Humans are naturally prone to ingenuity. We find solutions to problems, but sometimes the solutions cause new problems. Case in point: World War I. The technology of the previous few decades created dreadnoughts, chemical weapons, improved machine guns and cannons. Basically it became easier to kill. Another new weapon was the tank.
The Allies needed a weapon that could help end the war’s stalemate. They needed something that could cut through barbed wire in No Man’s Land and advance over large tracks of ground.
They called their new, armored weapon a tank to disguise its development from the enemy.
Tanks ran on a track, a technology that had been developed for farm tractors. Reporters and soldiers said the new weapon resembled worms and armadillos.
“The ‘tanks’ have added an element of humor which put the [British] army, through all its ranks, into a festive mood,” the Vancouver Daily World said.
Rotating gun turrets were added to later models.
The first tank attack occurred in September 1916 at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette. Twenty-five tanks participated in the battle with nine reaching the German line.
More than any other objective, the first tanks were successful in frightening the enemy.
“Of course we surrendered, those of us who were alive,” a German prisoner told a British war correspondent. “Our machine guns turned loose on it. But the bullets were only blue sparks on the armor.”
Soon thousands of tanks were produced for the British and French, with the Allies producing nearly all the tanks used during the war. When the Americans entered the conflict, they also used French-built tanks.
Despite their impressive look, tanks had a number of flaws including:
- Mechanical failure
- They advanced slower than the troops
- They became stuck in the mud
- They became stuck in craters
- Large bullets and shells could puncture the metal of early models
The men operating the tanks also faced challenges. The cabin was hot, deafeningly loud and full of engine fumes. Crew members wore gas masks and chain-mail to avoid asphyxiation and being hit by shrapnel.
Tanks also had no radios, so carrier pigeons were the only means of communication.
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Updated: 20 October 2020
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