The production of Little Willie by Lieutenant W. G. Wilson and William Tritton in the late summer of 1915 revealled several technical problems. The two men immediately began work on an improved tank. Mark I, nicknamed Mother, was much longer than the first tank they made. This kept the centre of gravity low and the extra length helped the tank grip the ground. Sponsons were also fitted to the sides to accommodate two naval 6-pound guns.
After successful trials at Hatfield Park in January 1916, where the tank crossed a 9ft. wide trench with a 6ft. 6in. parapet, it was decided to demonstrate the new tank to Britain's political and military leaders. Under conditions of great secrecy, Lord Kitchener, Secretary of State of War, David Lloyd George, Minister of Munitions, and Reginald McKenna, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, were invited to Hatfield Park on 2nd February, 1916 to see Mark I in action.
Lord Kitchener was unimpressed describing tanks as "mechanical toys" and asserting that "the war would never be won by such machines". Although without military experience, David Lloyd George and Reginald McKenna saw their potential and placed an order for a 100 tanks.
Sir Douglas Haig, Commander-in Chief of the British Army, also had doubts about the value of tanks. However, after failing to break through German lines at the Battle of the Somme, Haig gave orders that tanks that had reached the Western Front, should be used at Flers-Coucelette on 15th July, 1916.
Of the 59 tanks in France, only 49 were considered to be in good working order. Of these, 17 broke down on the way to their starting point at Flers. The sight of the tanks created panic and had a profound effect on the morale of the German Army. Colonel John Fuller, chief of staff of the Tank Corps, was convinced that these machines could win the war and persuaded Sir Douglas Haig to ask the government to supply him with another 1,000 tanks.
It was the coming of the tanks that helped us to victory in the First World War. Many men claimed the honour of it. General Swinton established his claim and Winston Churchill was one of those to whom honour is due as patron if not part author.
It is impossible to revive the extraordinary thrill and amazement, the hilarious exultation with which these things were first seen on the fields of the Somme. It had been a secret, marvellously hidden. We war correspondents, who came to hear of most things in one way or another, had not heard a whisper about it until a few days before these strange things went into action.
From a German communication trench had been dug a number of small trenches mostly composed of joining up shellholes, the whole providing a system of considerable strength, which would undoubtedly have cost our infantry appreciable loss, had not one of our tanks quite unexpectedly appeared on the skyline and come lumbering towards the little strong point. The enemy holding the strong point had, of course, never seen or heard of such a thing as a tank. Panic evidently seized them and a number, losing their heads completely, started running. Above the noise of the bursting shells, the machine-guns of the tank were heard to open, seemingly simultaneously. In less time than it takes to tell, the Boches had ceased to run; they all seemed to go over like shot rabbits. The tank never paused but went straight on over the trenches, firing right and left as it did so.
Sinister, formidable, and industrious, these novel machines pushed boldly into No Man's Land, astonishing our soldiers no less than they frightened the enemy.
Over our own trenches in the twilight of the dawn those motor-monsters had lurched up, and now it came crawling forward to the rescue, cheered by the assaulting troops, who called out words of encouragement to it and laughed, so that some men were laughing even when bullets caught them in the throat. 'Creme de Menthe' was the name given to this particular creature, and it waddled forward right over the old German trenches.
There was a whip of silence from the enemy. Then, suddenly, their machine-gun fire burst out in nervous spasms and splashed the sides of 'Creme de Menthe'. But the tank did not mind. The bullets fell from its sides harmlessly. From its sides came flashes of fire and a hose of bullets, and then it trampled around over machine emplacements 'having a grand time', as one of the men said with enthusiasm. It crushed the machine-guns under its heavy ribs, and killed machine-gun teams with deadly fire. The infantry followed in and took the place after this good help, and then advanced again round the flanks of the monster.
In spite of the tank, which did grand work, the assault on Courcelette was hard and costly. Again and again the men came under machine-gun fire and rifle fire, for the Germans had dug new trenches which had not been wiped out by our artillery.
These soldiers our ours were superb in courage and stoic endurance, and pressed forward steadily in broken waves. The first news of success came through the airman's wireless, which said: "A tank is walking up the high street of Flers with the British army cheering behind."
They (the tanks) looked like blind creatures emerging from the primeval slime. To watch one crawling round a battered wood in the half-light was to think of "the Jabberwock with eyes of flame" who "came whiffling through the tulgey wood and burbled as it came."
Bernstein's tank was within reach of the German trenches when a shell hit the cab, decapitated the driver, and exploded in the body of the tank. The corporal was wounded in the arm, and Bernstein was stunned and temporarily blinded. The tank was filled with fumes. As the crew were crawling out, a second shell hit the tank on the roof.
Birkett went forward at top speed, and, escaping the shells, entered the German trenches, where his guns did great execution. The tank was hit twice, and all the crew were wounded, but Birkett went on fighting grimly until his ammunition was exhausted and he himself was badly wounded in the leg. Then at last he turned back. Near the embankment he stopped the tank to take his bearings. As he was climbing out, a shell burst against the side of the tank and wounded him again in the leg. The tank was evacuated. Birkett was brought back on a stretcher, and wounded a third time as he lay on the sunken road outside the dressing station.
Skinner came right to the edge of an enormous crater and stopped. He tried to reverse, but he could not change gear. The tank was absolutely motionless. The Germans brought up a gun and began to shell the tank. Against field guns he was defenceless if he could not move. With great skill he evacuated his crew, taking his guns with him and the little ammunition that remained.
Swears, the section commander, left the railway embankment, and with the utmost gallantry went forward to look for Skinner. He never came back.
Such were the cheerful reports that I received in my little brick shelter by the cross-roads.