Towards the First Tanks I

By MSW Add a Comment 22 Min Read
Towards the First Tanks I

F.R. Simms‘ 1902 Motor War Car, the first armoured car to be built

Hornsby developed a caterpillar artillery tractor before the war based on agricultural machines. It meant heavier machinery could be carried than traditional horse-drawn artillery

When the legate, later Emperor, T. Flavius Vespasianus led
the IInd Legion Augusta across Hardy’s Egdon Heath to its assault upon the
great Iron Age fortress of Maiden Castle he did not require his foot soldiers
to advance unprotected against expert slingers. On the command being given
Augusta carried out a well-practised drill movement. Each shield was raised
above the head of its bearer, interlocking with those of his neighbours and the
defenders looked helplessly down as the testudo, the great tortoise, advanced
upon them. Iron-hard pellets rained down, bounced off and the legionaries
arrived at the East Gate practically unscathed. Once there the swords of Rome
made a swift and bloody end to the business. To Augusta it was second nature,
an exercise that had been carried out times without number by them and their
predecessors. Their lesson was not wasted upon posterity. Only a few miles
across the heath lies Bovington Camp, home since 1916 to the British armoured

The Roman Army had always been an infantry army; its
artillery, in the form of catapults of all shapes and sizes, was efficient for
siege work but horses had never been important on the battlefield. Auxiliary
cavalry were always useful for scouting and for the pursuit of a broken enemy
but had never been the queen of battles. The edged weapon was master and
everything else existed only to help the swordsmen get to hand strokes with
their adversaries. The next of the really mighty armies to arrive worked on the
opposite principle. Mongols were horsemen, excellent horsemen, but they were
not cavalry as the West knew it. Their sovereign weapon was not edged but
missile, the short bow, and they used it from the saddle with devastating
effect. No armour was needed. For a Mongol, as for ‘Jacky’ Fisher, speed was
armour enough, speed coupled with overwhelming numbers. None of their opponents
stood a chance. From a professional point of view it would have been of the
greatest interest if time and space problems could have been overcome in order
to have allowed them to meet in open field the armies of the English
longbowmen. It would take some hardihood to pontificate on which side would
have come off best. The same may be said of the Swiss phalanx. Though it was
the terror of Europe it had the good fortune never to have to take on a missile
weapon of such power and precision.

In Western Europe armour had a long and probably undeserved
run of success. The mailed knight upon his barbed horse was irresistible, again
until he came face to face with the same simple weapon in very skilled hands.
In the Near East, however, he had a less easy time of it. From Manzikert in
1071 to Dorylaeum fifteen years later and finally to the disaster of the Horns
of Hattin in 1187 the Frankish-style charge proved ineffective against an enemy
who would not stand still to receive it. The Turkish bow was a feeble thing
compared to the English but it was good enough to puncture horses, and
camel-loads of arrows furnished generous supplies of missiles. The truth was
that cavalry ought to have been obsolete hundreds of years before it finally
vanished from the field. It continued to exist, as a battering force, only for
sentimental reasons and because regular armies had not come into existence. Great
numbers of animals were always needed for draught and pack purposes; hunting
was the traditional sport of the richer strata of society and it would have
been unthinkable that, in the midst of so much horseflesh, a man of high degree
should walk into battle.

The old problem remained until our own day. Very possibly it
remains still. In essence it is obvious. How do you break a body of armed and
determined men if you cannot shoot them down from a distance? Something must
hit them with great force, but, before it can do that, it must reach them
without being itself destroyed. Many devices were invented over the centuries,
most of them never getting further than the drawing board. The majority can be
of no more than antiquarian interest, for there are no records of them having
achieved anything worth while. Froissart tells of a device called a
‘ribaudequin’; it was, so he says ‘a high wheelbarrow reinforced with iron and
long pointed spikes in front’. In his famous paper of 3 December, 1915, Major
The Rt Hon Winston S. Churchill suggested something of the same kind, along
with other variants on the offensive. Leonardo da Vinci, inevitably, produced
complicated drawings; a great mural at Cowdray, copied before the place was
destroyed by fire, depicts a battle-car used at the siege of Boulogne in 1544;
as it appears to have been a farm cart pulled by a single horse and carrying
one hackbutman plus a bowman it was unlikely to have greatly influenced events.
The Germans, ever inventive, produced a number of cognate machines but all
suffered from a fatal, if obvious defect. Livy, Silius Italicus and Quintus
Curtius told of war-carts or chariots. Later came Nicholas Glockendon of
Nurnburg, various Scotchmen of whom the most notable was John Stewart, Duke of
Albany, and the inventors of devices pictured by Valturius and Ludwig von Eyb.
All foundered on the same snag. Horses can no more push carts than sailors can
push rope. It was necessary to be patient and await the discovery of something
better than animal-power.

