WW1 British Fake Tanks

Vickers’ Snail (Fictional Tank)

United Kingdom (1907)
Trench-cutting Machine – Fictional


There are numerous characters who are notable in the history of the development of tanks. Some of the names involved which stand out are well known even if their role was a secondary or tertiary one, but such people include Sir Winston Churchill, H. G. Wells, Sir Ernest Swinton, Sir William Tritton, Colonel Rookes Crompton, Walter Wilson, etcetera. One person who has been virtually erased from the origin story of the tank in WW1 is Captain Charles Vickers. Vickers had a successful military career and was on the cusp of a successful writing career when he was tragically struck down with illness and died in early 1908. The result was that his writings and ideas have become lost or distorted by the chaos of WW1 and the myriad of claimants who wanted their share of fame and fortune for the invention of the tank. Captain Vickers, however, has a valid claim, certainly more so than many to his share of credit and his work can be seen as an inspirational factor for Swinton as well. Vickers’ ‘Snail’ might not have the fame of Wells’ Ironclad, but it is more valid as an idea of future armored warfare coming from a professional soldier rather than ‘just’ a writer of popular fiction.

The Man behind the Snail

Charles Ernest* Vickers was born on 23rd February 1873 in Bray, County Wicklow, Ireland, the youngest son of a notable local barrister Henry Thomas Vickers. He also had military heritage in his blood as his uncle was Major General John William Playfair R.E. (Royal Engineers). Educated in Dublin from 1885 to 1887, Vickers then went to Clifton College, in Bristol that September and then switched his interests from classics to military and engineering aspects.

(* His middle initial is mistakenly given as ‘C’ in the Irish Times of 12th February 1908)

Gifted as a mathematician and artist, he left Clifton College in 1890 to attend the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich. Vickers excelled at the academy finishing top of his class and winning the Pollock Medal (July 1892) as well as numerous prizes for his work on fortifications and artillery amongst others.

He was commissioned from the cadet company as a 19 year old 2nd Lieutenant on 22nd July 1892, to the School of Mechanical Engineering at Chatham finishing there in September 1894. He then went to the Midland Railway for Instruction in rail traffic management in October 1894. He would finish there in November 1895 during which time, in July 1895 he was promoted to lieutenant.

He then spent nearly two and a half years working on the railways at Woolwich with 10th Company Royal Engineers before a posting to Malta in April 1898 and then South Africa in October 1899. He was in South Africa for just 75 days working with 42nd Fortress Company before moving on 1st January 1900 to South Africa taking a position as a railway’s staff captain with responsibility as a Traffic Officer.

He remained in South Africa in this role and according to his service record took part in operations in the Orange Free State between March and May 1900, followed by operations in the Transvaal, east of Pretoria from July to November that year. During this service in the Transvaal, Vickers saw combat in Belfast in August. Between May and July 1901, he took part in operations in Orange River Colony followed by operations in Cape Colony, south of Orange River. He saw combat once more at Colesberg, and for his service was awarded the Queen’s Medal with 3 clasps and then the King’s medal with 3 clasps.

With the end of the Second Boer War in July 1902, Vickers was still in railway work having become the Deputy-Assistant Director of Railways (in October 1901). During his time in South Africa, he would have been familiar with mobile armored warfare in terms of armored trains. These were used extensively during the war and he would know at least the rudimentary elements of what to protect and how on a machine. Given he remained in South Africa through to the end of the war, he may also have seen Fowlers Armoured Road Train and gain some additional insight into armored warfare – this time on land.

Two views of Fowlers Armoured Road Train the engine clad in armor showing the awkward position of the armored cab at the rear, but also the hold in the rear (bottom left below the door) where the winching cable would be spooled out.
Source: The Engineer

He returned to the UK in November 1902. After a period of leave, he was posted to Salisbury Plain in March 1903 and then promoted to the rank of captain on 20th April. His posting at Salisbury Plain ended in May 1903 with a move to the Inspector General of Fortifications’ office. He stayed there until March 1905, and on 1st April 1905, Vickers was appointed to Headquarters as a staff captain. His next deployment was to be Gibraltar, but the recently engaged Captain and distinguished veteran of the South African wars fell ill. He passed away on 6th February 1908 aged 34 in London having served for nearly 16 years including nearly 5 years of overseas service. His cause of death listed on his death certificate was “Pleuro Pneumonia Meningitis” (Pneumococcal Meningitis), having passed away during surgery to treat it. He was buried with full military honors in Dublin on 11th February 1908.

