World War One tanks
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World War One tanks


When and where was the tank first imagined, developed, and their evolution in combat from 1916 to 1918, as well as tactical development during the interwar period.

Part I: Introduction

Early forerunners. Did the idea of a tank really originate during the First World War?

Part II: The Deadly Equation

Pioneering experiments, proposals and doctrines which led to the development of the tank

Part III: The Holt Tractors

How the American Holt caterpillar tractor gave the solution

Part IV: 1916 - First Blood

Early tanks, first engagements, successes and failures

Part V: 1917 - Full Armor on the Western Front

Tanks as an integrated part of Allied operations

Part VI: 1918 - The Last Offensives

Maturity. Tanks in the last offensives. Allied and German models

Part VII: Winter Wars - Russia & Poland

The tanks in practical use and tank doctrines during the Russian revolution and the Polish campaign

Part I: Introduction

The tank concept can actually be traced well back to the Renaissance. The first to put it on the paper and effectively built a model (possibly to a 1:2 scale), for proper military purposes was the Florentine genius, Leonardo Da Vinci. His "tank" mainly originated from a series of protected ram experiments and a proposals to Leonardo's protector, the powerful Condottiere Ludovico il Moro (then Duke of Milan). It was not intended to attack fortifications but to break the "pike and shot" formation, a solid, mobile and massive human "fortress" formed up of a large number of pikemen surrounded by smaller detachments of arquebusiers.

This formation had dominated the battlefield for almost three centuries and was very effective as the arquebusiers delivered continuous fire while being protected by a massive wall of pikes against cavalry and infantry alike. The wooden structure of Leonardo's tank was sloped and thick enough to absorb bullets and deflect cannonballs, while at the same time delivering a punishing fire all around from its many light culverins.

The main problem was actually the way such a wooden monster could be moved. Only human or animal force were available back then, and even if Leonardo shows in his drawings cranks and shafts for two men, these would have been far from sufficient for pulling the sheer weight of this mobile fortress and fire at the same time. Modern calculations and reconstitutions, based on Leonardo's unique manuscript, showed it should have weighed nearly 2 tons.

Another strange feature, but faithful to Leonardo drawings, was a purely mechanical propulsion. While mastering clockwork devices, Leonardo had produced some "robots", including a walking lion which was displayed at Francis' I court. However the "tank" wouldn't have been equipped with such a device, as it would have had to cope with difficult terrains and a very short autonomy. Ludovico il Moro, although impressed, never ordered such a contraption built.

Part II: The Deadly Equation

Nobody was prepared for the bloody stalemate which prevailed during the First World War. Officers from all countries had in mind brash pictures or daring offensives with wavering flags and trumpets, epic cavalry charges and massive infantry squares marching under fire, bright uniforms, tactical genius and glory. A quite romantic view which was familiar to the commoners, the very same which then embarked with happiness and chants onto the trains. But quickly the grim reality which took place was that of an attrition war, with death on an industrial scale. The early French offensives sank before the whirling staccato of the German Mauser machine-guns. After a full retreat, the German offensive was miraculously stopped on the Marne, a few dozen miles north-east of Paris. From Belgium to Switzerland, all the opponents entrenched themselves. Artillery, barb wire and machine guns took their toll on every offensive. On the German side, some attempts to break the stalemate included assault squads equipped with portable machine guns, grenades, but also gas and flamethrowers. To blow up the trenches, artillery was insufficient, so another vicious weapon was used: the mine (in fact already in use since late medieval times).

Despair started sinking in after it was seen that all major offensives, like those of Nivelle in 1916, the von Moltke offensive at Verdun or the dreadful Somme offensive by Sir Douglas Haig, were literally drawn in blood. To deal with this deadly equation, various experiments were made, some of them quite odd-looking or simply pathetic. The personal iron armor, the portable iron shield, a wooden structure covered with iron and then machines, the electric tank, the "mobile fortresses", the "automatic wheels" and pedrails to blow up the barb wire. None showed any promise.

The idea of the "tank" in the modern meaning of the word, appeared simultaneously in France and in Great Britain. In the latter, it was due to Lt. Col. Ernest Swinton, and in the former due to Col. Jean Baptiste Estienne. Both advocated the use of the Holt Tractor, which was then largely in use with the Allies as a gun tractor. This led to further developments and, despite many setbacks, culminated in 1916 when the first operational tanks were put to the test.

Part III: The Holt Tractors

The invention of the Caterpillar track and its practical application by Benjamin Holt gave birth to a new land transportation system with great torque and pulling power, up to its agricultural tasks and with good military potential. Internationally known and widely used by agriculturally reformed large farms, but also moving and transporting logs in the New World, the Holt tractor was already a mechanical legend. The flagship model, the 120 Holt, was marketed since 1914. It was purchased in large numbers, first by Great Britain and France to be used as an artillery tractor. Nearly 10,000 were used. So, it was natural to choose a large tractor to pull the weight of an armored box, its equipment and fuel. It took little time to discover the best suitable model for the worst terrains.

