Light, medium & heavy tanks, armored cars
Around 2600 armored military vehicles built by September 1918
- Ivel Motor Ambulance ‘Ivel First-Aid Motor’
- Killen-Strait Armoured Tractor
- Kupchak War Automobile
- Lincoln No. 1 Machine
- Macfie’s Landship 1914-15
- Macfie’s Landship 1916
- Macfie’s Landship 1916-17
- Mark VI Tank
- Simms Land Torpedo
- Tritton Chaser – Whippet Prototype
- Corry’s Land Ironclad
- Cowens Locomotive Land Battery or Devastator
- Fowler B5 Armoured Road Train
- Mann’s Armoured Steam Cart
- Penningtons Machine Gun Carriage
- Simms Draisine
- Simms Quadricycle Motor Scout
- Simms War Car
- Wolseley / Hamilton Motor Sleigh
Breaking the Stalemate
Just like the French, the British commanders saw all of their offensives pinned down by relentless enemy machine-gun fire. As early as 1915, marching into the open was seen as suicidal. Obstacles like the bombed landscape, the deep muddy ground and barbed wire also contributed to slow down any assault and render it virtually impossible without immense casualties. While the Germans managed to find a way to use elite infantry (the Stürmtruppen) for assaults, both the British and the French started thinking of a way of delivering infantry literally to the enemies trench entrance, dealing with casemates and machine-gun nests, and protecting infantry in no-mans land. Besides this, H.G. Wells’ steam and pedrail wheels from the famous “The Land Ironclads” of 1903 were in the minds of most politicians and officers.
One engineer in particular had a tremendous impact on the tank development in Great Britain, William Tritton, Managing Director of Fosters. He designed the “Little Willie”, a prototype for testing many features later used in the “Mother”, the prototype for the first British operational tank, the Mk.I, and later the “Whippet”, the first British light tank. Also very important were Major Walter Gordon Wilson and Major General Swinton. Supporting them was the “Landship Committee”, headed by Sir Winston Churchill. The specificity of using caterpillar tractors, in large use by the army for towing artillery guns, led to the rejection of this idea by the War Office at first, and its adoption and development by the Royal Navy. Naval guns, sponsons and most of the vocabulary also came from the Navy, reflected in the genesis of the Mark I and following models. The very name “tank”, a code name to deceive spies, was used to cover the first experiments at the English Lincoln William Foster & Cie. In fact, factory workers were told that they were assembling “mobile water tanks” for operations in Mesopotamia. Later, they were shipped in large wooden crates to maintain secrecy, with sometimes “With Care to Petrograd” and a fake destination in Russia.
The British engineers devised an original approach to the trench crossing problem. Contrary to the French, whom basically developed some kind of armored boxes above a modified Holt chassis, their solution was a very long track, basically covering the entire length and height of the hull. The famous rhomboidal-shaped profile became an iconic visual landmark in tank history, immediately identifiable with WWI armored vehicles. The solution proved well adapted to the worst terrain imaginable. The Mark I however had the engineering problems of its time: too heavy for its engine, too slow and lacking agility, uncomfortable for the crew with no hull compartmentation (leading to poisoning from hot carbon gases), unbearable noise and a rough ride. If in idea these tanks were protected, on impact the plates produced small shrapnel-like splinters on the inside of the vehicle.
Soon enough, the Germans learnt how to use mortar shells, grenades, the newly developed hollow charge “K bullet” and direct fire from artilleries against the British tanks. These limitations produced an amazing attrition rate through the first operations, during the Somme Offensive in September 1916.
Many broke down at the start, others were bogged down in large craters or broke down en route, and the rest were dealt with by German artillery. The one third which survived, however, did their job. The first offensive was a success despite terrible losses and lack of coordination, mostly thanks to the shock and awe produced by their appearance in the German lines. They also had a tremendous propaganda value, and triggered a sudden, somewhat irrational morale boost in the infantry ranks, which was badly needed after repeated failures.
The Mark III was also a training version, with some improvements which will be seen on the upcoming Mark IV and Mark V models. The Mark IV was the biggest production of the type: 420 males, 595 females and 250 tenders (supply tanks).
They incorporated early war experience in a single package, with a more powerful engine, better armour, a relocated fuel tank, and retractable sponsons. Three of them (two females and a male) fought during the second battle of Villers Bretonneux, in April 1918, against a rare German A7V. This turned into a duel between the British male and the German tank, which ended in a draw. The Mark V appeared in late 1917, but was only available in quantities by mid-1918.
This was the last wartime evolution of the type, featuring several minor improvements, including a new, long-awaited gearbox and steering system. The original Mark V was supposed to be a brand new, far more ambitious design, but because of concerns about delays on the production lines, it was ultimately rejected for a more pragmatic approach, based on the Mark IV, itself driven from the Mark III.
Apart from 200 males and 200 females, some were converted later as “hermaphrodites”, bearing a gun in the left sponson, and two machine guns in the right one. They were put to the test on the 4th of July 1918, during the Battle of Hamel, in which 50 supported the Australian troops advance. After the war, some fought with the Russian “Whites”, and were ultimately captured by the “Reds”.
In 1918 a different tank appeared under the official designation of Medium Mark A, soon called “Whippet”. It was not truly a light tank, but with half the weight of the Mark IV and a pair of torque-abundant engines (also used in the London two-decker buses of the time), it was considered fast by those times standards, designed to exploit breakthroughs on the battlefield made by heavier tanks. This led, in 1918, to the development of a separate branch of fast medium and heavy models.