This Week in History: Tanks first used in battle during World War I

(pc060845) British tank in World War I. Credit: © The Illustrated London News Picture Library

(pc060845) British tank in World War I. Credit: © The Illustrated London News Picture Library

Machine guns, heavy artillery, barbed wire, and poison gas all existed before World War I (1914-1918). Airplanes, too, already existed, as did observation balloons, submarines, hand grenades, and flame throwers. One weapon, however, developed as a direct result of the fighting in the war: the armored combat vehicle known as the tank.

Battles in World War I tended to be fought by men charging through barbed wire into machine gun and artillery fire. This form of combat produced carnage on an unprecedented scale. Battlefronts settled into static trench systems. Repeated assaults on heavily defended trenches caused still more carnage. In early 1915, British Lord of the Admiralty (the Royal Navy) Winston Churchill was looking for a new idea, and he found one.

British Army Lieutenant-Colonel E. D. Swinton, assigned as a war correspondent, had seen the bloody battlefields of France. He also knew of the American-made Holt caterpillar tractor. The tractor ran on a continuous band of treads driven by inner wheels. The machine could navigate almost any terrain—including trenches. Swinton thought that an armed, armored vehicle running on caterpillar treads might have a chance on the modern battlefield. Winston Churchill agreed. The new machine was dubbed a land battleship, or, simply, a landship.

Under the utmost secrecy, design and construction of experimental landships began. In 1916, models were tested and quickly prepared for combat. They featured a large, oblong armored compartment for the engine, equipment, crew, ammunition, and either heavy cannon or machine guns. A long tread ran around the entire length of each side of the compartment. The machines were large, incredibly slow and heavy, and hard to maneuver. But they could crawl on muddy terrain, cross trenches, blast holes in enemy defenses, and withstand a great deal of punishment. Before the vehicles were sent to France, however, the name landship was deemed too descriptive—a concern if the term leaked to the enemy. The machines were thought to resemble large water cisterns, or water tanks. The new name stuck.

On Sept. 15, 1916, a few dozen tanks rumbled into combat for the first time during the Battle of Flers-Courcelette in northern France. Most of these first tanks broke down mechanically, became bogged down in massive shell holes, or were disabled by enemy fire. Those that reached the German lines, however, had the desired effect. They penetrated the German defenses, knocked out enemy machine guns, and profoundly frightened enemy soldiers.

After the experience of Flers-Courcelette, improved versions of the tank were developed, and military leaders prepared to use them in much greater numbers. In 1917, the newly formed Tank Corps saw action in several battles, but it was at Cambrai in November where tanks enjoyed their first great success. More than 370 tanks broke a wide—albeit, temporary—gap in the enemy lines. Seeing the tank’s usefulness, the Germans built a few of their own, and, in April 1918, opposing tanks clashed for the first time during the Second Battle of Villers-Bretonneux. That same month, Lieutenant-Colonel Swinton traveled to California to personally thank Benjamin Holt, inventor of the caterpillar tread tractor.

Tanks went on to greater fame and usefulness after World War I, and they continue to be integral parts of modern militaries around the world. Holt’s tractor company survives today as Caterpillar, one of the world’s largest machinery manufacturers.

This week in history: Marshall Field I, American merchant, was born in 1834


Portrait of Marshall Field. Credit: Library of Congress

When someone mentions “Marshall Field,” what springs to mind—at least for most Chicagoans—is an image of the city’s world-famous Beax-Arts department store with its landmark twin clocks jutting out a block apart above State Street.

But few people know the story of the man who founded the company that bore his name. Marshall Field I was born on a farm in Conway Township, Massachusetts, probably on Sept. 18, 1834. He came to Chicago in 1856 and obtained a job with a dry goods firm. In 1865, Field bought an interest in merchant Potter Palmer’s rival business. By 1881, Field gained control of the firm, and it became known as Marshall Field and Company.

Field introduced many new merchandising strategies. For instance, he marked prices on the merchandise and let customers exchange goods if they were dissatisfied. The company developed new advertising methods and window displays to attract customers. It was the first store to sell bargain goods in its basement.

