British tank factory, 1917


“It was a weapon designed for one simple task: crossing the killing zone between trench lines and breaking into enemy defenses [sic].” (1)

  • Today marks the 100th anniversary of the first tanks used in combat during World War One
  • The Mark I British ‘landship’ was introduced at the battle of Flers-Courcelette ten weeks into The Somme 
  • Organized in secret, the plan went awry when the attack was ambushed by the Germans, who managed to delay the British advance
  • ENGINEERS AT WAR exhibit looks at the role of engineering in WWI.

In 1904 David Roberts had patented a train track tractor, trials in 1907 led troops to nickname the track tractor the ‘caterpillar’. A tracked trailer was also designed, on which to load and move guns. The vehicle was devised for transportation; it was not intended as a weapon. It was the expediency of the war that led to further developments: the need to mount trenches and break the stalemate of troop/ground warfare led people to make the association between a tracked vehicle and an armoured vehicle; these concepts would be combined to create the tank. Unlike the caterpillar, the tank had no sprung suspension and the track plates were an improved in order to deal with wartime conditions.

Chain-track tractor test
Train-track tractor test

The Ministry of Defence had rejected the idea of tracked vehicles and sold the patent to Holt Manufacturing Company in 1911: the army, therefore, had to purchase caterpillar tractors from The Caterpillar Tractor Company (as Holt had become) for transportation uses in the war.

“In great excitement everybody rushed out of tents, just as they had slept, and there they were, the first of the tanks, passing our tents to the practice driving ground which we had prepared.”  William Dawson, Motor Machine Gun Service

The tank was not the first armoured vehicle but previous incarnations required level surfaces on which to move. It became increasingly apparent that what was required was a self-propelled vehicle which could run on rough terrain. The urgency for such a weapon was due to the stalemate on the Western Front, where months and many lives were spent edging forwards and back. Trench warfare required a vechile which could overcome rough terraine. Accordingly, the tank was devised to survive artillery fire and move through barbed wire thus progressing into territory troops could not go on foot without severe reprocussions and loss of life. The innovation was eventually successful in attack, although during the First World War it was not realised that 20 years later the tank would be a major weapon of warfare.

The combined efforts of the Admiralty and the War Office led to a prototype being trialled in 1915, it was affectionately known as ‘Little Willie’. In early 1916 some changes led to the building of ‘Big Willie’, officially known as Mk 1 it was also called ‘Mother’ (to denote how it gave birth to all future tanks and associated developments).

The Mk I tank ‘Big Willie’
Early image of the Mk I tank ‘Big Willie’

The tank was first used at the Battle of the Somme, its impact was psychological rather militaristic; records show that of the 49 tanks which took part in the engagement, 17 broke down before they reached the front line, 9 more broke down at the front line and 5 got bogged down during the attack. However, its invulnerability to small arms fire and use for subduing machine gun fire and crushing barbed wire was established (this opened the way for an infantry attack to follow). However, as they were sent ahead of artillery barrages all assault surprise was lost. It took until 1917, at the battle of Cambrai, for the tank to show its potential effectiveness in battle. They were used in large numbers without the following artillery bombardment and the massed surprise assault achieved a spectacular breakthrough. Although, recent claims that captured solider’s disclosed what they knew of the plans have been made; potentially then, the attack was not as effective as it might have been.

By the end of the war, engine developments meant faster tanks were being manufactured. It seemed that the Allies, at last, had the answer to the problem of strategic penetration following a break-through. However, the war ended before this could be proven – the British Tank Corps had planned to use 10000 tanks in an independent mass assault but this never came about. Somewhat ironically, it was for the German Panzer units of the Second World War to prove this.

A replica of a World War One tank has been placed in Trafalgar Square to mark the 100th anniversary.

Engineers at War: from home front to battle front

Most of this information has been taken from an IMechE paper discussing the development of the tank and its use during WW1, TLH Butterfield (IMechE Proceedings: Auto 1965 180:159): ‘Design and Development of Fighting Tanks’

Archives, Institution of Mechanical Engineering

(1) Williamson Murray, “Armoured Warfare: The British, French, and German Experiences,” in Murray, Williamson; Millet, Allan R, eds. (1996). Military Innovation in the Interwar Period. New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 6. ISBN 0-521-63760-0.

Non-IMechE images: Q 48212 British tank factory, IWM fair use; Chain tank, ICE archives.

Archive, Institution of Mechanical Engineers


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s