His obituary, published in the Journal Of the Royal Engineers in June 1908, and penned by Ernest Swinton himself was a touching and friendly list of Vickers’ life and accomplishments including:
“…many articles from his pen appeared in different periodicals. His last finished effort in this direction – a story of war – appeared in Blackwood’s Magazine only a month before his death under the pseudonym of ‘105’.”
The story to which Ernest Swinton was referring in this part of Vickers’ obituary was a short story titled ‘The Trenches’, and it is in ‘The Trenches’ that Vickers describes ‘The Snail’.


Shortly after coming to Staff Headquarters in 1905, Vickers began writing more stories and articles just as he had done during his service in Malta. His writing and illustration skills were notable and he would start working collaboratively with Swinton on several occasions with the results published in Blackwood’s Magazine (known by its readership as ‘Maga’).

‘The Trenches’ story is set in a fictional War Office department with a pair of officers, Major Swann and Captain Marshall, looking over designs.
In the tale, a “keen-faced restless-looking citizen of the United States” called Mr. Sandpaper, interrupts these two officers and while approaching Major Swann says “You will be interested in this here machine, Major. It’s just about the latest and cutest idea in trenching machines – trench along through any darned thing: just set the depth, and it’ll go along any distance you please, and you can follow up with the pipes as fast as your men can lay them”.

“For the moment things seem to be at a deadlock; the armies have been at grips; but have had to draw off without any advantage gained on either side. It almost seems as if the conflict were like to resolve itself into pseudo-siege operations. And yet how suddenly may the kaleidoscope of war be shaken and the picture by changed”

Vickers, C., ‘The Trenches’ 1908

In the next scene, at the General’s office, staff officers are reviewing a map of the war showing a static set of lines. There is the sound of gunfire in the distance but the enemy lines remain unbroken. In order to get to the enemy lines, assault trenches have to be dug as without them, they are suffering heavy casualties. At this time, Chief Engineer Colonel Spofforth came in and was briefed on the situation. Here, Col. Spofforth proposed a new solution, the use of the freshly prepared “trenching machines” to lead the assault. This is agreed to, leading to the third and final scene, the attack of the ‘Snails’.

In this scene the reader is provided with a description of the night before the battle as these machines are brought up to the front and get to work and the soldiers who are resting are disturbed by a strange sound “…Resting! No; there is a new sound. Somewhere down below something has begun to be busy. Something is at work amid the mists of the plan. It is as if a little reaping-machine had set to cut some ghostly corn. No, not quite a reaping-machine – more like a mammoth deathwatch. It must be some strange animal: something endowed with life, for is not that another calling to its mate?”

Here, Vickers provided some critical information for his idea. A mechanically propelled machine making strange mechanical noises and seemingly alive as it goes about its business cutting an attack trench for the soldiers to use the next day. Further, the shape of the vehicle clearly delineated it as no agricultural device but more like a ‘deathwatch’.

This reference can be two fold, firstly in terms of shape with a dark-coloured rounded body and secondly as an omen. In 1907, there was effectively no stopping the Deathwatch (Xestobium refovillosum) beetle’s progress if it happened to infest your home as it devoured the timbers (mainly oak), but more importantly that it was seen as an omen of foreboding. In folklore, the clicking noises it makes was associated with death (hence the name). The Deathwatch beetle has been the subject of stories by such notable authors as Edgar Allen Poe in 1843 and Beatrix Potter (1903). In a modern understanding of the beetle, the tapping noise it makes is not only audible but may also be being used as an allegory in the story for bursts of machine gun fire.

The adult Deathwatch Beetle (Xestobium refovillosum).
Source: Wiki via Gilles San Martin
Sound of the Deathwatch Beetle. Source: wiki via Gilles San Martin (2012).

As the attack goes in, the narrative shifts to one presented almost in a Wellsian fashion from the point of view of a reporter. Here, the reporter struggles to describe what he is seeing saying: “The machine!… But it seems such a simple, almost obvious notion to evolve a machine that shall dig trenches, that shall be able to move unconcernedly across open ground where no man can show himself scatheless, secure under its turtleback of steel, inconspicuous, minding all the hail of lead as little as rain … They have nicknamed it The Snail but it can burrow forward like a mole!”.

Adding the smooth rounded type of carapace as found on the insect shaped description before the journalist, via Vickers writing, is clarifying that it is indeed a large rounded outer shell and that it was to be made of steel. Given that in the account, the machine can travel “unconcernedly across open ground” it indicates sufficient armor to be proof against fire as well

“fighting in the trenches is veritably a bloody affair”

Vickers, C., ‘The Trenches’ 1908.

