“Victory in this war will belong to the belligerent who is the first to put a cannon on a vehicle capable of moving on all kinds of terrain”.
Colonel Jean-Baptiste Estienne, 24 August, 1914
Alphen, Netherlands. 15 September. At 0515 hours on the morning of 15 September, 1916 at Flens Courcelette in the Somme battlefield the air was rent by a sound new to the battlefield. The engines of 32, 29 ton British Mark I tanks of the Guards Division powered up to a crescendo before beginning their lumbering 3mph/4kph advance towards the German trenches. Seven tanks immediately broke down. The sight of 25 of these ‘monsters’ suddenly appearing out of the early autumn fog in which the Somme valley was swathed led some German troops to panic. However, as one would expect of the German Army, most did not. Although the British tanks, supported haphazardly by infantry, made some limited, initial gains once the shock had worn off the inevitable German counter-attacks negated much of the early advance.
Equally, for all that the attack failed to make the hoped for break-through this day a century ago marks the beginning of a new phase in manoeuvre warfare and the search for the right mix of speed, armour, firepower and effective strategic and tactical application of the tank that continues to this day. Indeed, even a quick glance would confirm the link between the caterpillar-tracked Mark I tank of 1916, and the advanced main battle tank of today.
One irony of the first British tanks was that they had been inspired by naval thinking of the time. First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill was behind the idea of a ‘landship’, and even to this day ‘tankers’ use nautical terms such as ‘turret’ and ‘hatch’ etc. Indeed, the only reason they are called 'tanks' is that to mask their true purpose the workers at the agricultural machinery manufacturers in Lincoln where the Mark I was being developed were told they were ‘water tanks’ destined for Mesopotamia.
The problem with the Mark I was reliability. It had been originally intended that 59 tanks would take part in operations on 15 September, but 27 of the tanks were non-operational. This was mainly due to problems with their experimental 105 bhp Foster-Daimler-Knight engines. Of the 25 tanks which made it into action they were divided into ‘male’ tanks, armed with two quick-firing 6 pound Hotchkiss cannons, and ‘female’ tanks armed with four Vickers .303 calibre machine guns.
Although the first use of tanks in action by the British undoubtedly came as a complete surprise to the Germans several countries were developing similar systems at the time. Indeed, perhaps the first real tank was developed not by the British but by Austria-Hungary, although Vienna’s ‘tank’ never made it beyond the prototype stage.
It was not until April 1918 that the first tank-on-tank battle took place at the Second Battle of Villiers-Bretonneux when three British Mark V tanks encountered three enormous German A7V tanks, each with a crew of 30. In what proved to be perhaps the slowest battle in modern military history it was eventually the solitary British ‘male’ tank which successfully struck its German enemy and forced the A7Vs to withdraw.
However, it was dawn on 8 August, 1918 at the Battle of Amiens that the tank began to be used to real effect. One of the most innovative of British commanders General Sir Henry Rawlinson had commanded Fourth Army at the Somme and had seen the potential of the tank. On what German commander General Erich Ludendorff called ‘the black day of the German Army” Rawlinson for the first time used air power, infantry and massed tanks in close order to punch a hole through the defences of over-extended German forces. What followed thereafter was a fighting German retreat that would continue to the Armistice in November 1918. The tank had come of age.
It was German commanders such as Guderian and Rommel, and Russian thinkers such as Tukhachevsky, who saw the real potential of the tank during the interbellum and properly exploited Rawlinson’s August 1918 lessons. The result was the Blitzkrieg tactics unleashed by Nazi Germany on Poland in 1939, France and the Low Countries in 1940, and on the Soviet Union in 1941. In the inter-war years the British once again retreated behind the wall of the Royal Navy, whilst the French went down the tactical dead-end of that ultimate World War One trench, the Maginot Line. The idea of static defence-in-depth had by and large been abandoned by the Germans as a concept of warfare as early as 1918 with the destruction of the Hindenburg Line.
Perhaps it is best to leave the last word on the tank action at Flers Courcelette to Winston Churchill. “My poor ‘land battleships’ have been let off prematurely on a petty scale…This priceless conception, containing, if used in its integrity and on a sufficient scale, the certainty of a great and brilliant victory, was revealed to the Germans for the mere purpose of taking a few ruined villages”.