Towards the First Tanks II

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

Little Willie at the Tank Museum, Bovington

An early model British Mark I “male” tank, named C-15, near Thiepval, 25 September 1916. The tank is probably in reserve for the Battle of Thiepval Ridge which began on 26 September. The tank is fitted with the wire “grenade shield” and steering tail, both features discarded in the next models.

The Wolseley Car Company had shown a petrol-driven car with a 16 horse-power Daimler engine at the Crystal Palace show of 1902. It had been designed by Mr Frederick Sims, mounted a Maxim and was in some sort covered with armour plating. In fact it was ahead of its time. The engine was too feeble and the great weakness, as every pioneer motorist knew, lay in the wheels. Pneumatic tyres had been in use for a long time but were still not to be relied upon even on tarred roads. Heavy vehicles still, and for a long time to come, stuck to the solid variety and put up with the jolting and low speed. Nobody was much interested in Mr Sims’ car and it was quietly taken to pieces again. In 1908 the Liberal Government gave to the cavalry the only new weapon to be added before 1914. It was a sword; a very fine sword; a shovel would have been far better value.

The reign of Edward the Peacemaker saw much happening in new forms of military hardware. In 1904 a Danish officer, Major-General Madsen, invented a light automatic gun which weighed only five pounds more than a rifle, had a mechanism of the simplest kind and was better by far than anything of the kind for a long time to come. Years later, on 6 June, 1918, an official statement was made in the House of Lords that ‘the present Madsen gun is by many considered “the most wonderful machine-gun of its kind ever invented” and that it was admittedly superior in many respects to either the Lewis or the Hotchkiss guns’. The gun was taken into service by the Danish cavalry but the War Office in Pall Mall was not interested. Some years later, when the War Office had moved to its fine new home in Whitehall and handed over Pall Mall to the Royal Automobile Club, it brushed off Colonel Lewis in much the same way. The Madsen gun would have been cheap. By the time of First Ypres the Government would have paid any asking price for such a weapon. By then it was too late. Efforts were made to get hold of some but Germany prevented the sale and collared the guns herself. In a way this disinterest in automatics was a compliment to the soldier. With the SMLE a recruit before leaving his Depot could get off fifteen aimed rounds a minute; real experts could manage thirty. The long-service regular infantryman was the best marksman in any army, as the Germans readily admitted when the clash came. Nobody seemed to understand that hastily raised units could not be expected to come anywhere near this standard.

The attitude of civilian ministers in the new Liberal Government of 1906 was soon made plain to Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien when he held the command at Alder-shot; ‘One day he (a Minister whose name had been struck out by Lady Smith-Dorrien) honoured me at lunch, and I used the occasion to impress on him, as a member of the Government, that it was most important that we should be armed with the new Vickers-Maxim machine-gun, which was half the weight of the gun we then had, and much more efficient, and I urged that £100,000 would re-equip the six divisions of the Expeditionary Force. Mr — jeered at me, saying I was afraid of the Germans, that he habitually attended the German Army at training and was quite certain that if they ever went to war “the most monumental examples of crass cowardice the world had ever heard of would be witnessed”.’ Such, apparently, was Cabinet thinking in 1909. It is hardly wonderful that any soldier of an innovative mind did not waste his time by pressing ideas.

During Smith-Dorrien’s tour at Aldershot, in 1910, there was a demonstration by the earliest of the British petrol-engined tractors, a Hornsby chain-track. This was a splendid vehicle that looked as if it owed something to Mr Heath Robinson or Mr Emmett. The exhaust led into an impressive smoke-stack; the chains that drove it were surmounted by wooden blocks about the size and shape of those commonly used for paving roads and the whole was mounted on powerful springs that bounced it about alarmingly. Among those watching was General ‘Wullie’ Robertson, later to be CIGS under Lord Kitchener. He held the machine ‘to have a great future as a tractor for dragging heavy guns and vehicles across broken ground. Universal sympathy was extended to the drivers, who, in consequence of the caterpillar’s violent up-and-down motions, experienced all the sensations of sea-sickness, and looked it’. In spite of that there was no denying that the thing worked.

