15th September 1916. THE TANK: THE SOMME.
Lord Kitchener: [the tank] ‘A pretty mechanical toy…the war will never be won by such machines’, was the official response, this despite the fact that the idea of a mobile fortress had existed for centuries, going back to Leonardo’s battle engine.
Today in 1916, the tank built by William Foster and Son of Lincoln, was used for the first time at the Battle of the Somme, thus heralding the end of the dominance of infantry, cavalry and artillery on the battlefield.
However sadly, it didn’t prevent thousands being killed on the Somme, from July onwards in one of the most calamitous periods of the First World War, for the 120,000 men serving under General Douglas Haig.
He had assured them it would be a picnic… ‘The wire has never been so well cut, nor the artillery preparations so thorough’.
He was wrong on both counts. 21,000 men were killed in the first half-hour, tangled up in the uncut barbed wire. As the day progressed, casualties reached 57,470: nearly half the initial allied force. At 7.30 am, in the first wave, 720 of the volunteer ‘Accrington Pals’ went into action: 584 died.
By the end of the Battle of the Somme, in November, over 600,000 finished up dead or wounded, the largest casualties ever suffered by the British Army in a single day.
It was early tractors which had given the War Office the idea of a mechanical horse, and by 1899 had ordered them for the South African War. By 1900 a motor car engineer had built and demonstrated an armoured car.
Then Lt. Colonel Swinton with Richard Hornsby & Son attempted to interest the military, after investigating the notion of adapting the American Holt tractor into an armoured weapon, but Kitchener said it would be vulnerable to artillery.(1)
It was a design for an artillery tractor that prompted the far-seeing, Churchill to ask if such a machine could be designed to cross trenches and, being Churchill, wouldn’t take no for an answer.
Ironically, it was the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) which led the way, when their armoured cars were used in Flanders in 1914, and so greatly influencing Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty.
Lt. W.G. Wilson (RNAS) had designed the tracks, whilst working with Mr. W. Tritton of Fosters of Lincoln: a second design was named Little Willie.
Eventually seeing the possibilities for a tank, the inevitable committee was formed, and on February 1915 it watched a ‘Holt Tractor’ working, but its performance was impaired by foul weather.(2)
Ever impetuous, Churchill went ahead and spent £70,000 on development, without telling the Admiralty, War office, Treasury nor the Master-General of Ordnance, who were not receptive anyhow.
Then the new familiar, lozenge shape, was designed, called ‘Mother’ and the army ordered 100. For security reasons it needed a code-word. Water Carriers was discarded for Tanks, and after a rather unsuccessful start in getting bogged down, the Army High Command, realised their worth.
In the end 700 tanks were ordered after a trial saw prototypes traversing nine-foot trenches dug on Lord Salisbury’s golf course at Hatfield.
Their mettle was demonstrated at Cambrai, when nearly 400 tanks attacked on a six-mile front, penetrating more deeply into enemy territory, than any previous attack, whilst capturing over 7,000 and 120 guns.
Kitchener was lost on HMS Hampshire in 1916 on his way to Russia: Churchill lived to fight another day!
(1) Sir Ernest Dunlop Swinton. Hornsby were big crane and agricultural engineers.
(2) Formed on 17th February 1915.
Ref: blog.oup.com/first-tank-battle-of-the somme.Image of tank.
Ref: reddit.com/Image of carriage-works.
Ref: wikipedia.org/Tanks and Somme.