With the Snails moving forwards purposefully and carving out avenues for the soldiers to follow behind it, the attack then goes in. With these ‘Snails’ on hand, the soldiers did not have to dig attack trenches and instead could follow the trail of the machine, covered from enemy fire right up to the point of attack. At one point, the correspondent reporting on the scene describes seeing one of the ‘Snails’ come out of a trench “half concealed in a cloud of dust” and having cut far enough forwards it halts. The men bring up a mortar to bombard enemy positions from the shelter of the trench dug behind the machine and thereafter assault the enemy lines on the hill. The final outcome is a positive one to validate the utility of the machines, the enemy forces are driven from their defensive positions despite the loss of a few Snails to enemy artillery fire.

Method of Attack

In considering The Snail in Vickers’ story, the first obvious comparison is to what is considered as a tank. A more apt comparison however, might be to a more unusual machine known commonly as ‘Nellie’. In 1940, ‘Nellie’ (Cultivator No. 6) was a project by the Naval Land Equipment (N.L.E.) to create a tracked assault machine.

Cultivator No. 6 ‘Nellie’ during trials in 1941, showing off the enormous plough on the front and behind it, the side-discharge tracks to throw spoil. The white line down the side was the ground level when in use.
Source: Wiki.

‘Nellie’, like Vickers’ Snail, was to advance forwards creating a trench and discarding spoil to the sides as it went. Whereas Nellie simply used a giant plough and the power from its engines to drive that forwards, the Snail was described as using actual cutting equipment instead. Indeed, the closest machine to the Snail in both operation and date might be that of William Norfolk in 1916. That vehicle operated on wheels and used a large cutting face along with a means to discharge spoil to the sides. It too would cut a trench as it went, albeit for slightly different purposes.

William Norfolk’s ‘Trench Artillery’ machine of 1916. Source: Canadian Patent CA174919.



Just as H. G. Wells had described a cockroach like machine in his 1903 story, the Land Ironclads, Vickers also used an insect analogy. His choice was described as Deathwatch Beetle-like and also as a rounded steel body. Both designs, therefore, adopted a low rounded armored shell to protect their respective machines.

No specific thickness of armor is mentioned by Vickers but he does say the vehicle could cross no-mans’ land area without harm, so at least, protection from machine gun and rifle fire is implied. He also clarifies within the story that during their cutting of zig-zag-shaped assault trenches, some were wrecked by enemy artillery, so the armor was by no means impervious to all enemy fire.


No specific offensive weaponry is mentioned in Vickers’ story. Nonetheless, that is not to say that his vehicles would be unarmed. First and most obviously is the trenching, cutting, nature of the vehicle. Driving itself ahead, half submerged in the ground as it advanced, it would destroy anything in its way, whether trench, parapet, or enemy soldiers.

The next point from Vickers’ story was that tapping Deathwatch Beetle noise. It could be taken as implicitly referring to machine gun fire either incoming or outgoing, in which case the vehicles would be armed. Using men inside with rifles to fire would not really fit with the experience of a military man who would know that firing from a moving vehicle would produce very poor results. He had seen combat and understood the value of well-placed fire. Any vehicle with no guns would provide substantially less value in combat than a vehicle with even the most modest of armament and it is difficult therefore to contemplate Vickers’ machine without at least one machine gun located in the area above the digging line. Nonetheless, the omission of any direct mention and that at one point the crew is implied to consist of just one man as a ‘driver’ suggests that they may have been armed only with their cutting equipment.

As a side reference, Vickers’ comments on the use of a mortar directly behind the ‘Snail’ in the assault is almost eerily similar to an idea trialed in 1917 to bring heavy fire support along with a tank. The 1917 experiment involved a 6” (152 mm) Stokes mortar on a platform between the rear horn of a Mk.IV tank fitted with the tadpole track extensions, whereas Vickers had considered a mortar being brought up behind the machine separately. In effect, the idea of a mortar behind the tank is identical, except that by attaching it, the effort for the men was much reduced. Either way, it demonstrates once more the difference that the experience, and specifically, the combat experience of Captain Vickers made in his story. He was able to apply his experiences to consideration of a whole new type of warfare and did so rather well.

