On This Day: The tank makes its debut in WWI

Julian Gavaghan
On This Day: The tank makes its debut in WWI
On This Day: The tank makes its debut in WWI

September 15: The tank made its combat debut on this day in 1916 after the British Army deployed the revolutionary armoured fighting vehicle in France during the First World War.

The Mark I, which was designed to break the deadlock of trench warfare by travelling over mud while resisting machinegun fire, was introduced in the Somme.

In the event around two thirds of the 32 tanks deployed during the Battle of Flers–Courcelette either broke down or became stuck.

Yet the rest managed to cross dead man’s land and help the Allies gain two miles of ground from the Germans and capture three French villages.

Noting the effect tanks had on the enemy, British Commander in Chief Douglas Haig – who was later derided as a “donkey leading lions” – ordered 1,000 more.

But the time it took to manufacture enough to get more into combat ensured the Germans had developed an armour-piercing gun that erased Britain’s advantage.

The French soon after introduced their own tanks to the battlefield and the Germans eventually followed suit at the beginning of 1918.

Britain’s military chiefs were inspired to build the new armoured vehicle after noting the success the Holt tractor, which used now familiar Caterpillar tracks.

A British Pathé newsreel shows the 15-ton forerunner to the tank towing a heavy trailer through ditches, scrub and over mounds regular cars would not manage.

The designs evolved during the interwar period and were tested during the Spanish Civil War by both the Nazi-sponsored Nationalists and Soviet-backed Republicans.

But it was during World War II that tanks finally became decisive, notably in the North African desert with its wide-open spaces.

Unlike the 1914 to 1918 conflict, however, it was the Germans who were the biggest pioneers of their use and made the greatest gains with them.

They established a fully mechanise warfare called Blitzkrieg in which they used massed concentrations of tanks and airpower to quickly roll back their enemies.

The Soviets forced them to revolutionise their designs, however, when the Red Army deployed its T34, the forerunner to the modern tanks.

The subsequent Cold War – with its arms races and large frontier between Western European countries and Soviet satellite states - ensured developments continued.

But, due to increasingly sophisticated – and widely available – anti-tank weapons, the armoured vehicle’s role in modern conflicts has becoming less and less.

Massed formations are a thing of the past – with tanks often being used to go at the front of a platoon or provide covering power.

The American M1 and British Challenger 2 were used extensively in urban battles in Iraq, although fewer are now being built and maintained.