The Committee of Imperial Defence, however, was occupied with more important matters. Between 1907 and 1914 the Channel Tunnel came up for discussion fourteen times. Lord Wolseley’s Memorandum of 1882 was resurrected and papers submitted by Field-Marshal Lord Nicholson, Mr Churchill, Colonel Seeley and Sir John French. There is no mention of caterpillar tractors anywhere in the Committee’s agenda over these years. As soon as the war started and the demand came for guns heavier than the usual field pieces the question of how they were to be moved along the roads of France demanded answer. Very quickly, for Kitchener was now in charge, the War Office placed orders in America for fifteen of the Holt machines. With 75 hp petrol engines, the best track then on the market, and a weight of 15 tons (the Hornsby weighed 8) they could manage a speed of 15 mph, though this fell to 2 with a gun hooked in. It was still better than a large team of Clydesdale horses and they were soon at work in France. Only a few people saw in them the beginnings of a war-winning fighting machine.

It would be wrong, however, to assume that indifference was limited to the allied camp. The German possessed one great advantage which they, too, neglected. When the Zeppelin first appeared it became plain that engines far more powerful than those used on roads were needful. After much experiment, the firm of Maybach produced one of 450 hp. No other country had anything like this. Fortunately no effort was made to apply the knowledge to land-bound vehicles. The Maybach was far too heavy and clumsy for such uses. Apart from the Rolls-Royce, which was in a class of its own, the best motor-cars were made in France with Germany a good second. England lagged badly behind; the United States produced excellent machines, the Hudson being perhaps the fastest, but these belonged to quite another world.

To blame the Army for living happily in the past would be entirely unfair. Soldiers, like everybody else, could hardly fail to see how swiftly the country was becoming mechanized. As early as 1906 the land speed record had risen to more than 125 miles per hour. At the end of the following year London contained 723 motor taxi-cabs, a figure that had risen within two years to just under 4,000. It was also noticeable that by far the greater number of these were of French manufacture, Unic, Darracq and, above all, the two-cylinder Renault that clung on for a very long time. The year, 1909, saw the first movement of a formed body of troops by road. It was, admittedly, a publicity stunt by the Automobile Association but the fact remained that a composite battalion of the Guards, complete with all impedimenta, was carried from London to Brighton and back in several hundred private cars at a good round speed and without a hitch. The only military lesson learned was that the service cap universally called a Brodrick, though St John Brodrick, Earl of Midleton, denied all responsibility for it, blew off for want of a chin-strap. This omission was made good. It was the AA, months before Lord Kitchener’s call, that coined the phrase ‘The First Hundred Thousand’. In July, 1914, its membership had reached 89,198 of whom 3,279 had been elected during the previous month or so. It was confidently expected that the magic figure would be reached by the time of the Olympia motor show and a great celebration dinner was planned. Fate, however, got in first. There was no motor show in August, 1914.

It was not the General Staff, however, but the Home Secretary who first realized that the motor car might have an unexpected military use. On a day in the wonderful summer of 1911 Mr Churchill attended a party at No 10 Downing Street where he fell into conversation with Sir Edward Henry, Chief Commissioner of Police. As they talked about the European situation and its gravity, Sir Edward casually remarked that by an odd arrangement the Home Office was responsible, through the Metropolitan Police, for guarding the whole of the Navy’s cordite reserves in the magazines at Chattenden and Lodge Hill. This being the first the Home Secretary had heard of it he pressed Sir Edward hard. The guard, it seemed, had for years consisted of a few London bobbies armed with truncheons. To the question of what would happen if a score of armed Germans turned up in motor-cars Mr Churchill received the interesting answer that they would be able to do as they liked. He left the garden party and telephoned the Admiralty. As both First Lord and First Sea Lord were absent he spoke to an Admiral ‘who shall be nameless’. He made it quite plain that he was not taking orders from any panicky civilian Minister and flatly refused to send Marines. A second call to Mr Haldane at the War Office had two companies of infantry installed within a few hours. The motor car had introduced something new into military matters.

