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  • James Houser

September 15, 1916 - The Birth of the Tank

Updated: Jun 13, 2021

September 15, 1916. Three months into the horrendous Battle of the Somme, the British Army tries something new at Flers-Courcelette. Imagine you’re just a German soldier sitting in a trench, and you think you’ve seen everything World War I can throw at you. Then you look at the horizon and see that THING, a big metal beast creeping towards you. Congratulations, Hans! Welcome to the 20th Century!

People were looking for something like the tank long, long before World War I. A mobile, miniature fortress isn’t a hard thing to dream about, and multiple architects and authors fantasized over what such a thing would look like – notably Leonardo Da Vinci. Da Vinci’s 1487 sketch of a fighting vehicle covered by a conical shell of wood and metal was supposedly powered by cranks turned by strong men, with cannon poking out the sides. Of course, this never got past the “sketch” stage, and even today’s champion weightlifters couldn’t crank a vehicle holding multiple cannon across a broken landscape. But the idea was there. Siege engines that provided mobile cover for attacking troops had existed for millennia, but these had always been powered by men or oxen. For something to be effective and mobile, greater power was required.

The coming of the Industrial Revolution and the rise of steam power got people thinking once again. Despite America famously being the land of invention, it was the British who were constantly thinking about ways to create a mobile death tractor. The first “industrial” proposition was in 1855, when a British engineer proposed an armored steam engine with cannon and flailing scythes on either side. This must have looked like a steampunk Mad Max vehicle, and the British Prime Minister’s only comment was that it was “barbaric.” Again, though, the idea was there.

Throughout the early 20th Century, the combustion engine and the greater manufacturing capacity of every nation resulted in a number of fun experiments. The first few tracked vehicles started to appear – and in military use, they were almost all artillery tractors to pull heavy guns across difficult terrain. The engines were still too weak for much else. The few propositions for armored fighting vehicles fell on deaf ears.

One of the main reasons that it would take so long for militaries to adopt the tank was that every army still had a mobile striking arm: the cavalry. Before 1914, the cavalry wasn’t going anywhere. It was generally acknowledged that cavalry wouldn’t be making gallant charges against lines of machine guns and artillery, but they were still the mobile arm of all armies. Furthermore, the motorized vehicle was still a very new invention, and almost none of the great European powers had any real number of trucks or cars in their militaries. The industrial base for producing a large mechanized force was just not there, and mindsets had not changed along those lines yet. When the world went to war in 1914, the only methods of propulsion were rail, horse, and hoof – not the motor.

When World War I did get swinging, the only real armored vehicles in anyone’s inventory were a handful of armored cars for each side. These weapons had more in common with the “cavalry” mindset of motorization, but their use on the battlefield was limited – especially in rough terrain. They were extremely useful on the open fields and in deserts, and armored cars would be one of the signature weapons of the Middle Eastern theater of World War I.

The main concern of all the major powers, though, was the Western Front, where trench warfare had turned the terrain into a complex series of ditches, obstacles and machine guns. An armored car could accomplish nothing out there. French Colonel Jean Baptiste Eugene Estienne turned out to be the prophet (and later the commander of the French Tank Corps throughout World War I) when in August 1914 he said that “Victory will belong in this war to the one of the two belligerents that will manage to be the first to succeed in putting a 75 mm cannon on a vehicle that can move on all types of terrain."

Given that in World War II, the Germans would become most famous for their use of tanks, it is ironic that they were nowhere near the first ones to develop the heavy tracked fighting vehicle. The father of the tank ended up being a British Royal Engineer, Major Ernest Swinton, who got the idea in October 1914 while observing the First Battle of Ypres. He had learned about the new caterpillar tractors being built in some corners of Europe, and realized that this was a possible method to break the already developing deadlock of trench warfare. Swinton started taking his idea to anyone who would listen, and in December 1914 his idea finally found the ear not of the Army, but of the Navy – specifically, the First Lord of the Admiralty, Sir Winston Churchill.

