Mark V Tank

The production of Little Willie by Lieutenant Walter G. Wilson and William Tritton in the late summer of 1915 revealled several technical problems. The two men immediately began work on an improved tank. Mark I, nicknamed Mother, was much longer than the first tank they made. This kept the centre of gravity low and the extra length helped the tank grip the ground. Sponsons were also fitted to the sides to accommodate two naval 6-pound guns. In trials carried out in January 1916 the tank crossed a 9ft. wide trench with a 6ft. 6in. parapet and convinced watchers of its "obstacle-crossing ability". (1)

it was decided to demonstrate the new tank to Britain's political and military leaders. Under conditions of great secrecy, Lord Kitchener, Secretary of State of War, David Lloyd George, Minister of Munitions, and Reginald McKenna, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, were invited to Hatfield Park on 2nd February, 1916 to see Mark I in action. Lord Kitchener was unimpressed describing tanks as "mechanical toys" and asserting that "the war would never be won by such machines". Although without military experience, Lloyd George and McKenna saw their potential and placed an order for a 100 tanks. (2)

According to Colonel Charles Repington, that the government's greatest advocate of tanks, Winston Churchill, "wanted them to wait until there were something like a thousand Tanks, and then to win a great battle with them as a surprise". (12) This was acceptable to Sir Douglas Haig, Commander-in Chief of the British Army, as he had doubts about the value of tanks. However, after failing to break through German lines at the Battle of the Somme, Haig gave orders that tanks that had reached the Western Front, should be used at Flers-Coucelette on 15th July, 1916. (3)

The tanks were not a great success the first time they were used. Of the 59 tanks in France, only 49 were considered to be in good working order. Of these, 17 broke down on the way to their starting point at Flers. The sight of the tanks created panic and had a profound effect on the morale of the German Army. Colonel John Fuller, chief of staff of the Tank Corps, was convinced that these machines could win the war and persuaded Sir Douglas Haig to ask the government to supply him with another 1,000 tanks. Basil Liddell Hart argues the main problem was that "Swinton's memorandum laid down a number of conditions which were disregarded in September, 1916... The sector for tank attack was to be carefully chosen to comply with the powers and limitations of the tanks." (4)

The British had 60 tanks in service by the spring of 1917. Improvements were made and the new Mark IV tank was strong enough to withstand the recently developed German anti-tank rifles. The Mark IVs were used at the Battle of Messines in June 1917 but those used at Passchendaele later that year tended to get stuck in the mud before they reached the German lines. Other problems encountered during this period included poor visibility, noxious fumes and high temperatures inside the tank. (5)

The Mark V tank became available in July 1918. It contained a new Ricardo engine that had been specially designed for the tank. With new transmission and better gears, the tank could travel at nearly 5 mph. To help the tank tackle the wide trenches of the Hindenburg Line, cribbs were carried. This was a braced cylindrical framework which when dropped in the trench acted as a kind of stepping stone.

The Mark V Tank
The Mark V Tank

The Allied Supreme Commander, Ferdinand Foch now ordered a counter-offensive. Foch put British Commander-in-Chief, Sir Douglas Haig in overall charge of the offensive and he selected General Sir Henry Rawlinson and the British Fourth Army to lead the attack. The Amiens offensive took place on 8th August 1918. Every available tank was moved to Rawlinson's sector. This included 342 Mark V tanks. Rawlinson also had 2,070 artillery pieces and 800 aircraft. The German sector chosen was defended by 20,000 soldiers and were outnumbered 6 to 1 by the attacking troops. The tanks followed by soldiers met little resistance and by mid morning allied forces had advanced 12km. The Amiens line was taken, and later, General Erich Ludendorff, the man in overall charge of German military operations, described the 8th August as "the black day of the German Army in the history of the war". (6)

Primary Sources

(1) On 16th September 1916, Colonel Sir Maurice Hankey wrote in his diary about the tanks that were about to be used at the Battle of the Somme.

We drove on to see the 'caterpillars' of which we found about sixty-two, painted in grotesque colours. While we were there a German areoplane, flying at a great height, came overhead and the whole of the tanks took cover under trees or were covered with tarpaulins painted to resemble haystacks.

In the evening at dinner, I tackled both the chief of staff, and the sub-chief, about the 'caterpillars'. My thesis is that it is a mistake to put them into the battle of the Somme. They were built for the purpose of breaking an ordinary trench system with a normal artillery fire only, whereas on the Somme they will have to penetrate a terrific artillery barrage, and will have to operate in a broken country full of shell-craters, where they will be able to see very little.

(2) James Lovegrove first saw tanks in action at the Battle of the Somme.

