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 forces.

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 EDUCATION:—

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.

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