The First Landship Was Such a Secret That It Was Called a “Tank”

Little Willie Didn't Fair Too Well in Its Debut But Big Willie Soon Followed

Leonardo Da Vinci's Early Version of what later was known as a Tank

On This Date in History:  In the mid to late 15th century, the Scots used covered war carts when they did battle with the English.  Leonardo da Vinci sketched a design for what became known as a tank in the 1480’s and in later centuries, various attempts at creating wind powered or steam powered “landships” were made.   The idea of ships being covered with iron plating for protection had been around since the US Civil War as “ironclads” became pretty popular by the end of that conflict.  Much like the submarine had gotten a boost from the vision or science fiction writer Jules Verne, perhaps the idea of a workable “landship” seemed to be more practical with the 1903  publication of H.G. Wells’ of “The Land Iron Clads” in Strand Magazine.  What most probably pushed the idea of a enclosed attack platform from the drawing board to the battle field was circumstance.  By 1916, trench warfare had taken hold in Europe during World War I and a case of stalemate had emerged in which neither side could gain an advantage facing another recent development: the machine gun.

This Part of "No Man's Land" in WWI Was Once a Forest

For miles and miles, mainly through France and Belgium, the axis and allies had dug series of connecting trenches.  The area in between the lines was known as “no man’s land” because any attempted advance over the top of the trench was met by heavy machine gun fire that cut down anything standing.  Barbed wire was also used to delay any advance attempted by footsoldiers and that made for an easy target.   The casualties in World War I were horrific and between flying bullets through the air and constant artillery bombardment, no living things survived;  grass disappeared and trees cut to pieces.  The result was a muddy muck that made any sort of travel exceedingly difficult.  Not long after the war began and trench warfare had taken hold,  British Colonel Ernest Swinton was sent to the front to make observations and recommendations.  Colonel Swinton noticed that he only way for travel was with caterpillar tractor with moving treads.  He had the notion that, if an armored vehicle with such tracks were developed, then perhaps the trenchlines of the Germans could be breeched.  He kicked his idea upstairs, but at first, General Sir John French flatly rejected the idea of a steel plated, caterpillar tracked vehicle.  But, Swinton did not give up.  He passed his idea on to Colonel Maurice Hankey and from Hankey it landed in the hands of Sir Winston Churchill, who at the time was the First Lord of the Admiralty

Little Willie Now Lives In a Museum

As the head of the Royal Navy, Churchill knew the value of armored plating and he got the project going.  Development began but it was done under ultra-secret conditions.  Those who worked on the project were told to tell anyone who questioned them that they were working on water carriers or water tanks.  It seems that, especially in the military, abbreviated terms come into common usage for a variety of topics and this was no exception.  Hence, the term “tank” was coined.  Officially, it was called a “Landship” and the Landships Committee and New Inventions Committee agreed that it was an idea worth exploring with certain specifications.  Lieutenant W. G. Wilson of the Naval Air Service and William Tritton of William Foster & Co. Ltd. of Lincoln were given the task of building a landship that could hold 10 men, move at up to 4 mph and be capable of making sharp turns at top speed.  The landship had to be able to climb a 5 foot earth parapet, cross an 8 foot gap and operate in reverse.  The armament would feature at least two machine guns and a 2 pound main gun.  

Mark I or "Big Willie" or "Mother" at the Sommes Sept 25 1916

The result was the 26 foot long, 14 ton No. 1 Lincoln Machine or “Little Willie” outfitted with the “creeping grip” track from the Bullock Tractor Co. of Chicago.   The nickname came about in reference to German Kaiser Wilhelm.   When the first prototype was demonstrated to the Landship Committee on September 11, 1915, it was a bit underwhelming.  Willie could barely muster a speed over 3 mph and over rough ground that dropped off to about 2 mph.  The biggest set-back was that it failed to overcome broad trenches.  But, Swinton was convinced that his tank could be improved and provide the needed push for an Allied victory.  A second model was created which looked very similar to the original and it didn’t work too well either when it was tried out in December 1915.  So, a new design was undertaken that put the track around the superstructure and it had a 6 pound gun.  The new version was referred to as “Big Willie” or “Mother,” though it was officially the Mk1 or Mark 1. 