The Holt 120 (for 120 hp), which was much more capable than the model 70, was chosen to tow a weight of 10 tons. The problem encountered by the engineers who tried to adapt the tractor to his new task, was the quick apparition of issues with the resistance of the track shoes. This was particularly clear on the testing of the Lincoln machines ("Little and Big Willie"). The former was created especially for the test of extra-large pads, able to bear the brunt required, but also a suitable suspension system. Tests were thus conducted on both sides of the Channel, the British with their prototype "Big Willie" creating the basis of their first operational tank, the MK.I. The French, under the leadership of Colonel Estienne, devised the Schneider CA quickly, but production was not without difficulty.

So in 1916, Great Britain was the first to deploy its Mk.I tanks, during the Somme offensive, especially at Flers-Courcelette, Sept. 16, 1916, were 49 tanks were deployed. Let's look more specifically at this model: the Holt chassis had, after many changes and specifications, been completely reworked. Being initially too short, it was considered unsuitable for crossing trenches. It had nevertheless preserved the Caterpillar suspension, and many other details of the "Big Willie", which would give the true prototype of the Mk.I, the "Mother". Weighing nearly 30 tons, with a Foster-Daimler engine delivering about 105 hp, the Mk.I could move only with agonising slowness. The weight was the result of a complete redesign of the concept for the best possible crossing capabilities. In this case, the huge tracks, going all the way around the machine, enclosed a narrow central hull hosting the eight-man crew.

Part IV: 1916 - First Blood

These two models, the Mark I and Schneider CA-1, were the first tanks in operational history. It took almost a year and a half of painful technical development and testing, strong will from a few promoters, administrative battles and support from the highest level for this idea to be born. The concept were developed in parallel in the United Kingdom and in France. The latter had taken a slight advantage at first, but the former managed to produce and deploy their tanks faster. These famous diamond-shaped models remain by far the best known visual icons of the conflict.

Starting with the "Mother", the series prototype, the British built close to 2,000 units in five versions until 1919, by sticking to their proven formula and constantly improving it. The French however, made the choice of having multiple separate designs. The first, given by Joffre to Schneider, the second, designed by the army, for the army, by Saint Chamond and the third designed from private funds, the Renault FT. Finally, the design choice of the latter would set a new standard and impose a great leap forward.

So in 1916, Great Britain was the first to deploy its Mark I tanks during the Somme offensive, especially at Flers-Courcelette, Sept. 16, 1916, were 49 tanks were deployed. Let's look more specifically at this model: the Holt chassis had, after many changes and specifications, been completely reworked. Being too short initially, it was considered unsuitable for crossing trenches. It had nevertheless preserved the Caterpillar suspension, and many other details of the "Big Willie", which would give the true prototype of the Mk.I, the "Mother". Weighing nearly 30 tons, with a Foster-Daimler engine delivering about 105 hp, the Mk.I could move only with agonising slowness. The weight was the result of a complete redesign of the concept for the best possible crossing capabilities. In this case, the huge tracks, going all the way around the machine, enclosed a narrow central hull hosting the eight-man crew.

The main armament was not located in a turret (this was tested, but rejected for reasons of stability), but in a "barbette", hosting a naval gun, the famous "6 pounder" (57 mm) that was common on the deck of any ship, from destroyers to the largest battleship. The concept had been well proven and the weapon was available in large quantities. The "barbette" was the preferred system, placed into the center of the lozenge. W G Wilson, whom led the project, as specified by the army, split the Mk.I into two different series. 250 Mark I's were "males", armed with two 6-pdr pieces, and the others "females" only equipped with machine guns. The latter, exchanged their expensive water-cooled Vickers, with more recent models, the Lewis and the Hotchkiss air-cooled machine guns. Besides the four servants for the guns, the other four crewmen were dedicated to maneuvering, operating the gearbox, brakes, differentials and two tracks. A complex system, which posed coordination difficulties, mostly because of the unbearable environment, scorching heat, deafening noise, petrol fumes, oil and toxic exhaust gases (there was no wall separating the engine from the crew). To this was added the internal finish of the armor plates, made up of boiler steel. Where there was an impact, even if the projectile did not penetrate, an internal metal explosion was triggered, filling the crowded interior with shrapnel. In fact, crews quickly adopted a complete protective outfit (thick leather belt, leather helmet with chain-mail, etc).

The French, meanwhile, devised a tank that looked more like the experimental Little Willie. Ultimately, the Schneider CA was basically an armored box with a frontal gun and machine-gun ports and ballmounts, mounted on a modified 75 Holt chassis. the original idea of col. Estienne envisioned it as an armored transport vehicle, embarking troops (in an "armored carriage"), crossing no-man's land safely, and deploying them right at the entrances of the enemy trenches. However, after tests, the engine was found incapable of supporting the weight of the main armored body. The idea was deemed impractical and abandoned, returning to a pure tank, for clearing machine gun nests, fortified positions, preceding and supporting the infantry assault. The length of the tractor train, although already increased, was found not to be sufficient for crossing wide trenches, but a tail "sabot" contributed to some improvement. In addition, the vehicle was high, with relatively low ground clearance. The 55 hp Schneider engine was barely able to propel the fourteen tons it had to carry. Only 150 had been built by mid-1917, as the project suffered delays, when the production lines stopped and shifted to a supply model. With the opening of the training school at Beaulieu, the high attrition rate due to unscrupulous maintenance in adverse conditions was significantly reduced, but an inadequate armor and poor placement of fuel tanks contributed to its precipitous withdrawal.

