28 SEPTEMBER, 1917: Wheels Come Off

I’ve made the point before that the First World War was largely fought on foot and horseback, but is often defined for posterity by its mechanised elements, or rather by some of them. While aircraft, tanks, massive guns, big warships and submarines attract most of the modern world’s attention, pretty much in that order, the practical importance of less vaunted machines tends to be overlooked. Motorbikes and light railways spring to mind, but today marks the centenary of the Battle of Ramadi, an engagement that featured another prime example of unsung technology.

A strategically marginal but comprehensive Anglo-Indian victory on the Mesopotamian Front, Ramadi was the last success of General Maude’s tenure as theatre commander, and owed much to one of the most useful and least celebrated military vehicles of the day – the armoured car.

On the River Euphrates, 30km west of Falluja, the town of Ramadi was an important local irrigration point. In September 1917 it was also a centre for black market sales of food to Ottoman forces further north, and it housed the largest concentration of Ottoman troops in the vicinity of British-held Baghdad. In July, it had been the target of the only Anglo-Indian operation on the front during the summer, but an attack by a single motorised column had been repulsed by a thousand or so disciplined defenders. The attackers had lost 566 casualties, two-thirds of them to the sweltering heat.

Temperatures were slightly lower by late September, when the British made a second, more determined effort to take the town. On 28 September, a division moved up the east bank of the Euphrates towards Ramadi, where some 4,000 Ottoman regulars were deployed in expectation of an attack close to the bank of the river. By sending armoured cars and cavalry to circle behind Ramadi and cut the road north to Hit, British field commander General Brooking was able to surround the defenders once his infantry had stormed ridges overlooking the town. British cavalry picked off a few attempts to break out of the cordon overnight, and the garrison surrendered next morning.

Look carefully, you’ll find Ramadi, Falluja and Hit.  Mosul and its oilfields are easier to spot…

The armoured cars received great credit for the victory from the British press, and by the autumn of 1917 they had proved their worth time and again – when used in the right circumstances. They could reach distant targets quickly and provide infantry with rapid mobile support, like cavalry but with greater protection and firepower, but they needed relatively open terrain, ideally with roads or tracks to follow.

Armoured cars had evolved from the ordinary road vehicles used by European empires for colonial policing. By 1914 all the Entente armies were using standard production cars, armoured and carrying a machine-gun or light artillery piece. By the end of the year purpose-built cars were in service, and later models were fitted with a revolving central turret.

The Allies used a lot of these light armoured cars, basically civilian vehicles decked out with a bit of armour plate and machine-gun.

At the very beginning of the War the Belgian Army had been the first to deploy armoured cars in combat. The success of Belgian Minerva models in hit-and-run raids persuaded the German Army, which had previously only used armoured cars as anti-aircraft defences for observation balloons, to develop designs of its own. Not untypically, German designers ignored the improvised nature of other armies’ cars and came up with much bigger, heavier vehicles, heavily-armoured and powerfully armed, that proved prohibitively cumbersome on both the Western and Eastern Fronts. Only a few dozen were built, most of them the Erhardt model that would go on to serve as a policing weapon into the 1930s, and the German Army was forced to use captured Allied vehicles when armoured cars were needed in numbers during the War’s last campaigns.

By way of contrast, the heavy German Ehrhardt car took armoured protection seriously.

As initially deployed with British, French and Belgian forces on the Western Front, armoured cars were used as mobile strongpoints for infantry support, but once trench warfare was established their tactical value was very limited, and they were anyway almost useless in the theatre’s heavily broken terrain. They came into their own in more open conditions, and though eventually important during of the final offensives on the Western Front they were generally most effective in the less confined spaces away from the main European battlefields. No surprise then, given its global commitments, that the British Empire made by far the most enthusiastic and widespread wartime use of armoured cars.

The first British vehicles in France and Belgium were crewed by Royal Navy and Royal Naval Air Service personnel.  Naval operatives continued to crew armoured cars deployed in African and other colonial outposts,  and a small Navy unit was sent, along with Belgian cars, to fight under Russian command during the latter stages of the campaign in Romania, but by 1915 armoured cars had otherwise been incorporated into the Army’s operational structure. As such they were initially deployed in units of four vehicles, either as Armoured Motor Batteries using heavy, purpose-built Rolls Royce machines (as pictured above the title), or as Light Armoured Car Batteries equipped with adapted British or US production models. By 1917 the types were being deployed together in eight-car Light Armoured Motor Batteries, or LAMBs, often crewed by imperial troops.

British armoured cars enjoyed their greatest successes in desert conditions, against the Senussi tribes of Libya (13 December, 1915: Thin End, Big Wedge), during the conquest of Palestine in 1918, and above all as the spearhead of guerilla attacks on Ottoman supply lines during the Arab Revolt.  Their part in the victory at Ramadi was a rare case of opportunity and terrain combining to make the most of their tactical potential in less open spaces, and their luck didn’t last long.

British prisoners rescued from Senussi tribesmen by armoured cars in 1916. The cars were commanded by Major Hugh Grosvenor, Duke of Westminster, just so you know.

Once Ramadi had fallen, Brooking made an immediate attempt to capture the town of Hit, which guarded the road linking Ottoman forces on the Tigris and Euphrates. A completely motorised force of 400 infantry in lorries, with ambulances and armoured cars in support, set out for Hit on 1 October, but a poor road proved too much for the vehicles and the attempt was abandoned next morning.

So yes, armoured cars were more useful and important to First World War fighters than posterity cares to notice, and there’s no real excuse for leaving them out of the picture, but overall they couldn’t be called a successful weapon. Like all the latest forms of motorised transport available to contemporary armed forces (everything but ships and trains), they were still in a relatively primitive stage of development, too fragile in battle conditions to fundamentally change a tactical and strategic picture that still, on the whole, belonged to men on foot and horseback.

There’s your problem.

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