Whoops! Some of the Big Willies Couldn't Negotiate the Big Trenches

The first use of tanks in battle was in the Battle of the Somme near the villages of Flers and Courcelette in France on this date in 1915.  The tanks included a crew of a subaltern, 3 drivers and 4 gunners.  One of the gunners was a non-commissioned officer who commanded the machine.  Rarely did the landship reach 4 mph in battlefield conditions and conditions for the crew were pretty tough.  It was extremely hot and noisy and exhaust from the engine made breathing difficult.  Hot, molten metal flew about as the armor was struck by machine gun fire.  As a result, the crews often became sick and incompacitated thus rendering long term operation impossible.  Then there was the issue of communication, which was very difficult within the tank and nearly impossible between tanks.  Because men could usually walk faster than the tank could move, officers would often get out of the tank and walk to another one nearby to coordinate their movements or tactics.

US M1A1 Abrams Tank descended from Little Willie

The first attack was supposed to come at 6:20AM on September 15, 1916 but it got going about an hour early.   Seems that Captain H.W. Mortimore got cranked up early.  His was supposed to be one of three tanks to initiate the action but the other two were delayed.   Mechanical issues proved to be a big bugaboo the first time out as only 32 of the 49 tanks available got off the mark that day.  Of those, 5 ended up stuck in a trenches or shell holes, 9 broke down and 9 were too slow to keep up with the other tanks, let alone the troops.   However, the 9 slow pokes were successful in mop-up operations as the 9 that managed to keep going, breeched enemy lines and caused considerable damage.  The sight of these new beasts were quite a shock to the German army.    While the British had a long way to go in fixing the problems associated with their first tank effort and they had to figure out how the new machine could most effectively be used, the Germans saw the benefits and started their own tank development program.  By April 1918, the Germans deployed their own version of the tank.  But, advancing Allied armies, German losses and the economic disaster that had become Germany were such that the new German tank could not save the day.  By November 11, 1918 an armistice was signed to end the war with terms that were very harsh to Germany.  Many say the signing of the Armistice in 1918 in a railway car in France set the stage for World War II.  Some historians argue that World War II was simply an extension of World War I.  By the time that war had come about, engineering advancements made the tank a necessary and needed tactical weapon on the field of war and tank technology has continued well into the 21st century, over 100 years after Little Willie first showed up.

SPC thinks strong storms are possible Thursday

Weather Bottom Line:  On Wednesday evening, the dewpoint in Louisville was 49 and the humidity 23%.  There is a front approaching and normally I’d say there was a chance for scattered showers on Thursday morning but I don’t see how it happens without moisture.  The morning event may serve to moisten up the column sufficiently to allow for a better chance for rain and t’storms with the actual cold front on Thursday afternoon or evening.  If we are moist enough, then we may be able to support a squall line ahead of the front and if that happens, some of the storms could be rather strong.  After that, no rain chances are in sight.  We will pull back on the dry heat temperatures that we’ve had on Friday with highs in the low to mid 80’s but as high pressure moves to the east, we go back to the 90’s for Saturday and at least the first part of next week.

2 Responses

  1. Really quite an interesting entry. I suppose I can be forgiven for laughing at the poor thing that couldn’t quite navigate across the trench.

    I find the workings of big machines fascinating. When they brought in the huge cranes to untangle the boats after Ike, I thanked my lucky stars I was working at the marinas and could document it. And the work of the ROVs at the Deepwater Horizon site was amazing.

    Don’t you know some of those guys who manned the early tanks would be astonished by today’s armored vehicle technology – not to mention the embedded journalists that travel with them from time to time.

  2. I would think that the speed and the targeting capability would be most impressive. I saw the biggest truck in the world…or maybe it was the former biggest truck. One wheel is about 14 feet high.

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