Field’s slogan was “Give the Lady What She Wants,” and he made an effort to attract women to his store. He hired young women as salesclerks, opened a restaurant in the store, and offered lounges, restrooms, a library, a nursery, and telephones to customers. Customers could also check their coats, write letters on complimentary Marshall Field stationery, and hold meetings at the store.

Field was also quoted as saying, “I was determined not to remain poor.” By the 1880’s, he was the richest man in Chicago. Although not known for his generosity, Field made important philanthropic contributions later in his life. These included a gift of land as a site for a new University of Chicago. He also contributed about $9 million to establish the Field Museum in Chicago, one of the world’s largest natural history museums. Field died on Jan. 16, 1906. Successive generations of Fields continued the retail merchandising enterprise and expanded into publishing. (In fact, the Fields owned World Book, Inc., the publisher of The World Book Encyclopedia, from 1945 to 1978.)

A year after Field’s death, architect Daniel Burnham completed construction on the southwest corner of the State Street store. Also in 1907, the store’s famous stained glass dome, designed by Louis C. Tiffany, was built. Although the store appears to be one building, it is actually made up of five different structures, which have been seamlessly integrated into a single entity. The original State Street store, which opened in 1868, was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871; a second building at that location was also destroyed by fire in 1877. The building that stands today was built in parts between 1893 and 1914, designed by Burnham and Company. The 12-story building is the second-largest store in the world. It was declared a National Historic Landmark and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. It was designated a Chicago Landmark in 2005.

Marshall Field and Company grew to become a major chain store before being acquired by Federated Department Stores of Cincinnati in 2005. In 2006, the nameplate of Macy’s went up on more than 400 stores across the United States, including the former Marshall Field’s stores.

As the new Macy’s sign went up on the former Marshall Field’s flagship store on State Street, loyal Field’s customers protested, holding signs that read “Field’s is Chicago” and buttons bearing the message “I Want My Marshall Field’s.” To this day, a local group works through its website,, to “bring back Marshall Field’s in quality, service, and name” by holding rallies and distributing leaflets and flyers.


This Week in History: Construction begins on the Berlin Wall in 1961

East German Workers Near The Brandenburg Gate Reinforce The Wall Dividing The City, 10/1961. Credit: NARA

East German Workers Near The Brandenburg Gate Reinforce The Wall Dividing The City, 10/1961. Credit: NARA

On the morning of Aug. 13, 1961, Berliners awoke to the sounds of a massive construction project. All along the border separating East and West Berlin, streets were ripped up, and temporary barricades and barbed wire fences were emplaced. A few days later, construction of the Berlin Wall began in earnest. The completed wall eventually contained concrete slabs stacked 12 to 15 feet (3.7 to 4.6 meters) high. Pipes, barbed wire, and other obstacles were installed atop much of the wall. Armed guards were ordered to stop anyone trying to cross from east to west. They began patrolling the wall, aided by guard dogs, barbed wire, electric alarms, mines, and trenches. On August 22, the first of more than 170 people died trying to cross over the Berlin Wall.

At that time, East Berlin was the capital of the Communist-controlled German Democratic Republic (East Germany). West Berlin was an isolated state of the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany). During the 1950’s, travel between the two parts of Berlin had been largely unrestricted. As a result, West Berlin offered an opportunity for many thousands of East Germans to escape Communism. In 1961, East Germany, backed by the Soviet Union, built the Berlin Wall to stop the massive emigration.

For the next few decades, the Berlin Wall—and its major crossing point, Checkpoint Charlie—symbolized the intense nature of the rivalry between Communist and non-Communist nations during the Cold War. In 1989, East Germany became the site of widespread demands for more freedom. In response, the East German government finally ended its restrictions on emigration and travel to the West by its citizens. The East Germans opened the wall in November and soon began to tear it down. In October 1990, East and West Germany were united into the non-Communist country of Germany. Berlin was reunited into a single city. By 1992, nearly all the Berlin Wall had been removed. Several sections remain standing as memorials, but most of the wall was broken up for use in roadbeds and other construction projects. Parts of the wall were sold to museums and private individuals.

