About World War 1 Tanks

World War 1 Tanks

When we think of the First World War we think of muddy trenches and cavalry on horses going into battle. Most of us don’t associate this war with armoured tank vehicles or any type of advanced weaponry but we are wrong. There were many tanks developed during the First World War basically through necessity as fighting the Germans with no real means of shelter except the trenches was proving disastrous in terms of loss of life and manpower. Let’s take a look at some of these great feats of design and engineering.

Warfare before Tanks

Prior to tanks being built fighting or combat engaged in during wars was very different. At the beginning of World War I cavalry was the main fighting machine meaning soldiers on horses would gallop into battle against the enemy. In 1914 the British army was controlled by cavalry officers who pushed against change. Fighting in the mud and filth on horseback in the fields of France however was to prove extremely difficult, if not impossible, heralding the entrance of the tank. Lieutenant Colonel Ernest Swinton was the champion of the tank and indeed was instrumental in getting the prototype vehicle considered. It was the stalemate that developed during the First World War in terms of neither side gaining ground that eventually convinced the generals to take note and listen.

The British Mark I

This is the first of the tracked vehicles developed by the British during World War I commencing its service in August 1916. It was actually a first in terms of being a tank that could be used in combat. This vehicle was sorely needed to enable soldiers to advance while protecting them from enemy gunfire. This first tank was a defence against gunfire, had the ability to cross trenches, and could traverse terrain that was hilly and uneven. It carried much needed supplies plus enabled soldiers to capture enemy positions much more easily.

Even though this first tank was a great advance on what had gone before it was still a primitive vehicle by todays advanced standards. The Mark I had its first foray into action in September 1916 on The Somme at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette. Nicknamed the Little Willy the tank was designed by Walter Wilson and William Triton in 1915. It was a rhomboid vehicle meaning parallelogram with its adjacent sides being of differing lengths. It had a low centre of gravity plus its armament was carried on its sides.

Unfortunately this tank was not comfortable for the men who rode inside as it was very small with little or no space for the men to sit with ease. Fumes from the engine would fill the space inside and were deadly as carbon monoxide was one of the main permeations and there was no ventilation to speak of. The heat inside the tank must have been unbearable as it could reach in excess of 50c. This led to soldiers collapsing inside the vehicle or on alighting once they hit the fresh air.

The crew of the Mark I tank (there were eight) were issued as standard with a chainmail mask, a leather helmet and gas masks to protect them against bullets or any shrapnel that got into the tank. This tank was not however impenetrable and many crews were burned as grenades could be thrown against the fuel tanks ensuing in explosions that set the tank on fire. Steering the tank was extremely difficult plus due to the noise the crew had to communicate with hand signals, while breaking down was not unusual leaving the crew open to attack from the enemy. Not the most successful design you may think but it was an innovation at the time plus was a starter to build and improve from. Watch an informative video on the first tank used in WWI.

Mark II

The Mark II tank was the follow on from the Mark I. This tank was mainly used for training purposes, with twenty or so being shipped over to France in 1917 for that purpose. These tanks although not being fortified properly, as they were training vehicles, did end up being used in combat at the Battle of Arras in April 1917 and were easy for the enemy to pierce through their armoury causing casualties.

Mark III

Another training tank it used Lewis machine guns as its main weaponry. The Mark III was supposed to have most of the features of the prospective Mark IV but as improvements were not made quickly enough the last two tanks were melted down therefore never saw live action.

Mark IV

The Mark IV was developed in 1917 and was an up armoured version of the Mark I tank. The main difference from the Mark I was the six pounder barrel guns of the Mark IV, while fuel was stored externally in an attempt to make it safer for the crew on board. At Messines Ridge in June 1917 the Mark IV saw its first action and achieved some success, while in the Second Battle of Villers-Bretonneux in April 1918 the first tank battle involving the Mark IV and the German A7V took place making history. Many more tanks were produced in this Mark series all a slight improvement on the previous edition.

German Tanks of World War I

The Germans did not build many tanks during World War I unlike the British. The Sturmpanzerwagen A7V was their first. It was 1918 before this tank appeared and there were only twenty one produced before the First World War ended. This tank engaged in the first tank to tank battle with the British during the war and was their only tank to see action during the World War I. 

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