Churchill, throughout his life, had a boyish enthusiasm for new inventions and odd ideas. Churchill was also a good politician, so instead of proposing that the British build this new armored vehicle, he warned gravely that the Germans were probably about to build one – which got the ball rolling immediately. Soon he had created the Landship Committee, to come up with ideas for a great “armored land ship” that would transport troops across no-man’s-land and be immune to enemy fire. This was the committee that started spitting out possible blueprints for what would become the world’s first armored, tracked fighting vehicle.

I’ll be real with you guys: some of these ideas were out-and-out batshit. The Russians had their own design called the “Tsar tank”, which looked like two old-timey bicycles mashed together with a little fortress between them. It really existed, and looked like something from a film school remake of Star Wars. The Landships Committee got into personal drama, disputes over weight and armament and purpose, and endless bickering over the angle of the armor. Nothing is worse than getting a highly opinionated, passionate group of people in a room and asking them to work together, especially if they’re British. Just ask the Beatles circa 1969.

Finally, by September 1915, “Little Willie” came into being as a prototype. A little armored box on a set of caterpillars, it was crappy, but it was a start. Trench warfare having gotten worse and more complex since the idea first got going, the Army demanded a greater gap-crossing ability, so the next series of tanks got wider and longer until finally Lieutenant Walter Gordon proposed a wrap-around track system to improve the track’s grip and the tank’s balance of gravity. The resulting 30-ton Big Willie went through its proving in February 1916, and the first 100 were put on order.

Of course, this thing didn’t have a name. Churchill wanted to call them “landships,” but the British were worried that giving the project this particular name would alert the Germans to their project. Instead, the workers were told they were producing mobile water tanks to supply British troops in the harsh desert of Iraq. Someone had the bright idea to call it a “Water Container,” as a code name, but everyone pointed out this would mean its abbreviation would be “WC” or “Water Closet” – the British name for a bathroom. In December 1915, the Brits finally settled on the code name “water tank,” later shortened simply to “tank.”

The first 49 shipments of the Mark I Tank arrived in France in August 1916, as the Battle of the Somme continued to rage across the British portion of the Western Front. This battle had been going on for two months and had cost a horrendous number of men already, and every day was a new set of horrible battles in a new location. It was into this maelstrom that the first Mark Is would be thrown. The Mark I was a 28-ton monster with an 8-man crew. There were two types: the “Male,” with two 57mm cannon and three machine guns, and the “Female” with five machine guns. It’s best not to think too much about why they pointlessly gendered their killing machines.

Either way, the 49 tanks were shuttled down to the Somme front, and almost a third of them broke down on the way there. Keep in mind that these things had just been invented, and that motorized transportation was literally younger than most of the people operating the tanks. The upshot of all this was that when the first tanks went into battle near the town of Flers-Courcelette on September 15, 1916, only 32 made it into combat.

To be fair, it had to have been terrifying for the Germans. By all accounts, the tanks were an enormous shock to the defenders and greatly assisted the attack – those that made it across no-man’s-land, that is. Almost two thirds of the tanks broke down on their assault, but the remainder that did make it across pushed several miles into German territory. Despite their initial success, the first tank attack of World War I stalled and foundered. The vehicles that didn’t break down got lost, fired on their own troops, or got stuck – all due to inexperienced crews and zero training on tank-infantry cooperation. Some tanks got taken out by German artillery, while others got bombed from biplanes.

These mixed results invoked criticism: from Churchill and Swinton on the one hand, who felt that the design had been rushed and the maintenance issues had not been worked out, and from the French on the other, who felt that the British had sacrificed the secret nature of the tank but hadn’t used it in large enough numbers for a decisive result. Despite the limited success of the Mark Is at Fleurs-Courcelette, though, the Tank Corps had learned valuable lessons and gained important experience for future operations. Despite his postwar reputation as a blind cavalryman, Sir Douglas Haig – commander of British forces in France – ordered an additional 1,000 tanks for the BEF. (Douglas Haig is one of the more unjustly criticized commanders in history.)

