to write an urgent note to the Prime Minister, Herbert H. Asquith, stating … “It would be quite easy in a short time to fit up a number of steam tractors with small armoured shelters, in which men and machines guns could be placed, which would be bullet-proof.” He went on to say, “Used at night, they would not be affected by artillery fire to any extent. The caterpillar [track] system would enable the trenches to be crossed quite easily and the weight of the machine would destroy all barbed wire entanglements”…Given that this was written in 1914, its is a surprisingly accurate estimation of what the tank would do in the Great War.

As usual, the response was to set up a committee, and the Landship Committee was established in February 1915. In the initial development stages, Churchill provided moral support, Admiralty funds and the first crews of sailors to man the prototypes.

By mid-June 1915, the Landships Committee had submitted a detailed specification for the new armoured weapon.

Minimum speed, cross-country, 4 miles per hour (6.4kmh).
Range 20+ miles (32km)
360 degree manoeuvrability.
Able to overcome a five-foot obstacle and cross a five-foot wide trench.
Carry a rapid firing gun and two machine-guns.

The chassis to be based on the American Holt Agricultural Caterpillar Tractor.

Under the leadership of the energetic Lieutenant-Colonel Albert Stern, early experiments produced several prototypes. The first practical model was ready for testing in August 1915. It was a metal mock-up called ‘Little Willie’ with side mounted caterpillar tracks and began its trials on the 29th January 1916.

A redesign by Walter Wilson and William William Tritton, called ‘Big Willie’ or ‘Mother’, was eventually adopted using the American Holt Company Caterpillar Tractor as the basic chassis. It had a rhomboid shaped body of steel plate with caterpillar tracks encircling the metal body. The rhomboid shape became the definitive image of the heavy British tanks of the Great War.

In due course, this model also came to be known by the British troops as: ‘His Majesty’s Landship Centipede’.

To ensure the news of the project did not get to enemy ears, the new device was only mentioned under the code name ‘water tanks’. This code word eventually evolved into the now universal term ‘tank’.

The chosen tank design came in two forms.

The Mark I ‘Male’ tank with two 57mm (6lb) Hotchkiss naval guns mounted on sponsons (rotating turrets) located one on each of the vertical sides of the tank, and four machine guns.
The Mark I ‘Female’ that had five mounted Vickers, or Lewis, machine-guns.

The power source was a 105 horsepower Daimler engine with three gearboxes transmitting the power to the two independent caterpillar tracks. The early model also trailed two large artillery wheels that were said to add balance and ease of steering. But these were soon dispensed with as impracticable and superfluous.

The tank crew comprised of a junior officer, an NCO and seven other drivers and gunners.

The Mark I was required to have the following additional minimum performance criteria:

Able to stop a reversed rifle bullet. Reversing the standard rifle bullet in its cartridge was said to improve its armour piercing capabilities. The lead core acting much in the same way as the depleted uranium/tungsten cores of modern anti-tank shells.
Able to cross an 8-foot trench.
Climb a 5-foot trench parapet with a 1 in 1 gradient.

To take the tanks into battle, the Heavy Section of the Machine Gun Corps was established in March 1915 at Bisley, England. It later moved to its permanent home at Bovington in Dorset, England.

The Commander of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) General Sir Douglas Haig, was officially informed about the tank production programme at Christmas-time 1915. From the beginning he was consistently interested in, and supportive of the programme. In April 1916 he wrote to the War Office indicating that he saw a role for the tank – to produce ‘surprise and demoralising effect’ – in the coming Somme Offensive.

When training began in the new doctrine of armoured vehicle warfare (AVW), it was under the guidance of the same Colonel Swinton of the Royal Engineers, and was based on his rudimentary training manual called ‘Technical Notes’.

The Munitions Minister, David Lloyd George, authorised production of 150 of the Mark I Heavy Tank in February 1916, and in April of the same year, actual production began at the Foster Company’s factory in England. The first tanks came off the production line in June 1916.

On the 13th August 1916, four companies of the Heavy Section of the Machine Gun Corps embarked for France. Each company had twelve tanks of both the Male and Female Mark I models, with another of each type in reserve. So, in all, 56 tanks, along with their crews and support staff, crossed the Channel in the first tranche.

