Tommy, p.49Richard Holmes
The Tank Corps, created by Royal Warrant on 27 July 1917, had evolved from the Machine Gun Corps (Heavy), with a strength of just 133 officers and 1,069 men in May 1916, to reach 2,801 officers and 25,498 men at the war’s end. By that time it had almost exactly the same number of officers and men in France as the cavalry – 13,984 mounted troops to 13,594 members of the Tank Corps. Of the three most important types of tank, 1,015 Mark IVs, over 400 Mk Vs, and 700 Mk V* tanks had been built by the end of 1918. The story of the Tank Corps is one of remarkable expansion for an arm which did not exist when war broke out, and if the British may be blamed for losing their lead in armoured warfare in the inter-war years, they rarely receive the credit they deserve for winning the race during the First World War. Ludendorff cited Allied tank superiority as one of the main reasons for German defeat in 1918. He was being less than honest, for the history of the last Hundred Days shows that tanks were still only useful for set-piece battles, and were not yet able to achieve and maintain the sort of operational tempo which they displayed in some Second World War campaigns. They were not battle-winners on their own, but they had already shown themselves to be worthy members of the combined arms team into which the British army had so painfully evolved.
The heavy tank was debuted by the British on the Somme on 15 September 1916. Bernard Martin, hearing the noise of a nearby engine, went over to investigate and found:
A great thing like one of those tanks for water on the roofs of big buildings, with an engine inside and I suppose men … A kind of land battleship! As we walked over ground made uneven by big shell holes, branches of trees and stumps, I gave my thoughts absolute freedom. ‘This new weapon will be irresistible, will cross No-Man’s-Land, go over trenches, withstand small arms fire and machine-gun fire, perhaps even field gun shells … Jerry infantry will be helpless!’129
Tanks were used again, still in small numbers, at Arras and Third Ypres the following year. On neither occasion was the ground firm enough to give the tanks much prospect of success, as Second Lieutenant Gerry Brooks, commanding the tank ‘Fay’ on 2 August, discovered all too well.
The fun began when the tape we were following led through some very swampy ground. It was so wet we found it hard to swing. The four of us [tanks] got rather bunched and ‘Foam’ received a couple of direct hits and Harris her commander and two more of the crew were wounded. Harris was in great pain having his left arm nearly blown off from the elbow and also armour plate and rivets in his leg. We passed a good many dead who had fallen on July 31st. Soon we came up to our infantry who were hiding in shell holes with very heavy machine-gun fire. This pattered against our armour and some came through in a fine spray so that we were all bleeding from small cuts.
‘Fay’ became bogged down and had to be abandoned shortly afterwards. One crew member was killed as they bailed out, but Brooks managed to make his way back to British lines.130 The injuries caused by rivets, pieces of armour plate and bullet fragments were so characteristic of tank warfare that crewmen wore leather goggles with metal grilles over their eyes and a chainmail curtain covering their face. Sapper officer Lieutenant V. F. Eberle thought that it was a hopeless venture from the start. ‘I believe the number I counted was fourteen within my view from one point,’ he wrote. ‘In this particular area they had an almost impossible task, becoming sitting targets once they were held fast in the gluey mud.’131
That November tanks were used on a much larger scale at Cambrai, where the firm downland offered better going. One driver of G Battalion recalled: ‘What a joy it was to be driving on good, dry ground without having to crawl in bottom gear with mud up to your sponsons.’ Brigadier General Hugh Elles, commander of the Tank Corps, led the attack in the heavy Mark IV tank ‘Hilda’, commanded by Lieutenant T. H. de B. Leach. ‘Hilda’ flew the flag of the Tank Corps, its dark green, dark red and brown stripes symbolising the tanks’ progression through mud, through blood, to the green fields beyond.132 The surrounding tanks were ‘Harvester’, ‘Harrier’ and ‘Huntress’, for this was ? Battalion, and the names of individual tanks took their initial letters of their names from that of the battalion.
The leading tanks carried a bundle of fascines – tightly-bound stout brushwood – to drop into German trenches to make them easier to cross. Operating in sections of three, No. 1 tank dropped its fascine into the front-line trench, crossed and turned left, shooting up the trench garrison as it did so. The remaining two tanks made for the second trench, where No. 2 repeated the crossing process, leaving the remaining tank free to proceed to the third trench. The infantry followed up, moving through gaps ripped in the wire and capitalising on the ‘tank fright’ generated by the weapons already christened ‘the Devil’s Chariots’ by a German journalist.
There was a hold-up on 51st Highland Division’s front, for which Major General Harper is generally blamed. However, the best modern research suggests that it was less the fault of infantry-tank co-operation than the inevitable consequence of the vulnerability of tanks in this sector as they breasted a rise only to be confronted by German field gunners who had been well trained in anti-tank tactics. Lieutenant General von Watter, commanding the German 54th Division, had a brother who had encountered British tanks on the Somme, and they had debated the best way of dealing with them. German gunners hauled their 77-mms out of their gunpits and fought them in the open, quickly traversing to take on the tanks as they nosed over the ridge.