The longbow dropped out before its time, probably because it
needed a long training period for the archer, which men became unwilling to
take up. Any weakling could be taught to loose off a musket. Thus the cavalries
of the world continued in existence, for want of better shock machines and
because the aristocracy could not bear to be parted from their horses. They
beat each other up relentlessly but their successes against stout infantry were
few and far between. Le Marchant’s heavy horse wrought famously at Salamanca
and von Bock’s Germans broke a square at Garcia Hernandez. The next troops to
do this, or something like it, were Osman Digna’s Hadendowa, alias ‘Fuzzy
Wuzzies’. And Fuzzy Wuzzies fought on foot.

With the coming of steam it seemed that a battle car might
be at last within the realms of the possible. One such was reportedly built for
service in the Crimea, but it never left England and was soon broken up. Anyone
who has seen a traction engine will not need further explanation. Steam
locomotives are powerful but only on rails have they any turn of speed. And, at
the risk of repetition, Jacky Fisher propounded a great truth. Speed is armour;
armour without speed merely produces a target.

The ingredients of the tank all came into existence during
the eighties of the last century and were produced by several different men
working far away from each other. In 1886 Gottlieb Daimler, who had served an
apprenticeship with the Manchester firm of Whitworth, came up with the
petrol-driven internal combustion engine. It very soon powered a wheeled
horseless carriage. Wheels, whether solid-tyred or fitted as they soon would be
with Mr Dunlop’s inflatable variety, were good enough for metalled roads but of
no use off them. Nor did there seem any likelihood of their being needed to go
across country. The ploughman and his team still had a long future ahead of
them. There were, however, some experiments going on with a view to bringing
some degree of mechanical power to the farm additional to the steam traction-engine
and reaping machines.

The obvious difficulty was to prevent the machinery from
becoming bogged down by sheer weight. The footed wheel, one fitted with pivoted
shoes or plates around its circumference so contrived that a flat surface was
always presented to the ground, had been known for a long time. The German Army
used it in conjunction with its heavy guns. The arrangement was not without its
uses but it was hard work for the horses and slowed things up considerably when
on any sort of road. With the coming of an engine so much lighter than the
steam affair men cast around for something better than the footed wheel; the
pressure for results was felt mostly in America whose enormous fields urgently
needed something in the way of serviceable tractors.

As long ago as 1770 Richard Lovell Edgeworth had been
granted, in London, a Patent for an endless track running over wheels. Once the
Patent was granted, Mr Edgeworth seems to have let the matter drop, probably
because no financier could be made to take it up. It may well be that the steam
engine running on fixed rails seemed a better proposition than a machine that
laid its own. Dust gathered on the plans until 1880 when Mr Batter, an American
citizen, made a steam-tractor running on endless caterpillar tracks of the same
kind. This suited prairie farmers well and soon became established. As time
went on other manufacturers appeared and by the beginning of the present
century the first name amongst caterpillar-tractor makers was Benjamin Holt.
The farmers of Europe were not greatly interested.

The last essential of an armoured fighting vehicle arrived
in 1883 when the Patent Office issued its No 3178 for an automatic gun to Hiram
Maxim of ‘57D Hatton Garden, corner of Clerkenwell Road’. Maxim, one of the few
American inventors to become a naturalized British subject, was as prolific as
Leonardo had been, his discoveries ranging from guns to electric light bulbs.
His machine-gun was a masterpiece of ingenuity, working on a different
principle from the gas-and-spring affairs that superceded it and are still in
service with a number of armies. The recoil forces back the barrel on to the
lock which, driven back in its turn, extracts the spent case, feeds in another
from a canvas belt, fires it and returns to keep up the process as long as the
ammunition lasts. The barrel is encased in a water-jacket and continues
operating for a very long time. The drawback is that the gun is heavy, weighing
nearly half a hundredweight without its tripod.

As the component parts of the armoured fighting vehicle
arrived so did the reason for its existence. Wire had been commonly used in
England since the first factory was set up at Mortlake in 1663. Lucien Smith of
Ohio is not a name as familiar as Daimler, Holt or Maxim but it deserves to be.
In 1867, just after the Civil War, he produced for the farmers of America
‘twisted wire studded with points’. Under the name of ‘barbed wire’ it was
patented in this country in 1876 by a Mr Hunt. It became widely used and so
unpopular that the Barbed Wire Act 1893 had to be passed in order to limit its
use. The first military use of it was in its home country. The Spanish-American
war of 1898 taught few lessons apart from some of the ‘how not to’ kind. It
did, however, bring barbed wire into service, though only for the protection of
camps. Lord Kitchener used vast quantities of it in South Africa to maintain
his lines of blockhouses and in 1905 the Russian General Tretyakov complained
that the defence of Port Arthur was made exceedingly difficult by the shortage
of a commodity worth its weight in gold. Before 1914 it was an established
ordnance store with most armies. When the inventions of Mr Maxim and Mr Smith
came to dominate the battlefields it was necessary to take stock of all the
means available of overcoming them. At the end of the nineteenth century
nothing was further from the military mind. There was then a curious spirit
abroad in the British Army.

