Being a World War I Tank Operator Was Miserable

 In E3, Land, UK

The tank was cre­at­ed to break the bloody dead­lock along the Western Front. It was orig­i­nal­ly envi­sioned as a kind of “land bat­tle­ship” that could cross trench­es and barbed-wire entan­gle­ments. Once across “no-man’s land,” it could neu­tral­ize enemy machine guns and achieve a break­through that would lead to vic­to­ry. Like any rad­i­cal­ly new con­cept, devel­op­ment was a slow, evo­lu­tion­ary process that involved much trial and error.

There’s some dis­pute over who is the “father” of the tank. Several men of vision made con­tri­bu­tions, includ­ing Winston Churchill and Sir Ernest Swinton. Churchill estab­lished a Landships Committee at the British Admiralty in February 1915, and Swinton sug­gest­ed an armored fight­ing vehi­cle as early as December 1914. The actual cre­ation of the tank is cred­it­ed to Major W.G. Wilson and Sir William Tritton, the latter being the man­ag­ing direc­tor of an indus­tri­al com­pa­ny called Foster’s. Sir William’s com­pa­ny was con­tract­ed to make a mil­i­tary tracked vehi­cle, which result­ed in the Mark I, the world’s first prac­ti­ca­ble tank.

The whole project was cloaked in secre­cy, and a cover story was devised during those long months of research and test­ing. It was given out that Foster’s was making mobile water tanks, and the name stuck. Henceforth the new inven­tion would be known as the “tank.”

By 1918 there had been a number of improve­ments in tank design, but the machines were still prim­i­tive even by World War II stan­dards. If war is hell, World War I tank crews were in their own metal­lic infer­no, a claus­tro­pho­bic world of undi­lut­ed misery. Crew com­part­ments were dirty, cramped, and dark, lit­er­al “black pits” where feeble light fil­tered in though vision slits and hatch holes. In August 1918 the Mark V tank was the state of the art, boast­ing better armor and other improve­ments. But the Mark V still left much to be desired in bat­tle­field con­di­tions.

The Mark V in battle was a lit­er­al hell on earth, where pro­tec­tion from bul­lets was scant com­pen­sa­tion for its assault on crew senses. Eyes were half-blind­ed by dark­ness and smart­ing from smoke, noses inhaled the nox­ious stench of oil and gaso­line, and stom­achs grew nau­seous from the “roller­coast­er” ride of an unsprung vehi­cle over uneven ter­rain.

Tank Tips

An early train­ing guide cheer­ful­ly enti­tled “Tank Tips” admon­ished the men to “never mind the heat,” and “never mind the noise.” But, of course, it was easier for a staff offi­cer to pen those words than it was for a tanker to follow the advice. In summer “normal” inside tem­per­a­tures of 90˚ could climb to 140˚. During battle, crews had to endure the metal­lic clang­ing of cater­pil­lar tracks in “per­pet­u­al” motion, the grind and rattle of the engine at full throt­tle, and the “anvil chorus” sound of enemy bul­lets hit­ting the out­side hull. All these sounds merged to pro­duce one deaf­en­ing roar, a cacoph­o­ny so loud hand sig­nals were used for com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

Like all tanks of the period, the Mark V came in “male” and “female” ver­sions. There was a fear that tanks armed pri­mar­i­ly with artillery could be over­whelmed by enemy infantry. As a pre­cau­tion some tanks were armed exclu­sive­ly with machine guns and dubbed “female.” The male Mark V was vir­tu­al­ly iden­ti­cal to its “female” coun­ter­part, but car­ried two 6‑pounder guns in addi­tion to four machine guns. Both male and female ver­sions fea­tured the rhom­boidal (lozenge) shape of many World War I designs.

The Mark A Medium “Whippet” tank was designed as a mechan­i­cal replace­ment for tra­di­tion­al horse cav­al­ry, taking over their role of exploit­ing a break­through of the enemy line. Some of its fea­tures made the Mark A Whippet the evo­lu­tion­ary “ances­tor” of the modern tank, a kind of “miss­ing link” between the ear­li­est armor and what was to come later. Certainly the track arrange­ment was modern, with tracks mount­ed on the sides of the hull body, and not on the outer edges of the tank as it was in the rhom­boidal designs. Abandoning the lozenge/rhomboidal con­cept allowed more room on the top, and so point­ed the way to a revolv­ing turret.

Although aban­doned in devel­op­ment for the sake of man­u­fac­tur­ing sim­plic­i­ty, early Whippet designs actu­al­ly had a revolv­ing turret. The Mark A Medium Whippet also fea­tured mud chutes, which cleared the tracks and bogies of accu­mu­lat­ed muck. Armament con­sist­ed of four Hotchkiss .303 machine guns, but since there was only a crew of three even the tank com­man­der had to become a gunner at times. Range was about 40 miles, and speed a the­o­ret­i­cal 8 miles per hour.

Germany’s Answer to the British Mark V Tank

Meanwhile the Germans were at work on their own armored vehi­cles. Their A7V was the answer to the British tank, though it was such an unin­spired and clumsy machine it made the Mark V appear grace­ful by com­par­i­son. The German gen­er­al staff was not prone to quib­ble, since they wanted a quick-fix solu­tion to the Allied threat.

The world’s first German panzer was essen­tial­ly a mobile fortress. The box-like hull bris­tled with one 5.7 cm gun and six or seven Maxim machine guns. It had a clear­ance of only about 15 inches, which prac­ti­cal­ly guar­an­teed get­ting bogged down when trav­el­ing over muddy or rough ground. The tank was named after the mil­i­tary com­mit­tee that rec­om­mend­ed an armored vehi­cle, A7V or Allgemeine Kriegsdepartment 7 Abteilung Vehkerwesen.

The A7V was crewed by 18 men, includ­ing sol­diers from the artillery, infantry, and engi­neers. Interservice mis­un­der­stand­ings some­times pre­vent­ed crews from work­ing as a team. Like the inte­ri­or of its British coun­ter­part, that of the A7V could be a lit­er­al Hades on earth, with sear­ing tem­per­a­tures and ter­ri­ble fumes.

The first German panzer was a hurried,”half-baked” effort, and the war ended before any fur­ther devel­op­ment could be made. But the tank con­cept had been plant­ed in German minds, and it was to ger­mi­nate for 20 years before bear­ing fruit in World War II.

This arti­cle first appeared on the Warfare History Network.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

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