The incident spawned the legend of ‘the Gunner of Flesquières’. Haig’s Cambrai dispatch spoke of many tanks being destroyed by ‘a German artillery officer who, remaining alone at his battery, served a field-gun single handed until killed at his gun. The great bravery of this officer aroused the admiration of all ranks.’133 A footnote to the bound version of the dispatches added that the German officer was not identified. Efforts were certainly made at the time to find his body, which would not have been the case had the incident been simply an ex-post facto invention of Haig’s to excuse the temporary setback. Yet there seems no factual basis for the incident as described, although both Lieutenant Müller and Sergeant Major Kruger of 108th Field Artillery Regiment merited the gratitude of their countrymen for their bravery that day. Had Cambrai stopped after two days, as was originally Haig’s wish, it would now be remembered as a fine example of excellent co-operation between artillery (the swift and accurate bombardment which accompanied the assault was a key ingredient of the success achieved on the first day), tanks and infantry. But the cavalry exploitation did not materialise, and the battle subsequently bogged down into an attritional struggle for Bourlon Wood which left the British poorly balanced to face a deftly-judged German counterattack.
British tanks played an undistinguished part in resisting the German spring offensives of 1918, although the Germans put tanks captured at Cambrai (prominently marked with large iron crosses) to good effect alongside a few of their large and cumbersome A7V tanks in these attacks. The first ever tank-versus-tank action took place near Villers-Bretonneux on 24 April 1918 when Second Lieutenant Frank Mitchell’s Mark IV tank engaged a German A7V Sturmpanzerwagen. Some of Mitchell’s crew had been so badly mustard-gassed that they had been evacuated, and the eyes of the survivors were all smarting. Mitchell spotted the German tank:
I informed the crew, and a great thrill ran through us all. Opening a loophole I looked out. There, some three hundred yards away a round squat-looking monster was advancing; behind it came waves of infantry, and farther away to the left and right crawled two more of these armed tortoises.
So we had met our rivals at last! For the first time in history tank was encountering tank!
Mitchell’s tank was ‘male’ (that is, armed with cannon) Mk IV, with a 6-pounder gun in a sponson on each side. The ‘female’ was equipped with two machine guns but no cannon, and there were, predictably enough, ‘hermaphrodites’ with one of each. The tank was pitching sharply as it crossed the shell-torn ground, and Mitchell’s right-hand gunner missed with his first two sh
The pause was justified; a well-aimed shot hit the enemy’s conning tower, bringing him to a standstill. Another round and yet another white puff at the front of the tank denoted a second hit! Peering with swollen eyes through the narrow slit, the gunners shouted words of triumph that were drowned by the roar of the engine. Then once more he aimed with great deliberation and hit for the third time. Through a loophole I saw the tank heel over to one side; then a door opened and out ran the crew. We had knocked the monster out.
Although there remains uncertainly as to whether Mitchell’s opponent was actually knocked out, or fell over while turning sharply to take evasive action, the significance of the clash is clear enough.134
At Amiens on 8 August 1918 – what would become known as ‘the black day of the German army’ – Rawlinson’s 4th Army deployed 534 tanks, 342 of the new Mark Vs, 72 whippets, and 120 supply tanks. Captain Henry Smeddle commanded a section of three Mark V* tanks in the battle. A public schoolboy from Dulwich College, he had enlisted into the Army Service Corps in 1915 and had reached the rank of lance corporal before being commissioned into the Machine Gun Corps (Heavy) in June 1917. By now very careful attention was paid to co-operation between tanks and infantry, and Smeddle spent the days before the battle being briefed on the plan and passing the information on to his men, ‘excepting the actual date, time, and location, which would only be given at the last moment’. Surprise was crucial: ‘There was to be no smoking, or flashing of electric torches, and no shouting, whistling, or unnecessary noise during the march. Only tank commanders would be allowed to smoke; the glow of their cigarettes was to be the method by which they would guide their tanks whilst walking in front without undue attention.’ Smeddle’s tanks moved into position along guide-tapes at a slow walking pace, and he waited for zero hour in a silence that seemed like the quiet before the storm.
The barrage ‘broke the silence with a terrific crashing roar … It was still dark, but the flashes of the guns gave out sufficient light to distinguish the forms of the gunners and guns, the nearest of which was twenty-five yards from where I was standing, and so quietly had everything been prepared that I was not aware of its presence until it started firing.’ He led his section forward, using his pocket compass to keep direction through the thick mist, crossing the first-line trenches, now empty of infantry, and meeting wounded and German prisoners on their way back. He lost a man to a strafing attack by low-flying German aircraft, and found himself being filmed by ‘the official cinema operators’ as he reached his first objective. Smeddle’s tanks were in the second wave, but they now took the lead, and Smeddle was narrowly missed by the nosecap from a shell which hit the tank two feet from his face. It was now clear just how well things were going.
