{ subscribe_url:'//blogs.loc.gov/share/sites/library-of-congress-blogs/inside_adams.php' }

World War I: The Tech of the Tank

This post was written by Sean Bryant a Reference Librarian in the Science Section.

British tank crossing rough terrain during the battle of Cambrai in France. (1917?) //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3a23758

British tank crossing rough terrain during the battle of Cambrai in France. (1917?) //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3a23758

One hundred years ago in September, a small group of machines, dreamt of by Leonardo, but hitherto unseen on the field of battle, chugged along in the predawn darkness, just south of the town Flers, France, in the region of the Somme. These machines, whose descendants would, in another war, become known for their lightning speed, crawled along at under four miles per hour, picking their way through a landscape of shattered tree stumps and mud. As the dawn broke, a single machine made its way through ranks of soldiers, passed into the churned wasteland between the lines, began to fire, and the age of the tank began.

The modern armored fighting vehicle has its roots in a series of proposals bringing together armor plate, heavy weapons and increasingly powerful internal combustion engines. At the beginning of the war these elements were united to create the armored car. However, as trenches began to stretch across northern France and the war situation devolved into a stalemate, it became clear that these cars, limited to roads as they were, would not be the breakout weapon needed to win the war. A new technology would be required.

British tank at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, in the Somme, France on September 15, 1916 during World War I. George Grantham Bain Collection (1916) //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ggbain.25225

British tank at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, in the Somme, France on September 15, 1916 during World War I. George Grantham Bain Collection (1916) //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ggbain.25225

By mid-1915, several groups within the British Armed Forces had come together to consider the problem and that new technology, called, in order to preserve secrecy, the “Tank”, began to take shape.

These new tanks, built to break the stalemate of trench warfare, were unlike anything in use today. They were long and rhomboidal in shape with tracks encircling the body to aid in crossing deep and wide trenches. Rather than in the armored turrets seen today, much of the armament of these tanks was placed in armored boxes affixed to the sides of the vehicles. This placement, while limiting the field of fire of the guns, made it easier to fire down into trenches as the machines passed over or beside them. The new tanks steered with a pair of trailing wheels and required a crew of 8 – a commander, driver, 4 gunners and 2 men to assist in shifting gears. With the center of each machine occupied by a loud, hot and inadequately ventilated engine, and lacking any kind of suspension, just taking a ride in one could be an unpleasant and dangerous experience. However, despite those flaws it made a formidable weapon, and by the late summer of 1916, with progress faltering on the Somme it was time to put that weapon to use.

A William Ivor Castle's photograph of a British tank during World War I. (1916) George Grantham Bain Collection. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ggbain.23337

A William Ivor Castle’s photograph of a British tank during World War I. (1916) George Grantham Bain Collection. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ggbain.23337

On the morning of September 15th, 1916, the British Army attacked the German trenches just outside the French village of Flers. Forty-nine tanks were dispersed in small groups with the infantry divisions that made the assault. Even before the attack actually began, machines began to break down. More than a third of the tanks failed to reach their starting positions, and once the attacks started, still more broke, were delayed or became stuck, with the result that only 9 achieved their goals. Still the results, while not overwhelming, were enough to satisfy the British Army commander, Sir Douglas Haig. As the battle raged, the crew of a British aircraft overhead reported, “A tank is walking up the High Street of Flers with the British army cheering behind.” The reputation of the tank was born.

The general collections of the Library of Congress contain a number of works on the tank and its early contributions to the First World War. For information about early tanks, check The Fighting Tanks, From 1916 to 1933, by Ralph E. Jones, George H. Rarey and Robert J. Ick, Bryan Cooper’s Tank Battles of World War I, or The British Tanks, 1915-19, by David Fletcher. The early evolution of the tank is covered in John Glanfield’s The Devil’s Chariots: The Birth and Secret Battles of the First Tanks, The Boilerplate War, by John Foley, and developer Gen. Ernest Swinton’s own, Eyewitness: Being Personal Reminiscences of Certain Phases of the Great War, including the Genesis of the Tank. To learn more about the Battle of Flers, take a look at the guidebook, Flers and Gueudecourt, 15-26 September 1916, by Trevor Pidgeon, the Atlas of Armored Warfare, edited by Stephen Hart, or George Forty’s Tank Action: From the Great War to the Gulf.  For First World War tank combat in general, the Library has Col. J.F.C. Fuller’s Tanks in the Great War, 1914-1918, and Capt. Basil Liddell Hart’s The Tanks: The History of the Royal Tank Regiment and its Predecessors, Heavy Branch, Machine-Gun Corps, Tank Corps, and Royal Tank Corps, 1914-1945. You can search the Library’s catalog with the subject heading “World War, 1914-1918 Tank Warfare” to find many more!

Upcoming Book Talk on May 14: Behind the Gas Mask

The following post is authored by Mary Jane Cavallo, an  Automation Operations Coordinator for the Science, Technology and Business Division. Did you know that during World War I America suffered more casualties from poison gas than any other nation involved in the war? In his new book, Behind the Gas Mask: The U.S. Chemical Warfare […]

Five Questions (The Intern Edition): Camron T. Lee

This post features the Library’s ST&B 2013 junior fellow Camron T. Lee from Utah State University. 1. What is your background I was born and raised in Utah. After graduating high school, I spent two years living in Japan and developed a passion for Japanese language, culture, and history. Since returning to the States, I […]

The Aeronauts

Last week I had the fantastic opportunity to give a gallery talk in the Library’s Civil War in America Exhibit Hall about the role of technology. There were many technologies or tools in use or being developed at this time, such as the telegraph, ironclad steamships (e.g. Merrimack and Monitor), railroads, Minie balls, and medicine. However, the focus […]

Veterans History Project: Illuminating the Future by Sharing the Past

Today’s post is by Veterans History Project (VHP) Liaison Specialist Lisa A. Taylor who works in the John Adams Building. With the Project since 2009, Lisa is on the team responsible for program communication and coordination. Among other duties, she writes and edits materials for publication and works with local and national organizations and Congressional […]

Spending a Summer in D.C.

 Today’s post is by 2012 Junior Fellow Brian Horowitz of  the University of Maryland, College Park. This is Brian’s third year with us (He is continuing his work on the Library’s large collection of Army Technical and Field Manuals). You can read about his work in  Art of War…and of Sandwich Making and Stumbled upon in the […]

Jeanne Guillemin’s “American Anthrax”- A Book Talk

In the wake of the 2001 September 11 al Qaeda attacks on the U.S., five anonymous letters containing a deadly strain of anthrax (Bacillus anthracis) were mailed via the U.S. Postal Service to major media outlets in Florida and New York, and to the U.S. Senate in Washington, D.C. This bioterrorist attack killed 5 people: […]

Five Questions (The Intern Edition): Brian Horowitz

1. What is your background?  I hail from Silver Spring, Maryland, about fifteen miles away from the Library. I currently attend Montgomery College where I am studying Psychology and Neuroscience. Before starting college I had the opportunity to live in Israel where I studied Jewish texts such as the Talmud. It was a once in […]

Pic of the Week: Show and Tell

Today’s Pic of the Week shows the Division’s two Junior Fellows, Laura Beth Jackson and Brian Horowitz, at the annual event the Library holds where the Junior Fellows showcase their projects. Laura Beth’s project was about the Library’s materials from the National Recovery Administration, and her exhibit included two of the Codes of Fair Competition […]