Part V: 1917 - Full Armor on the Western Front

To be added

Part VI: 1918 - The Last Offensives.

First experiences during the early months of 1917 had shown how much the Allied tanks were prone to breakdowns, that they were severely underpowered and vulnerable against gunfire. But they also proved, first thanks to the element of surprise, and thereafter because the Germans were unable to formulate a response, that their concept was sound and they could possibly make the long awaited breakthroughs. During the last months of 1917 new models were being developed. The British had improved the Mk.I/II and were able to deliver a brand new mass-production model, the Mk.IV. It would be the spearhead of all offensives in the British sector. At the same time, the man behind the Mark I, William Tritton, devised a new kind of machine, the light tank. With the standard Mark I's clearly being too slow to operate in the way they were originally meant to, he designed a cavalry tank, which was fast enough to exploit breakthroughs. This was the Mark A "Whippet". But late 1917 and mid-1918 offensives showed the effectiveness of combined-arms tactics that employed infantry support and (real) cavalry alongside tanks.

In France grand plans for an armored offensive of a massive scale were also put on paper by Col. Estienne, whom spoke of "swarms of light tanks" to overwhelm the enemy. The perfect candidate for this was the little Renault FT, of which over 14,000 units had been envisioned to be produced in France, USA and Italy. Two new tanks were in active development by 1918: the gargantuan FCM-1 and a rhomboid tank with tracks running along its full length, in the British fashion, the Saint Chamond 2. At the same time, the British had been proficient: they built the first self-propelled artillery, the Gun Carrier Mark I (carrying the BL 60-pounder field gun), lengthened variants of the Mark V, the "stars" designed to pass the very large trenches of the Hindendburg line, and William Tritton and Major Wilson worked on rival projects, the Mark B and the Mark C, both replacements for the "Whippet". At the same time, a joint-venture between the UK and the USA, for a new heavy model to be built en masse, mostly in the United States, had successfully passed all tests and was ready for pre-production: the Mark VIII "Liberty tank".

But the German revolution came as a real surprise. Berlin was in full revolt, the Kaiser was deposed, and the soldiers on the front felt betrayed, leaving no choice but an humiliating Armistice. Subsequently, nearly all previous tank mass-production series were cancelled. Some models were produced through the early twenties, in order not to loose the gain of costly researches. The Mark B "Whippet" and Mark C "Hornet" had 152 units delivered by 1922 and 151 units of the Mark VIII "Liberty" by 1923. In France, 10 FMC-1 had been finally delivered at astronomical costs by 1923. No modern tank had been planned in France before 1930, and only cosmetic changes to the basic FT took place (like the Renault NC 1/2/3).

Part VII: Winter Wars - Russia & Poland

The Versailles treaty, signed on June 28, 1919, had redefined the map of Europe. Three so-called "buffer states" were drawn on the Baltic coast: Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Poland was restored to its former historic borders, occupying most of Prussia and large extents of the western Russian territories and was given the Danzig Corridor to ensure its access to the the Baltic Sea. Since the Revolution of 1917, the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic was in a state of latent civil war. No Bolshevik committee was invited to the Paris Peace Conference. Even more so the Allies were inclined to military support the exiled, loyalist "White" Russian faction. Before the new territorial gains of Poland, an improvised force of the Ukrainian People's Army clashed with the newly born Republic of Zakopane, which will become later part of the Second Polish Republic (Rzeczpospolita Polska). This was the beginning of a full-scale war, with two major battles, at Lviv and Przemysl, both in 1918. Border conflicts also occurred during this period with the Czech, culminating in a full scale war with Czechoslovakia in January 1919. Soon Poland was declare an independent and sovereign state. The Bolsheviks felt this as a direct threat from their old natural enemy, and the Red Army rushed to the borders. This was the beginning of the Polish-Soviet war of 1919 which spanned two years and ended with the treaty of Riga in 1921.

During this event, the Polish state received military advisers and councilors (mostly former French and British officers, including the young De Gaulle), and of course weapons, rifles, ammunition, most notably Schneider 75 mm guns, but also some French FT tanks.

Leonardo tank Leonardo Da Vinci was apparently the first to design a wooden tank, which lacked only a suitable propulsion form to turn into reality. Although impressed with it, Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, never ordered any to be built. The tank had to wait for four more centuries before appearing on the battlefield.

However the very idea of an armored mobile device could be traced back into the Bronze Age, with the first battering rams, later with the sophisticated siege assault towers of the Assyrians and 400 years after with the huge Helepolis of Demetrius Poliorcetes (known as "The Besieger"). Read more about ancient hellenistic siege towers.

Ideas and concepts

Links about WW1 warfare and armored vehicles

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