15 September, 1916: False Start

I’m inclined to bang on about the First World War’s impact on the future, and though I tend to stress its momentous economic, political and social effects, there’s no getting away from the weapons.

Any major war is a hothouse for weapons development, but posterity tends to focus on the Second World War as the twentieth century’s big moment in this respect.  Fair enough on one level, in that coming up with missiles and nuclear weapons counts for a lot of posterity points, but even the horror perpetrated on Hiroshima and Nagasaki represented the ultimate expression of an idea – strategic bombing – conceived and first attempted during the Great War. Most of the other major weapons associated with Hitler’s war, including submarines, chemical weapons and all the other ways of using aircraft, were direct products of First World War development that would go on to blight the next hundred years – and that brings me to tanks.

Today, as anyone watching, hearing or reading Anglophone news media probably knows, marks the hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, a subsidiary action within the long and horrible Somme Offensive that saw the first large-scale combat use of what were then called ‘landships’ and are now known as tanks. Heritage history being what it is, you don’t need me to talk about how it felt inside a landship or about details of the operation. What’s more, the populist grapevine makes it reasonably clear that tank warfare’s first day out wasn’t a great success, and very clear that tanks would go on to play an important part in future warfare.  On the other hand, possibly because it’s primarily concerned with celebrating tanks as a great British invention, mass media tends go a little easy on both subjects, so here’s a take on some of that stuff with the flag-waving filtered out.

First of all, the Battle of Flers-Courcelette was yet another of the BEF’s increasingly desperate attempts to gain something positive (and, more to the point after 77 days of fighting, popular) from the Somme debacle. It was a relatively minor foray, involving 12 divisions of General Rawlinson’s 4th Army, which advanced northeast along a 12km front on 15 September, intending to extend the small salient (that’s a bulge in everyday English) it had established in the opposing line.  Beyond the use of all 49 available landships, and of aircraft to provide them with direct ground support, the attack was bereft of innovation and failed accordingly. After making initial gains of about 2km, British units were halted by bad weather and German reinforcements, and the operation was called off on 18 September.

Secondly, the tanks were a complete failure and didn’t scare the German high command.  They did cause a certain amount of local disruption, and terrified German troops at first sight, but were too few to make any major tactical contribution.  Most of them broke down or were destroyed, and German observers were of the opinion that they could be beaten and weren’t worth copying.

The British felt very differently about tanks in 1916, and despite the credit given to him by later propagandists (and his own memoirs), Churchill didn’t have all that much to do with it.  The general idea of an armoured trench-buster had been under discussion inside both the British Army and the Royal Navy (which was already using armoured cars in Flanders) since the autumn of 1914.  As the sitting naval minister, Churchill’s contribution was to read reports of naval ideas – along with a memo about army ideas from Colonel Hankey, secretary to the Committee for Imperial Defence (Britain’s central strategic command) – and secure the formation of a Landships Committee for technical research and development in February 1915.  By September, the Committee had built a working prototype on the chassis of an American tractor, and its trials impressed BEF commander Haig so much he ordered 40 more in advance.

Haig’s enthusiasm reflected high hopes among British strategists and newspaper editors that the landships could finally break the deadlock on the Western Front. War Minister Lloyd George gave the project his approval in February 1916, and Mark 1 Heavy Tanks (ultimately named after their transit code name of ‘water tanks’) went into full production in April.  In June, the first Mark 1’s entered front line service with the Heavy Section of the Machine Gun Corps, promptly renamed the Tank Corps.

Senior British commanders, by now very excited about tanks, could hardly wait to let the new monsters loose on the enemy and win the War, but official military doctrine regarded them as infantry support weapons, and the relatively junior officers charged with actually operating the things agreed, quickly deciding they were best used in small numbers to aid attacks on specific targets.  Haig’s decision to ignore their advice and deploy the all tanks as a single, concentrated force at Flers-Courcelette, using every half-trained crewman and every half-tested machine, was controversial at the time, and the operation’s failure left some senior officers convinced tanks should only be used for direct infantry support (like a machine-gun unit, one for each company, or even each platoon if sufficient numbers became available).  Not Haig, who ordered another massed tank attack in the same sector on 25 September, and reacted to a second abject failure by ordering 1,000 more tanks – and not the British press, which went right on assuring its readers that tanks were unstoppable war-winners.

The Mark I tank in 1916 – the British Army decided it was meant to travel this way, and took more than 20 years to change its mind.
The Mark I tank in 1916 – the British Army decided it was meant to travel this way, and took more than 20 years to change its mind.

Tank warfare had arrived, but for a time it hardly set the world alight. The French Army was soon developing its own chars d’assaut, and like British tanks they would see plenty of combat in France, Italy and Russia, but the USA was the only other Allied power to build tanks in wartime (though only two machined reached France before the Armistice).  Wartime tank development among the Central Powers was confined to Germany, which built a few (generally enormous) machines for trench support during the next couple of years, but never prioritised their development.  With hindsight, and bearing in mind the other pressures on German industry, that was probably a smart move.  Though their armour would be improved, their weight would be reduced to aid mobility and they would become marginally more reliable, British and French tanks would still be all potential and very little end product when the War ended.

Wartime German tanks were huge, hardly mobile and built in very small numbers... but would soon be abandoned as a strategic dead end.
Wartime German tanks were huge, hardly mobile and built in very small numbers… but would soon be abandoned as a strategic dead end.

Post-War technological progress would change that, opening up alternative possibilities for deployment of tanks.  British theorists were the first to argue for use of tanks – in large numbers, with air support – as long-range strike weapons, but they were ignored by the British and French armies, which carried on developing big, lumbering machines for the support of infantry attacks.  German planners, on the other hand, paid careful attention to British theories, and built Panzers to carry out a refined version known to posterity as Blitzkrieg.

So while giving a cheer for yet another groundbreaking product of British invention and enterprise, and accepting that the tank went on to become one of the 20th century’s defining weapons, let’s remember that First World War tanks never really worked in the only role they were capable of fulfilling, and were the blueprints for a strategic blind alley taken by the British and French that would be utterly discredited at the start of the next war.  In other words, the British invented the wrong tanks for the wrong reason. The result was a huge waste of time, lives and money that ultimately provided a research and development platform for the very army it was intended to defeat.

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