WAR OFFICE INEPTITUDE.
(By E. Dwyer Gray, Sydney.)
It is, of course, fairly well known that the war tank was really a Western Australian invention. Those who would like to know the details of the occurrences in connection with Corporal Lancelot E. de Mole’s travelling caterpillar fort, will find them set out in the current issue of the “Australian Motor Owner,” which gives the whole story. The magazine does not, however, print the text of a certain striking letter from Perth, addressed to the British Minister for War on September 19, 1914. This not only informed the British Minister for War that the archives of its own department contained the plans for a perfect war tank, but foretold what tanks could do, exactly two years before the inferior Somme tanks appeared so belatedly on the battlefields. This letter is now made available for publication for the first time, and reads as follows:
“The question of armaments being of paramount importance to armies engaged in this great war, may I suggest your placing the plans, specifications, and model, submitted by Mr. Lancelot de Mole in 1912, before a committee of experts, with a view to the adoption of travelling forts against the German forces In my humble opinion no deadlier or more efficient war engine could be used than de Mole’s caterpillar fort, which can travel over broken ground, climb embankments., span canals, streams and trenches with the greatest of ease, and which, if armoured and manned with small quick-firing guns and maxims, will quickly turn the most stubborn of armies, even if they be most strongly entrenched.
A line of moving fortresses – no dreamer’s fancy, but an idea which can be actually materialised – adequately support- ed by artillery, will carry everything before it, and save the infantry. I sincerely trust that you will appreciate the value of my suggestion. Should you require the services of Mr. L. de Mole kindly request the Western Australian Government to communicate with Mr. H. J. Anketell, resident engineer, Department of Public Works, Perth – Yours, etc., G. W. D. Breadon.”
Mr. Breadon was a civil engineer by profession. He was a man of repute and capacity, and shortly after writing this remarkable letter he became a Commissioner for Munitions in India. The letter had no effect whatever. Apparently it went into the same sort of pigeonhole as de Mole’s plans in 1912. Today it accuses the British Minister for War in 1914, or his agents, and the accusation, though it has a particular application to 1914, goes back to 1912.
Some Tragic Questions.
Here observe that on November 17. 1919, a British Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors, presided over by Mr. Justice Sargant, declared:- “De Mole made, and reduced to practical shape, as far back as the year 1912, a very brilliant lank invention, which anticipated, and in some respects surpassed, that actually put into use late in 1916. Counsel for the Minister for Munitions specifically admitted: ”De Mole’s suggestions would, in the opinion of present advisers, have made a better article than those that went into action.” The Chairman said to him: ”Your suggestion is sent to the Government in 1912 and 1915. Then it gets pigeonholed. That is your misfortune, but not your fault.” But what about his country’s misfortune and the calamitous consequences to mankind? How much would the war have been shortened if Britain had possessed tanks from the beginning? Would there have been any retreat from Mons? Would the war ever have become static? Millions of men may have perished on account of this ineptitude, which in fact prolonged the war for years. Even if the British Minister for War, or his agents, had acted promptly and with sense when Breadon’s striking letter reached London in October, 1914, the whole history of the war would have been altered, and huge savings would have been effected in human lives. Dead men tell no tales, but live ones can – and this is one of them. It is time to abolish pigeonholes and to substitute searchlights.
Churchill’s Historic Letter.
On January 5, 1915, Mr. Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, wrote his historic letter to Mr. Asquith (of “Wait and see” fame) on the subject of mechanical warfare. In this he remarked:- “The question to be now solved is not the long attack over a carefully prepared glacis of former times, but the actual getting across of 100 or 200 yards of open space and wire entanglements. All this was apparent more than two months ago, but no steps have been taken and no preparation made. Yet it would be quite easy to fit up tractors with armoured shelters, in which men and machine guns could be placed, which would be bullet proof. The caterpillar system would enable trenches to be crossed quite easily, and the weight of the machines would destroy all wire entanglements. These engines could . . . advance into enemy trenches, smash all obstructions, and sweep the trenches with their machine gun fire.”