The early deployment of the tank on the Western Front
The British Expeditionary Force was the first to deploy tanks on the Western Front. Brought by rail to Bray-sur-Somme near the Front Line in great secrecy, the British Mark I tank was seen by many commanders as a useful tool for routine tasks on the battlefield where armoured protection was particularly needed. But, after some debate, the British HQ decided that a planned operation at Flers in the Somme Sector would be the first major deployment of the new tanks.

On the specific order of the BEF commander, General Haig, the commander of the British Fourth Army, General Sir Henry Rawlinson committed all of the 49 serviceable Mark Is into action at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette (15th – 22nd September 1916). In the event, 32 Mark I’s reached the start line. Nine developed a mechanical failure, five more became bogged down (ditched), nine managed to keep up with the advancing troops, whilst the other nine were restricted to mopping up operations. In all, ten tanks were hit by shellfire.

The first tank into action – No. D1 – actually attacked Delville Wood; the Flers attack, a mile away in a north-east direction, followed soon after.

Unfortunately, the tanks had been rushed into battle with inexperienced crews and limited field-testing. This caused their mentor Churchill to comment, “My poor land[battle]ships have been let off prematurely and on a petty scale. In that idea resided the one real hope of victory”.

So, the outcome of the first tank attack, at Flers, whilst initially gratifying for the effect it had on the terrified German infantry, was by no means a complete success.

The Mark Is were under-powered and their narrow caterpillar tracks could not support the weight of the tank in the deep churned mud on the battlefield. Once stuck (ditched or bellied) they were almost impossible to extract under their own power, and became easy fixed targets for the German artillery. But the Battle of Flers/Courcelette did give a clear indication that when fully developed the tank could be the tool to end the stalemate of trench warfare.

Accordingly, this setback did little to discourage the major proponents of the tank. And it provided an enormous boost in morale to the Allied troops and their immediate commanders. Both of these cadres saw these tanks as a possible way out of their treadmill existence in the trenches. The higher commanders, in their turn, recognised them as the means to achieve the elusive ‘Breakthrough into the green fields’ which the cavalry had been unable to achieve.

The commander of the British Expeditionary Force, General Sir Douglas Haig, urged the production of thousands more of these tanks.

At a more local level, the failure of the tanks to properly support the ANZAC troops, inclined them firmly against the future use of the tank in their operations. This view was brutally confirmed by the ANZACs experiences at Bullecourt, in Flanders in 1917. This antipathy against tanks was only really changed by the well co-ordinated tank supported success of the ANZACs at Le Hamel, on the Somme, on July 4th 1918. A significant factor being the ability of supply tanks to carry loads that would have required the efforts of over 1,000 men.

The German reaction to the British tank
Meanwhile, the normally trend conscious Germans concentrated their efforts on finding anti-tank measures such as artillery and mines. This attitude was primarily motivated by their preoccupation with their current defensive stance, and supported by a wish not to disturb their already stressed munitions and armaments programmes with a tank production schedule.

Reorganisation of the British tanks
In June 1916 – with the secret of the tank out – the Heavy Section of the Machine Gun Corps was renamed the Tank Corps. In October 1916, the tank companies were reorganised into battalions each having 75 tanks, and an establishment of 32 officers and 374 other ranks. Then, in early 1917, the tank battalions were consolidated into 800+ strong, two-battalion brigades. The British tank had become a significant force on the Western Front.

The continuing deployment of the new Tank Corps on the Western Front
Such was the demand for tanks that the more lightly armoured training tank – Mark IIs and IIIs – were also drafted into a combat role (e.g. at Arras in 1917) even though the armour-plate was not bullet-proof.*

*N.B.: A significant disabling effect on the crew of even a heavy tank was the ‘splashing effect’ caused by the impact of non-penetrating bullets on the hull of the tank. A part of the inner surface of the armour plate would become detached and splatter around the insides of the tank cabin, causing anything from minor to disabling splinter injuries. A similar, but usually less serious effect, was caused by particles of the paint which covered the inner surfaces of the tank becoming like-wise detached and forming painful shards of paint. Museum photographs show a combination of slotted steel goggles, a leather mask and a chain-mail face-curtain that provided some protection for tank crews against these debilitating bullet and paint ‘splashes’.

Sixty Mark Is and IIs were in service by the end of 1917.