It was left to that erratic genius Mr H. G. Wells to move things on a little further. Though the son of a professional cricketer, he had some ideas that were certainly not cricket. In 1903, being well into what is now called ‘science fiction’, a market that he had almost to himself, he sent to the Strand Magazine a story of some future war in which armed and armoured machines crawled over the countryside on their tracks and fought battles with each other. It was called The Land Ironclads. Later he warmed to his work and told not merely of wars in the air between various branches of the human race but also of battles with invaders from outer space. All were regarded with equal seriousness. The Holt tractor from America, an efficient petrol-driven machine running on tracks, was given a demonstration at Aldershot. Its faults, which were many, were pointed out; its virtues and potential were ignored. The military mind, mercifully, knew no national boundaries. Not only did no other War Office want Mr Holt’s tractor; none even wanted buses or lorries.

The scientific Germans, however, did not entirely abandon the idea. In 1913 a Herr Goebel produced a machine of his own design. It was, according to German custom, huge and ponderous; no picture seems to have survived but it was described as resembling what we know as a tank, to have been covered in thick armour and to have bristled with guns. In 1913 he drove it over a high obstacle at Pinne, in Posen; the following year he produced it before a huge crowd at the Berlin stadium. It broke down half way up the first bank and refused to be started again. The crowd became truculent and demanded its money back. Herr Goebel and his machine disappeared from history.

The Belgians took a few of their excellent Minerva cars to the Cockerill works in Antwerp and had them fitted with a mild steel armour. That apart, the armies of the great industrial powers of Europe walked slowly towards each other in the summer of 1914 with masses of man-power and animal-power as great armies had done since man discovered war. A reincarnated Wellington could have taken command of any of them after only the shortest refresher course.

In the rear areas of the BEF some concession was made towards modernity. The War Office as long ago as 1900 had set up a Mechanical Transport Committee, a brave gesture towards the coming century. It found little occupation in Pall Mall but survived the translation to Whitehall in 1907. In 1911, Coronation year, new life was breathed into it with the introduction of two subsidy schemes; these provided a means of mechanizing some parts of the Army on the cheap. Civilian companies were given money on the understanding that they would build vehicles more or less to a specification and would on mobilization hand them over. The scheme did not work out too badly. Each Division had a supply column of motor-lorries, working, theoretically, between railhead and the Divisional Train. Homely names on their sides like Waring & Gillow or J. Lyons rather spoilt the picture of a twentieth-century army but the Army Service Corps drivers plied their new trade well enough. All army ambulances remained horse-drawn; the best of the motor-driven ones were furnished, along with their crews, by those old reliables the British Red Cross Society and the Salvation Army.

On 31 May, 1915, Lord Kitchener submitted a secret report to the Cabinet which set out the entire state of affairs very clearly. On mobilization the Army had owned exactly 80 motor-lorries, 20 cars, 15 motor-cycles and 36 traction-engines. The subsidy scheme brought the lorry total to 807; another 334 had been instantly commandeered. The 20 cars simultaneously jumped by 193 and the motor-cycles by 116. On the day Kitchener signed the report there were on the strength a further 7,037 lorries, 1,694 cars, 2,745 motor-cycles and 1,151 motor-ambulances. The Army Service Corps had grown from 450 officers and 6,300 other ranks to ‘a strength today of 4,500 officers and 125,000 other ranks, i.e. 5,000 more than the whole of the Regular Forces in the United Kingdom previous to the outbreak of war’. Petrol, including that for the Royal Flying Corps, was being consumed at the rate of 35,000 gallons a day.

The war was still very young. On Armistice Day 1918 the Army had on charge in all theatres 121,692 motor vehicles along with 735,000 horses and mules.

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