What was the contribution of tanks towards winning the war for Britain? Essay

Tanks are heavily reinforced war vehicles that are intended to clash with the opponent face-to-face using heavy artillery like machine guns to directly fire at the enemies and other powerful weapons to destroy walls. Protective covering as well as the ease of movement gives it the security it requires. The tracks are what give the tank such an ease of movement.

The Mark 1 tank was the first ever tank and was used in The Battle of the Somme on the 15th September 1916. The tanks were intended to be used on the 1st July but were not ready and were delayed until autumn. They were sent to the battlefield due to the dreadful infantry losses from the War and were created so that they could sustain the infantry assault across no-man’s-land; for the necessity of overcoming the stalemate of the trenches and for a further reason. The name tank came from the code name. They kept the tank a secret by referring to it as a water carrier, later developed as the water tank.

This top-secret vehicle was not known by anybody else. “It had been a secret, marvellously hidden. We war correspondents, who came to hear of most things in one way or another, had not heard a whisper about it until a few days before these strange things went into action.”- This is what Philip Gibbs, who was a journalist who reported the war on the Western Front (Battle of the Somme), said. The Mark 1 tank was designed by William Tritton and Major Walter Gordon Wilson.

The male tank consisted of a crew of 8, weighed 28.4 tonnes, carried two 6-pounder QF’s as primary armament and three .303 in Hotchkiss Machine Guns as secondary armament. The female also consisted of a crew of 8, but weighed around 27.4 tonnes, carried two heavy .303 Vickers Machine Guns. They both travelled at around 4 miles per hour and had a length of 9.94 m (32 ft 6 in); a height of 2.44 m (8 ft) and a width of 4.33 m (13 ft 9 in). The Mark 1 tank was invented by William Tritton and Major Walter Gordon Wilson.

The Mark 1 tank was developed from the prototype, Little Willie (see Fig. 1) which was designed in July 1915 and produced around August-September, 1915. The Little Willie consisted of a 6 man crew, a Vickers 2-pounder gun as primary armament and 6 Madsen Machine Guns as secondary armament. It used the same, 105 hp engine as the Mark 1 did but only travelled at 2 miles per hour leaving it prone to gun fire. This 14 ton chunk of steel was a 14 ton gas can, that could not cross trenches (it would nose-dive into the trench) let alone the required length of 5 ft. By the time they created 1; the Little Willie was out of date and was replaced by the Big Willie. The Big Willie started to shape more like the standard British tank. It had boilerplate as the armour. It had a top speed of 3.7 mph and crossed 5ft trenches effortlessly.

However, the Big Willie had its flaws. On real battlegrounds, the Big Willie got stuck in severe situations and was not armoured well. The Mark I tank was simply a modification of the Big Willie. The only aspects changed were that as an alternative for boilerplate as armour, it used real armour plating, which was much more physically powerful and had a net on the top to deflect explosives such as grenades and to avoid the enemy from damaging the outer body of the tank. But as with everything, it has a downfall. The Mark 1 tank had the tendency to get stuck. The one and only Mark 1 tank built is preserved in the Bovington Tank Museum. It is the only finished tank prototype in history.

Britain was losing rapidly and not only did they need sheer power, but also more men. This is why they brought the tanks. They used tanks as propaganda by depicting them as some kind of immaculate machine making it look like that if tanks were used, they were impossible to defeat and they showed this through many kinds of media. They distorted its real history and how it came to be. They did not tell the audience about the previous versions of the tanks. Another reason for usage of tanks as propaganda is because the public wanted the government to solve the problem of stalemate by bringing in new technology. The government had to respond fast and so the idea of a tank was brought into use.

They were also used for the military purpose, as I have stated above, as a weapon. The British needed an automotive that had the ability to crush barbed wire; to cross trenches and be bullet-proof especially from the bullets of the machine gun. With 6-12mm of steel, caterpillar tracks for wheels and a rhomboid shape (see Fig. 2+3), this was not hard to achieve. “Sinister, formidable, and industrious, these novel machines pushed boldly into No Man’s Land, astonishing our soldiers no less than they frightened the enemy.”- This is what Percival Phillips reported to the Daily Express at the Battle of the Somme on the 18th September 1916 after seeing a tank for the first time.

In my opinion the tank had its pros and cons as a military weapon. The tank had been designed perfectly for its needs. The rhomboid shape was perfect for crossing trenches.