British Mk.IV tank with ‘tadpole’ track extensions seen at Dollis Hill in 1917. The vehicle has been experimentally fitted with a fixed platform on the back on which is mounted a 6” (152 mm) Stokes mortar.
Source: wiki

Automotive Elements

The most complex part of Vickers’ tale to unravel is the means of propulsion envisaged for the device. On the face of it, the vehicle might be surmised to be a simple wheeled vehicle with this new carapace fitted. It was, afterall, described as a trench cutting machine at the start of the story and at the time of writing in 1907, there were not many tracked vehicles around. That is not to say that there were none, and Vickers’ colleague Ernest Swinton would even end up reviewing tracked vehicle trials in 1908 for the Ruston-Hornsby design.

Short clipping of the Ruston Hornsby tractor during trials in Lincolnshire, 1908.
Source: Lincolnshire Film Archives.

Ignatius Clark, in his book Voices Prophetizing War (1993), suggests that the vehicle was meant to be tracked, based, it seems, on the ‘Snail’ like description. A hard shell and a slow steady creeping form of motion like a real Snail would certainly allow for this interpretation. However, perhaps Vickers did not wish to commit himself to a specific form of traction, as afterall, such a thing was not necessary for the plot of the story. The only hint he provides in fact is the mention of the use of petrol as fuel meaning that a steam traction engine can at least be excluded.

Forgetfulness or Betrayal?

As a prelude to a conclusion about the actual machine in Vickers’ story there is an important element to consider in terms of ‘invention’. Specifically, the old question of who invented the tank. Ignoring the too-often cited wooden cart of Da Vinci, the reality was that until the advent of mechanical propulsion, a self-propelled fighting machine was effectively out of reach. Likewise, until the use of tracks became viable with the Hornsby-Ackroyd being the first notable example in 1908, the passage of those vehicles over soft ground was so problematic as to preclude the widespread use of armored vehicles.

The writings of H. G. Wells in 1903 with The Land Ironclads is also often cited as an important factor and the result of the 1919 Royal Enquiry into the invention of tanks made reference to it as well. The man most directly responsible for the invention of tanks according to that enquiry was none other than Major General Sir Ernest Dunlop Swinton. Swinton was sure to make a good account of himself in the inquiry. This was followed by numerous speeches, public engagements, and publications including his autobiography Ole Luk-Oie published in 1951. Swinton did well for himself as the recipient of a substantial financial award by the Royal Enquiry, as well as in his later ventures, yet nowhere in any print or speech did he mention Vickers. He did mention Wells, but not Vickers… but why?

When Vickers was working as a staff officer from 1906 until his death in 1908, his direct supervisor was Ernest Swinton, so he definitely knew him. Further, they worked closely together on stories, having penned An Eddy of War together which was published in April 1907. The story was a somewhat rambling tale of soldiery during an invasion of England, although it did at least put some focus on Germany as a future adversary. Nonetheless, neither this German adversary nor the invaded English of the tale use any kind of armed or armored vehicle.

Proof of their friendship comes directly from Swinton, who wrote to the editor of Blackwood’s Magazine (Mr. Blackwood also a friend) of Blackwood’s Magazine (known to its readers simply as ‘Maga’) on 29th December 1906 saying “I return proof of ‘An Eddy of War; corrected. I need hardly say that both my pal (Capt. Vickers R.E.) and I am delighted at your taking [of the story] for [publication in] Maga”. Several other times Swinton also referred to Vickers directly in his correspondence with Blackwood’s Magazine.

On 10th October 1907, Vickers wrote to Blackwood saying “It is hardly necessary to say that I feel very pleased you think ‘The Trenches’ worthy of a place in ‘Maga’. It is the first writing of my own you have accepted, though ‘An Eddy of War’ was partly mine (with Swinton)”. Swinton even remarked directly on The Trenches to Blackwood on 12th December 1907, writing “I was pleased to hear from Vickers (Capt. R.E.) that he had had a story accepted by you and I am keen to see it. It sounds like a good one”.

He then proves he has read it in a letter to Blackwood of 8th January 1908 saying “I like Vickers’s yarn… Why will our powers at home not consult the people who know, a little more?”
The Trenches was the only story of Vickers which had to that point been published (and would be the only one published in his lifetime) so the reference to “the yarn” can only be The Trenches.

Last but not least connecting these two men is a singular obituary. This was Vickers’ obituary which was published in the June 1908 edition of the Royal Engineers Journal and was written by Swinton himself. Swinton did not attend Vickers’ funeral in Dublin but he assuredly knew him and his work very well.