Everybody will remember the Punch cartoon headed MILITARY

General. ‘Mr de Bridoon, what is the general use of
cavalry in modern warfare?’ Mr de Bridoon. ‘Well, I suppose to give tone to
what would otherwise be a mere vulgar brawl’.

It was meant as a joke, but it was only half one. Newspaper
correspondents fresh from the Sudan who visited the Aldershot Manoeuvres of
1898 were horrified at what they saw. Troops advanced in review order over open
country and the very idea of taking cover was regarded as cowardice. The only
Maxim guns, until very recently, had been those privately bought by wealthy
London Volunteer regiments. The usual orders given to machine-gun officers were
to ‘get those bloody things out of the way’. The cavalry was still the pride of
the service, fresh from its not very difficult success against Arabi at
Tel-el-Kebir. Then came South Africa, a war against ‘the most formidable
mounted warriors since the Mongols’ as Mr Churchill called them. Here were
lessons in plenty, but few of the senior men seem to have grasped them. Sir
John French, at the great house of 94 Lancaster Gate which he shared with his
American friend the engineer George Moore, had a visit from Valentine Williams,
one of Northcliffe’s young men and, later, author of the ‘Clubfoot’ novels. ‘He
(French) made a fine portrait of an English gentleman of the old school, in his
dinner-coat and white waistcoat, with his silvery hair and healthy pink cheeks,
as he sat at the dinner table over the nuts and port, under a large and rather
indifferent painting of the “Dash to Kimberley”, in the South African War,
showing him on horseback, with Haig at his side, sweeping along at the head of
the cavalry’, Williams wrote in his autobiography The World of Action.

In retrospect the Dash to Kimberley was the worst thing that
could have happened both to Sir John and to the Army. The Daily Mail quoted
what it claimed as a letter from one present that the relief of the town was
due to the commander’s ‘masterly decision’ to charge through what was believed
to be a solid wall of defenders: To do Sir John justice, he would have charged
just the same had this been true; in fact the Boers, being sensible men, fired
a few rounds from their Mausers and removed themselves from his path. It was
claimed that some forty or fifty of them moved too slowly and were either
speared or sabred as against losses to the cavalry of less than a dozen. The
charge must have been enormous fun for those participating in it, but it was no
Gravelotte. Kimberley was certainly relieved, but at a cost. The cavalry had
ruined themselves and their horses by overenthusiasm. When Lord Kitchener
needed them to support the attack on Cronje’s laager a few days later they were
not there. The attack went in without them and Kitchener observed to an
American correspondent that had he known yesterday what he knew then he would
not have tried it at all. Frontal attacks were impossible against the magazine
rifle. This lesson Lord K never forgot. Sir John, and to a lesser extent his
Chief of Staff Colonel Haig, never quite learned it.

The newspapers went wild over the Dash. It seems sad that
television had not arrived for here was the perfect subject. There was,
however, another point of view. Doctor Conan Doyle, always an admirer of the
regular army, put it this way: ‘In the larger operations of the war it is
difficult to say that cavalry, as cavalry, have justified their existence. In
the opinion of many the tendency of the future will be to convert the whole
force into mounted infantry … a little training in taking cover, leggings
instead of boots and a rifle instead of a carbine would give us a formidable
force of twenty thousand men who could do all that our cavalry does and more
besides.’ Which is exactly what happened as the war went on. It was all very
well for a civilian to say things like that and even to point to the fact that
Lord Airlie had started it all by using his XIIth Lancers dismounted at
Magersfontein. A soldier who openly announced the same heresy would have been
reckoned not only a professional incompetent but, and worse, a traitor to his
class. ‘Chevalier’, in both the literal and figurative meanings, was still the
word of power.

The war ended at last and with it the army’s re-education.
It had been a horseman’s affair for obvious reasons of topography and it had
been very expensive; a Commission opened up some interesting scandals over the
manner in which the horses had been found. All the same, it was not likely to
recur. If the army ever had to fight anybody again it would probably be the
Russians and the business would be done by horse, foot and guns as grandfather
had done it in the Crimea. Mr Balfour’s Conservative government remained in
office just long enough to place orders for better weapons of the old kind. The
18-pdr gun, the 4.5 howitzer, the short Lee Enfield rifle and some more Maxims.
All were excellent in their way but all were in truth weapons of the late
nineteenth century.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
Leave a comment

Leave a Reply Cancel reply

Exit mobile version