Ernest Swinton and the Tank of World War I

Military History

Ernest Swinton and the Tank of World War I

On Sept. 15, 1916, near Flers-Courcelette, German troops became the first to fall victim to Ernest Swinton’s famous military contraption: the tank.

On Sept. 15, 1916, near Flers-Courcelette, German troops became the first to fall victim to Ernest Swinton’s famous military contraption: the tank.

by O’Brien Browne

The brainchild of Ernest Swinton, a talented young officer in the Royal Engineers, the tank was developed as a means to break the barbed wire-encrusted fortresses of the Western Front. The idea had first been officially proposed in a 1914 memo by Colonel Hankey, outlining an armored vehicle using the caterpillar tracks found on agricultural machines. Winston Churchill’s agile mind immediately grasped the revolutionary nature of this invention and he gave his support to Swinton and his collaborators. The Royal Navy, where Churchill was minister, had already had good experience with armored cars. By February 1915, a Landships Committee had been formed to pursue the idea and a prototype—“Little Willie”—was produced. At the beginning of 1916, a bigger, armed version named “Mother” was being favorably tested. To keep this innovation secret, they were called “water tanks,” and the name stuck.

The Production of the Mark I Tank

Allocated to the Heavy Branch of the Machine Gun Corps, the Mark I military tanks were produced in two versions: the “male” armed with 6-pounder cannons, and the “female” sporting Vickers or Hotchkiss machine guns. Powered by gigantic 105 hp, six-cylinder Daimler engines, they had a maximum speed of seven mph and a crew of eight, working together in a noisy, cramped and hot environment. The tanks could crush barbed wire entanglements, cross trenches up to 11 feet wide, and carried pigeons for communication. Tactics were soon developed in which the tanks were organized into companies of up to 17 machines and closely supported by specially trained infantry. General Haig, sensing that the tank could provide the means for breaking through the German lines, immediately ordered production of them, and threw them into combat during the faltering Somme offensive, despite the fact that the crews were novice and the Mark I was prone to debilitating mechanical breakdowns.

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Lieutenant A.E. Arnold of D Company related how his tank, Dracula, advanced on Flers through a German barrage, overran their first line of trenches and “paused whilst the Vickers guns raked the enemy to port and starboard. Then on we went again….” Later, after having tea and breakfast, the crew of Dracula was asked to help stop a German counterattack. Looking out of a porthole, Arnold saw “long lines of Germans advancing in open formation,” and he rapidly “opened fire with our port side Vickers guns at 900 yards range … it certainly checked the advance.” That day the infantry and tanks took 3,500 yards of territory before the advance halted as some machines were hit by artillery, others became bogged down in the torn-up earth or experienced mechanical breakdowns.

Although the surprise effect of this new weapon was muted by Haig’s decision to use it before it had been fully formed, a new powerful weapon of war had been débuted, forever changing the face of warfare.

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