September 15, 1916, proved a landmark day in military history: the day the first tanks went into battle. The British army was the first to develop tanks, but after their battlefield introduction other nations hastened to build similar vehicles. The first tank-versus-tank battle took place in April 1918, when one German tank damaged two British vehicles before being put out of action by a third British tank. By 1918, the British had built 1,391 tanks in comparison to France’s 4,000, Germany’s 20 and the United States’ 84.
Within two months of the outbreak of war in August 1914, the conflict had largely settled into a stalemate. Both sides dug formidable trench systems, which could be defended by a relatively small number of soldiers with rifles and machine guns. An enemy trench system could only be captured by advancing infantry at great cost. Journalist and former soldier Ernest Swinton saw the stalemate at first hand in fall 1914 and tried to come up with ways around it.
Tied up with the stalemate was the lack of mobility, and with their armored bodies, tanks promised to provide battlefield mobility. Developers hoped their caterpillar tracks would help the vehicles maneuver across uneven terrain, but in reality the top speed of the early tanks -- just 4 miles per hour -- was rarely attained. British tanks would not achieve true mobility until the introduction of the “Whippet” in 1918, which was quick enough to exploit gaps in the German lines. What tanks did provide was a degree of mobile firepower. Early “male” tanks were equipped with either two 6-pounder guns or four machine guns, while “female” guns possessed five machine guns.
Development of Technology
World War I challenged its participants to develop new technologies in an effort to win. Some developments, such as aerial photography, were not directly related to the military, but others, like the use of poison gas and improvements in artillery techniques, were put into action on the battlefield. The development of the tank falls into a wider context of improving technologies. Tanks took pre-existing technology -- the caterpillar tracks of the Holt’s Tractor -- and combined it with the idea of an armored car, already being used to protect naval airfields in Belgium.
Once the decision had been taken to develop the idea, then known as a “landship,” British authorities tried to keep it a secret to preserve the element of surprise. Landship development took place in England from mid-1915, using the word “tank” as a code name. When they made their battlefield debut in September 1916, the tanks took the opposing Germans by surprise and played a role in the infantry’s capture of the French village of Flers. However, the mechanical reliability of the tank remained suspect and German infantry tactics soon adapted to combat them.
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- Royal Tank Regiment Association: WW1
- The Long, Long Trail: The Tank Corps of 1914-1918
- FirstWorldWar.com: Weapons of War, Tanks
- BBC Schools: History, Trench Stalemate
- FirstWorldWar.com: Who’s Who, Sir Ernest Swinton
- National Army Museum: British Whippet Tank 1918
- Durham University: What Impact Did Technology Have On The War?
- Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images