A Brief History
On November 20, 1917, a combined Allied offensive (British and French) stepped off against the Germans at Cambrai, France (Nord Department). The use of massed armor in close coordination with artillery and infantry was an historic first, and set the pattern for future use of armored vehicles. Although tanks had been used during World War I prior to Cambrai, they were used in smaller numbers (as many as 60 at a time) and only in close contact with the infantry in a strictly infantry support role. The British employed nearly 500 of their latest model tanks in the attack, an armored tsunami never before seen. Initial breakthroughs by tank supported attacks fizzled as the unreliable metal monsters broke down. Armored warfare obviously needed some serious mechanical changes to improve reliability to become the game changer it would later (1939-1940) become.
While various forms of armored vehicles had been attempted over the years, the lack of suitable engines (as opposed to horse drawn or people powered vehicles) and automotive running gear made the efforts largely a novelty only. Even the genius Leonardo Da Vinci got into the act with his conception of an armored vehicle that looked kind of like a tepee! When the internal combustion engine was developed in the late 19th Century and the automobile was invented, it did not take long for military oriented types to try to exploit the new technology for warfare. Even before 1900 the earliest armored (lightly armored to say the least) cars were built, armed with machine guns and providing minimal armored protection for the crews. An example would be the 1899 Simms’s Motor War Car, boasting 2 machine guns in revolving turrets, but only a 16 horsepower engine and quarter inch steel armor. Weak engines and being driven by car-like road wheels greatly limited the ability of these vehicles to move around off road.
Science fiction writer and forward thinking prophet of the future H.G. Wells wrote in 1903 of “land ironclads” aptly enough in his short story titled “The Land Ironclads.” Wells’ vision was of a large armored vehicle with 8 pairs of “pedrail” wheels all around the base of the oblong land-ship so that it could easily go in any direction. Each of the 10-foot diameter wheels would also be a drive wheel as well as a steering wheel. Powered by a steam engine, the hulking monster would be 100 feet long and be armed with semi-automatic rifles remotely operated. While the World War I tanks were certainly big, even the monstrous German tanks could not rival the size of the Land Ironclads envisioned by Wells, especially not with 12 inch thick armor!
Tanks became a battlefield reality when the inventors could design a drive system that could handle the mud and cratered battlefield of the trench lines. That system would be the “caterpillar” track type of drive system we find on tanks and many armored vehicles and construction/farm equipment today. Polish inventor Józef Maria Hoene-Wroński came up with idea first in the 1830’s, and other engineers and inventors toyed with the idea through the 19th Century. An early form slightly reminiscent of the caterpillar track was the British “Dreadnaught Wheel” system that had wheels with flat “feet” all around them. By 1854 a steam powered wagon riding on Dreadnaught Wheels was produced. Russian inventor Fyodor Blinov greatly improved upon further British refinements of the Dreadnaught Wheel idea that had evolved to include a track-like series of plates circumnavigating the road/drive wheels like an awkward track. Blinov’s design was the first caterpillar type of track but was initially only used on horse drawn wagons. Blinov later applied his invention to steam powered vehicles. By 1900, many other inventors were creating vehicles using the caterpillar track idea, even bicycles with tracks instead of standard wheels! Steam power gave way to the much lighter gasoline engines around the turn of the Century.
The first armored vehicle riding on caterpillar tracks was the British “Little Willie,” officially known as the Mark I, in 1915. Little Willie was a 16.5 metric ton prototype, meant to be armed with a 40mm “2 pounder” gun and some arrangement of machine guns. An enormous improvement over earlier armored vehicles was the 105 horsepower gasoline engine. Crew size was expected to number 6 men. When British military Generals became convinced of the viability of such a vehicle and especially its ability to traverse the battlefield, including crossing trenches 8 feet wide, the Mark I tank went into production, with its characteristic rhomboid shape that seems so strange today. That weird shape came from the requirement that the tanks be able to cross trenches and climb 4 foot high walls. Crew size grew to 8 men, and armament grew to 6 pounder guns (1 on each side) and 3 machine guns. Some of the tanks were made armed with only machine guns, and were referred to as “female” tanks, while the cannon equipped tanks were called “male.” Other uses and configurations of the base vehicle were also envisioned, as mobile artillery, resupply, and other uses. British commanders realized the Mark I needed more refinement to be effective in combat, and the Mark II evolved. The Mark II first saw combat in limited numbers in 1917, while the Mark III was a training tank.
