Tanks in action for the first time on the Somme

An early tank.
An early tank.

Today, September 15, 2016, marks the centenary of the debut for the British secret weapon that was hidden from the enemy over many months of development at an agricultural engineer’s works.

The battle of Flers-Courcelette was one of many initiatives over the 141 days of the Somme campaign.

Always convinced that one more push would see the breakthrough, Commander-in-Chief Sir Douglas Haig recognised the potential that the tank offered to overcome the problem of attacking trench systems.

Despite terrific pounding of wire entanglements by days of artillery bombardment, it seemed there was never any prospect of getting across no man’s land without terrible casualties, and the suffering of troops who converged where the wire was seemingly best destroyed, only to face the concentrated machine gun fire of the enemy.

What was needed was a weapon that could secure a route across, untroubled by the shell-cratered landscape or barbed wire, breast the enemy’s trench, and then allow the cavalry to carry out its role.

Aware of early tracked vehicles in agriculture, it was natural that the development of the tank should have come out of an agricultural engineering firm.

Winston Churchill had set up a ‘land ships’ committee and in January 1916, in utmost secrecy, the first prototype was demonstrated. It was then transported from Lincoln to Hertfordshire, described as a ‘water tank for Mesopotamia’, after it had shown it could cross a trench 8ft wide and climb a 5ft parapet.

Lord Kitchener, who would not live to see its use, thought it simply a mechanical toy. However, Haig’s Deputy Chief of Staff hurried to France to tell him about this new wonder weapon and the Cabinet authorised production. The name ‘tank’ was kept to preserve secrecy.

Although the French claimed to be developing a similar weapon and wanted the British to wait until their machine was ready, Haig insisted in bringing them into the battle at Flers. To man these weapons, which were hot, uncomfortable and cramped, a new section was recruited secretly, named the Heavy Machine Gun Corps.

Although Haig had an initial 50 tanks, only 22 made it to the starting points and seven promptly broke down. Lumbering along at a maximum speed of 4mph they were not the swift and agile monsters of today’s modern armies. Yet they achieved a surprise, terrified the Germans and pointed the way to mechanised warfare for the future. The Tank Corps would be vastly expanded and the end of the horse in warfare was in sight.

The project workroom at Linskill Community Centre is open from 10am to 4pm each weekday for enquiries and for anyone to bring information about relatives lost in the war.