We were ordered to attack the German trenches so we fell behind a tank for cover, but the tank got a direct hit by a shell. It spun round on its tracks and burst into flames. The crew were roasted alive. They couldn't get out. Somehow we made it to the German trench, their machine-gunners were all lying dead next to their guns. Our big gun barrage before our advance had killed them. I noticed they were fixed to their guns by a length of chain so they could not run away. I suppose their high command was as bad as ours. Our lads had not eaten in days so they started eating the German rations because they were starving.

(3) In his diary, Private Charles Cole, described his first encounter with tanks on the Western Front.

Something was brought near to the reserve trench camouflaged with a big sheet. We were very curious and the Captain said, "Your are wondering what this is. Well, it is a tank", and then he took the covers off and that was the very first tank. When we made the next attack we had to wait for the tank to go by us and all we had to do was to mop up.

'Well, we were at the parapets, waiting for the tank. We heard the chunk, chunk, chunk, then silence! The tank never came. Well, we went over the top and we got cut to pieces because the plan had failed. Eventually the tank got going and went past us. The Germans ran for their lives. So the tank went on, knocking down brick walls, houses down, did what it was supposed to have done - but too late! We lost thousands and thousands of men."

(4) Manchester Guardian (18th September 1916)

The British army has struck the enemy another heavy blow north of the Somme. Attacking shortly after dawn yesterday morning on a front of more than six miles north-east from Combles, it now occupies a new strip of reconquered territory including three fortified villages behind the German third line and many local positions of great strength.

Fighting has continued since without intermission, and the initiative remains with our troops, who made further advances beyond Courcelette, Martinpuich, and Flers to-day. After the first shock yesterday morning, when the enemy surrendered freely, showing signs of demoralisation, there has been stubborn resistance, and much of the ground gained afterwards was only wrested from him by the determination and strength of the British battalions pitted against him. The Bavarian and German divisions have fought well, but nevertheless they have been steadily pushed backwards from the line they took up after their first defeats in the Somme campaign.

British patrols have approached Eaucourt l'Abbaye and Geudecourt, and while no definite information is obtainable to-night regarding the exact extent of our gains they are rather more than the territory described in detail in this despatch. The battle is not over. Famous British regiments are lying in the open to-night holding their position with the greatest heroism. All that the enemy can do in the way of artillery reprisals he is doing to-night. But despite the tenacity with which the reinforced German troops are clinging to their positions everything gained has been maintained. Progress may not be at the same speed as in the first assault yesterday morning, but it is thorough and none the less sure.

The story of the capture of Courcelette and Martinpuich, which were wrested from the Bavarians virtually street by street yesterday, will be as dramatic as any narrative told in this war. They are the chief episodes in the first two days of this offensive, but I can only give a bare summary now of the furious conflict which raged for possession of these obscure ruined villages. There are evidences that the unexpected British offensive disorganised the plans of the German higher command for an important counter-attack to recover the ground lost since July 1. Heavy concentrations of infantry were taking place, and the unusually strong resistance on the British left was due to the presence of an abnormal number of troops behind Martinpuich and Courcelette. In spite of this the divisions taking part in yesterday's attack splendidly achieved their purpose.

Armoured cars working with the infantry were the great surprise of this attack. Sinister, formidable, and industrious, these novel machines pushed boldly into "No Man's Land," astonishing our soldiers no less than they frightened the enemy. Presently I shall relate some strange incidents of their first grand tour in Picardy, of Bavarians bolting before them like rabbits and others surrendering in picturesque attitudes of terror, and the delightful story of the Bavarian colonel who was carted about for hours in the belly of one of them like Jonah in the whale, while his captors slew the men of his broken division.

It is too soon yet to advertise their best points to an interested world. The entire army nevertheless is talking about them, and you might imagine that yesterday's operation was altogether a battle of armed chauffeurs if you listened to the stories of some of the spectators. They inspired confidence and laughter. No other incident of the war has created such amusement in the face of death as their debut before the trenches of Martinpuich and Flers. Their quaintness and seeming air of profound intelligence commended them to a critical audience. It was as though one of Mr. Heath Robinson's jokes had been utilised for a deadly purpose, and one laughed even before the dire effect on the enemy was observed.

Flers fell into British hands comparatively easily. The troops sent against it from the north of Delville Wood, astride of the sunken road leading to its southern extremity, reached the place in three easy laps supported by armoured cars. As a preliminary measure one car planted itself at the north-east corner of the wood before dawn and cleared a small enemy party from two connected trenches. It was not a difficult task for the "boches" promptly surrendered. The first halting-place of the Flers-bound troops was a German switch-trench north-east of Ginchy, part of the so-called third line, which they reached at the time appointed. There was a slight obstacle in the form of a redoubt constructed at the angle of the line where it crossed the Ginchy-Lesboeufs road. Machine-gun fire was well directed from this work, but two armoured cars came up and poured a destructive counter-fire into it, and then one of the many watchful aeroplanes swooped down almost within hailing distance and joined in the battle. The dismayed Bavarians promptly yielded to this strange alliance. Armoured cars and aeroplane went their several ways and the infantry carried on. The redoubt sheltered a dressing station where there were a number of German wounded. The second phase of the Flers advance brought the attackers to the trenches at the end of the village. Little resistance was offered. Here, again, the armoured cars came forward. One of them managed to enfilade the trench both ways, killing nearly everyone in it, and then another car started up the main street, or what was the main street in pre-war days, escorted, as one spectator puts it "by the cheering British army."