It could only get better from here, after all. The early tanks – basically all World War I tanks – were a nightmare in every sense. They barely moved faster than a walking pace, and their armor could stop bullets and shrapnel but was basically helpless against direct-fire artillery. Being inside a tank was like sitting in the devil’s cauldron. It was hot and enclosed, made worse every minute by the fumes of the engine and the smoke from the guns. Crews routinely passed out, or puked, or went a little nuts while operating the primitive tanks. Fire was a constant hazard, and gas masks were usually a necessity. To be honest, though, “my life sucks now” was pretty much the universal standard for World War I, and at least you were safe from machine guns.

The French efforts to produce their own tank had initially collapsed into ineffectual committees, but soon they had their prophet. Colonel Jean-Baptiste Eugene Estienne pushed the French tank force in radical new directions after he was appointed commander of the French Tank Corps in September 1916. While some French companies wanted to concentrate on building large, nearly immobile super-heavy tanks, it was Estienne’s work with the Renault company that produced the first turreted tank, the light FT 17. The FT 17 was the first tank that began to resemble the more familiar modern designs, with a traversing turret holding a cannon and machine gun sitting atop a sloped hull. The FT 17 had the benefit of being cheap and easy to produce, and soon hundreds were joining the French armored force.

By 1917, both the French and the British were using their tank forces en masse. Estienne was forced by the new French Supreme Commander Robert Nivelle to commit his tank units prematurely during the infamous April 1917 offensive, and the resulting disaster almost led to the French Tank Corps being disbanded. Later that year, the British Tank Corps committed almost 400 Mark IV tanks into the Battle of Cambrai on November 20, 1917, under Colonel J.F.C. Fuller. They made an unprecedented breakthrough which resulted in large gains – but the tanks’ slow speed and the lack of quick follow-up units prevented the attack from being decisive.

You might be asking where the Germans were in all this. Well, the Germans didn’t see the real need for tanks. General Erich Ludendorff saw them as an offensive weapon of limited potential, and the Germans in general were more interested in figuring out countermeasures than developing tanks of their own. The only German tank fielded in the entire war was the A7V, which was also one of the worst designs of the war: an enormous, unwieldy box with an 18-man crew that could barely cross a bump in the road.

On April 24, 1918, three German A7Vs engaged three British Mark IV tanks at Villers-Bretonneux during Ludendorff’s great Spring Offensive. Two of the British tanks were “females” with only machine guns, so they withdrew while the “male” British tank with its cannon drilled one A7V and forced the other two to retreat. This was the first tank-on-tank combat in history, and the only real use of the A7V in combat. The Germans used far more captured British tanks – about 50 – than their own models in World War I.

Either way, by 1918 the Allies were awash with tanks, and even the arriving Americans got in on the action when Major George Patton took command of the American tank units forming in France. These were armed with the French FT 17, and Patton commanded their attack in the Saint-Mihiel sector throughout September 1918. The final offensives of 1918 involved thousands of tanks, with the heavy British Mark IVs and Vs – still in their signature rhomboid shape – and the lighter French vehicles forming part of the combined arms team that carried the Allies to victory.

The true irony of the tank in World War I is that its inventors and most successful users did the least to build on that experience after the war. The British and French were both of the opinion that the tank had been a tool of limited utility, designed for trench warfare and nothing more. The going notion was that trench warfare had been an anomaly and that the tank, with its slow speed and high maintenance and supply requirements, would only be really useful in that context. Having invented a practical weapon, the limits of their imagination blinded them to the possibilities. The Germans on the other hand, lacking practical experience with tanks, had seen nothing but possibility. They invented their own word – “panzer” – for a different way of thinking, a way of restoring mobility to the battlefield and restoring the old primacy of attack into modern warfare.

Despite the pleading of prophets like J.F.C. Fuller for the British and Colonel Estienne for the French, it would be the Germans – men like Heinz Guderian – who would exploit the panzer to its full potential in the next war.

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