In his book Histories of the Future: Studies in Fact, Fantasy and Science Fiction (2000), the author, Alan Sandison contends that not only did Swinton know Vickers, was friends with Vickers and read his work, but that he was also careful not to mention his name at any point. This was, he asserts, a deliberate and intentional act to exclude Vickers’ name from the record of the inquiry into tank development or any of Swinton’s later writings. Not only this, but Sandison goes on to say that “Swinton’s exclusion of Vickers is so complete that it suggests both purposefulness and premeditation, which, if true, indicates that he feared Vickers’s vision would be seen as so informing his own that it would be taken as the true ‘source’ of the invention of the tank”. Had Swinton mentioned Vickers during the inquiry it is likely that not only would Vickers’ name be better known, but also that his family might have shared in some of the rewards, both financially and in fame. Swinton’s omission at best therefore, can be seen with a view to a motive for profit from a man he formerly regarded as a close friend and colleague.

“Had Vickers survived, it is quite possible that Swinton might not be the name associated with the invention of the tank”

I.F. Clarke (1993).


In contrast to Wells’ rather naive descriptions of use, with the Snail, Vickers is right on the money and maybe a little too prescient in seeing a divide between trench lines as being a land “where no man can show himself scatheless” (literally a ‘no mans’ land’). This type of static war had been considered by Ian Stanislavovich Bloch which had been published in English for the first time in 1899 under the title Is War Now Impossible. In it, he theorized that the growth in range, speed, and penetration of modern ammunition meant that weapons were so deadly, armies could no longer face each other and that the next war would “be a great war of entrenchments”.

Both Bloch and Vickers predicted a static type of war, a war where opposing forces had to dig defensive works to protect from the fire of the other and through which neither side could progress very well. This too is well beyond Wells’ more limited vision of crossing enemy wire to pursue an enemy, and predicts all too well exactly the sort of warfare which would take place a few years later in WW1.


Clark, I. (1993). Voices Prophesying War: Future Wars 1763-3749. Oxford University Press, UK.
Borthwick, F. (1912). Clifton College Annals and Register 1862-1912. Bristol, UK.
Canadian Patent CA174919 Trench Artillery, filed 21st September 1916, granted 6th February 1917
Irish Times (Newspaper). ‘Military Funeral in Dublin’, 12th February 1908.
Oakley, E. (1890). Clifton College Register 1862-1889 (Supplement). Entrances in September 1887.
Quarter 1, 1908 Death Certificates Volume 1a, No.315 Chelsea.
Sandison, A. & Dingley, R. (2000). Histories of the Future: Studies in Fact, Fantasy and Science Fiction. Palgrave Macmillan, USA.
The Royal Engineers Journal, Vol. VII, No.6, June 1908.
Vickers, C. (1905). The Siberian railway in war. Royal Engineers Journal, Vol.2, August 1905.
Vickers, C. (1905). Transport and Railroad Gazette – Progress in yard design, The Royal Engineers Journal, 26th May 1905.
Vickers, C. (1905). Engineering News – Double-tracking of Railways, The Royal Engineers Journal, 14th September 1905.
Vickers, C. (1905). Bulletin of the International Railway Congress, The Royal Engineers Journal, September 1905.
Vickers, C. (1905). Electrical Review – High Speed Traction, The Royal Engineers Journal, June 10th 1905.
Vickers, C. (1905). Railway and Locomotive Engineering – Single Line Working, The Royal Engineers Journal, Vol. 1, February 1905.
Vickers, C. (1905). Engineering News – Impure Sand in Concrete, The Royal Engineers Journal, Vol. 1, 2nd February 1905.
Vickers, C. (1905). Railways and Locomotive Engineer. The Royal Engineers Journal, Vol. 1, 2nd February 1905.
Vickers, C. (1907). The Trenches. Published January 1908 in Blackwood’s Magazine Vol. CLXXXIII, (January-June 1908). Edition, William Blackwood and Sons, London, UK.
War Office File WO25/3917, Page 268/418, Service Record of Charles Ernest Vickers, Royal Engineers.

And a thank you to Hilary Doyle for his assistance in validating some information in Dublin.

Fake Tanks Fictional Tanks WW1 British Fake Tanks

H.G. Wells’ Land Ironclads (Fictional Tank)

United Kingdom (1903)
Tank – Fictional

A Story Ahead of its Time

Few people have influenced the world through works of fiction like Herbert George Wells. Through his famous classics like The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine, he has set the foundations for the genre of science-fiction. He, along with other early science-fiction greats like Jules Verne foresaw many technologies that would shape the 20th century. One of his lesser-known works is ”The Land Ironclads”, a short story from 1903 published in “The Strand” magazine. It was a story written in the time when the next great European war loomed over the minds of many people and speculative stories exploring possible European conflicts of the future were as popular as they were provocative. H.G Wells’ story served as inspiration for Winston Churchill, one of the people that helped establish the Landships Committee. In the story, two sides find themselves locked in a trench warfare stalemate which is broken with the use of the titular Land Ironclads, 30 meter long heavily armed and armored behemoths powered by steam. This early vision of a future battlefield not only helped inspire the development of tanks but also foresaw the style of trench warfare in which real tanks would be fighting 13 years after it was written.