The enemy were evidently quite unaware of the rapidity of our advance, for just as we were about opposite Har-bonnières we saw an ammunition train steaming into the station as if nothing was the matter. It was immediately shelled by all the 6-pdr guns of the approaching tanks. One shell must have struck a powder van for suddenly the whole train burst into one great sheet of flame, reaching to a height of not less than 150 feet. Needless to say that train was stopped.
It was followed by another one, a passenger train rushing up fresh troops; this was running on another track and ran right into our lines where it was captured, complete with personnel.135
The development of the tank marked another step in the soldier’s gradual evolution from warrior to servant of machinery. The daily intimacy of their life bound tank crewmen with a peculiar intensity. In October 1916 tank gunner Victor Archard lamented the loss of a chum, posted as missing: ‘Poor Jim was my most intimate friend; he was one of God’s good men and I still hope for him. I will never give a German any quarter after this, if I am not prevented by orders.’136 Crewmen were cooped up in a hot, rattling metal box, filled with the fumes of an unreliable engine fuelled by all too easily-ignited petrol. A direct hit from a field gun might mean instant oblivion: Edwin Campion Vaughan saw a tank supporting his attack on the ‘Springfield’ pillbox at Passchendaele converted to ‘a crumpled heap of iron’ by a single heavy shell
Armour-piercing bullets, shell-splinters, or rivets dislodged by hits sped around inside the armoured carapace, and the special goggles issued to crewmen did not always prevent their blinding. Lieutenant Basil Henriques commanded a tank on the Somme in September 1916.
As we approached the Germans let fly at us with might and man. At first no damage was done, and we retaliated, killing about 20. Then a smack against my flap in front caused splinters to come in, and the blood to pour down my face. Another minute and my driver got the same. Then our prism glass broke to pieces, then another smash, I think it must have been a bomb, right in my face. The next one wounded my driver so badly that we had to stop.137
Henriques looked back to see his gunners prostrate on the floor and the tank’s sides riddled.
If a tank began to burn, as it so often did, men faced an urgent scramble to escape. The sight of terribly burned tank crew persuaded even infantrymen out in the mud that theirs was likely to be an easier death. And Germans, initially terrified by a tank’s appearance, often responded viciously if they took its crew alive. When Lieutenant C. B. Arnold baled out of his stricken light tank ‘Musical Box’, deep in the German position east of Amiens on 8 August 1918 he described how:
We were all on fire. In this rush Calvey was shot in the stomach and killed. We rolled over and over to try to extinguish the flames. I saw the enemy approaching all around. The first arrived came for me with a rifle and bayonet. I got hold of this and the point of the bayonet entered my right forearm. The second man struck at my head with the butt end of his rifle … When I came to, there were dozens around me, and anyone who could reach me did so and I was well knocked. They were furious.138
Taken to enemy divisional headquarters, he was punched in the face by an angry staff officer. Arnold recognised that his tank’s achievements that day really depended on the bravery of the private soldiers in his crew, and concluded his report by affirming: ‘The conduct of Gunner Ribbans and Driver Calvey was beyond all praise throughout.’ New weapon: old values
SWORD AND PISTOL
Despite the efforts of some excellent scholars, the reputation of British cavalry in the First Wrld War remains low. Stephen Badsey ruefully concluded that:
The metaphor of the charge against machine guns, or of the incompetent Victorian cavalry general attempting to control a tank battle, has spread beyond military studies into the general vocabulary of historians and readers of history, as a touchstone of all that is reactionary, foolish and futile. It is probably too well established ever to be removed.139
In part this is another damaging legacy of some historians always ready to nudge a chuckle from their readers at the spectacle of silly men on funny horses galloping about amongst the mud and trenches. In part it reflects a tendency, still alive and well, to associate the British army’s wartime performance with its social composition, a process bound to reflect badly on the cavalry, which demanded substantial private means for its officers. And in part it embodies the very real problem of making sense of the changing role of horsed cavalry as the military revolution gusted across the Western Front.140
In 1914 British cavalry was unquestionably the best, for its limited numbers, on either side. It had learned valuable lessons in the Boer War, and almost uniquely amongst European cavalry, carried exactly the same rifle as the infantry rather than the short and less ac
In one sense the controversy echoed discussions about the use of the bayonet by the infantry, and a belief in the enduring value of ‘shock action’ reflected the need to give men the confidence to close with their enemy. Even Douglas Haig, cavalryman though he was, thought that fire action was nine times more likely than shock action. In 1910 Lieutenant Colonel F. M. Edwards, another cavalryman, summed up the views of many of his comrades when he observed that: ‘The desire to use the sabre or lance should be predominant, but it must be held in check by a thorough knowledge of the power of the firearm.’142
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