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Too Important for the Generals:
Losing and Winning the First World War
No weapon was ever brought to the battlefield with more impressive speed and secrecy than the tank. After a year of trial and error with various caterpillar devices, on January 20, 1916, a prototype of the ultimate rhomboid-shaped design was demonstrated to the Admiralty landships committee by William Foster and Co Ltd of Lincoln, specialists in agricultural machinery. It crossed a trench 8ft wide, climbed a 5ft parapet and crushed barbed wire.
The committee, which had been set up by the former first lord of the admiralty, Winston Churchill, was impressed. A week later, the 28-ton machine, shrouded in tarpaulins and described on the bill of lading as 'water tank for Mesopotamia', was on its way by rail to Home Park in Hatfield, Hertfordshire, seat of the Marquess of Salisbury, to be shown to the cabinet.
Home Park was the ideal place for a secret demonstration - 1,000 acres of wooded deer enclosure just 20 miles from Whitehall. The 'tank' performed well, though Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, secretary of state for war, thought it only 'a pretty mechanical toy'. Fortunately the commander-in-chief of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), Sir Douglas Haig, had sent his deputy chief of staff, Major-General Richard Butler, to observe. Butler asked simply, 'How soon can we have them?'
The minister of munitions, David Lloyd George, at once loosened the purse strings. By the middle of February, Fosters had been contracted to build 50, and a Birmingham company 50 more, increased in April by a further 50. On September 15, barely eight months after its first outing in Lincoln, the tank - the name now officially adopted - would take part in what Haig hoped would be the decisive attack of his stalled Somme offensive - the battle of Flers-Courcelette, as it became known.
Finding 'crews' - a nod to the tank's naval origins - was a novel challenge. Each tank was to be commanded by an officer, with a further seven men as drivers, gearsmen and gunners. Including supports and replacements, 150 officers and 1,000 other ranks would be needed for the initial 100 tanks. How were they to be found, for secrecy demanded they be recruited without knowing what exactly they were volunteering for? A cover name for the organisation was needed - 'Heavy Section Machine Gun Corps'. Ernest Swinton, a Royal Engineer lieutenant-colonel who had been one of the first advocates of caterpillar traction, was given charge of raising and training the new force. He asked the War Office to 'select and warn personally, good fighting subalterns of resource and courage, conversant with motor cars or motor cycles', then set off scouting for talent.
Similarly secretive arrangements were put in hand to find other ranks. Advertisements appeared in Motor Cycle Magazine for men who could drive 'light cars'; recruits in training were suddenly told that former plumbers and gas-fitters should report to the orderly room. The best drivers came from the Army Service Corps, whose superior discipline would prove significant.
Recruits - some of them transferees from the Navy's armoured car detachments - began assembling in some mystification at Bisley in Surrey, but once a few training tanks were available they moved to Elveden Hall in Suffolk, seat of the Guinness brewing magnate, the Earl of Iveagh, with 15 square miles of the best pheasant shooting in the country. When the lands branch of the War Office telephoned Lord Iveagh to tell him of its requisition, he sighed resignedly and said that if anyone's shoot was to be spoilt it might as well be his.
Tenant farmers and labourers were uprooted, old retainers displaced from almshouses, and Elveden school closed.Three pioneer battalions, many of them Welsh miners, began creating a mile-and-a-half-long replica of the Western Front, complete with shell craters, barbed wire entanglements, dugouts, and six lines of trenches. Security was tight. Its cover name was the 'Elveden Explosives Area'.
When Clough Williams-Ellis, the future architect of the village of Portmeirion in north Wales, and one of the Heavy Section's first subalterns, arrived, he found cavalry, Indian troops and territorials patrolling three concentric perimeters, the area 'more ringed about than was the palace of the Sleeping Beauty'. The first tanks appeared at the beginning of June. The 'Mark 1' came in two types: 'male', with two six-pounder (57mm) guns in side sponsons firing high explosive shell, plus three Hotchkiss machine guns; and 'female', with four heavier Vickers machine guns and a Hotchkiss.
Each had six to twelve millimetres of armour, which was good protection against rifle fire and to some extent machineguns, but not much against high explosive. Motive power was from a six-cylinder, 16-litre, 105hp DaimlerKnight petrol engine driving the caterpillar tracks through three independent gearboxes. Steering required the tank to halt momentarily to disengage a track, and the first models had tail wheels to assist. On level ground the Mark 1 could make 4mph, with a range of about 25 miles before refuelling.
Crew conditions were appalling. The combination of engine heat, noise, exhaust fumes, and violent movement as the tank crossed broken ground made men violently sick even on short journeys. Injuries were common. It was difficult to communicate within the tank, and almost impossible without. The commander would have to dismount to liaise with the infantry.
The War Office specification for mechanical reliability was a mere 50 miles, as the tank was meant to be a one-off weapon whose job would be done once the infantry broke through and the cavalry let loose. Unsurprisingly, given its weight, the inexperience of the crews, and the difficulty of keeping engine and gearbox lubricated when pitched at extreme angles, breakdowns were frequent.