The story, told from the point of view of a war correspondent, begins in the middle of a war between two nations. Neither nation is named, instead, they are referred to as “the invader” (devitalized townsmen pressed into the role of a soldier) and “the defender” (tough soldiers and old-school patriots). The invader had attempted to march straight for the defender’s capital but was stopped by a prepared defensive line of trenches. The invasion ground down to a stalemate as both sides attempted to beat the other back. This stalemate was soon changed as the invader brought 14 Land Ironclads. With the use of these massive landships, the invader had assaulted the defender’s trenches. Having no artillery immediately available, the defenders could only plink the ironclads with their rifles as they got cut down by automatic fire. The defending forces relied on these machines being unable to cross the gap of their trench network, but they were proven wrong as the ironclads effortlessly crossed the gap and continued onwards. Eventually, the defenses were overrun and the heavy guns of the defender destroyed before they could be a serious threat. The entire defending army was reduced to ruin by a technologically superior force.

He looked at his watch. “Half-past four! Lord! What things can happen in two hours. Here’s the whole blessed army being walked over, and at half-past two——

Tactics of the Near Future

The disparity between the opposing forces was notable. The defenders were professional soldiers, the invaders were civilians pressed into the military. This disparity is noted by one of the defenders the war correspondent talks to before the attack. This, as well as the use of trenches, comes unsurprisingly as Wells drew a lot of notes from the Second Boer War for the story.
“Their men aren’t brutes enough: that’s the trouble. They’re a crowd of devitalized townsmen, and that’s the truth of the matter’ They’re clerks, they’re factory hands, they’re students, they’re civilized men. They can write, they can talk, they can make and do all sorts of things, but they’re poor amateurs at war. They’ve got no physical staying power, and that’s the whole thing. They’ve never slept in the open one night in their lives; they’ve never drunk anything but the purest water-company water; they’ve never gone short of three meals a day since they left their feeding-bottles. Half their cavalry never cocked a leg over a horse till it enlisted six months ago. They ride their horses as though they were bicycles—you watch ’em! They’re fools at the game, and they know it. Our boys of fourteen can give their grown men points….”
The invaders are devitalized townsmen, very much like the Boers who stood in stark contrast to the professional British army.
However, despite their lack of skills with war, the invading forces and their ingenuity proved more than a match for the less advanced but more skilled defender. H.G Wells vividly showcased modern war as a place where science and technology triumph, over strength and martial prowess.
Trench warfare is another very critical element of the story. While trenches have been used in warfare for far longer, mostly in sieges, in Wells’ story they took on a much more important role. Here too he drew notes from the Second Boer War which saw the use of trenches. However, in his fictional war, trenches take on a much more notable role, very reminiscent of the one they played in the Russo-Japanese war and World War 1 on many fronts. Furthermore, the Land Ironclads, like tanks in WWI, were used in the role of breakthrough, being able to cross trenches with ease and resist small arms fire. In the later parts of the story, invader cyclists and cavalry can be seen following the Ironclads after the breakthrough was made, taking care of the surrendered defenders and securing the advance. This too is very similar to the planned way that tanks were to be utilised on the Western Front. British commanders envisioned cavalry being used to exploit the gaps that tanks would create. In reality, that idea never materialized but it did reflect upon post-war tank tactics with fast tanks of the Russians and cruiser tanks of the British.
The Land Ironclads