The superior Mark IV, with the improved Ricardo engine, was delayed until 1917, when it played a minor role in the Messines Offensive. The persistent problem of ‘ditching’ (getting stuck) in wet or marshy ground meant that most were put out of action before reaching their targets. However, the Mark IV armour was resistant to the new German special rifle – the single shot Mauser 13mm – firing ‘Tuf’ armour-piercing ammunition, as well as the ‘K’ metal piercing rounds routinely supplied to the infantry and machine gunners.

A later German development, in the form of the Pak 3.7cm. anti-tank gun proved more effective, but not many reached the battlefield.

Comfort for the tank crew in the Mark IV’s was slightly improved, if by today’s standards, still horrendous.

Similar operational problems arose in the muddy battlefield of the Third Battle of Ypres (31st March – 10th November 1917). But the somewhat firmer and more open ground at Cambrai (20th November – 10th December 1917 and the largest tank onslaught to-date (378 combat tanks plus over 100 support tanks including five wireless [radio] tanks) led to an outstanding first day success; church bells rang in Britain on the 23rd November 1917.

The long known vulnerability of the tank to artillery fire was exemplified at Flesquiéres, near Cambrai, on the 20th November 1917, by the loss of thirty-nine British tanks to artillery fire in one sector alone; seven of these to one lone German gunner.

Also, at Cambrai, the novel use of the old siege war tool, a 10 tonne fascine, (bundle of brushwood) carried on the front of each tank, and a longer tank chassis helped reduce the ‘ditching’ and trench-crossing problem. But, as so often happened in the past, the British HQ commanders failed to organise an effective follow-up of the attack, and the hard-earned early success was lost. Within two weeks the fierce German counterattack had recovered all of the lost ground.

However, the practical role of the tank on the battlefield was slowly becoming formulated in the crucible of the battlefield.

A British light tank enters the fray
Inspired by a French light tank (the Renault RT), a British medium-light version appeared on the Western Front in late 1917. Nicknamed the ‘Whippet’, the Medium Mark ‘A’ weighed 14 tonnes, against the 27 tonnes of the Mark IV. It had 14mm (maximum) of armour, carried three crew (but could be, and was, operated single-handed) and four machine-guns. It had a maximum speed of 8mph (13kpm). I t was to become the principal British armoured vehicle on the Western Front.

The British tank in the battles of 1918
In May 1918, in the retreat which followed the German Spring Offensive, or Kaiserschlacht, on the Western Front, the British Mark I –IV tanks proved to be more of a liability than an asset. They were still too slow, breakdown prone and highly susceptible to the refined anti-tank tactics of the German gunners using their tank forts. These forts used anti-tank artillery and rifles to halt the tanks and machine gun fire to annihilate the accompanying infantry. Nearly half of 370 British tanks had to be abandoned and burnt as the Kaiserschlacht swept across northern France.

As the German Offensive waned, on the 4th July 1918, the Australian Corps under General Sir John Monash used tanks in a co-ordinated attack on Le Hamel, gaining a total victory after only 93 minutes.

This set the paradigm for when the Allies launched the Amiens counter offensive on the 8th August 1918. All of the 414 serviceable Mark Vs, Whippet and supply tanks were massed on a front of 20 miles (32km). The new Mark V had a better steering and control system, adaptations for carrying supplies and the aforementioned fascines. The Mark V was also faster and had an armoured fuel tank and, perhaps, most importantly, it was more mechanically reliable. One stretched version the Mark V* could traverse even 10 feet wide trenches without the need for fascines.

Earlier Mark IVs, with their armament removed, were used with some success as a supply vehicle for both the tank and infantry companies, carrying men and material safely across the battlefield.

The initial breakthrough and gains of the first day of the Amiens Offensive were a huge tactical success, but cost the British over 200 of these tanks. Only 145 were available for the follow-up operations. The number of serviceable tanks dwindled as the days passed, and their participation and importance declined accordingly.

The British continued to put enormous effort into their tank production and many other specialised tanks were produced, e.g. Trench Crossing; Self-Propelled Artillery; Personnel Carriers and Engineering, which performed tasks such as bridge laying, demolition, mine laying and clearing

Tanks of the Allies on the Western Front
France: Following the British example, the French produced a series of tanks, or chars – from the French char d’assaut (= assault chariot).