Mr. Winston Churchill began his practical tank activities after a Dukes’ dinner on February 15, 1915, when Major Hetherington and others suggested rolling cars, with wheels the size of the Great Wheel at Earl’s Court, but the above letter shows that he had received inspiration before that date. At the moment he wrote his historic letter his colleague, the Minister for War, or his agents, had Breadon’s letter locked away and ignored, whilst somewhere else in the War Office reposed plans for a perfect war tank travelling on the cater- pillar system on a chain track of steel plates. It was only after spending mil- lions on the secret evolution of an inferior type of tank that “Mother” and its adaptation appeared 0n the battlefields in September, 1916.
The Birth of the Tank.
The standard work on these subjects is “Tanks, 1914-18,” by Sir Albert Stern, long Director of the Mechanical Warfare Supply Department, and an original member of Mr. Winston Churchill’s celebrated Landship Committee of 1915, so detested by the War Office that it refused to give it the accommodation of an un-tenanted room. Britain owed even, the Somme tanks, not to the War Office and the military authorities, who consistently ridiculed and opposed all ideas of landships or tanks, but to the grit, the commonsense, the courage, and the driving force of Sir Albert Stern, and the Naval Department. In his book Sir Albert Stern writes:- “Mr. d’Eyncourt turned down a proposed truck of Balata belting, and once more our hopes sank. Then on September 22 (1915) I received the following telegram from Lincoln: ‘To Stern, Room 59, 83 Pall Mall. Balata died on the test bench yesterday morning. New arrival by Tritton out of pressed plate. Light in weight, but very strong. All doing well, thank you. – Proud Parents.’ That was the birth of the tank.”
That statement is what Mr. Winston Churchill once described as a terminological inexactitude, only in the sense that it is historically untrue. The curious telegram of September 22, 1915, signed “Proud Parents,” was not the birth of the tank. It was only the birth of “Mother” and its adaptations. The birth of the tank took place in Western Australia in 1912. But Sir Albert Stern is not to blame. He did not know de Mole’s story when he wrote his book. That the Director of the Mechanical Warfare Supply Department should never have heard of de Mole’s tank is, however, just one of those mysteries which should have been probed and never was. De Mole’s plans were not merely received and then pigeonholed. They were, on the contrary, examined, and deliberately rejected at least three times – once before the war and twice during the war, or, to be exact, in 1913, 1916, and 1918. There was also Breadon’s letter of September, 1914, and a working model one-eighth of the natural size, which did no more in London than the plans and was eventually found in what the London Press of 1919 described as “the neglected cellar of a Government department.” In 1916 de Mole’s tank was rejected by the Advisory Committee of Scientific Experts. They must have displayed some expert science to keep Sir Albert Stern ignorant of the fact that there was anything of the kind on the planet. But that he was ignorant of the existence of de Mole’s tank can be accepted as sure.
The Royal Commission of 1919 paid a high tribute to the driving force of Mr. Winston Churchill, and probably he deserved it. But no tribute was paid to the driving force of Sir Albert Stern, who deserved it more, and was his teacher about tanks. It is regrettable to have to add that on October 16, 1917. Mr. Winston Churchill weakly dismissed Sir Albert Stern from the Directorship of the Mechanical Warfare Supply Department, at the bidding of British Generals, whoso stupidity in connection with tanks he had dared to oppose and expose: appointed Admiral Moore in his place, who up to the date of his appointment had never even seen a tank, and actually referred Sir Albert Stern to America for a proper development of tanks on a large scale. But it is now a matter of history that Sir Albert Stern won through in the end.
De Mole’s Ideal Tank.
De Mole’s tank was intended to be 37 ft. long, with a wheel base of 25ft, travelling on a caterpillar track of steel plates. It had a double climbing face, and consequently could have reversed over the roughest battlefields, which the Somme tanks could not. It would have crossed a 16ft trench with ease, either forwards or backwards. It had a high underbody clearance to prevent bogging.