Nevertheless, under Swinton's direction at Elveden things slowly began taking shape, with four companies, A to D, each consisting of four sections of three tanks - two male, one female - and another tank in company reserve, formed by late July. Two companies, C and D, would entrain for the Somme on August 16. Few of the crewmen had ever heard a shot fired in anger.
At his headquarters south of Boulogne, Haig was having to adjust his plans. He had originally intended the Somme offensive to start not at the beginning of July but in mid-August when, besides more training time and the promise of additional heavy artillery, he had expected to have 30 tanks. Delays had set back delivery a month, and the French commander-in-chief, Joseph Joffre, had pressed him to bring forward the offensive to relieve pressure on the French army at Verdun.
The offensive had therefore opened on July 1 - catastrophically, with 60,000 casualties on the first day alone - continuing unpromisingly, although Haig himself remained optimistic throughout. In late August he began planning a climactic offensive-within-an-offensive to break the deadlock. His intention was to establish a defensive flank on the high ground north of the Albert-Bapaume road, which bisected the Somme battlefield, while pressing the main assault south of it with the aim of breaching the German rear line between Morval and Le Sars. In essence it was the same idea as July 1, but on a narrower frontage - eight miles as opposed to 18 miles - with a shorter but more concentrated preliminary artillery bombardment and now with the game-changing tanks.
There were growing concerns about loss of operational surprise, however. Once used, the Germans would gain the measure of it, adjust their tactics, increase the distribution of armourpiercing rounds and, worst of all, develop tanks of their own. Indeed, there were fears they were already doing so. After watching a demonstration near Amiens, the Prince of Wales, a titular subaltern in the Grenadier Guards, wrote to his father, King George V: 'I enclose a rough sketch of these land submarines or 'Tanks' as they are called for secrecy. The Huns have no doubt got accurate drawings of them and have by now produced a superior article!!'
Edwin Montagu, the new minister of munitions, told the cabinet on September 12, just three days before the fresh offensive was due to begin, 'There are rumours the Germans are making something of the same kind' and that his French opposite number had told him that his own army had placed an order for 800 tracked machines and urged that 'we should not put ours into the field until they were ready'.
At the same time, Sir William Robertson, chief of the Imperial General Staff, believed that they should not be used until there were more of them. The prime minister, HH Asquith, whose eldest son, Raymond, was serving on the Somme, had seen the tank for himself. He decided to leave the decision to the man on the spot, Haig, who was desperate for some sort of success. He told Sir Henry Rawlinson, commander of 4th Army, that 'when we use them [the tanks] they will be thrown in with determination [under-lined] into the fight regardless of cost.'
The problem was not only of numbers, but of ground. The Somme was not Suffolk, certainly not after two months' bombardment. The novelist and Times correspondent in France, John Buchan, likened it to 'a decaying suburb . . . pockmarked with shell holes'.
Although the tank was designed to cross broken ground, the slower it advanced the more vulnerable it became. Nevertheless, by the end of August 50 machines had arrived in France, and Haig decided that they would support the attack on September 15, distributed more or less evenly across the three assaulting corps.
Their arrival in the forward areas just before Zero Hour came as a surprise to most of the infantry. Private Arnold Ridley of the Somerset Light Infantry - who, 60 years later, became Private Godfrey in Dad's Army - was severely wounded in hand-to-hand fighting that day. 'We in the ranks had never heard of tanks,' he recalled later. 'We were told that there was some sort of secret weapon and then we saw this thing go up the right hand corner of Delville Wood. I saw this strange and cumbersome machine emerge from the shattered shrubbery and proceed slowly towards Flers.'
Some thought them comical, while the very thing that was perceived to be their weakness impressed others: 'It was her slowness that scared us as much as anything,' a territorial told a reporter afterwards. There was something about the tank's steady, relentless advance in the face of fire. Others saw nothing at all, for only 22 of the 50 tanks actually reached the start line, seven of which promptly broke down.
Most of those that did get into action paid dearly. Lieutenant Basil Henriques' tank came under intense machine gun fire, forcing him to close the viewing slits. 'Then a smash against my flap at the front caused splinters to come in and the blood to pour down my face. Another minute and my driver got the same. Then our prism glass broke to pieces, then another smash. I think it must have been a bomb right in my face. The next one wounded my driver so badly we had to stop. By this time I could see nothing at all.' When the glass shards were removed from his face at a dressing station, Henriques kept a piece to have mounted in a gold ring to give to his wife.
Where two or more tanks managed to advance together there could be distinct success. The defenders of the halfruined sugar beet factory at Flers were forced out by concerted fire. However, little ground was gained that day. Rawlinson wrote in his diary: 'A great battle. We nearly did a big thing.'
The tank had demonstrated its potential, and production would now be stepped up. In November the companies were expanded into battalions, and in July the next year the Tank Corps was formed - some 15 battalions. The concern about the loss of surprise proved overstated. Although the Germans would occasionally use captured British and French tanks, and eventually develop their own, they failed to recognise the worth of armoured fighting vehicles until after the war.
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