It was a magnificent progress. You must imagine this unimaginable engine stalking majestically amid the ruins followed by the men in khaki, drawing the dispossessed Bavarians from their holes in the ground like a magnet and bringing them blinking into the sunlight to stare at their captors, who laughed instead of killing them. Picture its passage from one end of the ruins of Flers to the other, leaving infantry swarming through the dug-outs behind, on out of the northern end of the village, past more odds and ends of defensive positions, up the road to Gneudecourt, halting only at the outskirts. Before turning back it silenced a battery and a half of artillery, captured the gunners, and handed them over to the infantry. Finally, it retraced its foot-steps with equal composure to the old British line at the close of a profitable day. The German officers taken in Flers have not yet assimilated the scene of their capture, the crowded "High Street," and the cheering bomb-throwers marching behind the travelling fort, which displayed on one armoured side the startling placard, "Great Hun Defeat. Extra Special!"

(5) The Illustrated London News reported on the use of tanks at the Flers offensive (9th December, 1916)

From a communication trench had been dug a number of small trenches mostly composed of joined up shellholes, the whole providing a system of considerable strength, which would undoubtedly have cost our infantry appreciable loss, had not one of our tanks quite unexpectedly appeared on the skyline and come lumbering towards the little strong point. The enemy holding the strong point had, of course, never seen or heard of such a thing as a tank. Panic evidently seized them and a number, losing their heads completely, started running across the open.

Above the noise of bursting shells, the machine-guns of the tank were heard to open, simultaneously. In less time then it takes to tell, the Boches had ceased to run; they all seemed to go over together like shot rabbits. The tank never paused but went straight on over the trenches, firing right and left as it did so. Those who were watching it were alternately catching breadth and gasping, as salvo after salvo of crumps seemed to burst clean on top of it. But nothing seemed to hurt it and it was still going strong when it vanished from our sight.

(6) Philip Gibbs was a journalist who reported the war on the Western Front.

We thought these tanks were going to win the war, and certainly they helped to do so, but there were too few of them, and the secret was let out before they were produced in large numbers. Nor were they so invulnerable as we had believed. A direct hit from a field gun would knock them out, and in our battle for Cambrai in November of 1917 I saw many of them destroyed and burnt out.

But after the German retreat from the Somme battlefields it was the tanks who broke the Hindenburg Line, which the enemy had believed impregnable. They had dug a wide anti-tank ditch too broad for any tank to cross. But the commander of tanks, General Hugh Elles, had thought that out. He ordered the gathering of vast quantities of twigs and small branches of trees. They were tied into bundles like the Italian fasces. He called them fascines. Each tank advanced upon the Hindenburg Line with one of those bundles on its nose. By working a pulley the skipper could drop it into the ditch, then by nosing forward he could get the front part of the tank on to the bundle and so reach across.

(7) General Paul von Hindenburg, Out of My Life (1934)

The English attack at Cambrai for the first time revealed the possibilities of a great surprise attack with tanks. We had had previous experience of this weapon in the spring offensive, when it had not made any particular impression. However, the fact that the tanks had now been raised to such a pitch of technical perfection that they could cross our undamaged trenches and obstacles did not fail to have a marked effect on our troops. The physical effects of fire from machine-guns and light ordnance with which the steel Colossus was provided were far less destructive than the moral effect of its comparative invulnerability. The infantryman felt that he could do practically nothing against its armoured sides. As soon as the machine broke through our trench-lines, the defender felt himself threatened in the rear and left his post.

(8) Letter sent by a British soldier on 18th March 1918.

The best sight I saw was the cavalry and infantry take a wooded ridge full of guns and machine guns and they were supported by our tanks which done good work they are a lot faster than the old ones & nothing seems to stop them. The barb wire it goes through it as if it was not there. Some of the wounded Germans are only boys about seventeen the common soldiers have stinking dug outs you cannot go in them one batch of prisoners were almost in rags & were very tired they put up no fight.

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(1) J. P. Harris, Men, Ideas and Tanks: British Military Thought and Armoured Forces (2015) page 39

(2) William Tritton, letter to Captain G. M. Williams (18th July, 1918)

(3) Basil Liddell Hart, History of the First World War (1930) page 251

(4) Basil Liddell Hart, History of the First World War (1930) page 261

(5) A. J. P. Taylor, English History: 1914-1945 (1965) page 125

(6) General Erich Ludendorff, diary entry (8th August, 1918)