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World War I: The Tech of the Tank

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

Photograph taken from below of a British tank getting reading to come down over a steep small hill or

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.

Side view photograph of British tank

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.

Side view photograph of a British tank

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!

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