The First Tanks used on the battlefield of the First World War were British. These early models caused panic among the enemy when first deployed. They were plagued by many problems though, being slow and unable to sustain assaults. From 1915 to the end of the First World War the tank was developed by both the Allies and Central Powers. It had become a key feature of assaults by the end of the fighting on the Western Front and was one of the reasons why the Allies were able to secure victories on the battlefield.
Related content: Development of New Weapons in the First World War
The First Tank: “Little Willy”
The British developed a tank after demonstrations of a prototype to members of the Cabinet, including David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill. The Landship as it was initially called would be produced to a minimum battlefield specification. It had to have a range of 20 miles, be capable of climbing 5 feet and able to traverse a 5 foot wide trench. Resistance to small arms fire was essential.
Little Willy was the first tank produced as a result of the trials approved by Government. It was a cumbersome machine. It wasn’t as fast as required and needed six men, not two as requested, to man all of the steering and weapons on board. In tests it struggled with a variety of features of trench systems. As a prototype it worked in terms of highlighting the key areas that needed addressing but the design itself was some way from being ideal for a battle ready tank.
Mark I tank (Big Willy / Centipede)
While trials of Little Willy were ongoing the designers worked on optimising the tank. It was this design, the Mark I tank, that was the first to be used in combat. Known as Big Willy (and sometimes Centipede) it first saw action at the Battle of Flers, part of the Somme Campaign of 1916. 21 Mark I tanks were used in this advance. The German infantry retreated. An advance of 5 miles was achieved as the tanks were able to penetrate into fortified positions. They were unable to sustain the attack though. Terrain, limited support, ammunition and range proved to be limiting factors. The success was obvious though, the landtank was clearly a weapon with potential.
Mark II tank
The Mark II version of the tank was intended to be used for training purposes. Initially just 50 of this model were ordered by the army. 25 of the Mark II were fitted with cannon, 25 with a pair of machine guns. This concept of ‘Male’ and ‘Female’ tanks had been introduced with the Mark I as a tactic to protect the more dangerous cannon bearing tanks. The design of the Mark II was only slightly different to that of the Mark I. Despite being intended for training purposes the Mark II was taken to the Western Front and saw action.
The Mark III tank was similarly aimed at training. It never saw action on the Western Front. Whilst it was being built, new designs for the Mark IV were drawn up. This led to the limited number of Mark III tanks being used by the army as training vehicles while production of the later model Mark IV tank was prioritised.
Mark IV tank
The Mark IV tank entered service in 1917. It is the best known of the British tanks that saw action in the First World War. 1220 of these tanks were produced. The Mark IV was used by the British and Italian armies. German forces used some captured Mark IV tanks against the Allies. The Male version of the tank carried two 6 pound guns and 4 Lewis guns. The Female version of the Mark IV tank carried 5 Lewis Machine guns. These tanks had a top speed of 6 miles per hour and had an effective range of 35 miles. They were also quite adaptable and some were modified to provide battlefield support, carry additional machine guns or act as trench fillers. One variant was to increase the length of the tank which enabled deeper trenches to be crossed.
In combat the main advantage of the Mark IV came from changes to the design. Early models of the tank had become ditched in trenches. The Mark IV had a beam built to the front that made this significantly less likely to occur. The Second innovation was to reduce the length of the gun barrel. This also led to the tank being less likely to become ensnared in an enemy trench. Fuel was no longer stored alongside the crew, instead it was in a fuel tank to the rear of the vehicle.
The Mark IV worked particularly well at Messines Ridge. Here it advanced quickly up the ridge in an assault in which the tanks followed the traditional bombardment. Messines Ridge was taken relatively quickly with the compact ground making the strengths of the Mark IV quite apparent. At Passchendaele, the same year, the tanks were deployed in different conditions. Here the muddy conditions made control of the tanks quite difficult and whilst they offered protection for infantry, did not lead to a quick victory.
Tactical Changes to Tank Warfare
As the number of Mark IV tanks available increased the earlier Mark I and Mark II vehicles were adapted. They now became fuel carriers. This meant that the Mark IV could be refuelled on the battlefield. This had great potential for prolonged fighting which would enable mobile support for infantry over longer periods of time.
Battle of Cambrai: mass use of tanks
At the Battle of Cambrai, launched 20 November 1917, the British deployed over 400 tanks against the Hindenburg Line. This was a major test of the tank. The Hindenburg line was a longstanding pre-war construction of German defences. The tanks faired well but the infantry were unable to maintain the same pace. This meant that as tanks crossed trenches, the Germans within them wee not necessarily dealt with. Though the battle resulted in a stalemate, the importance of the tank had increased. Prior to Cambrai they had been used as support vehicles. After Cambrai the ability of the tank to take the lead was recognised.
Mark V tank
In 1918 the last of the ‘Caterpillar’ style rhombus shaped tanks was produced by the British. The Mark V tank was mass produced with just over 1000 being sent to the Western Front by the end of the war. This tank had four Hotchkiss machine guns and two 57mm 6 pounder guns (Male Version) or 6 Hotchkiss Machine Guns (Female Version). The Mark V had improved internal communications for the driver, making it more effective.
The Mark V was first used at the Battle of Hamel on 4th July 1918. The tank was used alongside Australian and American infantry and British bomber aircraft. The battle was a success and highlighted the effectiveness of combining the different elements of the armed forces. This contributed to planning for the Battle of Amiens which saw this tactics utilised on a grander scale with much success.