Many of the early ideas for armored land warfare which were suggested to break the stalemate of trench warfare in WW1 were impractical, outlandish, or otherwise beyond the technology of the day. Indeed, for a new type of warfare, a new type of weapon was needed and several nations had come to this conclusion at around the same time. With any new technology, there are also those ideas that were, in hindsight, totally useless, and likewise, those whose potential was not exploited. One design and one man which were not exploited for their potential were the 1916-7 landship and its designer, Robert Macfie.
As an early proponent of tracked warfare, the American-born Robert Macfie had managed, by the end of 1915, to achieve little more than making sure that the official British work on Landships would be track-based rather than wheel-based. His own work had been ignored, sidelined and then either stolen or copied. His career in the military was a flop and his commission had been cancelled, so on the face of it, Robert Macfie should have stopped working on tracked vehicles and focussed his attention elsewhere. However, Macfie was a stubborn man, and stubbornness can lead to both success and failure in life in equal measure. Not content with the multiple rebuttals for his work up to that point, Macfie had one final tracked vehicle endeavor up his sleeve, the culmination of all of this development work up to that point.
A New Beginning
Almost a year after his initial design and 12 months after his military career had ended, Macfie had submitted a second landship design with improved features. The new and improved vehicle shared some features of the 1916 design, such as having multiple tracks, but it would not have the complex nose-mounted track-bogey of the previous vehicle. Instead, the vehicle was to use a permanently elevated lead track described as:
“a self-propelled vehicle, of an endless portable track mounted at the front of the vehicle in such a position (for example sloping forwardly and upwardly) as to provide a driving means which can engage a steep bank or like obstacle, and means for coupling the said track to the engine of the vehicle”
Along with the permanently fixed and elevated lead bogey, the general shape was also different. The sides were parallel for the portions along the main pair of tracks, which were at the back, but after this, the shape became a wedge pointing forwards with the elevated track at the front point. A pair of large sponsons were located at the back, one on each side. Traction was provided by means of four tracks. Two at the back for propulsion, a third track located ahead of those on a steerable bogey and which provided the steering for the vehicle, and the fourth set at the front elevated at about 60 degrees to assist in climbing.
Unlike the 1916 design, there was no provision here for lowering armored shields over the tracks to protect them or to create a mobile fort. With this new and improved layout, Macfie clearly felt the old and complex shields were now superfluous as:
“The [new] general arrangement, moreover, renders it more easy to provide effective shields for the portable tracks”
Having first submitted this design in December 1916, Macfie submitted an amendment six-months later in May 1917, making it clear that the body he had outlined could actually be made in any desired manner, armored, and armed with machine guns and other weapons such as artillery. The power-plant for the vehicle was specifically omitted just as before because the patent and intention were more concerned with the overall layout of a vehicle and the use of steering bogies and raised front tracks.
Mounted in the sponsons at the back, the weapons would have been able to provide fire across a wide arc on both sides of the vehicle. Despite the angled shape of the design, these sponsons would still not be able to fire directly to the front. In keeping with the ‘tanks’ which had, by this time, appeared in the popular press, side-mounted sponsons would be able to fire down the length of a trench as the vehicle crossed it.
This landship from December 1916 was much more clearly thought out than his January 1916 version and much less complex in terms of gearing. Although Macfie did not file a patent application in the United States for the January 1916 landship, he did file one for the December 1916 landship, filing it in September 1917. That application was filed not just in his name, but in conjunction with Traction Development Limited. When, less than a week later, he also filed the design for a patent in France, it was only in the name of the company, suggesting that Macfie may have sold the rights to the design, perhaps because he was in financial difficulty.
This design was, compared to his other designs, the best of the bunch, with a more practical and less complicated layout, armament mounted in sponsons, and a special nose track for climbing which was simpler than his 1916 design. Even so, it met with no more success than his other ideas. The patent applications in France, Britain, and the USA would indicate that Macfie was seeking some other potential markets for his ideas, but with a functional ‘tank’ already in operation on the Western Front by this time, it is hard to see why anyone would go for a totally new and untested design. As such, Macfie was left, by the end of the war, having not produced a single functional vehicle. He was awarded a pittance by the post-war inquiry into the invention of tanks and shortly after returned to the USA, no doubt a bitter and disappointed man. Robert Macfie died on 9th February 1948 in New York, aged just 67 years old, having lived long enough to see the tanks he helped to originate become the dominant land weapon of the age.
Illustration of Macfie’s 1916-17 Landship Design, produced by Mr. R. Cargill, funded by our Patreon Campaign.
|Armament||Machine guns, artillery or other|
Hills, A. (2019). Robert Macfie, Pioneers of Armour Vol.1. FWD Publishing, USA
British Patent GB124450 ‘Improvements in or relating to Motor-Vehicles’. Filed 3rd January 1916, Accepted 3rd April 1919
US Patent US1298366 ‘Motor Vehicle’. Filed 4th September 1917, Accepted 25th March 1919
Proceedings of the Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors: tank 1918-1920
The foundations and principles of modern armoured warfare did not appear out of a vacuum, and nor did the machines of WW1 and WW2. Their development was full of false starts, failed ideas, and missed opportunities. Robert Macfie was a pioneer in aviation at the turn of the century followed by work with the Landships Committee on tracked vehicles to break the stalemate of trench warfare. Although his tank designs never saw combat the work he started was carried on by other pioneers and helped to usher in a dawn of armoured and mechanised warfare.