2018 marked 100 years since the end of World War I. On the eleventh day, of the eleventh month, of the eleventh hour in 1918, the Allies of World War I and Germany signed a treaty that ended the war.
World War I was a turning point in warfare. In its time, it was the most significant war with the most modern warfare equipment ever invented — Mortars, machine guns, rifles, poison gas and the surprising entrant of the flamethrower. But it wasn't just the handheld equipment and biological weapons that were new.
Even light railways were set up between the trenches upon which petrol-powered locomotives could ride and transport both soldiers and weaponry. But the British still needed something that would give them the upper hand on the Germans.
A stalemate on the Western Front, where endless trench warfare was taking place, had produced the need for a new land-based, cross-country vehicle that could breach enemy lines.
The British army then received a shipment of heavy artillery that they had never seen before.
Director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy Peter Jackson has captured some of the mysticism surrounding the arrival of the tanks in his latest documentary on World War I named ‘They Shall Not Grow Old.' Real soldiers whose stories were captured by the Imperial War Museums and sampled in the documentary relayed their stories:
"They were on the roadside covered with tarpaulin sheets. You could see nothing except a square outline."
"And then the officer said, ‘these are supposed to be hush-hush,'" another soldier recalled.
Another said, “When we asked what it was, the simple reply was: tanks. Knowing the shortage of water we had actually assumed water tanks and thought we were getting reserve supplies. It was one of the best kept secrets.”
The engineering of the tank ushered in a new era of mechanized warfare that has continued until today.
Fiction becomes fact
In 1903, H.G. Wells wrote a short story named ‘The Land Ironclads.' In the fictional story he writes about 100-foot-long armored fighting vehicles that would carry key army personnel across enemy lines. Thirteen years later, Wells’ prediction that ironclad machines impervious to machine gun fire would traverse the battlefield came true.
It was actually a young Winston Churchill - who at the time was the First Lord of the Admiralty - that had a hand in the commencement of the engineering of tanks. He set up a top-secret collective in February 1915 named the Landship Committee.
After a spot of trial and error — and a few prototypes went wrong — Sir William Ashbee Tritton (a British expert in agricultural machinery) and Major Walter Gordon Wilson (a mechanical engineer) were the designers behind the world’s first tank. It was named Little Willie, intentionally mocking German Imperial Prince Wilhelm.
The caterpillar tracks fitted on to the first iteration of the tank was good for traversing over land but got stuck when it tried to ride over any of the parapets (a protective wall or earth defense) in front of the German trenches.
The second iteration of Tritton and Wilson's invention was a more rhomboidal shape that had tracks going all the way around the hull. A mock battlefield with a trench even wider than those in the actual war was set up, and the tank was tested. It surpassed expectations. This was the prototype they sent off to the war.
David Lloyd George, who in 1916 became the secretary of state for war wrote: “At last, we have the answer to the German machine guns and wire.”
Another two prototypes were eventually released toward the end of 1917 and mid-1918 respectively. Nonetheless, the tank had woken up the militaries of the world, and in the wars to come, everyone would want one. The rest, as they say, is history.
It is estimated that nearly one million British and Empire servicemen were killed between 1914 and 1918. The total number of military and civilian deaths in the entire war was determined to be between 15 to 19 million people.
“How Britain Invented The Tank In The First World War.” Imperial War Museums, www.iwm.org.uk/history/how-britain-invented-the-tank-in-the-first-world-war.
“They Shall Not Grow Old.” IMDb, IMDb.com, 9 Nov. 2018, www.imdb.com/title/tt7905466/?ref_=nv_sr_1.