The chain track was fully protected, travelling inside the armour instead of over the top. The Somme tanks were very imperfectly steered by moving the chain track faster on one side than the other, which imposed a strict limitation in length, or they could not be steered at all. ln de Mole’s tank perfect steering was secured, for the chain track could be moved laterally, thus causing it to conform lo curves. This meant that there was no limitation to length, except that imposed by weight, and the horse-power of the motor engine used. At least three times de Mole offered his brilliant invention to his country for nothing, and it was refused. It is terrible to think what might have occurred If de Mole had been a man of the same type as Grindell Mathews. When in June, 1913, the Director-General of Artillery, wrote to him finally from the War Office, London, definitely declining the invention, and stating “it is not proposed to proceed with the matter,” some of de Mole’s friends suggested to him that he should take copies of his plans to the German Consul in Perth. All was peace, but de Mole said he would have no truck with any foreign Government.
What even the Somme tanks and their developments actually did in the war need not be stressed here. They were one of the chief factors in the final victory of the Allies. Lord Kitchener had no time for them. As Sir Albert Stern says. He was too busy even to look at the first efforts at construction. The chairman of the alleged Australian Inventions Board, sitting in Adelaide during the war was also too busy even to look at de Mole’s plans. Field-Marshal Sir Douglas Haig supported Stern. When the tanks appeared at Delville Wood and other Somme battlefields in September 1916, he wrote: “We take our objectives where the tanks advance. Where they do not advance we do not take our objectives.” In May, 1917, he wrote: “The tanks are wonderful life-savers.” A British private wrote: “Before the tanks came the dead used to be strewn in front of the German gun emplacements like birds before a butt with a good shot inside. Now these tank things just walkthrough.”
The 1919 Tank Awards.
The British Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors accorded the Australian credit and commiseration, to which a grateful Empire added later the sustaining letters, “C. B. E.” To the contrivers of an inferior tank they allotted £15,000 in cash. But the Commissioners had no choice. They were tied by the terms of their appointment, and could make awards only for “tanks actually used by a Government department” – that is, for “Mother” and its adaptations, or to those who could show, “A casual connection” between their conceptions and those Contrivances. The Somme tank awardees were Sir E. H. W. Tennyson-d’Eyncourt, Sir W. Tritton, Major Wilson, Lieut. McFie, and Mr. S. Newfield. A certified verbatim report of the Commission proceedings at Queen Anne’s Gate, Westminster, on November 3, 1919, shows that two of these Somme awardees had, whilst controlling official positions, offered criticisms of de Mole’s tank, which “he felt he could not properly put forward to the Commission as being a reasoned and proper report on the position as it then was”, since “the criticisms contained in that report are criticism, which I am advised are not justified.”
De Mole’s Other Activities.
De Mole conceived his great tank idea or travelling caterpillar fort, while engaged in the organisation of heavy transport work in the South-Western part of Western Australia in 1911, and he first sent his plans to the British War Office in 1912. Caterpillar traction was already known, the celebrated American Holt tractor being then on the scene. But the steering was awkward, and this was part of de Mole’s triumph. He made perfect steering quite easy. The Holt story is another instance of the ineptitude of the British authorities on some important occasions. They gave to America for nothing plans for which they had paid a prize, and which they were exceedingly glad to use on generous re- turn. In 1902 de Mole invented au automatic telephone similar in operation to that now in use, but the postal authorities would not even give it a trial. The model of his rejected war tank can be seen at the Melbourne War Museum. The British Museum wanted to buy it, but characteristically the Australian soldier refused to sell it, and presented it to the Australian War Museum as a gift. Just now de Mole is a resident of Cremorne, Sydney, and is working out two big ideas in connection with heavy traffic. In six months’ time every city in Australia is likely to know all about them, and the country, too. He is a civil engineer by profession, like his father, who is a citizen of Adelaide. His great-great-grand-father was the eminent engineer, Henry Maudesly, who invented the marine engine, etc.
A generous-minded man. Lancelot de Mole makes no grievance of his wrongs. But the mourning millions will never know what his wrongs cost the world in human lives, or how many of the dead, including 60,000 splendid Australians, would have been saved if the British War Office had been wise in time. The man actually responsible for the pigeon- holing of the Australian corporal’s tank plans in 1912 and the definite rejection of June, 1913, was the man who prolonged the war for years. Who was he?