The tank drives to the edge of the trench and tip of the tank slants forward and touches the other end. The rest of the tank then pushes itself out of the trench. While the tank is in the trench, the machine guns on the side fire at the enemies down the trench. This proved very effective as it would kill all the soldiers in a trench and was especially useful if the trenches were straight and long. This was the main factor that contributed to the win of the war because this is what gave them the advantage of crossing the trenches and firing at the soldiers in the trenches.

Not only did the tanks need to cross the trenches, but also the infantry. This is why the used what is called fascines (bundles of wooden stakes). They would tie the fascine on to the top of the tank and could be dropped into trenches to fill them up. (see Fig. 4). The fascines could be dropped at any time from the inside of the tank. This contributed to the win of the war because it is this that let the infantry pass through the trenches. Without these, the infantry would stay behind the tanks until the first trench, and the tanks would have to go on and cross the other trenches by themselves.

The net above the tank was a very valuable piece of equipment as it deflected grenades and other explosives. This is what made the tank more indestructible. This contributed to the win of the war a lot because if the British did not have the nets, the Germans would have simply thrown grenades at the tanks and lots more tanks would have been destroyed.

Furthermore, the caterpillar tracks helped significantly as they trampled over barbed wire that the Germans may have carefully set out. By doing this, not only can they get to the other side of the trench and pass through machine-gun nests, but also let the infantry pass through by displacing the barbed wire through grapnel hooks. “…platoon of infantry followed behind. Belts of barbed wire, skilfully erected by the Germans, were trampled down by the tanks. Here and there the barbed wire was forcibly pulled out and thrown aside by grapnel hooks.”- This is a passage from an adaptation from AJ Smithers ‘The New Excalibur’. Another quote from an ex-soldier reads “The tank advancing over firm ground crushed the German wire defences like so much paper.”- This is what A W Bacon said in ‘I Was There’.

The caterpillar tracks contributed to the win of the war as they are what gave the tanks the necessary grip (not perfect) and what gave them the skill to simply crush the barbed wire that separated them and the Germans. If they didn’t have this, the tanks would just slide chaotically and the barbed wire would get trapped whatever the tank was driving on. Another piece of equipment that they used to improve the grip of the tanks, and to get the tank out if it was stuck was an ‘unditching beam’ (see Fig. 5), which was merely a piece of wood that would be dropped in front of the tracks when needed but gave an additional bit of grip.

The tanks’ strength also gave them an advantage. They could break through walls, other barriers and smash through groups of soldiers. They could also break through various buildings for instance, they could get through a tower or church. “…I noticed a brick wall right up against the nose of the tank, but as we had been through so many before I did not hesitate, but just trod on the gas and charges straight though…we were inside a church, and had routed a machine-gun nest.”- This is what A W Bacon said in ‘I Was There!’ The strength also made it bullet-proof. This strength contributed to the win of the war as it is this that was most valuable because this is what gave them the advantage of being immune to any sorts of destruction.

There have been a few occasions where the tanks have proved to be successful in battles. The Mark I proved to be extremely in the Battle of Cambrai. The plan was to attack the Hindenburg Line and have three groups of cavalry encircling Cambrai. The assault commenced on the 20th November 1917. The Germans were taken by surprise by the extreme weapon attack directly on the Hindenburg Line. 400 Mark IV tanks were used in the attack and it proved successful.

Another instance where tanks were used in a battle and proved to be successful is in the battle of the Somme during the Battle of Flers-Courcelette in September 1916. The initial idea was that because it was the first use of the tanks, the Germans would have been surprised and would have been forced to retreat. However, of the 42 tanks sent, only 32 reached their starting points on the British line and of the 32, 5 got stuck and a further 9 broke down. This meant the British lost their surprise value. Nevertheless, the 18 tanks that successfully attacked the Germans caught the Germans by such a surprise that Haig ordered another 1000 tanks.

In contrast to this, the tanks used in WW1 had some flaws. Even though the attack with the tanks caused confusion amongst the German army, a few complaints were raised. An issue raised was the limited vision through the eye-slits. This meant that the tanks couldn’t see the German soldiers with the machine-guns and this meant that the British soldiers behind the tanks were shot by the Germans. “The tanks, with their limited vision, passed by many enemy machine guns (of which there were great and increasing numbers). These machine guns, unnoticed by the tanks, caused heavy losses among the infantry. This made any advances worthless because the tanks on their own had no way of holding the territory they had captured”- This is a passage from the adaptation from T Wilson of ‘The Myriad Faces of War’

Another flaw in the tanks design was the amount of mud that was able to squeeze into the treads in the tracks and this meant that they would be blocked up. This also meant that if they were stuck in thin mud, they would sink and would be improbable to retrieve and would useless if they were retrieved. This is because the water would seep in through the gun doors and eventually stop the engine. “Many managed to struggle out of the oozy slime but the majority sank lower and lower, until the water came in through the gun doors and stopped the engines.”- This is what Lt. F Mitchell said in ‘I Was There. This also implies that the tanks are not waterproof.