“The daylight was getting clearer now. The clouds were lifting, and a gleam of lemon-yellow amidst the level masses to the east portended sunrise. He looked again at the land ironclad. As he saw it in the bleak grey dawn, lying obliquely upon the slope and on the very lip of the foremost trench, the suggestion of a stranded vessel was very great indeed. It might have been from eighty to a hundred feet long—it was about two hundred and fifty yards away—its vertical side was ten feet high or so, smooth for that height, and then with a complex patterning under the eaves of its flattish turtle cover. This patterning was a close interlacing of portholes, rifle barrels, and telescope tubes—-sham and real—-indistinguishable one from the other.” -The first full sighting of the tank in The Land Ironclads
The Land Ironclads were 14 large landships built by the devitalized townsmen to assault the defender positions. The machines consisted of a large steel framework borne upon eight pairs of pedrail wheels, a predecessor to tracks which actual tanks would use. On top of the iron-armored roof was a retractable conning tower with vision ports for the ironclad’s commander.
The ironclad’s armament consisted of rows of sponson cabins which were crewed by riflemen. The cabins were slung along the sides, rear and front of the ironclad. There is a notable absence of heavy weapons on such a large vehicle, however, considering it wasn’t designed to fight against anything but infantry and an occasional gun battery its armament is more or less suitable. Each gun was magazine fed and operated by a rifleman. They featured an optical sight that projected into the gunner’s cabin a camera obscura picture he would use to aim. The Rifleman would fire the gun using an electronic trigger. Each porthole had a dummy gun and optic to minimize the risk of damage to the real ones. In case an optic or a gun was damaged, the rifleman could repair either. From the text it can also be presumed that the ironclad carried spare guns and optics to replace damaged ones.
There are no solid values on the ironclad’s armor, however, the adjustable skirt is noted as being 12 inches (304.8mm) thick iron plating. Thus it can be assumed that the rest of the ironclad is equally if not better protected. It should be noted this was probably for dramatic effect. If this would have been the case, in reality, the ironclads would have had a hard time moving at all and would have sunk into the ground due to their incredible weight. Not to mention iron is not a good material for this purpose, steel would have been a lot better choice.
The land ironclads were pushed forward by compact steam engines which allowed them to travel at the speed of at least 6 mph (9.66kph). The entire thing moved on eight pairs of pedrail wheels. The pedrail wheels consist of a series of “feet” connected to pivots on a wheel. Each of the eight pedrail wheels was driving wheels set free to swivel upon long axles all around a common axis. According to Wells, this system allowed them to cross very rough terrain and keep moving steadily even on large slopes. This too is rather far-fetched if we take their supposed weight into consideration, they would stand a better chance plowing through a hill rather than crossing it.
The gunner cabins opened up into the central gallery which was like a long corridor running through the ironclad. On each side were the steam engines that ran it, together with various engineers maintaining them. The captain was located in the middle, with a retractable ladder that led to the conning tower. He raised and lowered the ladder via a wheel to climb into the conning tower which he could then raise and scout the surroundings.
Overall, the land ironclads can be considered more akin to wheeled naval warships on land then they would be to even the earliest tanks. However, some of the concepts and ideas behind them, like gun ports on all sides and large heavyweight chassis, can be found present in designs of actual landships some nations experimented upon. Perhaps the most similar real-life counterpart could be the Flying Elephant, a design made by the British Landships Committee.

The Technologies

There are a number of technologies featured in the story. To skim over more minor ones, there’s the idea of bicycles being used alongside cavalry, and indeed bicycle units did exist in armies of the time albeit on a smaller scale. Notable is also the presence of large guns and howitzers in the defender’s ranks, artillery pieces that would come to later define the battlefield.
The ironclads themselves feature three different technologies which ranged from mere prototypes to (at the time) complete fiction.
“It had humped itself up, as a limpet does before it crawls; it had lifted its skirt and displayed along the length of it—feet! They were thick, stumpy feet, between knobs and buttons in shape—flat, broad things, reminding one of the feet of elephants or the legs of caterpillars”

The most striking of these is the pedrail wheel which was mentioned earlier. It was invented by Bramah Joseph Diplock in 1903 sometime before the story was written.
“Mr.—Mr. Diplock,” he said; “and he called them Pedrails…Fancy meeting them here!””
The wheels were designed to aid in the crossing of muddy or otherwise treacherous terrain. Some more advanced versions even had suspension for every individual ‘foot’. However, the pedrail wheels never saw use in armored fighting vehicles (save perhaps a few prototypes, like the Orionwagen). Diplock abandoned this design in 1910 and went on to develop chain tracks which were the first to demonstrate advantages tracks hold over wheels.
The weapons the ironclads were armed with were, on their own, technologically ahead of their time. In 1903, self-loading magazine-fed rifles were mostly prototypes with the exception of the 1902 Madsen which, by that time was in production. The automatic weapons of the period were few and mostly either pistols or belt fed heavy weapons.
The way the guns were aimed is interesting in its own right. The sight through a camera obscura picture onto a table that the rifleman stood next to. The picture had a cross in the middle that indicated where the gun was aimed. The rifleman had a divider which he used to adjust for elevation and a knob with a button on it, the knob would rotate the gun and the button would fire the gun by sending an electric charge to it through two copper wires. Overall, the system worked by using a projected image for the gunner to observe and an electronically triggered magazine-fed automatic rifle, which suffices to say well ahead of its time.

