Weaponry and Wartime Experience


Code Name: Tank

British-built tank, 1918

Caption: British-built tank, 1918

Throughout the 19th century various inventors had laboured to perfect an endless belt on feet, or a track, for use on vehicles. Around the turn of the century these efforts bore fruit with the invention of the Holt crawler tractor in the United States. Only one more step was required to envisage a tracked vehicle for military purposes, and more than one inventor was thinking about this when the First World War broke out.

Unknown to one another, the British and French both designed and developed an all-terrain armed and armoured vehicle, but the British were the first to use it on the battlefield, in September 1916 The French followed suit in April 1917, the Germans in March 1918.

On 5 January 1915 the First Sea Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, wrote to Prime Minister Asquith: "It would be very easy to quickly equip a number of steam tractors with small shelters to accommodate men and machine guns safe from bullets.... The track system would make it possible to cross trenches with ease and the weight of the contraption would destroy any tangle of barbed wire."

The job was neither as easy nor as quick to execute as Churchill thought. It would take a year before the prototype was brought out for a demonstration at British army headquarters. Nicknamed `Mother" and shielded by 8-mm armour, the contraption weighed 30 tons. It could cross a trench nearly three metres wide and scale a parapet 135 centimetres high. It was armed with machine guns and two 6 -pound guns that could deliver shells accurately at a distance of 1, 830 metres. Its 105-horsepower gasoline motor gave it a top speed of 8 kph under optimal conditions. Mass production began in February 1916 For security reasons, it was decided to give it an ambiguous name that would broadly describe its shape when concealed under canvas, and "tank" was finally chosen. From that time until the conflict ended, the British produced two versions of the tank, one termed "male" fitted with 6 pound guns and one termed female" in the same general style but armed only with machine guns.

A total of 49 tanks saw action for the first time on 15 September 1916 at Flers-Courcelette. Of the eight allotted to the Canadian Army Corps, four got bogged down in the mud, one was destroyed by a shell and one broke down. The other two, dubbed "Cordon rouge" and "Crème de menthe, " enabled the Canadians to seize two fortified emplacements and take a number of prisoners. Of the 49 tanks introduced in the battle, 32 managed to reach their line of departure and 10 resisted long enough to provide effective assistance to the infantry. Two days later, despite this mediocre showing, British Field Marshal Douglas Haig commented: "Wherever the tanks advanced, we reached our objectives; where they did not, we did not reach them." The evidence in favour of the tank as a combat weapon could not have been more conclusive.

After this, all major attacks were made with tanks. In the successful offensive of Amiens beginning at dawn on 8 August 1918 the Canadian troops had the support of 420 tanks, 324 male and 96 female. Not only did the tank provide undeniable destructive power, but it also had a significant psychological effect. After the Amiens engagement, the British did not hesitate, whenever they felt that they did not have enough tanks, to deploy fakes - mere tractors camouflaged with painted canvas attached to a wooden frame. A few months later, on 2 October, General Ludendorf advised the Reichstag that it had become impossible to force the enemy to call a truce, primarily due to the power his tanks gave him.

The tanks that supported the Canadian infantry in this conflict were British tanks commanded by Britons. The Canadian army would not acquire its first tanks until 1938, and then only by dint of the determination of Major-General F.F. Worthington, the pioneer of armoured warfare in Canada.