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Tanks and Armoured Vehicles

“Can-Tankerous” by Bruce Bairnsfather in The Bystander

The First World War ushered in a new mode of military transport developed by the British – the tank. Armoured cars had been used in Belgium early in the war and were in many ways effective. TE Lawrence considered the nine armoured Rolls-Royce cars he had “more valuable than rubies”. The Duke of Westminster personally financed and commanded a squadron of the same in the Royal Naval Air Service Armoured Car Division, famously leading a contingent of these across the desert in Egypt in a daring (and successful) raid to rescue kidnapped British sailors being held by the Senussi at El Hakkim.

But armoured cars were at a disadvantage in the churned and muddy terrain of the Western Front. Tracked vehicles had been used to move artillery in the early months of the war and it was Winston Churchill, along with other military experts, who was instrumental in pushing forward the development of an armoured vehicle that could gain ground and overcome machine-gun teams with the overall potential to break the stalemate along the Western Front.

A tank prototype named “Little Willie”, a basic rectangular box running on caterpillar tracks, was eventually honed into the improved Mark I tank. It was first used at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette on the Somme on 15 September 1916. Painfully slow at only four miles an hour, and not particularly agile, these lumbering beasts had limited success on their first outing but press reports confirmed they had terrified the Germans. Over a year later, 378 tanks were used at the Battle of Cambrai in November 1917 to far greater effect, travelling a distance of five miles with minimal casualties.

The French also began to build tanks and 3,000 of its Renault FT model were manufactured during the war. The Germans preferred to concentrate on anti-tank tactics, and managed to destroy almost three-quarters of the Allied Tank Corps at the Battle of Amiens in 1918. Nevertheless, these early tanks were forerunners of what would remain an integral element in modern warfare.