The inside of the tank was a hell-hole. The temperature was far too hot for a human to work safely. The heat also meant that there was a possibility it might set alight the fuel tanks. The vibrations meant that the guns came out of their holdings. The crew had to learn sign signals to communicate because the sounds of gun-shots and the sound of the engine were too loud for anyone to say or hear anything. The fumes were clogged up inside the tank making it hard for the crew to breath. If a bullet hit the outside of the tank, bits from the inside would shoot out. This molten metal flying around meant that the crew had to wear what was called ‘splatter masks’ (see Fig. 6) which was rather like what medieval knights would wear in the past [chain mail].

An example of where a tank used in a battle did not go as planned was in the Battle of Cambrai. Everything was running perfectly until the attack reached a stage where most of the tanks couldn’t fight on either because the shortage of fuel or because they were stuck. This forced the infantry and the cavalry to retreat and the Germans counter-attacked pushing the British back to where they started. The Germans captured 50 tanks and developed their own tanks called the AV7 but only created 20. This defeat was shown in Britain as a victory [propaganda].

The first tank-to-tank battle was on the 24th April 1918. It was an unanticipated meeting of 3 A7V’s and 3 Mark VI’s (2 were female and the other was male) at Villers-Bretonneux. The Mark VI’s won in the end because if the ‘6 pounder’ gun from the male.

Overall, the tanks, as a weapon, were successful because they helped save many lives. The faults and issues with the tank were soon taken into consideration and it wasn’t before long that they introduced more variants of the tanks.

The tank was also used to persuade more people to join the army via propaganda. They were used to manipulate the audience’s mind through various kinds of media and the most obvious one, the tanks. The main type of media, and also the most popular, was the newspapers. The government controlled everything the newspapers said and even added some false information. The newspapers were more than happy to let them. This way the government knew that what was going inside the peoples’ head is what he wanted then to know. The first picture of a tank that was shown to the public cost �1000.

The main factor that the government used was to portray the tank as some kind of wonder-weapon that was indestructible which meant that more people would join up for the army thinking that the battle would be won with the tanks.

As I have mentioned above, the British presented the Battle of Cambrai as a tank victory. The tanks did not just grow from trees. They cost money (a lot of money) and this is what the British were running out of. They needed more money to produce more tanks so after the Battle of Cambrai, when everyone was in high spirits, they started a new campaign called the tank bank. The tank bank involved people investing in the tank and after the war, if the British won, which the people were sure of, they would get more than what they invested. The tank bank would literally be a bank as a tank.

A young woman would stand inside a tank and people would have their war bonds and certificates, which you would purchase, specially stamped by the young women inside the tank (see Fig. 7). The success in London meant that the tank bank spread to other cities and countries. In London, holy men, ex-soldier heroes, and other famous people were asked to stage a performance in front of all the people on the top of a tank. This also generated popularity. They even created a competition to see which town could invest the most money per head. This was the most flourishing tank operations in the entire war.

Before the picture of the tank was taken, the tank was the superstar of cartoons, songs and musical shows. They made videos out of the tanks and by late 1916; it had reached the stage at the Gaiety Theatre in London. 16 girls, under the control of the infamously suggestive young French singer Regine Flory, sang a rather provoking song called Tanko. This outraged some of the soldiers and one in particular, Siegfried Sassoon, hit back with a fuming piece of music called Blighters. It went:

I’d like to see a Tank come down the stalls,

Lurching to rag-time tunes, or ‘Home, Sweet Home’

And there’d be no more jokes in music-halls

To mock the riddled corpses round Bapaume

However, the cartoons did not make the soldiers or the people angry. The tanks were seen in Newspapers as wild beasts (see Fig. 8) and they exaggerated their descriptions by referring to them as dragons and pre-historic beasts (using realistic terms might have been useful to the enemy). These cartoons where rather comical and made the audience laugh.

Overall, I feel that tanks made an immense contribution to the winning of the war. This is through their sheer strength and the fear they struck into the opponents.