A team led by Colonel Estienne, the Field Commander of Tanks in the French Army, produced two designs based on the same chassis as the British tanks – the Holt Agricultural Caterpillar Tractor. They were developed and independently produced by the French Schneider-Creusot and St. Chalmond Companies. Both carried the reliable, and effective, French 75mm gun and machine guns – the former tank had two machine-guns and the latter four. The St.Chamond was nearly twice the weight of the Schneider – 24 tonnes against 15. Both had a maximum speed of 5mph (8kph). The Schneider had heavier armour and a bigger crew, nine against six.

In 1917, pestered by Colonel Estienne, and fellow believers in the concept of the tank, the French Commander, General Joseph Joffre, made a first order for 400 each of the Schneider and St. Chalmond tanks.

In the Spring of 1917, both models of the French tanks were used for the first time in the Neville Offensive, when 128 tanks were deployed. But they did not perform well, due to inherent practical design problems and the broken and obstacle littered nature of the battlefield.

Future French tank production was switched to the Renault RT (char léger = light tank) and battalions of 75 tanks were formed for use in massed support of the infantry. The heavier tanks were retained and operated in-groups of four. The Renaults were widely used by the French Army in the later campaigns, but they never attained quite the same reliability or efficacy in the field as the British Whippets.

The first real French success with tanks (80) was at Fort de la Malmaison in October 1917, in the Chemin des Dames Sector.

The residual Schneider and St. Chalmond tanks were grouped in companies of four tanks and used wherever it was thought useful and productive. Neither was considered to be as effective as the light British Whippet tank.

United States of America: The Americans did not produce a tank of their own in time for it to participate in the Great War, although several models were in the production pipeline at the time of the Armistice. An American sponsored ‘Liberty’ tank factory was built in France for the production of the anticipated joint Allied tank requirements of 1919.

When the Americans entered the war, a lot of the equipment that they acquired was of French origin and included French tanks. In 1918 the Americans purchased British Whippet tanks.

The American Tank Corps principal tank actions were at St. Mihiel and the Argonne Forest campaigns in September 1918 using French Renault tanks.

Enemy tanks on the Western Front
The eventual German entry into the tank war was the A7V Panzerkampwagen. This was a relatively huge tank of 32 tonnes with:

a maximum speed of 8mpg (13kph); heavy 30mm armour;
16 crew;
one 570mm gun and six machine-guns.

The stressed state of the German arms industry delayed the entry of the tank into the war until September 1917 when 15 were commissioned. The first tank trial had only taken place in May 1917.

The German Army operated nine tank units: three units each of five A7V tanks supported by six units furnished with captured, reconditioned and re-badged British tanks. The huge German tanks were difficult to handle and highly vulnerable to artillery fire. They played no overall significant part in the German battlefield tactics although the first ever tank-versus-tank battle took place at Villers-Bretonneux on the 24th April 1918. Although this story has been written up to an extraordinary degree with equally extraordinary variations, basically what appears to have happened was this. Three British Mark IVs encountered three German A7V tanks. Two British Female (6 machine guns) Mark IV tanks were knocked out of action by the German tanks. One of the German A7V tanks (1x 5.7cm gun and 6 machine guns) was then knocked out by a British Mark IV Male tank (2×6 pounders and 4 machine guns) and the other two A7Vs fled. The 1943 tank battle of Kursk (600 Russian and 250 German tanks) it was not. But it was definitely the first tank-to-tank battle ever, and it coincided with the end of the German advance in the Michael Offensive.

An even larger German tank weighing 148 tons – the A8V – was planned, but never got into production.

Even in the Allies’ triumphant last six months of the war, the tank did not entirely live up to its proclaimed potential. There were too many problems with reliability, stability, manoeuvrability and susceptibility to shellfire, but its potential in the formerly intractable trench warfare had been proved.

In effect, static trench warfare became to be seen as largely redundant when large numbers of tanks, highly precise heavy artillery and aircraft became involved

The men who operated the tanks worked in an extremely uncomfortable, stressful and highly dangerous environment; but many still thought they were better off than the infantry. There was never a shortage of candidates for tank crews.

After the war, for their own purposes, the commanders of the combattant nations chose to build up the reputation of the tank in the minds of the general public as a formidable war winner. In this they were encouraged and abetted by the military and civilian critics of the lack-lustre role played by much of the cavalry on the Western Front in 1914-18.

The full potential of the tank as a weapon of total war was finally exemplified in the German Blitzkreig in continental Europe in 1940.