This week in history: American statesman, educator, civil rights advocate, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Ralph Bunche was born in 1904

Portrait of Bunche. Credit: Library of Congress

Portrait of Bunche. Credit: Library of Congress

Ralph Bunche (pronounced “bunch”) became internationally famous as the first person of color to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Bunche helped with the formation of the United Nations (UN) and served as a UN diplomat for more than 20 years. His negotiating skills were legendary. As undersecretary for political affairs, he directed peacekeeping operations in Africa, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East. He served as undersecretary-general of the organization from 1955 to 1971, the highest-ranking American official in the world body.

Bunche is perhaps best known for negotiating a difficult armistice in 1949 in the bitter conflict between the newly formed nation of Israel and its neighboring Arab countries, which refused to recognize Israel’s existence. It was the most important assignment of Bunche’s career. Bunche was principal secretary of the UN Palestine Commission that carried out the partition of Palestine to create Israel in 1948. The day after Israel’s formation, Arab armies from Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Transjordan (today called Jordan) attacked the new Jewish nation to destroy it. Following months of virtually ceaseless negotiations, Bunche obtained a temporary peace in what is dubbed the First Arab-Israeli War. It marked the UN’s first actual success in halting a war. Bunche’s heroic efforts brought him worldwide acclaim, and he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950.

Bunche was the first African American to receive the prestigious Peace Prize. For his achievement, Dr. Bunche, as he was called, was widely hailed throughout the United States. He was honored with a ticker tape parade in New York City and a “Ralph Bunche Day” in Los Angeles. He appeared on the cover of most of the leading magazines, and he was overwhelmed with constant requests to speak or lecture. Numerous schools nationwide were named after Dr. Bunche. He also received dozens of honorary doctorate degrees (69 in all) and other awards, including the Spingarn Medal in 1949 from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1963.

Ralph Johnson Bunche was born in Detroit, Michigan, on Aug. 7, 1904. Bunche was orphaned when he was about 12 and was raised by his maternal grandmother in Los Angeles. Because of his race, Bunche was enrolled in only “practical” courses in intermediate school in preparation for a vocational job, until his strong-willed grandmother demanded that he be given academic courses to prepare him for college. In high school, Bunche was an intelligent, all-around athlete, excelling in football, basketball, baseball, and track, while also excelling in academics. He was the valedictorian of his graduating class. Bunche graduated summa cum laude from the University of California at Los Angeles. He earned a master’s degree and a doctorate from Harvard University. While working on his doctorate, Bunche began teaching at Howard University in 1928 and chaired the school’s political science department for more than 20 years. He also taught at Harvard and was a board member or trustee of several colleges and universities. In 1938, Bunche reportedly barely escaped from a lynch mob in Alabama while gathering material for the book An American Dilemma, about U.S. race relations, with the Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal.

Although Bunche was generally considered to be a moderate, some people saw him as a radical intellectual during his time at Howard University. He spoke out against racial prejudice and segregation in speeches and publications. He also criticized the social system in the United States. Although he was critical of established black organizations, at the same time, he supported the Urban League and the NAACP and was very active in the civil rights movement. His international fame did not stop him from participating in the 1963 March on Washington or marching in the front line with Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1965 in Montgomery, Alabama. As a member of the “Black Cabinet,” Bunche consulted with President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration on minority issues. When he was asked by President Harry Truman to join Truman’s cabinet as assistant secretary of state, Bunche turned the president down, saying Washington, D.C., was a “Jim Crow” town in which he had no desire to live again or subject his children to its racist and segregationist policies. Jim Crow refers to practices, institutions, or laws that discriminated against African Americans. Bunche dealt with racial prejudice throughout his life, despite his high-level position. The experience helped shape the man, educator, and statesman that he became. Bunche retired from the United Nations due to ill health shortly before his death in New York City on Dec. 9, 1971.

