Tank Development

Richard Edgeworth invented the Caterpillar track in 1770. In the Crimean War a small number of steam powered tractors based on this design proved very successful in the muddy terrain. The development of the modern tank remained dormant until the arrival of the internal combustion engine, patented by Gottlieb Daimler in 1885.

In the United States the Holt Company built a tractor with caterpillar tracks that was used to move over difficult territory. Although it was suggested that this machine might be adapted for military use, those in positions of authority failed to see the significance of this new development.

In 1899 Frederick Simms produced a design of what he called a motor-war car. This vehicle had a Daimler engine, a bulletproof shell and was armed with 2 maxim guns on revolving turrets. The British War Office rejected Simms' car and showed no interest in similar schemes.

By the outbreak of the First World War Richard Hornsby & Sons produced the Killen-Strait Armoured Tractor. The tracks consisted of a continuous series of steel links, joined together with steel pins. In June 1915 the Killen-Strait was tested out in front of Winston Churchill and David Lloyd George at Wormwood Scrubs. The machine successfully cut through barbed wire entanglements.

Another person influenced by Holt's Caterpillar Tractor was Colonel Ernest Swinton. With the help of Colonel Maurice Hankey, Swinton managed to persuade Winston Churchill, the navy minister, to set up a Landships Committee to look at the possibilities of building a new war machine.

The Landships Committee and the newly-formed Inventions Committee, agreed with Swinton's proposal and commissioned Lieutenant W. G. Wilson of the Naval Air Service and William Tritton of William Foster & Co. Ltd. of Lincoln, to produce a small landship. Constructed in great secrecy, the machine was given the code-name tank by Swinton.

Nicknamed Little Willie, this prototype tank with its Daimler engine, had track frames 12 feet long, weighed 14 tons and could carry a crew of three, at speeds of just over three miles. The speed dropped to less than 2 mph over rough ground and most importantly of all, was unable to cross broad trenches. Although the performance was disappointing, Ernest Swinton remained convinced that when modified, the tank would enable the Allies to defeat the Central Powers.

Holt Caterpillar Tractor
Holt Caterpillar Tractor

Primary Sources

(1) Philip Gibbs was a journalist who reported the war on the Western Front.

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.

(2) On 16th September 1916, Colonel Sir Maurice Hankey wrote in his diary about the tanks that were about to be used at the Battle of the Somme.

We drove on to see the 'caterpillars' of which we found about sixty-two, painted in grotesque colours. While we were there a German areoplane, flying at a great height, came overhead and the whole of the tanks took cover under trees or were covered with tarpaulins painted to resemble haystacks.

In the evening at dinner, I tackled both the chief of staff, and the sub-chief, about the 'caterpillars'. My thesis is that it is a mistake to put them into the battle of the Somme. They were built for the purpose of breaking an ordinary trench system with a normal artillery fire only, whereas on the Somme they will have to penetrate a terrific artillery barrage, and will have to operate in a broken country full of shell-craters, where they will be able to see very little.

(3) Charles Repington, diary entry (21st September 1916)

Lunched with Lady Cunard, Winston Churchill, Lord and Lady Frederick Blackwood, and Lieutenant Hermann of the French War Office. We had a great discussion about the famous Tanks, which made their first appearance in the field in last Friday's battle. Winston said that though he had in his mind H. G. Wells's predictions about them, they really developed from the armoured motor car, which trench warfare had rendered useless. They were taken up by the Admiralty. He found that he had some money to spare, and he applied it to this purpose. To that extent the initiative and responsibility rested with him. Winston had wanted them to wait until there were something like a thousand Tanks, and then to win a great battle with them as a surprise, but, as Northcliffe said the other day, nothing keeps whether in journalism or in war.

(4) The Great World War: Volume VI (1919)

Although the advance was not unexpected, it proved a day of dreadful surprise for the Germans. They had taught the Allies so many fearsome tricks of modern warfare that they regarded almost as an impertinence the mechanical monsters which now came lolloping from the British front; land Dreadnoughts which took shell-holes and trenches in their stride as though to the manner born, spreading death from armour-plated sides, and crushing everything which barred their passage like veritable juggernauts.

Yet the fundamental idea of the "Tanks", as the new armoured cars were called, was almost as old as the hills, even without the wooden horse of Troy. Rhodes was besieged some six centuries before Christ by a king of Asia whose son invented what was called the Helepolis - a movable wooden fort nine stories high, plated with iron, and manned by archers. The new machines were not so much armoured cars as forts on wheels, but of extraordinary mobility. Mr. H. G. Wells, who so vividly anticipated the war in the air, foretold them in his short story, The Land Ironclads; and many people had a hand in the elaboration of the idea in the form in which it took shape in the Somme offensive.

It was not until some months after the Germans had been introduced to these land cruisers that the War Office permitted any details, or illustrations of them, to be published. In due course, however, official photographs were issued, and discreet details given of their general appearance.