By Paul Jankowski
“And there, between them, spewing death, unearthly monsters.” To a Bavarian infantry officer on the Somme in the early morning hours of 15 September 1916, the rhomboid, tracked behemoths lurching at him amidst waves of attacking enemy infantry had no name. The British called them “tanks,” but he could not know this; neither he nor any of his commanders had ever seen or heard of them. That morning other reports from nearby announced sightings of an “extraordinary vehicle” mistaken for an ambulance until machine gun fire burst from its side; of machines spewing smoke which the men mistook for poison gas; of prehistoric or futuristic creatures, uncertain in gait and obscure in purpose. Ten days later the puzzlement on the Somme, if anything, had spread. From the remains of an infantry regiment near the village of Thiepval came a description of an egg-shaped machine, “5 or 6 meters long,” mounted with machine guns on its side and shovels on its front to push the earth aside. How the thing propelled itself was unclear. And had it just disgorged the 40 men around it, or had they followed on foot? It was hard to say.
For almost two years the British had been working fitfully on it. The idea was hardly novel. “I shall produce unassailable, covered chariots,” Leonardo da Vinci had written in 1482 to Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, “which will enter the enemy lines with their artillery and will break through any troop formations, however numerous they may be. The infantry will be able to follow, without losses or obstacle.” By the eve of the First World War inventors of various stripes and nationalities had come up with armored cars, guns on caterpillar tractors, and, at least on paper, notional machines, mobile steel boxes perhaps, that would overcome hostile fire or carry a human element safely through it. The corpses in South Africa and Manchuria, left by the recent Boer and Russo-Japanese wars, convinced anyone who still needed convincing that exposed infantry could neither withstand nor break through modern firepower. In the summer and autumn of 1914 the reciprocal carnage wrought by the machine gun in the Great War and the impregnable trenches, earthworks, and gun emplacements that soon defined the lines of the Western Front lent new urgency to the designers’ reveries. From early 1915 proposals in the British army for a “machine-gun destroyer” or “landcruiser” or “landship” — an armor-clad Dreadnought to ply the fields of Flanders — wound their way slowly through the bureaucracy, while a prototype emerged almost as painfully from elaborate simulations at Shoeburyness in Essex and on Lord Salisbury’s estate at Hatfield Park. They were designing a water carrier, the authorities let it be known for secrecy’s sake, and they tried naming their brainchild a “reservoir,” a “receptacle,” a “cistern,” until they settled on the most mundane cognomen of all: “tank”.
The new machines acquired their most important advocate early, in the controversial figure of Douglas Haig, Commander of the British Expeditionary Force. He had first learned of them from an early promoter, Winston Churchill, and by 1916 he yearned to put them to use in the summer allied offensive on the Somme. But they were not ready on 1 July, when the British left their trenches and took 60,000 casualties, the worst day in their military history. By the time they were, British and Dominion forces had suffered many more casualties and made only modest gains, and huddled under the first of the autumnal rains that would make the Somme terrain even more impassable than it already was. Haig was determined to break through, and deploy his new weapon — the Mark I tank, weighing about 28 tons, moving at no more than four miles an hour, and carrying guns or machine guns — while he still could.
He did not break through, and his new weapon scarcely made any difference to the outcome. Forty nine tanks were on hand that day, supposed to reach the German front lines on a six-mile front about five minutes ahead of the first infantry wave. Most broke down or ditched, many before they even reached the departure line. Of the 18 that participated effectively, some arrived alongside their infantry or even behind them. Others lost their way and fired on their own men. In time shellfire or even bullets striking fuel lines incinerated those still in action. When they did break through, they devastated enemy defenses, and in the village of Flers one of them drove up the main road, firing sideways, as cheering troops followed behind. Then they provoked some local panics, by the Germans’ own admission. But mostly they bogged down, like the attacks themselves, and set off nothing like the general panic that had swept through some French Territorial and Algerian divisions entrenched at Ypres the year before, when the Germans had sent cylinders with nearly 200 tons of chlorine their way and introduced chemical warfare to the Western front.
No one yet knew how to use tanks. Most of Haig’s immediate subordinates had not even heard of them until the month before. To coordinate these under-powered and unpredictable machines with artillery, infantry, and aircraft, over a fire-swept and obstacle-strewn terrain, required not so much imagination, still less pure theory, as experience. Haig’s critics — they now included Churchill — deplored the premature revelation of a secret weapon, the squandering of surprise. His defenders saw the inescapable ordeal of trial and error. “It was a very valuable try-out” one officer said. In a way he was right. His compatriots were learning. Their tanks again fared poorly at the third battle of Ypres in the summer of 1917. But in November that year, at Cambrai, after an artillery preparation that achieved total surprise, 360 massed Mark IV tanks penetrated German defenses to a depth of several miles, as infantry followed and squadrons of the Royal Flying Corps flew overheard. Properly used, tanks could indeed break through.
The setback on the Somme had allowed the success at Cambrai in other, more ironical ways. It had convinced the German High Command that the new tanks had no future, and induced a benighted sense of assurance that could only oblige their enemies. “Our infantry laughs about the tanks,” senior staff officers claimed, wrongly. By 1918 they too had grasped the potential of massed tanks. But it was too late. By the time of the armistice the Germans could field only 45 front-line tanks against the Allies’ 3,500.
During the 1920s and 1930s — all lingering doubts resolved — engineers, visionaries, and strategists promoted the tank as a weapon of destiny, whatever the kind of land war their countries had to fight. The new advocates of armored warfare envisioned a concentrated and offensive role for the latter-day knight, the new instrument of shock on the battlefield — Basil Liddell Hart and J.F.C. Fuller in Britain, Estienne d’Orves and Charles de Gaulle in France, Mikhail Tukhachevsky in the Soviet Union, and Heinz Guderian in Germany, who took Hitler to the Kummersdorf proving grounds south of Berlin in 1933 to observe tanks in motion. “There is what can help me!” the new Führer exclaimed. “There is what I need!”
It had been just 17 years since the Mark I tanks had foundered in the ditches and shell-craters of the Somme.
Paul Jankowski is Raymond Ginger Professor of History at Brandeis University. His many books include Verdun: The Longest Battle of the Great War, Stavinksy: A Confidence Man in the Republic of Virtue, and Shades of Indignation: Political Scandals in France, Past and Present.