The Mark IV model of the British tank became the definitive model we think of when considering World War I, 1220 of the type built, far more than any other model of tank in the Great War. Improvements included shortening the barrels of the 6 pounder guns, increasing the armor, and moving the fuel tank out of the crew compartment. Almost half the total Mark IV’s were built as “female” tanks, and another 205 were built as “tank tenders,” resupply and maintenance vehicles. A further 400 Mark V models were built as an improved version of the Mark IV with an eye toward being more effective against the giant German A7V tanks. The Mark V did not reach combat until 1918. An even bigger version of the Mark V designated Mark V* was also built, 700 of the mechanical beasts weighing a whopping 33 tonnes. The enlarged body was intended to carry its own infantry squad in the tank.
Meanwhile, the German approach to tank building produced the monstrous A7V, 33 metric tons, 24 feet long and over 10 feet wide with a height of almost 11 feet. With 30mm armor in front and 15mm armor on the side, the A7V was well protected. A 57mm main gun with 300 rounds was complimented by a battery of 6 machine guns and the beast was powered by 2 X 100 horsepower engines. The A7V was manned by a crew of 18! Fortunately for the Allies, the Germans only built 20 of these big bad boys, greatly limiting their impact on the war. The first tank vs. tank battle in history occurred in April of 1918 at Second Battle of Villers-Bretonneux when 3 A7V’s met up with 3 Mark IV’s. The 2 “female” Mark IV’s found out the hard way that their machine guns could not penetrate the A7V’s armor, but the “male” Mark IV made good use of its 6 pounder, knocking out 1 A7V and routing the other 2. In an interesting twist on history, the resourceful Germans used 20 captured British Mark IV tanks in battle against the British at Second Battle of the Marne in July of 1918! (10 of the “German” Mark IV’s were lost in battle.)
The Russians failed miserably at producing a tank worthy of production for World War I, but the French were somewhat more successful. The French developed and built 400 of their Schneider CA 1 models, an underpowered (60 horsepower) 13.5 ton tank armed with a 75mm cannon and 2 machine guns, economically manned by a crew of only 6. As the British learned how to use tanks en masse and in the breakthrough role, the French learned the same lessons and after initial poor results from tank warfare they later enjoyed increasing levels of success.
Oddly enough, it was the Germans that learned and took to heart the lessons of using tanks effectively from World War I and applied that knowledge so successfully in the invasion of Poland in 1939 and France in 1940. When the Germans tried to repeat that same success in Russia in 1941, they were met with better tanks and tactics than the British and French had shown, ultimately resulting in the ruin of Germany.
By the end of the Cold War in 1991, the Soviets had around 50,000 tanks of all types, including reserves, while the United States had close to 12,000 of the metal monsters. Enormous improvements in anti-tank technology have made service in tanks much more hazardous, with fixed wing and rotary wing aircraft launching specific anti-tank weapons at armored vehicles and individual soldiers and light armored vehicles equipped with deadly effective anti-tank missiles. Although the US military enjoyed enormous success with the M-1 Abrams tank in the Gulf War of 1991 and in the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars since 2001, one has to ponder whether or not the era of the main battle tank may be over, just as the Battleship became obsolete during World War II. The hallmark traits of tanks are the “Holy Trinity” of mobility, firepower and armored protection. Today’s main battle tanks are certainly mobile in a tactical sense, as their engines, tracks and suspensions have greatly improved, and for firepower their guns and other systems are deadlier than ever, even at night. The strategic mobility has suffered with the increased weight of the tanks, with an M-1 Abrams weighing more than double (70 tons) what a World War II Sherman M-4 tank weighed, which means much more difficult transportation of the tanks to the battlefield and much more stringent requirements for bridge capacity to cross streams and other obstacles. Armor protection has also improved by incredible amounts, but the enemy is always finding new ways to defeat armor and the result is heavier and heavier tanks, perhaps to the point of diminishing returns. The current cost of a new M-1 Abrams tank is a mind boggling $9 million!
Question for students (and subscribers): Do you think the main battle tank is obsolete? Have you ever served as a tank crewman? Have you served in the Army or Marine Corps in proximity to tanks? Have you ever ridden in or on a tank, or checked one out at a museum or elsewhere? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Cooper, Bryan. Ironclads of Cambrai: The First Great Tank Battle. Cassell, 2002.
Fletcher, David. Tanks and Trenches: First Hand Accounts of Tank Warfare in the First World War. The History Press, 2009.
Ogorkiewicz, Richard. Tanks: 100 years of evolution (General Military). Osprey Publishing, 2015.
The featured image in this article, a Mark IV tank being dug out by German troops at Cambrai, November 1917, was provided to Wikimedia Commons by the German Federal Archive (Deutsches Bundesarchiv) as part of a cooperation project. The German Federal Archive guarantees an authentic representation only using the originals (negative and/or positive), resp. the digitalization of the originals as provided by the Digital Image Archive. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany license (Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 104-0941A / CC-BY-SA 3.0).
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