“These were in the first place automatic, ejected their cartridges and loaded again from a magazine each time they fired, until the ammunition store was at an end, and they had the most remarkable sights imaginable, sights which threw a bright little camera-obscura picture into the light-tight box in which the rifleman sat below. This camera-obscura picture was marked with two crossed lines, and whatever was covered by the intersection of these two lines, that the rifle hit. The sighting was ingeniously contrived. The rifleman stood at the table with a thing like an elaborately of a draughtsman’s dividers in his hand, and he opened and closed these dividers so that they were always at the apparent height—if it was an ordinary-sized man—of the man he wanted to kill. A little-twisted strand of wire like an electric-light wire ran from this implement up to the gun, and as the dividers opened and shut the sights went up and down. Changes in the clearness of the atmosphere, due to changes of moisture, were met by an ingenious use of that meteorologically sensitive substance, catgut, and when the land ironclad moved forward the sites got a compensatory deflection in the direction of its motion. The riflemen stood up in his pitch-dark chamber and watched the little picture before him. One hand held the dividers for judging distance, and the other grasped a big knob like a door-handle. As he pushed this knob about the rifle above swung to correspond, and the picture passed to and fro like an agitated panorama. When he saw a man he wanted to shoot he brought him up to the cross-lines, and then pressed a finger upon a little push like an electric bell-push, conveniently placed in the center of the knob. Then the man was shot. If by any chance the rifleman missed his target he moved the knob a trifle, or readjusted his dividers, pressed the push, and got him the second time.”

Influence on reality

H.G Wells was a great thinker and, before war broke out in 1914, he had written many wars of his own, mainly global in scale, and Land Ironclads is no different. He always believed that we have overdone war and that the march of technology will create such powerful weapons that could obliterate mankind.
But he wasn’t the only one. As a matter a fact, he was but a part of the entire wave that came out of the Franco-Prussian war in 1871. The mind of Europeans was abuzz with possibilities of future large-scale European conflicts. The first of its kind was Battle of Dorking, made in 1871 by George Tomkyns. Many soon followed, notably Sir William Laird Clowes speculating naval warfare of the future in “The Captain of ‘Mary Rose’”. In France, Henri De Nousanne’s “La Guerre Anglo-Franco-Russe” was notable, and in Germany, the “Der Kriege gegen England” proved popular after The Navy Bill of 1900. In England, between 1903 and 1914 when Wells wrote the story, speculative war stories of a war against Germany were becoming even more common, some simply inflammatory while others were more comedic in nature. The Land Ironclads is one of the high-quality works of that time, Wells didn’t put emphasis on nationality. While he did try to hint at certain things, his combatants were merely dubbed the Invader and the Defender. The focus of the story was the machines.
The dimensions and design aspects of ironclads were not very realistic, but the idea they presented was. The Land Ironclads did indeed inspire the British Lord of Admiralty, Winston Churchill. He read the story and was convinced it could work in reality. He was an important figure in pushing the Landships Committee into action in 1915. First tanks rolled out in 1916 and, in 1925, during the Royal Commission testimony, Churchill testified under oath that the first person to foresee tanks was H.G Wells.
Churchill’s claim can be put to the question, however. There were authors before Wells that envisioned an armored vehicle of sorts, akin to a tank. It should be noted that Sir Ernest Swinton, an important driving force behind the creation of the first tank also wrote for “The Strand” at the same time as H.G Wells wrote his story. An inventor, James Cowen, half-a-century earlier, had envisioned armored vehicles with repeating weapons and, on the French side, Albert Robida envisioned his own armored vehicles in 1883.

Small armored vehicles with large lumbering ones, not too dissimilar to the ironclads in the background from Robida’s works.
In retrospect, while Wells’ predictions were not the most accurate, and there were stories of tanks before it, The Land Ironclads definitely benefited towards the creation of the very first tanks, which sparked a new way to fight wars that lives on in modern Main Battle Tanks.

Resources & Links
PDF copy of The Land Ironclads By H.G. Wells.
H.G Wells: Traversing time by W. Warren Wagar

A reconstruction of H.G.Wells’ Ironclads based on contemporary drawings and its description within the novel. Illustrated by Mr. C. Ryan, paid for by DeadlyDillema through our Patreon Campaign!