The American Astronomer Maria Mitchell was born this week in 1818

Courtesy of Nantucket Historical Association

Courtesy of Nantucket Historical Association

The pioneering female astronomer and educator Maria Mitchell was born on Aug. 1, 1818, in Nantucket, Massachusetts. Her work included the study of sunspots and of moons around other planets in the solar system. In 1847, she discovered a comet, later called “Miss Mitchell’s Comet,” earning her a prize from the King of Denmark.

Mitchell lived at a time when educational opportunities for women were extremely limited. She was largely self-educated. Mitchell attended primary school, but did not earn a college degree. Her education was furthered while working as a librarian for 20 years. In 1848, she became the first woman member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She later became a fellow of the society. In 1865, she became the first astronomy professor at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. She remained at Vassar until one year before her death in 1889.

The 1800’s saw great changes in thinking on human rights. Among these changes were a number of gains for women’s rights. Maria Mitchell helped to bring this movement into the scientific world. When she learned her male colleagues at Vassar made more money, she demanded equal pay and got it.

This Week In History: The first Spanish mission was established in California in 1769

San Diego de Alcalá

Picture: San Diego de Alcalá

In late March 1769, the Franciscan friar Junípero Serra left the Royal Presidio at Loreto, Baja (Lower) California, in what was then Spanish Mexico. At the start of a three-month overland journey to what is now San Diego, Serra felt a sense of excitement as he prepared to heed what he felt was his true calling—to bring the word of God to unbaptized Native Americans.

Serra, a 55-year-old priest from the Spanish island of Majorca, had come to Mexico 20 years earlier. He had directed the Roman Catholic missions in Baja California since 1767. But Serra found his two decades in Mexico to be somewhat of a disappointment. He had hoped to preach among Indian groups with no knowledge of Christianity, but the people he encountered had already received the sacrament of baptism. Serra longed to bring about Christian conversion firsthand to the Indians, whom he sometimes referred to as “infidels” or “gentiles.”

The Spanish had colonized Baja California in the 1530’s. Their explorers first sailed into San Diego Bay in 1602. Now, with the British and Russians increasing their trading activities along the Pacific Coast, Spanish authorities sought to establish settlements in Alta (Upper) California. Their policy toward the region’s Indians was one of “pacification”—that is, to rule by peaceful persuasion rather than outright conquest.

The Spanish explorer and provincial governor Gaspar de Portolá led Serra’s expedition. Two groups, including soldiers, missionaries, mission Indians, and pack animals laden with supplies, set off for San Diego in March. The first party, led by military officer Fernando Rivera y Moncada and missionary Juan Crespí, departed ahead of the group that included Serra and Portolá. Two ships carrying personnel and supplies for the endeavor arrived at San Diego Bay in April.

During the first weeks of the journey, Serra’s group stopped at several established Baja California missions. In May, Serra and his companions crossed into lands where the Indian residents had not been exposed to Christianity. Serra’s journey was hampered by foot and leg inflammation brought on by an infected insect bite. His group encountered Indians who were curious and friendly, and others who were more suspicious. There existed an ever-present potential for miscommunication. On one occasion, soldiers accompanying the expedition fired warning shots to quiet boisterous and friendly Indians who had joined the party on a trek along a precarious mountain pass. “The Indians … became frightened and stopped,” Serra wrote in a diary. “That put an end to the racket. I feared, however, that this radical action would leave the Indians doubting the sincerity of our love for them.”

The first party of Spaniards had experienced considerable hostility from native peoples as it passed through the lands south of San Diego. But Serra’s party was treated with greater kindness—probably for diplomatic reasons, given the Spaniards’ advanced weaponry and the likelihood that more of the interlopers would follow. Serra, for his part, tended to view each kindness from the Indians as evidence of their eagerness for conversion.

The group helmed by Rivera y Moncada reached San Diego in May. Serra arrived on July 1. Spanish soldiers soon completed a presidio (fort) on a hill overlooking San Diego Bay. On July 16, Serra dedicated a mission there, naming it for Saint Didacus of Alcalá, Spain. Serra went on to found 8 more of California’s 21 missions before his death in 1784. Thousands of Indians would make their homes at the missions, some of which became thriving agricultural and manufacturing centers.